Careers Service (Young People)

Part of Opposition Day — [20th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 13th September 2011.

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Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss Conservative, South West Norfolk 8:50 pm, 13th September 2011

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I advocate making the E-bac subjects that the Government are encouraging compulsory until age 16, as they are in Canada, Germany and France. It is good for all students to get a core basic education. We currently have one of the lowest proportions in the OECD of students doing maths aged 16 to 18. We have a very poor record on foreign languages, history and sciences.

To address the point that the shadow Secretary of State made in his speech, we need to get everyone up to a good level in a core general education. It is no longer appropriate to say that it is okay for students to cut off their options at age 14 and regret it later in their careers. I do not think that we need a lot of expensive careers advisers telling students that; it should be a broad part of a general education that everyone in this country studies, as is the case in most of our major competitors. I would like the Government to take up that point.

Employers say that they are most concerned about foreign languages—75% said that it was their major concern. Yet in 2004 the previous Government dropped the requirement of a foreign language at key stage 4, and since then the proportion of students studying foreign languages at GCSE has plunged from 79% to 44%. In mathematics, the UK is an outlier, with only 50% of sixth forms offering further mathematics A-level, and yet students who wish to study mathematics or physics at one of the top universities need a further mathematics A-level. That means that 50% of our young people are unable to study those important subjects at university. That is absolutely disgraceful. Why are they not able to do so? There are perverse incentives in the league tables, as the Minister said earlier, and we all know that some subjects are more equal than others, but there is also a fundamental dishonesty in how they are presented and reported.

One thing that no one has mentioned in the debate so far, however, is the role that teachers should play. We have seen their role diminished since 2003, and in particular since their terms and conditions restricted the activities in which they may become involved. Teachers have a crucial role in inspiring students to think about their future and what they could make of themselves, but sometimes we focus too much on the student’s immediate career, rather than on building up their long-term capabilities.

It is better to have somebody who is close to a student giving them regular advice and being honest about their subject options. I have been into local schools and talked to teachers, and often they are afraid of denigrating a subject for fear of seeming elitist, but unfortunately that is undermining our meritocracy and meaning that students from well-off backgrounds who attend independent schools are twice as likely to study maths and science at A-level, three times as likely to study modern languages and seven times less likely to study media studies. That, I am afraid, is the legacy of our system.