New Clause 2 — Comparative study of qualifications

Sale of Mobile Homes (Interviews) – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 5 May 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

'(1) The Secretary of State shall commission a comparative study, to be conducted by a person or body he considers appropriate, of the standards of—

(a) GCSEs, and

(b) A levels,

with comparable qualifications in each of the jurisdictions of the European Union, to be completed within a period of 18 months of the coming into force of this Act.

(2) The Secretary of State shall publish the results of this study.'.— (Mr. Gibb.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 72, in clause 126, page 72, line 25, at end add—

'(f) the education standards objective.'.

Amendment 61, page 72, line 26, after 'to', insert

'ensure that the standard of regulated qualifications is maintained and to'.

Amendment 74, page 72, line 30 , at end insert—

'(c) indicate a consistent level of ability, including over time, between comparable regulated qualifications.'.

Amendment 62, page 72, line 31, after 'to', insert

'ensure that the standard of regulated assessment arrangements is maintained and to'.

Amendment 75, page 72, line 37, leave out 'and regulated assessment arrangements' and insert

', regulated assessment arrangements, the consistency of educational standards over time, and in the independence and credibility of Ofqual.'.

Government amendments 21 to 24.

Amendment 63, in clause 126, page 73, line 10, at end add—

'(7) Within 18 months of its establishment Ofqual shall publish a report on whether standards of qualifications have been maintained over the previous 20 years and the report shall include consideration of—

(a) A-Levels, and

(b) GCSEs.'.

Amendment 71, page 73, line 10, at end add—

'(7) In pursuit of the objectives in this section, Ofqual shall lay before Parliament by 1 January 2011 an assessment of the impact of introducing modular GCSEs on the maintenance of standards and public confidence in schools.

(8) In pursuit of the objectives in this section, Ofqual shall seek to ensure that over time an age cohort with similar abilities shall be awarded qualifications at a similar level of indicated attainment.'.

Amendment 73, page 73, line 10, at end add—

'(7) The education standards objective is to monitor, assess and report on the changes in educational standards and performance in England over time, including by using standardised sample testing for such purposes as Ofqual judges this to be of value.'.

Amendment 87, in clause 127, page 74, line 7, at end insert

'provided that, in the view of Ofqual, these aspects of government policy do not undermine the objectives set out in section 126.'.

Amendment 60, page 74, line 8, after 'effectively', insert 'and in a timely manner'.

Government amendment 25.

Amendment 82, page 80, line 2, leave out Clause 139.

Amendment 80, page 80, line 3, after 'may', insert 'in exceptional circumstances'.

Amendment 81, page 80, line 5, at end insert

'provided that this minimum requirement does not relate to the grading or assessment of that qualification.'.

Amendment 88, page 80, line 5, at end insert

'provided that such a determination does not include specifying detailed minimum requirements of the curriculum content of each such specified qualification.'.

Amendment 89, page 80, line 29, at end add—

'(9) Ofqual must publish and lay before Parliament a response to any determination made by the Secretary of State under subsection (1) within 60 days of that determination being made.'.

Government amendments 26 to 28.

Amendment 90, in clause 163, page 90, line 32 , at end insert—

'(c) the assessment of changes in educational standards and performance in England, including any comparative international assessment which Ofqual considers to be necessary.'.

Government amendment 29.

Amendment 91, in clause 170, page 93, line 23, leave out 'coherence' and insert 'choice'.

Government amendments 30 to 37.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The Opposition support the establishment of an independent regulator of qualifications and examinations. It was, after all, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron who, when he was shadow Education Secretary—as the position was then known, before the word "Education" was eliminated from the name of the Department—said:

"It is not acceptable that the QCA, the guardian of our exams, is not independent of the Government."

By government, we mean the government machine— that is, all those elements of government charged with the responsibility of providing education, training teachers, determining the direction of education policy and the style of pedagogy; all those who determine whether, for example, primary education should be child centred; those who determine whether classes should be mixed ability or set by ability; the independent panels of advisers who advised the Government to remove translation from English into French from the secondary modern foreign languages curriculum; or those who advised that the primary curriculum should no longer teach the multiplication or addition of fractions. The exam regulator needs to be independent of all those groups and of anyone who has a vested interest in demonstrating that educational standards have improved.

Ofqual particularly needs to be independent of civil servants in the education world, both departmental and at local authority level. As Sir Michael Barber points out in his book "Instruction to Deliver":

"While the civil service was not party political, it was heavily influenced by the various lobby groups who competed for influence in the Department which thus tended to see issues from the producer angle...Moreover, the lack of ambition which characterised the education service as a whole inevitably affected the Department too."

