HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc53-60WH 3.30 pm
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak about an excellent school. The debate is very much a two-handed affair: the European school at Culham is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), but is attended by the children of a number of my constituents in west Oxfordshire and of constituents throughout Oxfordshire. My hon. Friend and I had a pact to apply for an Adjournment debate in the hope that one of us would be successful, and it fell to me. We want to put on record the role of this school and our concerns about its future, and we want some quality time with the Minister, whom I am glad to see in her place.

A lot of debates in Westminster Hall bring forward problems, but we like to think that we are bringing forward an opportunity for Oxfordshire and the country at large. Culham is an excellent school—a little gem. All we are asking is that everyone who has a stake in the school—the local education authority, the European Commission, the Government and the teachers, parents and board of governors—play a constructive role in trying to secure its future. That is what today's debate is about: an invitation to the Minister to consider the school and to do what she can to help.

Let me rewind and put on record some facts about the European school at Culham: what it is, what it does, who goes there, why it is facing some difficulties, why it is worth keeping, what needs to be done about it and how the Minister can help. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley will then bring it all to life in his inimitable way, as he is himself the product of a European school. He spent some of his formative years at one in Brussels, which goes to show that although such schools have a European ethos, the children can develop into Europeans in the broadest possible sense of the word.

The network of European schools around the European Union was first set up some 50 years ago for the children of those working for European institutions. There are 12 of them, and Culham was opened in 1978. They teach in many different European languages and specifically teach the European baccalaureate. The European school at Culham serves 900 pupils. Some 40 per cent. of them are British or of mixed British and other EU nationalities, and the rest come from other EU countries. The school has five language sections: French, English, German, Dutch and Italian. Danish, Irish and Spanish are also taught.

There are three different types of pupil. First, there are the children of those who work for European institutions, who at Culham tend to be the children of scientists and others working at the Fusion project at Culham. They account for about 5 per cent. of the total, including the children of teachers. They are category 1 pupils, and pay no fees. Secondly, there are the children of parents working for other continental European companies or organisations that contract with the school. BMW, for example, which is now booming in Oxford and producing the very fashionable Minis that race around our roads, has an agreement with the school. These are category 2 pupils and the agreements cover the costs of the places that they take so, again, no fees change hands. Thirdly, there are the children whose parents are attracted to the school and its ethos, its emphasis on language and its good record. Those parents pay fees, which are low compared with those of most private schools.

Currently, the fees are some £1,500 for primary pupils and £2,500 for secondary pupils. Rises of 20 per cent. or more are planned for the next two years, but the Minister will agree that those are very low figures, which make the school accessible for many parents in Oxfordshire. However, costs at the school are high because of the structures that it needs, such as teachers of all the language sections. The cumbersome and top-heavy structure leaves some room for cost-cutting, which I shall come on to.

The facilities at the school are not particularly special or privileged. I have been to the school and looked at the buildings, and there is nothing particularly magnificent about them. The school has an ethos as a state school. It is, as it were, a European state school, open for all. Crucially, the results are excellent. In most years, everyone obtains the European baccalaureate, and the EB is testing. Another indication of results is that pupils get into good universities, at which they tend to do well in lots of different subjects, not just languages.

The school is important to Oxfordshire, and all the Oxfordshire MPs have met and discussed it. It makes it possible to attract and retain highly qualified individuals in industry, research and the universities who might not otherwise come to Oxfordshire. It therefore provides a significant contribution to the economy of Oxfordshire and the UK. In Oxfordshire, there is the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Culham JET—Joint European Torus—project, and many other science-based and start-up businesses in my constituency have grown out of Oxford university. They value such schools, which will provide them with the scientists and bright people of the future, as well as places for their children to go to school.

I have recounted what the school is, who goes to it and what it does, but I now want to explain why it is in some difficulties. Funding is fairly standard across all the European schools. More than 50 per cent. comes from the European Commission, and the rest comes from the UK Government and other EU member states. In addition, as I said, there is funding from the contract partners such as BMW and the parents.

