Examination Reform

Opposition Day — [14th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 12:41 pm on 16 January 2013.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education 12:41, 16 January 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
notes the breadth of opposition from business, the creative industries, champions of vocational education and schools to the Government’s plans to introduce English Baccalaureate Certificates;
and calls on the Government to rethink its plans.

This debate strikes at the heart of the challenge facing our education system. The central question for the debate is: how do our schools best equip the young people of today to play their part in the economy and society of tomorrow?

Labour believes that a true baccalaureate approach, one that recognises skills, knowledge and the core characteristics needed to succeed in the future, should be at the centre of this debate. Although as a country we have made great progress in improving education, there is still a lot for us to do as we strive to compete with the highest performing jurisdictions. Our future economic competitiveness relies on our ability to produce aspirational citizens and young people with the skills, knowledge, resilience and character to get this country ahead in the world.

That is why we have called this debate. Yes, we need reform in our system of assessment and qualifications. That is why Labour has asked Professor Chris Husbands from the Institute of Education at the university of London to lead an independent review of 14-to-19 education in England. This is the exact approach that has been taken by the Labour Government in Wales.

We want to build a consensus on sustainable curriculum reform. Surely, before we decide on changes to assessment, it would make sense to reach a decision on what is needed from the curriculum. Instead, what we have from the Secretary of State is a plan drawn up last year on the back of an envelope that enjoys very little support. The Association for School and College Leaders said in its response to the Government’s consultation:

“This reform will only be successful if those who have to implement it feel involved and if there is an attempt to build consensus around the changes proposed.”

If we look back to the introduction of GCSEs in the 1980s, we will see that they were established with cross-party support. I share the concerns expressed by the former Education Secretary, the Conservative peer Lord Baker, that rushed reforms, lacking political consensus, do not offer the best way forward. We believe that the Government’s plans to introduce a narrow subject range of English baccalaureate certificates will undermine our future economic position, not strengthen it.

Concerns about both the substance and implementation of EBCs have been widely voiced. They have been voiced by business, including by the CBI and those in the creative industries and the knowledge economy. Sir Jonathan Ive, the pioneering inventor behind the iPod who was knighted last year for his services to design and enterprise, recently opposed the narrow focus of the Government’s plan:

“It will fail to provide students with the skills that UK employers need and its impact on the UK’s economy will be catastrophic.”

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

Does the hon. Gentleman accept responsibility for the reforms undertaken by the last Labour Government, including the modularisation of GCSEs and the 2007 reforms? Both those major reforms have caused enormous damage to the reputation of GCSEs as a brand and to the underlying education that is provided under the new curricula.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I certainly accept that we need to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the changes that have been made. We made a number of reforms. I was a Minister when Curriculum 2000 was implemented, which created the AS-level. That was a positive reform that has stood the test of time. There is a case to look again at modularisation, but as I will say in my speech, that does not require us to remove entirely controlled assessment from the core subjects that make up the secondary school curriculum.

Sir Jonathan has been joined by other leading British innovators in warning the Secretary of State that his plans are “jeopardising Britain’s future prosperity”. Research carried out for the Department for Education by Ipsos MORI demonstrates the effect that the EBacc performance measure has already had on creative subjects. For example, more than 150 schools have withdrawn the important subject of design and technology from their curriculum. There have been similar declines in drama and art. I fear that the Secretary of State’s plans for EBCs risk making the situation even worse.

A survey by YouGov for the National Union of Teachers that was published earlier this month found that more than 80% of teachers said that the proposed changes to exams at 16 were being rushed. Louise Robinson, the president of the Girls Schools Association, has said that the Education Secretary is transfixed by

“a bygone era where everything was considered rosy”.

She said:

“You can’t be forcing a 1960s curriculum and exam structure on schools. These children are going to be going out into the world of the 2020s and 2030s. It is going to be very different from” the Secretary of State’s

“dream of what it should be.”

It is an indication of the Secretary of State’s unpopularity that voices from the private schools sector and the National Union of Teachers are united in their opposition to his plans.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

It is a great achievement, as my hon. Friend rightly says.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why 295 independent schools have switched from the GCSE to the international GCSE?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

That is a completely different situation. There are many things that we can learn from the decisions of private schools, and indeed state schools, to adopt the IGCSE. In developing an appropriate consensus on the best qualifications for secondary schools, there is a lot that we can learn from the IGCSE, and indeed from the international baccalaureate.

The high-performing jurisdictions in Asia, which the Secretary of State often rightly quotes, are looking to our success in innovation and creativity. I therefore argue that now is not the time for us to move backwards. As they look to us, it is a false debate that says that we cannot have both rigour in maths, English and science and a broader, richer curriculum. As Michael Barber has pointed out:

“Leaders in Pacific Asia are realising that what worked in the last 50 years is not what will be required in the next 50. They have come to the conclusion that their economies need to become more innovative and their schools more creative. It is one thing for an education system to produce well-educated deferential citizens; another to produce a generation of innovators.”

We are right to want our schools to focus on maths and English for all. That is why the Opposition are committed to maths and English for all up to age 18—a proposal that was backed by the CBI in its recent education report.

