My speech on Free Schools and the Europa School, Culham

John Howell (Henley) (Con) 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) for introducing this subject, because it is one that I have spent quite a considerable amount of my time specialising in within my constituency. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has been incredibly courteous to me over the years, meeting with me and with schools of all sizes so that we can discuss problems. I place on record my sincere thanks to him.

One thing that I have been able to do in specialising in this area is to visit every school in my constituency. I think, from memory, that that is more than 100 schools, which is quite a lot. I have not done that all in one year; I have done it over a number of years, given that we have only Fridays and that the schools are on holiday for quite a lot of the year. But I have done it; I have visited all of them.

I would like to mention one school in particular that fits in with the subject of this debate, the Europa School in Culham in my constituency. Before I describe it, I re-emphasis the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham made about how free schools offer considerable flexibility to reflect a particular way in which parents want their children to be taught. In this case, being a free school offers a particular mindset for how to approach the area, which we should all bear in mind.

The Europa School is the successor to the European School. I am not going to get into a Brexit debate—in fact, I was at a naval dinner last night where, if anyone mentioned the term "Brexit", they had to drink a large measure of neat rum.

Alex Cunningham


John Howell

While I would love that to be the case here, I suspect it will not occur.

The European School had a distinguished record. It was set up when lots of European parents were over to work at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy at Oxford University and at the Harwell science centre. For several reasons, the European School's funding dried up, so the Europa School was started as its successor, and has gradually taken over its workings.

The Europa School was set up as a free school, because that is what the parents wanted. They wanted the particular type of education that the European School offered to continue through the free school. That type of education was a way of approaching subjects in original languages. Children did not go and learn in French, Spanish, German or English. They were taught in all those languages, so they could end up having history in German or geography in Spanish, and so on throughout the complete list of subjects. That is a valuable way of teaching. The parents wanted that system to continue in the school, and it is being continued.

To encapsulate that teaching at the end of the process, the parents also wanted the children to take the European Baccalaureate, which offers a comprehensive system for evaluating children at roughly the equivalent A-level period that they would have to face. We need to hold fast to that in what I say next.

We must not forget that the school was principally set up to deal with parents of European origin in the area. The approach to teaching languages has proved immensely successful—so successful that we are now in a situation where non-European parents are desperate for their children to enter the school and be taught in that way. Because it is a free school, it can offer that way of teaching and it can say to the parents, "We can take your child in." To be honest, I think it is a superb way of being taught languages.

The problem comes about because of the European Baccalaureate. As I said, the school is desperate to continue teaching it, but there is some difficulty about the ownership of the copyright for it, and a distinction is being made as to whether that is in the gift of the European Commission or the Department. The school has had some interaction with the Department about the issue, which needs to be resolved. It is important because that way of teaching is very special, and people have become not only wedded to it, but so attracted to it that it attracts parents from a wide area. Earlier this year, I presented a petition from something like 2,500 or 3,000 parents and friends of the school in the House of Commons to try to encourage the Government to make sure that the European Baccalaureate can continue to be taught there.

There is something special about free schools, particularly in what they can teach and the way that they can teach it. The Europa School illustrates that above all, which is why I have spent the last few minutes telling hon. Members about it. It is a good example of how free schools work, how they can take the attitudes of parents and make them a reality, and how they can, in this case, through the European Baccalaureate, continue to offer something of enormous benefit to children. I think the Minister agrees that there is no issue of quality about the European Baccalaureate; it provides just the same quality that children would get if they were taking traditional A-levels. For that reason, I fully support the school.