It is keeping Ofqual independent from that lack of ambition that is so crucial, as well as keeping it independent of the producer angle.

That lack of ambition was exemplified by almost the very first act of the newly created Ofqual. In October last year, in response to reports that one of the exam boards, Edexcel, was awarding C grades in its new science GCSE to pupils achieving just 20 per cent., Ofqual was asked to adjudicate after the three exam boards failed to reach an agreement over grade boundaries. Instead of making the three boards rise to the standard of the most demanding, which was AQA, it ordered AQA to lower its grade boundaries to those of the other two—levelling down rather than levelling up. The director general of AQA, Dr. Mike Cresswell, said that he did so under protest and wrote:

"AQA is extremely reluctant to adopt a standard for GCSE Science which is less comparable with the past than it needs to be."

Ofqual spectacularly failed, therefore, in its first test.

That all goes to the root of the contradictions that lie at the heart of this policy. On the one hand, the Government are saying that standards have been rigorously maintained over the years and between different exams. On the other hand, they say that an independent regulator needs to be created to boost public confidence. In a letter of September 2007, in which the DCSF set out the new model of regulation of qualifications, the Department states:

"Over the last ten years, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority...has shown robust independence in its work as a regulator and has developed a system for assuring standards which is recognised internationally for its quality and reliability...The hard work of the QCA, and its fellow regulators, means that we can be confident that standards have been maintained."

If things are so good and rosy, why do we need reform? The document goes on to say:

"Yet once again, this summer, we had a public debate about standards in qualifications and tests—even as the QCA provided reassurance that standards had been maintained".

In other words, how dare the public have a debate about standards when the QCA has "provided reassurance". The reforms are not about ensuring that standards are maintained, but about finding a better way to try to convince the public that standards are being maintained.

Kathleen Tattersall, the new chairman and chief regulator at Ofqual, said in her evidence to the Public Bill Committee:

"Ofqual has been set ensure that there is a better...understanding of the issues and to assure public confidence."

What Ofqual should be concerned about is maintaining standards—something that its predecessor regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, singularly failed to do. That is why, in amendment 61, we propose adding a specific requirement to maintain standards to Ofqual's list of objectives.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does it not strike my hon. Friend as odd that the chairman of Ofqual should talk about improving understanding of the issues? It seems to me that the public in general understand the issues; what they do not understand is why standards are not kept up. Is not "understanding the issues" code for "Let us explain to people why they should think differently from the way that they do."?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My right hon. Friend has summarised brilliantly the argument that I was trying to make. It is a huge concern, because as he hints, a huge amount of independent academic research carried out in recent years points to the decline in exam standards over time. To take just one example, Peter Tymms at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at the university of Durham has shown that a student who got an E in A-level maths in 1998 would have been awarded a B in 2004. Professor Peter Williams, appointed by this Government, said in The Observer newspaper:

"Over 20 or 30 years I don't think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen.

They have edged south, continuously over a long period of time.

I think all university academics and a good proportion of sixth-form teachers would agree with my assertion."

That and other evidence has been available for several years now, but what concerns us is the attitude to such evidence expressed by Ofqual's chief regulator in her evidence to the Public Bill Committee. When asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Walker,

"Does Ofqual believe that there is grade inflation in A-levels and GCSEs?" she replied:

"Ofqual will take the evidence that it has and that comes to its attention to make any pronouncement, one way or the other, on issues of that kind. That is something that we have not particularly explored and I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to come to a view without full consideration of the evidence."

Why is the matter one that Ofqual has "not particularly explored"? When my hon. Friend asked whether Ofqual would explore the issue in future, he received another odd answer from the chief regulator:

"What we will be doing as a regulator is looking at the evidence, particularly where there are any issues of public concern. If that issue is a matter of public concern, clearly we will be seeking evidence on it, but there are a range of other issues where our starting point would always be to look at the evidence and to come to a considered judgment on the evidence."

Why have the QCA and Ofqual not been looking at the evidence, including that of Peter Williams and the Durham evidence? What did the chief regulator mean when she said:

"If that issue is a matter of public concern"?

What did she mean by "if"? As my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer suggests, of course it is an issue of public concern. We read about it in the newspapers the whole time.

When challenged by my hon. Friend Mrs. Miller, the chief regulator's response was:

"Ofqual has been set up to regulate the system, to get better public accountability for the system, to ensure that there is a better public understanding of the issues and to assure public confidence. That is what regulators do. I do not think that it has been set up to address any specific concerns, such as the one that was just mentioned" ——[ Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 70, Q182 to Q184.]— or indeed the one raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal.

