Baroness Stedman-Scott – 2017 Speech on the English Baccalaureate

Below is the text of the speech made by Baroness Stedman-Scott in the House of Lords on 14 September 2017.

My Lords, I begin this debate by declaring my relevant interests: I am a governor of Bexhill Academy and chair of the Suffolk Youth Pledge. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this important debate and I look forward to all ​noble Lords’ contributions and thank them for the time that they have invested in preparing to take part. I also thank the many organisations that have sent briefings, which show that they really understand the challenges faced by our education establishments, employers and young people.

Today we will debate the impact of the English Baccalaureate on the take-up of creative and technical subjects and the case for broadening the curriculum to create a coherent and unified 14 to 19 phase. Looking back on previous Questions and debates on this subject, I am mindful that we would do well not to repeat much of those previous contributions. I think, however, that this hope might be too ambitious—so no promises, but let us try. I also hope that we can debate this today in the spirit of how we help, and what is best for, our young people who are either entering, or are already in our education system, to ensure that we are preparing them for a future in which they can compete with the knowledge, skills and confidence to succeed and be full of hope and aspiration. Let us make the facts speak for themselves.

I think it might be helpful for me to outline why I wanted to hold this debate. The economy needs businesses at this time—they are a main contributor to achieving a good economy and, in order to do so, they need people in their workforce who are well educated, both academically and technically, and are motivated and highly skilled. Building such a workforce starts at the earliest point of a young person’s education. Not all pupils—and I count myself here—thrive and succeed in a purely academic environment. Many are suited to one that is more technical and practical. For young people in this category, it can be apparent at a very early stage that it would be helpful for them to start their journey on that route sooner rather than later. Our education system does a good job for the majority but, for those who are not suited to a purely academic future, it sometimes does not do all that it could. Let me say now that I am not knocking the EBacc, but asking for it to be able to accommodate more GCSEs that employers in the creative industries need for their workforce and that, for those who need it, the journey will start sooner rather than later.

Originally it was the Government’s plan for 75% of young people to study the EBacc by 2022, rising to 90% in 2025. I understand that the Department for Education has now confirmed that:

“In the light of the consultation responses, we have also decided that it is not appropriate to expect the same rates of EBacc entry from UTCs, studio schools and further education colleges with key stage 4 provision as in mainstream schools. The pupil cohorts in these education settings will therefore not be included in the calculation of the 75% ambition for 2022, or the 90% ambition for 2025”.

I thank the Government and congratulate them on taking account of this issue raised in the consultation and on their decision. I also take this opportunity to thank the Minister and his colleagues for all their efforts to ensure that we have a system that is fit for purpose. On the face of it, I think the decision means that UTCs, studio schools and further education colleges are now exempt from this performance measure. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that ​I have understood this correctly and that performance at these establishments will be reported on the basis that they are exempt, because, if not, they will appear to be failing when they are not.

I used to be a patron of a studio school that tragically closed. There were many reasons for that, not just one. However, if the change in reporting to which I have previously referred had been in place, the school’s success would have been more appreciated. In fact, for every year that the school operated as a studio school, every single one of its graduates went on to higher education at the establishment of their choice: none went into clearing. In 2016, the studio school was the 15th in the country for pupil progress from 16 to 19, and in 2017, every student got A* or distinction in theatre arts. As I understand it, it was the best in the county.

Studio schools were established to be industry-facing schools and align their curriculum with the needs of the current and future labour markets. The creative industries have long been recognised as a sector which can provide rewarding careers for young people, and many studio schools have focused on these industries. Subjects taught at these schools have been carefully selected with significant input from the creative industries, both nationally and locally. If I have understood the position correctly, there has been no demand from employers to teach the EBacc. Indeed, often there is resistance rather than demand. However, I acknowledge that many students studying EBacc at A-level have found that that opens up a wider range of opportunities as regards their choice of university.

