David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)
Really? Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that all those schools that were not teaching Shakespeare were teaching Chaucer, Blake and Dickens? I very much doubt it.
In any case, the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Secretary of State would determine such things if his reforms were accepted. Under his model, the market would decide through parental preference. He will have to accept that some parents might prefer not to have some authors on the list.
The issue of authors and English examinations seems relatively simple in comparison to history. So far, we have not tempted the Minister to indicate which parts of British or foreign history she thinks should be obligatory for the GCSE. I will give way happily if she wishes to pick any out. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that she will not pick out the bits of history that should be covered in the GCSE examination. The Secretary of State will have that power under the clause. He could decide tomorrow morning that particular parts of British history should be included in the history examination. He could specify that the history of the labour movement should be covered in the examination. We could have that degree of political control.
As the Minister asked for it earlier, my view is that it is reasonable to have a minimum curriculum that sets out the key expectations, but that it is unreasonable and unnecessary to embed that curriculum in the examinations system. It is not necessary for Ministers to micro-manage the curriculum to that extraordinary degree. Anyone who is interested in this matter can look at the long list of authors in the national curriculum who are regarded as an acceptable part of the English literary heritage. Goodness knows whether Ministers have approved that list or been involved in who is included or who is taken out. There is also a list of contemporary writers. Goodness knows which Ministers were involved in selecting Jennifer Donnelly, John Fowles and Susan Hill to be part of that approved list.
I question not only whether we need to be so detailed and prescriptive in the national curriculum, but whether Ministers need to take these extraordinary powers to specify such things for qualifications. Like The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, many other newspapers and many colleagues in Parliament, I do not trust here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians to take the right decisions about what should be embedded in our exams. The Minister is on slightly different ground when she talks about the structure of qualifications and the interest that the Government might have in that. They already have a great degree of influence over that through the QCDA and through the Secretary of States powers not to fund particular qualifications. We have this body that we will discuss laterJACQAwhich gives advice to the Secretary of State about whether any of these qualifications should be funded in the first place.
In her comments on the structure of examinations, she mentioned that she might want these powers where Ofqual or the exam boards were refusing to deliver what Ministers wanted. That is rather telling about an attitude to the examinations system, and perhaps the curriculum as well, and it is extremely top down. This is about what Ministers think is right for children throughout the country. They are qualifications that Ministers pick and it reflects back on our earlier debate about whether there should be a market in qualifications where the wishes of schools, parents and youngsters themselves should be influential in determining what qualifications are taken up, or whether this is a really top-down process where Ministers pick and choose qualifications and try to shunt the qualifications framework in a particular direction. When Ministers do that they are often extremely unsuccessful. Indeed, in the past 30 years, successive Governments have promoted vocational qualifications that have no traction, credibility or a value in the market.