The anxiety that that answer provoked was compounded by minutes of Ofqual board meetings that were leaked to a Sunday newspaper. It was clear from those minutes that Ofqual was not sure whether there was any methodology that it could use to compare standards between a non-modular GCSE exam and a modular exam that was being introduced by the QCA. According to the newspaper, the chief regulator said that Ofqual and the exam boards

" arrive at a clearer picture of what is meant by 'maintaining standards' when the structure of qualifications changes."

That makes one wonder whether Ofqual is the right body for the job, particularly as there are academics, such as Professor Tymms, who could say precisely how to make such a comparison, using a sample of cognitive ability tests. That is similar to the comparison proposed in the second part of the Liberal Democrat amendment 71. Our proposal, set out in new clause 2, is to benchmark comparative qualifications in other countries. New clause 2 says:

"The Secretary of State shall commission a comparative study...of the standards of...GCSEs, and...A levels...with comparable qualifications in each of the jurisdictions of the European Union".

Of course, the Secretary of State could extend the study to places such as Singapore and Japan.

That measure reflects a policy announcement made by my hon. Friend Michael Gove in a speech at the Haberdashers' Aske's school, in which he said:

"We have asked Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College and one of our most successful scientists, to review our entire system of assessment and qualifications in this country and we have made it clear that his aim is to ensure once more that our exams are internationally competitive...That is why we would legislate to make the fixing of our exam standards to an international benchmark crucial to our programme of radical reform."

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 8:15, 5 May 2009

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I wonder whether he has considered the concerns that business has about grade inflation. It is now setting its own exams. Where that is not happening, schools in my area—and the area of the Minister for Schools and Learners, who represents the same county as I do—are turning their backs on GCSEs and offering another alternative, the international baccalaureate.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I shall come to in a moment. He is right: people across the board are concerned about some of the public exams on offer. McDonald's, Flybe and other major international companies are taking measures, and we support those measures, but it is interesting that they feel that they have to do so to get the quality that they seek from qualifications.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I did not intend to intervene in this debate, because the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry, is leading for the Government on it, but the qualifications that the employers listed are involved in are not in any way supposed to be competing with the academic qualifications that the hon. Gentleman talks about. It is just not reasonable to compare the two at all.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I understand that point, but there is a concern in the private sector—a feeling that it should not rely on the Government to provide the kind of qualifications that it might wish to use, and that it is time that it got on with its own qualifications. I could also have cited academic qualifications that are comparable with GCSEs and A-levels. I will come to those in a minute.

Amendment 63 would require Ofqual to publish a report on standards in A-levels and GCSEs over the past 20 years. It is important, if we are to be able to maintain standards over the next 20 years, that we have a proper, honest understanding about what has happened to our public exams over the past 20 years. Amendments 61 and 62 would amend the objectives of Ofqual to ensure that it maintained standards. That phrase is not in the standards objective as drafted, and that is a serious omission. Finally, amendment 60 would ensure that Ofqual conducted its work in a timely manner. It is a frequent complaint of exam boards that delays at regulator level leave them insufficient time to develop their exams.

As my hon. Friends have said, public confidence in the integrity of our public exam system is at an all-time low. Those in the independent sector are flocking to the more rigorous exams, such as the international GCSE, the Pre-U, which was developed to deal with concerns about the A-level, and of course the international baccalaureate. The way to deal with that lack of confidence is not public relations and repeated assurances, but concrete work to ensure that standards do not decline. The new clauses and amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and by me will go a long way to helping Ofqual to provide the rigour that is sought by the public.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Bill contains much that is unwanted, unnecessary or both, but the clauses, new clauses and amendments that we are debating should be the most important and beneficial part of it. Unfortunately, we share many of the concerns expressed by Mr. Gibb regarding the nature of the Ofqual that the Government have chosen to establish.

Anyone interested in education ought to seek an objective understanding of what has happened to standards over a period of time. Indeed, it is difficult to have a meaningful debate about education and education policies without having an understanding of and agreement about what has happened to educational standards. We have heard from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about the disagreements about what Government statistics mean and about what has happened to standards over the past 10 or 20 years, and those concerns are echoed in the report on testing and assessment by the Children, Schools and Families Committee which was published last year and which received all-party support. I refer the Minister to paragraph 162, in which the Committee concludes that

"the measurement of standards across the full curriculum is presently virtually impossible under the current testing regime because national tests measure only a small sample of pupils' achievements; and because teaching to the test means that pupils may not retain, or may not even possess in the first place, the skills which are supposedly evidenced by their test results"— a damning criticism if ever there was one of the existing testing regime.