I know that all noble Lords are distressed, as I am, that our noble friend Lady Fookes has been very unwell for such a long time. In fact, at one point I thought that we were going to lose her, but noble Lords would expect her to fight back and that is exactly what she is doing. I know that she is on the mend because she sent me a message this morning to tell me that she was very sorry she could not be present for this debate but that, if she could have been here, she would have said the following: “The point I would make is that discovering and encouraging artistic talent in unlikely places is extremely difficult and does not lend itself to the methods used for measuring intellectual ability. It’s like chasing a will o’ the wisp”. I am sure that we wish my noble friend a continued recovery.

Across the country, the engineering, manufacturing and creative sectors are critical to the success of our economy. Combined, they are worth more than £500 billion—29% of the overall economy. The challenges facing our economy need no repeating in this debate. We know that we need to develop our home-grown talent to ensure that we produce a highly motivated and skilled workforce. We need to build on the progress made on the skills agenda and we need to make sure that the EBacc reflects the needs of the industry and fulfils the aspirations and abilities of young people so that they can play their part in this critically important workforce.

I am very sad to say that between 2010 and 2017, total entries for GCSE creative subjects have fallen by 28%. I do not want to be too dramatic but I shall provide some context for that. It equates to about ​181,000 GCSE entries. The most dramatic drop is in design and technology, which shows a drop in take-up of some 116,000 entries, equating to 43%.

It is argued that the EBacc is just a core and that pupils are able to study creative and technical GCSEs in addition. For most young people who study nine to 10 GCSEs, this may well be true. However, the lowest quartile of attainers take an average of six to seven GCSEs each, ironically making the narrow academic EBacc the whole diet for those young people, who are more at risk of disengagement but may be wholly suited to a career in the creative industries if they follow the right route.

While 40% of young people across the country are now entered for the EBacc range of subjects, just 26% pass it—I understand that is increasing—so we run the risk of creating a generation of young people who either have a narrow range of academic skills or will feel that they have already failed at the age of 16. We cannot have that and we must avoid it.

I looked at what other people have said, as that is important. As the Social Mobility Commission has recognised, the EBacc is a recipe for some young people’s disengagement. In my time at Tomorrow’s People, I saw the impact this had on the lives of young people. There is a solution worthy of our consideration. I would like us to broaden the EBacc to include a creative and a technical subject to give every young person a truly broad, relevant and balanced curriculum.

In preparing for this debate, I looked at what works well in other countries. There is evidence from Germany that a more academic curriculum resulted in an increase in disengagement with school and attendance drop-off. This led me to look at what was happening around the world. I thank the Edge Foundation for giving me some very good information. In a passage from one of its papers headed, “Learning from world leaders”, we read:

“England is one of a handful of countries where 16 is the strict dividing line between lower and upper secondary education. Elsewhere in Europe, choices are usually made earlier”.

One example of this is Austria. The facilities in Austria for young people to enter an engineering career cover the following: classroom tuition, practical experience in workshops, a range of equipment for manufacturing and measuring metal and plastic components, IT and computer-aided design. This has contributed to Austria having one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the EU. In countries where a high proportion of students choose a technical and vocational path, there are often lower rates of youth unemployment and vice versa.

Our Government’s technical education reforms are to be welcomed and built on, but, in summary, the impact of the EBacc could be seen as not meeting the needs of employers in a market with great economic growth and potential; not preparing some young people to meet their aspirations and potential in a predominantly academic system; a significant reduction in GCSE take-up, which has a negative impact on employers having the highly motivated and skilled workforce they need; and not starting early enough for many young people, thus making them follow a route which, for them, is not fit for purpose.​
There is much to be proud of with the EBacc. Let us build on what we have to ensure that we give up the best to get the better and have a system that includes high-quality employer engagement and careers advice and provides a broad and balanced curriculum which suits all young people. It needs to culminate in a coherent and wide-ranging true baccalaureate and be judged on the strength of young people’s successful destinations into apprenticeships, university and work.

A cross-party group from this House meets informally to discuss this issue. Would the Minister like to join us for one of those meetings? I do not say that because we want to put on a performance, bang the table or jump up and down; we are way past that sort of thing. However, I think that we would all find the Minister’s comments helpful and would hope that they would move us forward. I beg to move.