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.