Europa School

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 10th January 2019.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 7:39 pm, 10th January 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to him for his assiduousness in championing the Europa School not just today but over many years. He has acted to secure the best interests of parents, pupils and teachers at the school, particularly in his dealings with Ministers and with the Department for Education.

As I said in response to my hon. Friend’s question in the House on 17 December, I share his admiration for the Europa School and its very high academic standards. As continued accreditation as a European school depends on decisions by the European Schools board of governors, I recognise that the school and its community of pupils, parents and staff are facing a period of considerable change and uncertainty as the UK prepares to leave the EU. I assure the school and my hon. Friend of my ongoing support during this period, and I will work closely with him in making sure that the school receives that support.

The Europa School, as my hon. Friend said, opened as a free school in 2012. Its creation was driven by a group of parents who wished to continue to offer a European Schools-style multilingual education following the decision to close the European school in Culham in 2007. That decision was taken by the then Education Secretary in the last Labour Government as there were no longer sufficient numbers of pupils who were the children of EU officials employed at the Culham centre for fusion energy to justify its continuation as a European school.

As my hon. Friend said, the Europa School is the only accredited European school in the UK, and it teaches the European baccalaureate, which comprises the last two years of secondary education in a European school or at a school accredited by the European Schools board of governors. Pupils follow a combination of language, humanities and scientific subjects, with subjects taught through more than one language.

The Europa School has a thriving community, and it is held in high regard by parents, pupils and the local community. As of 1 January, there are 442 open free schools across the country, and the schools will provide around 250,000 places when at capacity. As my hon. Friend Robert Courts said in his intervention, free schools like the Europa School are creating thousands of high-quality school places, as well as bringing innovation to the wider education system and diversity to local provision.

Ofsted’s latest information shows that 85% of all free schools with inspection reports published by the end of November 2018 are rated good or outstanding, and secondary free schools are among some of the highest performing state-funded schools in the country. I congratulate the Europa School on being one of eight European schools to have achieved a 100% pass rate for students who completed the European baccalaureate in 2018, which is a particularly impressive achievement given that 2018 was the first year of pupils at the free school taking the qualification.

Within the primary phase, I am pleased to note that the school has achieved an improvement in its key stage 2 results, with the proportion of pupils achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths increasing from 68% in 2017 to 69% in 2018. That places the school above the national average of 64%.

I note that the school had two inspections last term, with an inspection from the European Schools system in early September followed by Ofsted in December. The Ofsted report will be published shortly. The European Schools inspection will inform the European Schools board of governors decision to grant accreditation from 2019 to August 2021.

The defining feature of the European Schools curriculum is, of course, its focus on foreign languages, which this Government strongly support. I very much welcome the Europa School’s success, and boosting language teaching is central to this Government’s ambition. Having a command of foreign languages is more important than ever as we leave the European Union and forge a new relationship with our European friends and global partners. Languages provide an insight into other cultures and can open the door to travel and employment opportunities. Languages can also broaden a pupil’s horizons, helping them to navigate and succeed in new environments.

The Europa School is an accredited European school. Accreditation to deliver the European baccalaureate is available only to schools located in an EU member state, which means that, in addition to the exemption it receives from the Department for Education to deliver this qualification, the school must also receive accreditation from the European Schools board of governors, consisting of all member states of the EU and the European Commission.

The withdrawal agreement with the EU contains a provision that the UK will remain covered by the European schools convention during the implementation period after we leave the EU, but that would not have been enough to allow Europa to retain its accreditation during this period. That is why the UK negotiators sought, and were successful in securing in the withdrawal agreement, the inclusion of the regulations on accredited European schools. That allows for the continued accreditation for Europa to offer the European baccalaureate until the summer of 2021. I am very pleased that we were able to secure that transition period for Europa as part of the separation provisions in the withdrawal agreement. It will allow the school sufficient time to transition to a new curriculum.

The accreditation to 2021 is subject to renewal of accreditation by the European Schools board of governors, which will take place in April 2019, and we expect that to be granted, given the clear intention of the withdrawal agreement and the strong performance of the school. I would like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Henley that officials in the Department have been working closely with the Europa School to prepare for its future after we leave the EU and it is clearly for Europa and its board of trustees to determine the right curriculum to enable the school to continue after the implementation period ends. The implementation period will allow time for the school to complete this transition.