In paragraph 166, the Committee concludes:

"It is highly questionable whether a claim can validly be made that A-levels have remained at a consistent standard over a period as long as 20 years or indeed anything like it."

There are further criticisms in paragraph 171 about the difficulties of reaching a conclusive view on the issue of grade inflation and thus what we should conclude about what has happened to educational standards over the past 10 or 20 years.

That is of fundamental importance because the Government's view, and their gloss on the statistics, is that there has been a staggering improvement in educational standards over the past 10 years, and perhaps even longer. In some parts of the country, the improvement in, for example, GCSE scores is quite breathtaking on paper. If it is true that there has been an improvement in standards of that magnitude, it is extremely important, and it has all sorts of implications for policy. However, if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is correct in saying that we cannot rely on those statistics, and if the Select Committee is right in its criticisms, we are in a difficult, and very different, position, which is presumably why, in paragraph 186, the Select Committee recommends that there should be a greater use of sample or cohort testing to establish what has truly happened to educational standards over time, and to make those judgments invariant to changes in the structure of qualifications, and thus to restore public confidence in standards.

We discussed in our debates in Committee, and previously, our great disappointment that the Government did not take up the Select Committee proposal and instead, in their response to the Select Committee report, made it clear that they rejected not only the use of sample testing to measure educational standards over time but, as they state in paragraph 50 of their response, that in their view,

"Ofqual's role is not to monitor education standards as a whole; it is to regulate the qualifications and assessments which are one of the means by which standards are measured."

When we look at the measures in clause 126 that deal with Ofqual's objectives, we discover on careful reading that what at first appears to be an impressive list of objectives—the qualifications standards objective; the assessments standards objective; the public confidence objective; the awareness objective; and the efficiency objective—requires Ofqual to make judgments of levels of attainment in comparable regulated qualifications, and in comparable assessments, which is not in any way a guarantee that, as the nature of those assessments changes, we will have a reliable measure of what is really happening to standards.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, but may I put it to him that we do not have to go to outside academics or international comparators to gain an insight into the way in which the Government have dealt with standards? We look to the man who was in charge of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which was responsible for protecting standards in recent years. He said in evidence to the Select Committee that

"too often boards such as that of the QCA are put into a position where it is expected that they will seek to negotiate...advice in advance. I think that is a pernicious process that compromises integrity and independence, and if we are not careful, in relation to Ofqual, it will cause real difficulties there. I do not think that for Ofqual the runes are propitious at all."

That is powerful evidence that the Government cannot be trusted on standards.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

It is indeed an important warning of the risk that arises from the manner in which the Government have established Ofqual, the degree of independence that Ofqual will, or will not, have, and in its tightly defined remit, which are designed effectively to stop it making the judgments about standards that it needs to make. Although the Minister herself, in giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee, suggested that it would be possible for Ofqual to use sample testing, she later qualified that by indicating that that could be used only in the context of the specific objectives in the Bill, which prevent such testing from being used to make judgments about educational standards and changes in those standards over time.

That is why we tabled a large number of amendments, both in Committee and on Report. Amendment 90 requires comparable international assessments to be made by Ofqual in a way that is similar to what new clause 3, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, would do. Amendments 72, 74 and 75 deal with the need to establish a proper educational standards objective in place of the long list of objectives that the Government have designated for Ofqual, none of which addresses the fundamental issue of standards, and judgments about standards over time. Amendment 71 seeks to address the soon-to-be-topical issue of the introduction of the modular GCSE, and the impact that it is likely to have on results. We heard some interesting evidence from the Minister and others in Committee about the effect that the introduction of modular GCSEs is likely to have. Many of us suspect that when they are introduced, there will be a rise in GCSE results, even though there will not be an improvement in underlying GCSE standards. We heard ambiguous evidence from the Minister about whether a rise in apparent standards as a consequence of changing to modular GCSEs should essentially be suppressed by ensuring that similar-ability cohorts of children end up with similar GCSE results, or whether in fact the modular GCSE will allow the results to rise in a fairly predictable way that, no doubt, will be used by the Government, if they are still in power, to claim that standards have risen.

Amendment 73 deals with the need for standardised sample testing, in relation not only to the existing Ofqual objectives, but to the wider standards objective that we believe there should be. Amendment 91 deals with the issue of coherence v. choice in qualifications, a subject that we touched on in Committee.

