20 JUN 2019

Speech on Free Schools

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I wish to speak about Europa School UK in Culham in my constituency, but this is not an attempt to get one over on the Minister—quite the opposite. The Minister has been incredibly helpful with that school, and his recent letter to it was a model of assistance that I am told helped to make a significant impact on the heads of other national delegations—it does have the word "Europe" in the title, so I thank him for that.

I disagree with what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) has just said—I suspect this will go backwards and forwards across the Chamber. Europa School UK was founded as a free school because local people wanted it, not because the Government or any other institution wanted it. It could not be provided for by the local authority because of the way that it teaches the children who attend—I will say something about that in a moment. It also could not be provided for because it teaches the European baccalaureate, rather than any other baccalaureate or GCSEs and A-levels. It now has permission to continue teaching the European baccalaureate until 2021, subject to the European Commission, which effectively owns the copyright. That gives an enormous advantage to children who started when they were five with the expectation of taking the European baccalaureate, and who will now work through the school until 2021.

The school is also a good example of how petitions can work. I presented a petition that had been signed by parents and friends of the school to Parliament, and it had a big effect. Perhaps a message can go out from this debate that parliamentary petitions—as opposed to the e-petitions that we debate in Westminster Hall on Mondays—are not a waste of time, because that petition put the issues raised firmly on the table at the Department for Education, and helped to crystallise them.​

Under the terms of the free school, parents have agreed to the provision of a certain type of education, which I am about to describe. The importance of this school began in 2011, when I started getting people together to get permission for the free school to go ahead. At its core was a proposal to do something that has never been offered before in the UK or, incidentally, in the European Union school system. The proposal was to offer a complete, thoroughgoing commitment to full bilingual education from reception until finishing school. Pupils would not simply learn another language; they would learn through that language, which is an important distinction. They would learn the linguistic rhythm of a language and have truly deep language learning, not just acquire a second language overlaid on the first.

Europa School UK was set up as a free school because that is what parents wanted. I remember holding discussions with them at the time, and parents wanted that type of education. It is not only those parents of European origin who work at the Culham Science Centre or at Harwell who enjoy this school; it has become so attractive that it appeals to British-born parents who live in the area and are looking to provide the education that their children need. During Education questions I asked the Minister whether he accepted that Europa School UK was proving popular with all kinds of parents, and he kindly replied that he shared my admiration for the school.

How does it work? A pupil will go in and have a history lesson in German, or geography in French, and they will be taught through those languages throughout the day. It is not a question of picking up the language as one goes along; this is about fully immersing oneself in that language, and it works—I have seen it work, and I will soon go to the school to participate in the presentation of certificates and prizes.

The freedom offered by the free schools programme to allow schools to set their own curriculum has been essential. The founders of Europa School UK adopted the curriculum of the previous European school, which the Commission did not want to fund any more, and modified that with the mandatory elements of the English national curriculum. I mention that because it shows that free schools are what parents want, and they provide something different from what the local authority wants. The success of Europa School UK can be seen in the recent Ofsted report, which produced a very good result.

Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) (Con)

My hon. Friend's references to Europa School UK remind me of Northampton International Academy, which as a fairly new free school attempts to achieve that ethos. He referred to the ability to drive excellence through parental choice, and Northampton School for Boys has just been granted permission to go for free school status, which comes off the back of being a school that local parents recognise as a provider of excellence. Does my hon. Friend agree that this programme provides an opportunity for that parental view to be broadened and spread across local communities?

John Howell

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has hit on the key word that describes the whole programme—choice. It is about parental choice. What I have described has worked well for my school and I hope it works well for his.​

There is not much more I can add. The Europa School UK is a model school that everyone is welcome to visit to see how the teaching is done. Of course, they will have to speak Italian, German and Spanish to understand the courses being delivered, but I am sure that will not cause any problems for hon. Members in this multilingual Chamber.

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