The funding problem comes from the fact that the European Commission wants to reduce its funding. That is not, I admit, unreasonable, as the employees of the European institutions make up quite a small proportion of the total. Also, as the EU enlarges, it will not be possible to set up such schools everywhere. The expense of all the different language sections that would be required to ensure that schools covered all the new nations of the EU would be very great.

The European Commission has, however, also proposed to exclude pupils whose parents do not work for the Commission or the diplomatic service, to eliminate certain language sections and to increase fees. Those latest proposals are exacerbating the problem. They threaten schools such as Culham with strangulation at a time when they desperately need a breathing space to find a solution. The briefing note that the parents have helpfully drawn up for us states:

Hasty action would destroy the school". I hope that the Minister will think about that.

What is the answer, and what do we ask for today? The answer flows from the fact that the school is a good one, and worth saving. All of us who want excellence in schools, want languages to be well taught in them and want choice in provision should want the school to survive and thrive, not only to provide the benefits to Oxfordshire that I spoke of, but for the broader economy and our education system.

The answer lies in all those with an interest in the school straining every sinew to find an answer. Those with an interest include the European companies that employ people locally; the development agencies that would like to attract more such companies to our shores and to south-east England; the science, research and development facilities of the Oxfordshire region—particularly taking into account the likely expansion around Rutherford and Harwell—and the European Commission, which retains a responsibility to the schools and must see them right. The list continues with the local education authority, which could and should, in my view, work with Culham as a language school. The authority could benefit hugely, as could the Government, who already provide some funding, because of the way in which the teachers are funded, and who apparently have a desire, which I share, for a blossoming of choice in our education system.

We want the Minister, first, to oppose any hasty moves in Brussels to change things—in particular to ramp up fees, reduce the number of sections or restrict access. We need to make sure that there is breathing space. That is the key phrase in today's debate. Secondly, we want the Government to vote in favour of a period of gradual transition, to give the school the chance that it needs to draw up its own business plan and to succeed. Thirdly, we want the Minister, who is, I know, very busy, and her officials to work with the school and the other partners to try to find a solution.

I admit that I, in my modest office at Westminster, do not have the solution at my fingertips. However, would it be too hard to imagine something along the following lines? I am thinking of a school that specialises in languages, that still receives some money from the Commission for the work that it does with the European institutions and that has special arrangements with businesses that want to fund it, such as BMW, but which is part of the mainstream British education system, with a mix of pupils. Is it hard to imagine some of those pupils being funded by the LEA, some paying fees and some having scholarships? That is the sort of mixed system that we should be looking for in this country. The European schools, and particularly the one at Culham, provide an opportunity in that respect.

What I have outlined may not be neat and tidy. It may require a lot of work and quite a bit of planning. However, our message to the Minister today is that it would be well worth making the effort. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

3.39 pm
Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing the debate and putting the case as succinctly and comprehensively as he could have done. We are trying to stop a very good school being closed. That is the sad event that we face. It is particularly sad, but not only because the school is a good one—I have been round it and seen lots of chirpy children babbling away in many European languages—and a wonderful institution. I speak rather sentimentally because, as my hon. Friend has indicated, I am the beneficiary of that kind of European education. As he reports, I was educated at the European school at Uccle in Brussels, and it did me proud. I remember fondly my days under the august headmastership of Mr. Mittler—Herr Mittler as he was known—a genial and charming man with curious leather gloves, and our bus driver Vendredi. I do not know why he was called that; perhaps that was when he turned up.

Funnily enough, the playground in that school was very much like the Council of Ministers, which I later came to know well as a reporter in Brussels. I know that some here today are closely connected with the school in Culham, so I shall do my best not to tread on their corns. However, in my day, it was striking that the Danes and the Dutch tended to team up with the Brits to bash up the French and the Italians. Perhaps it does not work like that any more—I sincerely hope that it does not—but that was what happened back in Uccle. It was a wonderful time; there was an ethos of European integration. Inscribed on some great stone at that school are the words of Jean Monnet that informed that ethos. This is how he rhapsodised in 1958 about what he hoped for from the school:

Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together…Without ceasing to look upon their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.

