Education: Qualifications — Question
11:16 am

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Baroness Quin (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what studies they have carried out on the trends in numbers of students studying for A-levels and other further education qualifications.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, my department publishes an annual study showing the number of 16 to 17 year-olds studying A and AS-levels and other qualifications. At the end of 2010, a record 600,000 16 to 17 year-olds were in full-time education studying A and AS-levels. A further 413,000 were in full-time education studying vocational qualifications. Record funding of over £7.5 billion is going into 16 to 19 funding this year and the Government are committed to raising the participation age to 17 from 2013, and to 18 from 2015.

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Baroness Quin (Labour)

Has the Minister seen the recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which seems to imply that education cuts are specifically affecting the 16 to 19 year-old sector? Does he agree that with the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance, the cuts in education and the deterrent effect of tuition fees, against the background of rapidly rising youth unemployment, 16 to 19 year-olds are facing a very difficult situation? Action may be urgently needed across government to give this vital section of our population increased educational and work opportunities for the future.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I obviously agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, about the importance of extending educational opportunity for that age group. That is why we are committed to raising the participation age and why we have put record funding into the 16 to 19 year-old group generally. As we have debated before, we have prioritised, at a time when we have less money than we would like, funding for pre-16s. All the evidence shows that academic achievement up to the age of 16 is the strongest determinant of subsequent success, both educationally and in job terms. We have done that, but I agree with the noble Baroness that 16 to 19 year- olds are important and we are looking across government at our participation strategy to address some of the concerns that she fairly raises.

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Baroness Coussins (Crossbench)

My Lords, what are the most recent trends, identified by the comparative European and international studies in which the UK participates, into how many students aged 16 and over are studying a modern foreign language?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

Given that the noble Baroness is asking that question, I suspect that the answer may well be that other countries are doing more in terms of modern foreign languages than our own country. I share her concern: we want to redress the balance. As she knows, we are keen, through things like the English baccalaureate, to encourage take-up of modern foreign languages in our schools. In time, that should work its way up through the education system.

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Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat)

What can the Government do to help schools access the technology they need for e-learning and distance learning through which they can access the specialist teachers that they cannot employ in their own schools? That would help students to widen the range of subject areas that they could take at A-level. Obviously, modern foreign languages could be a case in point.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I agree with my noble friend about the importance of technology and the way that it opens up all sorts of opportunities that were not there before, perhaps particularly for children in rural areas. We need to look at that and make sure that its potential is fully realised.

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Lord Taylor of Blackburn (Labour)

My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a figure for A-levels. The Question goes on to ask about other, equivalent "further education qualifications". Can he give us any idea of how many pupils are taking the international baccalaureate?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I do not have the precise figures but I will be happy to write to the noble Lord with them. I know of his interest in the subject; we have discussed this before. It is, as he knows, a relatively small number but I am glad to say that I think it is increasing slowly in the maintained sector as well as the independent sector. I will do my best to get up-to-date figures and write to the noble Lord with them.

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The Bishop of Bristol (Bishop)

My Lords, what work are the Government doing to monitor trends in the number of students who go on from A-levels or other pathways of learning to apply to university? In particular, what steps are they taking to monitor whether the changed funding arrangements are deterring numbers from lower socioeconomic groups from making such applications?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, we are developing destination measures, which should help us to get a better picture than we currently have of what happens to children after they leave school, whether they go into further or higher education or into jobs. It is important to know what the destinations are, so we are working on those measures, which will help us. As to monitoring the effect of some of the changes that we have had to make-for example, over the educational maintenance allowance, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin-we will keep it under review to see what impact it has.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Labour)

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance is widely held to be a major culprit in the recent drop in the number of students attending FE colleges? Is he aware of the wide disquiet that exists about the operation of the replacement for the EMA, and will the Government consider reversing the decision if the number of students in FE colleges continues to drop?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, as I have said, we are keen to keep the effect of the changes that we have made under review. As the noble Baroness will know, we were driven to make those changes because the proportion of children in receipt of EMA-46 per cent of them-meant that it did not feel like a targeted approach. We wanted to target the money that we have more closely on those children who need it most, which is what lies behind the redirection and the creation of the new bursary fund. The noble Baroness referred to the impact on FE colleges. I know that a survey was carried out by the Association of Colleges to look into that. That survey, which looked at around half of all colleges, found that the number where enrolment had increased was the same as the number where it had decreased. The overall fall was only 0.1 per cent, which, given that there was a fall of 40,000 in the age cohort generally, does not feel like a significant change. However, we must keep it under review and we certainly will.