Another fundamental debate is hidden away in the amendments and new clauses before us. That is in relation to what was, when we were debating the Bill in Committee, the famous clause 138, which, under the reordering in the new Bill, becomes clause 139. This is the clause that gives the Secretary of State the ability to determine the minimum requirements in respect of skills, knowledge or understanding that someone must be able to demonstrate to gain a particular qualification or type of qualification.

That is a very significant power. It allows a Secretary of State to prescribe, potentially in great detail, what should be in each and every regulated qualification. The example that the Minister gave during our Committee hearing was that particular authors might be considered to have a status that would justify a Minister insisting that they ought to be covered by, for example, a GCSE English qualification. The same approach could no doubt be sustained to justify the study of particular political theorists for a politics exam, or particular parts of history for a history exam.

Under cross-questioning from my hon. Friend Annette Brooke, the Minister initially said she was not sure whether this was a new power or a power that the Government already had. In her letter to my hon. Friend on 14 March, the Minister confirmed that at present there is no explicit statutory power to determine such matters. In other words, this is a new power being taken by the Secretary of State to prescribe in a potentially very detailed way what should be in particular qualifications.

That makes us extremely nervous. We agree that there is a role for a Government in a broad-brush national curriculum. We believe it is right that there should be a political view of the broad nature of subjects that should be taught in schools and what should represent the core curriculum. We cannot accept that it should be for a politically appointed Secretary of State to interfere and meddle in the subjects that young people have to study to achieve regulated qualifications.

In our amendment 80 we seek to include in the Bill what is in the explanatory notes, which the Government have so far resisted writing into the Bill: that these powers should be used only in exceptional circumstances. In some of our other amendments, 88 and 89, we seek to put in place other safeguards to prevent the power being used by the present Government or by a future Government in a way that most people in this country would regard as deeply objectionable.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 8:30, 5 May 2009

Was the hon. Gentleman disturbed, as I was, by the contents of the letter of 29 April to the Public Bill Committee in response to his questions in Committee? In that letter, Ministers say:

"It would not be in anyone's interests were Ofqual not to be regulating in a way which recognised its potential to influence the success of Government policy".

It is hard to follow what that means, but it has a rather creeping sense that the Government aim to force Ofqual to stick to their political agenda.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Gentleman underlines effectively the fact that although the Government initially indicated that Ofqual would be a wholly independent body, it is clear to us, both from the Bill and from the initial comments and judgments that have been made by Ofqual, that this is a body which is as yet far from being independent and may remain so for a considerable time.

The issue is of great concern to us. That is why, as well as supporting some of the amendments to which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred if they are pressed to a vote, unless the Minister tells us that she has reflected again on the matter, we shall seek leave to press amendment 80 to a Division.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

There seem to be two important aspects of the Bill which are addressed by the amendments and new clauses under discussion. The first gives me considerable cause for wonderment. I do not understand why it should be so unacceptable to the Government to want to see, in the context both of history and of our competitors, how good our qualification and examination system is. I should have thought that anybody running a business, a charity or any organisation would want to know whether the process by which they measured their success was, first, constant in the sense that it was comparable with previous measurements, and secondly, whether it was comparable with the measurements used by other people. It seems very peculiar to refuse to do either thing, and I do not understand why the Government find it so difficult, unless they are too afraid that they might have to say sorry. Is it another example of the Government fearing that an objective measurement might mean that they would have to admit that all their statements about standards having not fallen turned out to be untrue?

The Minister represents a normal, run-of-the-mill constituency, and I am sure that if she talked to people there she would find that a large number think that standards have fallen. There is no way of reassuring them, except through independent assessment. The Government have recognised that, so they have set up an organisation that, they claim, will be independent. However, they have then proceeded to give to that organisation a series of remits that limit to an unacceptable degree its ability to be independent. Both the Minister's responses to previous, Committee debates, which I have had the pleasure of reading, and her letters show that she has no intention whatever of enabling the body to set up an independent measurement of the success or failure of a particular means of testing and assessment.

If we live in a society in which more and more employers say, "I take no notice of GCSE results and A-level results," it is a society that properly should address that worry. As an employer, I find it difficult to see any continuity of standards in the conduct of those examinations, so I beg the Minister to take seriously the amendments. They are intended neither to criticise the Government, nor to upset the convenience of her Department; they are designed to ensure that people have confidence in the standards attained. She has admitted that people do not have such confidence, and one does not solve that problem unless one is prepared to enable people independently to measure our present system against what happens in the rest of Europe, with which, after all, we compete, and to see how far it has changed over the past 20 years. I should be perfectly happy to make it a 20-year period, so that it covered the life of another Government, too, and I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb would agree. It is not a matter of getting at this Government.