I am pleased to hear that the school has recently been successful in its candidacy application to be able to teach the international baccalaureate diploma from September 2020. That will allow the school to continue its focus on language teaching, and operate with an international focus and ethos. All international baccalaureate students learn to express themselves confidently in more than one language, and this qualification will allow the school to retain its advanced language teaching and a unique offer of education to pupils. Once the accreditation process is complete, the Europa School will join 138 other international baccalaureate world schools operating in the UK.

This Government have been clear that we do not want or expect a no-deal scenario. The UK and the EU have agreed the terms of the UK’s smooth and orderly exit from the EU in the form of the withdrawal agreement and a detailed political declaration on the terms of our future relationship. Nevertheless, the Government will continue to do the responsible thing and prepare for all eventualities. I welcome the fact that the Europa School is also taking a responsible approach and preparing for the UK exiting the EU without a deal.

I am pleased to say that, with the Department for Education’s support, the European Schools board of governors agreed at its December meeting to maintain Europa’s accreditation until the end of this academic year, even in the event of a no-deal exit. That will enable the 32 pupils currently in year 13—S7, as it is referred to at the Europa School—to complete their sixth-form studies and take their exams. In addition, the school and DFE officials are working with the European Schools system to secure arrangements for the 47 year 12 pupils, who are due to sit their European baccalaureate exams in summer 2020.

The European Schools system has been clear that its rules require accredited schools to be in an EU member state, and therefore accreditation would not be available beyond 2019, but I am pleased that it is working with Europa and DFE to consider alternatives for the pupils due to sit their baccalaureate in 2020. It has been proposed that Europa could operate in partnership with another European school to deliver the baccalaureate in 2020. I thank the principal of Europa and the director of the European School in Bergen for their work to put the arrangements in place.

While we are optimistic that we will secure the necessary support for this arrangement, it is dependent on further legal consideration by the European Schools system and a vote in the board of governors’ meeting in April. The Department will, of course, continue to make a very strong case for this agreement to be adopted for 2020. I do need to make it clear, though, that the European Schools system views this partnership arrangement as a “one-off’ arrangement for the current year 12 pupils only. It is not considering a similar arrangement for 2021 in a no-deal scenario. Our current understanding is that it will not apply to those pupils currently in year 11. I recognise the difficult position in which that leaves the school and its pupils.

I very much welcome the fact that Lynn Wood, the principal of Europa School UK, and Professor Andrew Parker, the chair of the board of governors, have taken a responsible approach in being open and honest with affected pupils and their families. I understand that Ms Wood and Professor Parker have written to the parents of the 54 pupils currently in year 11 so that they can make appropriate choices about their sixth-form education and ensure that arrangements are in place in the unlikely event that we leave without a deal. I also understand that Europa is investigating whether the school could be exceptionally authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organization to start teaching the international baccalaureate as early as September, as an emergency measure, should the need arise.

I assure the Europa School UK community that the Department is committed to supporting the school and its pupils and will work closely with the school as the future position becomes clear. I will work closely with my hon. Friend, who will monitor the situation very closely himself.

My hon. Friend raised the question of the future position of the Europa School as an accredited European school beyond the provisions set out in the withdrawal agreement. I recognise that the wish of the Europa School is to continue to deliver the European curriculum and baccalaureate once the UK has left the European Union. The Government are not in a position to allow or not allow the school to offer the European baccalaureate to its students as an equivalent A-level after 2021; that is a matter solely for the board of the European Schools system.

Although the system also allows for accredited European schools operating in national education systems, the European schools regulation on accredited schools is clear: only schools in EU member states can be accredited as European schools. It does not provide for accreditation in non-EU countries. That is why it was important that we secured a transitional period for Europa through the withdrawal agreement. The school must therefore continue to prepare to transition to a new curriculum, and I am pleased that it is making good progress on that.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for this issue and appreciate the difficult position that the school finds itself in. I thank the pupils, staff and wider school community for supporting the school through these uncertain times. I am sure that the school will continue to be highly successful in offering a strong, quality education through the delivery of a broad curriculum with a focus on language teaching. Europa pupils will continue to be well placed to succeed in a global economy, and the Department for Education will continue to support the school to prepare for its future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.