That was the ethos, and a good thing it was too. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, it does not produce identikit Europeans. Many of us, including my brothers and sisters and other alumni, are testimony to the diversity of the pupils who were turned out by the European school. It produces people who have, to the great benefit of this country, an instinctive familiarity with other cultures and civilisations. It would be sad if that were lost. The problem, as he has well illustrated, is that it is a Community institution; it is funded by the European taxpayer, n'est ce pas? Oui. Si. It is hard to see why the European taxpayer should continue to do that when, as Neil Kinnock has pointed out, only 13 out of 883 pupils are what is called category 1 pupils. I was the son of a commissionaire fonctionnaire, but by no means everybody at Culham now comes into that category; 85 per cent. are category 3 pupils—the children of parents who have come to some kind of arrangement with the board of governors so that they can attend the school even though they have no direct association with the EU institutions. I still think that it is a good system, and it is wonderful to encourage it. It is fantastic that we should do so. Those parents pay fees, albeit that, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, they do not cover the real cost. They might pay £2,500 for a secondary level place at Culham that costs £9,000, the difference being met by the European taxpayer.

It is obvious from Neil Kinnock's letter that, given that considerable subsidy and the proportion of pupils who are the children of Commission officials to those who are not, he is moving against the school. Unless we can find an imaginative solution that will keep it going, it will die a slow death. My hon. Friend set out very well the options that we should pursue—not just the Government, the local education authorities and so on, but, above all, the parents themselves. The parents and the governors must seize their destiny with their own hands, develop a business plan to save the school and present it to Ministers for their consideration. He mentioned some of the obvious options: going to BMW, for example, and other local and international businesses and saying, "Come on, this is a fantastic institution. Let's support it." I know that parents have already explored the option of charging for boarding, which is permissible under the terms of the relevant legislation.

Parents and governors rightly say that they want to maintain the state-school ethos. As someone who uses state education in Islington, in spite of everything that the Minister managed to do to the set up when she was in charge of it, I can see their point; I can see its advantages. I admire the state-school ethos and I can understand why they want to keep it. However, I cannot but agree with Ministers and with the Secretary of State for Education, who said, repeatedly, that the parents and governors cannot realistically expect Her Majesty's Government to step in and pick up the tab if and when the Commission withdraws. Everybody, including the parents and governors, accepts that. They also accept my hon. Friend's point about the teachers' pay scales, which are out of whack with the set-up in the rest of the country. It would be difficult for the taxpayer to bear the cost.

What the school needs above all from the Government and from all the other institutions involved is time. As my hon. Friend said, it needs breathing space and a commitment—a confirmation that it is valued and appreciated for three reasons. First, it offers a unique form of education that could be rolled out across the country; its model of education might prove very popular. I do not say that I am a shining exemplar of the benefits of this style of education, but it is a wonderful thing that we would be rash to throw away. Secondly, however one looks at it, there will be a cost to the taxpayers in south Oxfordshire if the school is closed, which is a legitimate matter of concern for the Department for Education and Skills and for Oxfordshire.

Thirdly, as my hon. Friend said, there are considerable strategic advantages to the country in having a school that can cater for the children of distinguished scientists and business folk of all kinds, from all over the world, who want to send their children to an international school with an international ethos of the kind that Culham provides. He has already mentioned the Rutherford-Appleton laboratory and the Joint European Torus project in Culham. It is possible that as the school evolves it might have to move away from the strict federalist ethos of Jean Monnet, becoming in mind European, to a more international solution, which would not necessarily be a bad thing.

I hope that the Minister will agree that Culham school is a good institution, and that in the name of diversity, choice and excellence, it falls to her as much as to anybody to try to keep it going. It would be sad and paradoxical if in a career that I have spent trying to close down various European Union institutions, the first one with which I had any direct relationship, and which I particularly like, admire and value, were to be closed in my constituency.

3.49 pm
The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge)

I congratulate the hon. Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on securing the debate. On the day that the Prime Minister was going to—

Mr. Cameron


Margaret Hodge

I was going to talk about the hon. Gentlemen's possible conflict of interest, but on the day that the Prime Minister told us that there will be a far-reaching debate on our position in the context of Europe, it is a joy that two members of Her Majesty's Opposition should give a stunningly wonderful endorsement of the best of European culture. I hope that they take that forward. Indeed, I hope that the education that the hon. Member for Henley enjoyed at that European school bred a good European member of the Conservative party.

