John Howell – 2019 Speech on the Europa School

Below is the text of the speech made by John Howell, the Conservative MP for Henley, in the House of Commons on 10 January 2019.

I am grateful for the Minister’s attendance. He and I have talked about the Europa School at some length on a number of occasions, and he was, of course, responsible for the reply from the Department for Education to a petition that I presented in the Chamber not so long ago. My purpose this evening is first to highlight the importance and the unique history of the approach to languages that is demonstrated at the school, secondly to highlight the approach to providing the European baccalaureate as the final qualification for those leaving it, and thirdly to ask some questions and make some comments arising from the Department’s response to my petition.

The background to all this is, of course, the situation in which we find ourselves as a country in the context of our relationship with the European Union. I am sure we all feel the need to end the current uncertainty as soon as possible, but that is felt nowhere more keenly than at this school, where the educational future of children is at stake.

The Europa School is one of the free schools created as a result of this Government’s initiative. It is in Culham, in my constituency, but it serves a wide area, mostly in Oxfordshire and in the surrounding areas of neighbouring counties. Under the terms of the free school, parents have agreed to the provision of a certain type of education that I will describe in more detail shortly, but let me first say something about the school’s importance and its unique history.

The initial meeting to discuss the establishment of a free school in Culham took place in 2011 with the then schools Minister, my noble Friend Lord Hill. The meeting was sponsored by me and attended by representatives of parents and educationalists who wished to speak in favour of the proposal. The aim was to meet three demands. First, residents of the county had given the clearest possible support for the new school; secondly, its founders wanted to bring a new form of education into the state school system; and thirdly, we all wished to build on a secure and well-established foundation of education in the European Schools curriculum, which leads eventually to the European baccalaureate.

At its core—this is the first of my major points—was a proposal to offer something that had not been offered before in the UK state system, and, indeed, had not previously been offered in the whole of the European School system. The proposers offered a complete, thoroughgoing commitment to full bilingual education from reception class onwards. Pupils would not simply learn the other language, but would learn through that language. They would learn the linguistic rhythm of that language. This was planned to be truly deep language learning, not just the acquisition of a second language overlaid on the first.

The Europa School was set up as a free school because that is what the parents wanted, which is a key component of the free school movement. The parents wanted that particular type of education to continue through the free school. It was a way of approaching subjects in languages. The pupils were taught subjects ​through all those languages, so they could end up learning history in German or geography in Spanish, and so on. That is a valuable way of teaching. The parents wanted that system to continue in the school, and it is being continued.

During education questions, I asked the Minister whether he accepted that the school was proving popular with parents of all types, including those from the UK, and that it was a good model of language teaching to follow. He replied that he shared my admiration for the Europa School, and I want to build on that today. I understand that we are anticipating an Ofsted report. I believe that everyone expects the school to have done rather well out of it, and I hope that that expectation is fulfilled. However, this approach needs to be set in the context of Brexit, and the difficulties of negotiating a Brexit that does not see the school become a casualty.

The European School, Culham—not the Europa School—had for some time been destined for closure, as the resourcing for such a school at Culham could not be justified within the European Commission’s budget for European Schools. A closure date of 2017 for the European School had already been announced. A plan was therefore advanced for the new free school to grow year by year as the European School diminished, and for the two schools to share the use of the Culham site on an agreed basis. An important aspect of this is that the free school was oversubscribed by some 30% at its opening in September 2012 and it has remained significantly oversubscribed at every subsequent admissions round since that date.

What promises and commitments has the school made? First, it sought to open multilingual education to all the residents of Oxfordshire. Secondly, it determined that the new school would have an important commitment to sciences and mathematics, particularly when the plans for the secondary school came into play. The school started with two stream languages, German and French, each joined with English, but it has recently added Spanish as a third stream language.

Critically, the freedom offered by the free schools programme to allow free schools to set their own curriculum has been essential. The founders of the Europa School adopted the European Schools’ curriculum, modified by the mandatory elements of the English national curriculum. Thus, by the time of the all-important interview at the Department for Education, there was a distinctive offering to support the bid for pre-opening status. From the deep educational theory came the view that giving a child a second language from their earliest schooling was like giving them a second life—that is, an alternative cultural world in which they could immerse themselves. From the practical world came the view that multilingualism is in no way elitist: what the taxi drivers of many European cities achieve linguistically must be within the reach of schoolchildren, given the right environment and experiences.