Mr. Laws, who speaks for the Liberals, raised an even more worrying point. If it is true that there is widespread concern about the standards of examination and the standards that young people are now expected to reach, there is even more widespread concern about Government interference in how the education system works. One cannot ignore that, and anybody with a constituency anywhere in the country knows perfectly well that people are worried. If the Department and the Minister want to do something about that concern, they must take seriously the amendments that the Liberal Democrats have put forward.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. May I encourage him to join us if there is a vote on the issue later?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

No doubt if the hon. Gentleman listens to what I have to say, he will be able to make an assessment of what I think about the matter. I must say that his amendments do not go far enough, however, because I do not see any occasion on which the advantage to the society in which we live of the Government being able to detail those arrangements is sufficiently great to overcome the disadvantage that I see. I have a very strong view that Governments should keep their fingers out of what is taught in the classroom—apart from the general principle of ensuring a broad approach that covers the range of history, geography and the like. This Government are the last to whom I would want to give such permission, because they have shown themselves to be incredibly concerned to control and to ensure that what happens in the country fits their particular attitude towards politically correct teaching and the like.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

It is all very well for the Minister to shake his head. He is one of the very few in this Government whom I would trust with anything; that compliment, of course, will do him no good in his party. Do not let him encourage me to be more complimentary, because that would be bad for his future—limited though it may be in a Government whose future is limited. I say to him that we have had too many examples, and too often, of the fact that the Government cannot manage variety, diversity and difference. They are determined to ensure that we all accept a particular view—their view—of almost everything.

The Government may have set up the inelegantly named Ofqual to reassure the public, but it would be much better if the public heard from the Government the statement that Ofqual can make its own decisions on what it wishes to investigate, compare and contrast; that its remit will be sufficiently wide for those decisions to be of the sort that these amendments seek; and that it is not a supporter of the pusillanimous and peculiar responses that its chairman gave in cross-examination. I do not like people who are supposed to be running a regulator, but cannot answer a question directly.

I would like the Minister to look at the answers from Ofgem and other regulators. They are direct: those regulators say exactly what they are intending to regulate and know precisely what they are trying to do. I do not think that the person about whom I am talking understands at all what she is trying to do—or perhaps she understands all too clearly, but does not want to tell us because it is not what the public want.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that I am pleased with his amendments, although I would like them to have gone further. That is because I think that freedom is better than direction; I would rather have a society in which we might be worried that some people teach rather peculiar things than one in which people are afraid lest the Under-Secretary should come down on them for teaching something that they think important.

We are at the very heart of the public's concern about the Government. The Government cannot say that they are sorry, so they do not want to be measured lest they have to say that they are sorry. They cannot allow people to be various and different, so they have to have reserve powers. They will not say that they are reserve powers; they will not say in the body of the Bill that they will not use them except in extremis. They must have such powers to keep control, because they are a control-freak Government. Lastly, they are a Government who will not listen to the public. I am thinking not only of the Gurkhas, but of everybody in Britain to whom I ever talk on these subjects and who wants to know. If we are wrong and if it is not true that standards have fallen, the Government should be honest and prove it. If they cannot prove it, they should change things so that the situation changes and we can raise standards again.

Recently, I tried to buy something in a store. The person serving me did not want the extra money I offered so that the change could be simple, because she could not work out what the change should have been except by using the machine in front of her. When I told her that I would give her the one and thruppence, or whatever it was, she said— [Interruption.] I said "thruppence" because the Minister was asleep at that moment and I wanted to wake her up. In fact, it was 13p extra, so I gave her that money; she could not work out what the change was because it did not tally with what was on her machine.