By the age of five I had learned four European languages. Although I never learned to read and write them—one is Italian. Mr. Deputy Speaker, which we share—I have found them invaluable. That knowledge has helped me to develop a strong European sense of being and an international persona, which have been invaluable in my work and in my attitude to others. I strongly support the concept of the European schools, including the European school at Culham.

Conservative Members have asked for three things. Knowing how such debates go, let me say immediately that all three requests are reasonable. The first is that we should seek a breathing space in which to find an imaginative solution. To an extent, that has already been achieved as a report is being compiled, which will delay a decision until well into the autumn. That gives us six months to work with the various organisations mentioned by the hon. Member for Witney—the local education authority, private sector companies and the Commission—and to see whether the Government can play a role in putting a package together. That gives us the breathing space that was requested.

The second request is for a gradual transition. I give the assurance that if the closure of the European school at Culham were proposed, we would insist on a suitable phasing-out period. That would enable not only pupils to complete their education, particularly those who are getting close to their baccalaureate exams, but the putting in place of other transitional arrangements.

The third request is for the Government to work with the school in an attempt to find a solution. Again, we give a commitment that we will do our best. However, as both hon. Members understand, it would be inappropriate to expect the Government readily and easily to invest money in the school's future, especially as the costs would far outweigh what is invested per pupil in the state secondary school system. We are trying to be fair in our use of funds, so it would be difficult to justify expenditure two or three times higher per pupil, which is the cost of educating children at Culham.

The Secretary of State and I strongly endorse the concept of the European school. It is an institution in which pupils can enjoy a unique form of education and it helps to build a better understanding across European states, which is essential if the European project is to be effective. However, I am sure that hon. Members are aware that there are problems. When Culham was established, it was one of a network of 12 European schools. It was set up on the basis that it served in particular the people who worked locally at the Joint European Torus project. Given that very few people employed directly through the Commission use the school, it is difficult to see how we can find a mixture of funding that will keep the ethos of the school going without having recourse to public funds, which are not readily available.

Mr. Cameron

I seek one assurance. My understanding is that the Government own the buildings, provide some funding for the teaching staff and pay some money to the Commission that ends up back at the school. They are involved in investing already, so I hope that they do not get too hung up on the money issue. The answer is to try to find a solution.

Margaret Hodge

Clearly, we need to find a solution, but our commitment to funding the institution arises from our commitment to funding institutions partly supported through the European Commission for the purposes of funding institutions that can educate the children of people employed by the Commission or organisations associated with it. We must remember the origins of the funding to justify its continuation, which will present some future difficulties for the Government. Nevertheless, I give the commitment that, together with the governors and those responsible for the school, we shall use all our imagination to try to ensure that it has a future.

As hon. Members probably know, at a meeting in January 2004 the European schools international governing body took a provisional decision to close seven language sections in the four small European schools. Those language sections include the Dutch and Italian sections at Culham, which are regarded as non-viable in terms of entitled student numbers. It is interesting that at Culham neither the Dutch nor the Italian language section has a single pupil who is the child of an EU employee. That is quite surprising given the international investment, particularly by Dutch companies, in the UK. We can perhaps think of partnerships that could be established with multinational companies to see whether they might contribute to funding children in the institution.

I understand that the uncertainty over the future of the European school at Culham is not only an issue of principle. It matters a lot to parents of pupils, but it is not a state school. It is run by the European school board of governors, so the issue is their responsibility. However, if proposals for closure have to be made, it is critical that the interests of pupils be protected and that their educational future is promoted.

In the light of this morning's statement to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I hope that Conservative Members recognise that EU enlargement will mean increased demand for the European schools system as a whole, so it is totally proper for the European Commission to consider whether the location of schools in the area is appropriate. I hope I have given the reassurances that hon. Members seek and that they ease the minds of the constituents of the hon. Member for Witney whose children attend the European school at Culham.

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