Robert Courts (Witney) (Con) My hon. Friend is making a fascinating speech extolling the virtues of the Europa School in his constituency. I have had correspondence from constituents expressing their admiration for the school and I would like to associate myself with those comments. Does he agree with me on two brief points? First, does not the success of the Europa School show the success of the free schools ​programme? Secondly, does that success not also illustrate that, while Britain may be withdrawing from the political structures of the European Union, she remains an enthusiastic participant in the culture, friendships and co-operation of Europe?

John Howell I agree with both my hon. Friend’s points. The school’s success shows the importance of the free school movement and our commitment to continuing our co-operation in Europe. I thank him for making those points.

I was particularly proud when the Europa School was specifically mentioned here in 2011 when the then Secretary of State for Education announced that the school was to open as a bilingual free school in 2012. That was not the first time that the residents of Oxfordshire had reason to be grateful for the support of the House in determining the educational provision available to their children. The quality of education at Culham through the European Schools programme had long been held in high regard. David Cameron had supported the unique educational offer provided at Culham, seeking to preserve and enhance it.

I should like to praise the system of education offered under the free schools programme. We must not forget that in this case the school was principally set up to deal with parents of mainland European origin in the area. However, the approach to teaching languages has proved immensely successful—so successful that we are now in a situation where British parents are keen for their children to enter the school and be taught in that way. I ask the Minister to acknowledge this and to confirm that he will do all he can to encourage the continuation of this form of education.

Moving on to the question of the European baccalaureate, the Europa School became an accredited European School in 2014. This means that the school has approval to continue offering the European baccalaureate and to teach the European curriculum. This accreditation was confirmed at a more recent inspection in 2018 by the European Commission. No money flows from Brussels to the school as a consequence of that status; it is simply a validation of the quality of teaching and assessment in the school.

What is so valuable about that accreditation and affiliation? The European baccalaureate uniquely obliges all candidates to take written and oral examinations in at least two languages. The examinations do not just test competence in the additional stream language; the students, as I have pointed out, actually study history and geography through those languages, and use the stream languages as the mode of learning and assessment. As a result, students have a linguistic competence in their stream language on leaving similar to the linguistic competence of university undergraduates. At the same time, all students must study mathematics and at least once science subject to an advanced level. That outcome is not delivered by the UK A-level system. This free school also requires a leaving qualification that properly recognises the numerous years of education that are involved in becoming bilingual and studying diverse school subjects in two languages.

As a responsible step in school governance, the principal and governing body of the school have explored whether the international baccalaureate could be adopted as an alternative qualification. However, there are significant ​limitations: examination and study of subjects through two languages is not mandatory; support for the English and German stream combination is weak; the middle years syllabus differs in significant ways; and, most of all, there is a risk of losing expertise among the teaching staff.

The school wants to be able to continue offering the European curriculum and to offer the European baccalaureate as its qualification for school leavers, and I support it most strongly in that aim. In conversation, the Minister likened the situation to the owners of a copyright. In this case, the copyright is owned by the European Commission, not by the Department for Education. I understand from the Minister that the Department is happy for the school to continue teaching the European baccalaureate, but the problem lies in the attitude of the European Commission. In this situation, I would like to ask the Minister to ensure that the Department for Education can continue to be a friend to this free school, to negotiate strongly on its behalf, and to offer a no-holds-barred assessment of how the school can continue even if the UK is not a member of the EU. I urge the Minister to explore every avenue as a matter separate from Brexit. I hope that this excellent educational establishment may continue its development in the direction that the founders of the free school have planned.

Finally, let me turn to the Department’s response to my petition. I was glad that the Government were successful in securing a provision in the withdrawal agreement that allows for Europa School’s continued accreditation as a European school until the end of August 2021. Beyond the withdrawal agreement, accreditation to deliver the European baccalaureate is available only to schools located in an EU member state. Continuing to deliver the European baccalaureate beyond that depends on a decision by European Union member states and the European Commission, through the European Schools board of governors, to change the rules on accredited schools. What are the Government doing to help the school talk to the European Schools board to try to get an agreement to include the school within its ambit after 2021? The Minister said:

“At present that seems highly unlikely.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 16P.]

This may be a lawyer’s view, but I note the term “at present” in his statement, so I ask him to set out the full position and the likely changes he expects, so as to provide the school with the degree of certainty it requires.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) pointed out, there is something special about free schools, particularly in what they can teach and the way that they can teach it. The Europa School illustrates that above all, which is why I have spent the last few minutes telling Members about it. It is a good example of how free schools work, how they can take the attitudes of parents and make them a reality, and how they can, in this case, through the European baccalaureate, continue to offer something of enormous benefit to children. I would like to see the extent to which we can provide support for the school at this time.