Standards have fallen, and the Minister should prove to me that I am wrong—merely stating it will not help. She should allow for an independent assessment. Above all, she should be comparing us with our neighbours, because they are the people with whom we compete. Why will she not do the sensible thing? Is it because she cannot say sorry? Is it because she is frightened of the results of an independent comparison? If not, then give it to us. Why does she continue to refuse to do what the public want her to do?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 8:45, 5 May 2009

I am grateful to have caught your eye at the last minute, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had not intended to participate in this debate, but I have been prompted to do so by the words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer, who made a powerful argument about the Government's actions and intentions as regards education. The amount of money allocated to the education budget has doubled, but we have to ask whether we are getting value for money. My right hon. Friend has put his finger on the issue. Have there been any improvements to our education system that are worthy of the amount of money that has gone into it? [ Interruption. ] The Minister says yes, but when we speak to employers, teachers and parents and ask them their views about what has happened to A-levels or GCSEs, they will say, without any prompting, that there has been a degradation in standards, with grade inflation. The Minister shakes his head, but that is what people out there are saying. It therefore defies logic that this Government, so late in the day in their tenure and in this parliamentary season, still refuse to listen to what the public are asking for, employers are calling for, and we are suggesting here today.

Let us have a comparison so that we can understand exactly what is happening. We would be happy to stand up and say that we had been proved wrong, but I suspect that we would be proved right in saying that GCSEs and A-levels have suffered. Is it right, in this day and age, that 90 per cent. of people taking GCSEs can pass? There is something fundamentally wrong with that. If someone gets more things wrong than right, they should be heading towards a fail, not a pass, and they should not get a certain number of marks simply for turning up. My right hon. Friend made a valid point: unless we have such a comparison, how can we tell how we are doing in comparison with the people against whom we are competing? There are other yardsticks of measurement to say how we are doing in that competitive sphere, in the sense of who is taking our jobs—who is coming to work in the UK.

People educated in the UK are finding it difficult to compete with those educated to the higher levels that we see abroad. That is why schools that choose to examine the current situation and are not happy with it are turning their backs on A-levels and GCSEs and looking towards the more independent, more respected and higher-standard international baccalaureate. I should declare an interest in that I was taught the international baccalaureate, and I believe that it is a superb system.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

It was under a Tory Government and a Labour Government; I am afraid that I had to witness both. I am trying to stress that the levels of education that one receives from the baccalaureate are very different from those that one gets from GCSEs.

O-levels have not disappeared from the world that we live in. Someone who goes to an international school in Singapore can still take O-levels—the same exam that many of us here in the Chamber took when we were at school. But if we get students doing GCSEs today to sit the O-levels in the same subjects, we will find that many of them cannot pass because of the difference between the two.

I echo the comments made by our Front-Bench team in pleading with the Government to be honest and give us an opportunity to judge and scrutinise the current situation. We are happy to be proved wrong, but I am convinced that we will be proved right. If we are, we owe it to education, our pupils today and the next generation, who will be competing in a very difficult world, to ensure that we have the right level of standards and that we do not have more and more grade inflation.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

We have had another interesting debate. Many of the points were made in Committee, but I am none the less sure that hon. Members were sincere in their requests.

The provisions in the Bill to set up Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are central to our ambitious programme of education reform. They are part of ensuring that we deliver two things successfully. One is high-quality assessments and qualifications that enable all children and young people to gain the knowledge, understanding and skills that they need to play a full and active part in the economy and society. The other is adults who have, and can continue to develop, the skills that they need to succeed in the workplace.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The Minister uses the term "high-quality assessments and qualifications". Why does she use the word "assessment" and not "examination"?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

This is about qualifications, but within the QCDA it is also about the national assessments of the curriculum. I was talking broadly about Ofqual and the QCDA.

We are changing the qualifications landscape and reforming assessments—reforms that are more urgent and important than ever in the challenging economic circumstances that we face. At a time of qualification reform we need an anchor point, an expert body that people trust, as many hon. Members have said, and that gives us confidence in the standard of qualifications and assessments. That is what Ofqual will be—a credible, authoritative regulator of the system. Fundamental to that credibility is the independence that is enshrined in the Bill, which I shall explain.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Can the Minister tell me whether there will be observers appointed by the Department on the Ofqual board or in other parts of Ofqual?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

There is no provision in the Bill for Government observers to attend the Ofqual board. If the board itself decided that it wished to have such observers, that would be entirely up to the board, but nothing in the Bill requires that.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Am I right that the Minister has just said that there is a possibility that there will be departmental observers on the board of this supposedly independent guarantor of standards? She seemed to suggest that there could be observers if the board so decided. Perhaps she could tell us who will appoint the members of the board.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

It will be a decision of the board whether it wishes to have independent observers. It will be an independent body, and there is nothing in the Bill that will require it to have Government observers on the board.

I return to a point that many hon. Members have made. We want to get away from that all-too-familiar footage on television every summer when exam and test results come out—the nervous teenagers approaching the board, the whoops of delight, and then immediately the cut-away to the dumbing-down debate. That is not fair on our young people, and it is not fair on teachers.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Does the Minister really think that the Bill will do away with that debate?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Yes, that is the purpose of having an independent regulator, and I will come to why I believe that that is indeed the case.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am sorry, but the Minister really cannot say that without accepting that if that body cannot compare standards with those abroad and those that we have had before, everybody will continue to believe that standards have fallen. It does not matter how independent it is; it must compare those standards and prove people wrong, or people will go on believing that and we will go on having the nervous scenes that we have had on YouTube and so on.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will explain what I believe will happen. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent Ofqual from making those comparisons, but we are not requiring it to do things in that way.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Minister has been very generous, Madam—sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I am confusing genders. If there has been no grade inflation, why has it been necessary to introduce the A* grade, which I understand many universities are now obliging students to attain?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I find it very sad that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept the possibility that the abilities of our young people and the quality of teaching have enabled standards to rise.

I was pleased to hear that the setting up of a strong and independent regulator has received widespread support. Most hon. Members in the Chamber would agree that that is needed, but there are inevitably some differences of opinion about exactly what Ofqual's role should be. Two themes in particular attracted debate in Committee, and they are again the subject of amendments today: first, what Ofqual's role as a standards watchdog means—there seems to be some confusion about what is meant by the standards that Ofqual must maintain—and secondly, what "independence" means. Ofqual must be free to take the decisions that it needs to take to maintain standards. It will report to Parliament on how it does so. However, that does not mean that Ofqual should operate without reference to matters that are at the heart of Government education policy, such as the content of GCSEs or the purpose of national curriculum assessments.

Let me take standards of qualifications first. We spent a good deal of time on that in Committee, and quite rightly so. Protecting standards is the key driver for the establishment of Ofqual. It is essential that we have—I am drawing on the wording of the Bill now—qualifications and assessments that give a reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding, and that indicate a consistent level of attainment, including over time. That needs an expert, independent regulator with the powers to ensure that qualification standards are maintained and the credibility so that people trust it when it provides that assurance.

The Bill has a range of provisions that are all about delivering on that, including objectives for Ofqual in respect of safeguarding the standards of qualifications and assessments; a power for Ofqual to set conditions that are binding on awarding bodies, so that Ofqual can have all the leverage that it needs to safeguard standards, coupled with a strong set of enforcement powers if an awarding body steps out of line; strong powers to regulate assessments; a reporting line to Parliament, not Ministers; and separation from the organisation that develops the curriculum and delivers and develops related qualifications or tests, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

What we do not have, because there is no need for it, is anything in the Bill that tells Ofqual exactly what it should do to safeguard standards. The Bill makes it clear what Ofqual needs to achieve and how it will be held to account. The focus of the Bill is rightly on outcomes and accountability, not on process. Ofqual is not being told how to achieve its objectives. The starting point is that we need to trust Ofqual to get on with the job that it is given and leave it to choose the right tools for doing just that.

We would certainly expect Ofqual to publish evidence underpinning its conclusions on the maintenance of standards and—to pick up the point in new clause 2—to consider lessons from other countries. Ofqual will be accountable to Parliament for the way it pursues its objectives, but we will not prejudge the best way for it to gather or present its evidence on qualification standards, or what it should publish and when. That should be Ofqual's call. Parliament, not least through the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, will look to Ofqual for the definitive word on the quality of qualifications in this country. That is what the Bill enables. The Bill gives Ofqual all the powers that it needs to monitor those standards and pronounce its judgments on what it finds without fear or favour.

That is why I do not support amendments 61 to 63, 71 and 74 and new clause 2, which relate to standards. I agree with what I take to be the underlying sentiment of some of those amendments—that standards of qualifications need to be as high as ever they were—but we do not need amendments to the Bill to deliver on that. The Bill already gives all the safeguards that we need.

Given the time, I shall deal with Ofqual's independence, on which our message is clear. To be an effective regulator, Ofqual must be fully independent. The acid test is whether Ofqual has the powers that it needs to meet its objectives, the freedom to exercise those powers and the responsibility to report to Parliament and the public on its performance against those objectives. The Bill meets that test in every respect. It has to; there would be no point in establishing Ofqual without making it fully and clearly independent. Being independent, Ofqual might sometimes say things that will be uncomfortable for the Government and others, as we found when it reported on science GCSEs a few weeks ago. Home truths—

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 23 February).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 186, Noes 278.

Division number 111 Sale of Mobile Homes (Interviews) — New Clause 2 — Comparative study of qualifications

Aye: 186 MPs

No: 278 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).