As well as rigour in maths and English, we need it right across the curriculum. Excluding crucial subjects such as design and technology, computer science, engineering and arts subjects will not promote innovation in our schools. Those subjects are important to our future as a country, including our future economy. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister tell the House the Government’s plans for those subjects that will not be included in the EBCs? Last September, the Secretary of State said that he wants Ofqual to assess the expansion of EBCs into other subject areas, but that sounded to me—and to many others—like an afterthought rather than a central feature of his plans.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, under the previous Labour Government a qualification in cake decorating was considered the equivalent of a maths GCSE, and a level 2 qualification in horse studies was the equivalent of four GCSEs. Is that right and will he stand up to defend what the Labour Government did in promoting such equivalents? Will he return to an age where cake decorating is the equivalent of a GCSE in maths, and horse studies the equivalent of four GCSEs?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman is capable of a more intelligent argument than the one he has just made, and I hope we can have that moving forward. The Labour party wants vocational qualifications that are fit for purpose, so let us have a debate about how we can secure that.

When I ask parents in my constituency what is their biggest concern about education, they often say, “Will it prepare our children for the jobs of the future?” Of course parents want schools that instil knowledge, but they know that knowledge alone is not enough. Parents value the role of schools in educating their children to become active citizens and informed consumers, and to participate in the economy and jobs of the future. That is the prism through which this reform should be viewed. A true baccalaureate approach will require forms of assessment that are truly fit for purpose.

Last September, the Education Secretary told the House:

“We want to remove controlled assessment…from core subjects.”—[Hansard, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 654.]

and he nods in assent to that today. As I understand, however, the power to decide on forms of assessment lies with Ofqual. Is the Secretary of State planning to bring forward primary legislation to change that so that he has the power to make such decisions? I see he is nodding. Will he say whether he will do that and whether it is his intention to write the questions, invigilate the exams and mark the scripts as well?

The Education Secretary has expressed his preference to scrap controlled assessments, replacing them with three-hour exams at the end of two years’ study. In no other walk of life would we expect three-hour linear exams alone to provide the basis for an assessment of the depth and breadth of learning. Will the Secretary of State tell the House on what evidence base, from this country or abroad, he has based his preference for entirely removing field work in geography, laboratory experiments in science and presentational skills in English, favouring instead a linear exam that could encourage rote learning over deeper understanding?

The third area where the Government’s plans fall short is perhaps the most worrying. We know the Secretary of State’s plan A because it was published in the Daily Mail in June last year. What he really wants is to reintroduce the two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs—yet another example of the “Upstairs, Downstairs” mentality to which the former Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, referred at the Education Committee this morning. Having failed to secure his preferred scheme, however, it now seems that we have a stealth version of a two-tier system.

The Secretary of State told the House in September that his plans would not amount to a two-tier system, yet he is proposing a statement of achievement for those who will not take EBCs. Is that not a return to a two-tier system? In fact, it is arguably even worse than the old CSE system, because at least in that system high-performing CSE candidates still had the chance of getting an O-level. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what value will be attached in reality to those statements of achievement? How will they help young people secure places in further education or work, or as apprentices?

We as a House should, on a cross-party basis, reject the talent myth that divides children into winners and losers before they have even had the chance to demonstrate their potential. Such defeatist thinking is socially regressive and caps our potential as a nation. What estimates have the Government made of how many young people will not be entered for EBCs in core subjects? At the other end of the spectrum, the Secretary of State has hinted on a number of occasions at the reintroduction of what is called norm referencing—placing an artificial cap on the proportion of high grades. Are the Government going to proceed with that?

With EBCs we have had from the Secretary of State a lesson in bad policy making—putting the cart before the horse by putting assessment before curriculum, choosing dogma over evidence, and no attempt to build consensus for a lasting solution. Ofqual has expressed real concern about the Secretary of State’s timetable and careful implementation is vital if changes are to succeed. Will the Government, even at this stage, rethink the rushed timetable for those changes?

I accept that the education system is ripe for reform, but we need reform that works. That is why the Labour party has set out a plan for reforming vocational education, with a technical baccalaureate at 18, including English and maths for all. The Secretary of State has undermined important vocational courses. The engineering diploma, for example, was devalued by the Education Secretary before being reinstated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Government have not given that crucial area the priority it deserves. While the CBI criticises the Education Secretary’s plans for EBCs, Labour would get businesses to accredit vocational courses.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s statement about what Labour would do, but will it overcome the fact that 42% of employers have to conduct remedial training for the young people who come to them?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and that is part of the reason we have said that English and maths should continue beyond 16, right up to 18. As an advanced industrialised country we are unusual in not requiring learners to continue with both mathematics and the home language, and we have put forward that positive reform precisely to meet the concern raised. I see nothing in the Government’s proposals for EBCs that will address that bad situation, and a real risk that it will make it even worse.

When the Secretary of State set out his proposals last September he had no plans to include vocational education. A few weeks later, the Labour party set out its proposals, including for a technical baccalaureate. How did the Secretary of State respond? The Conservatives put out a press release stating that the certificates would “make young people unemployable.” That is what they said in September. Two months later the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Matthew Hancock, who is not in the Chamber today, supported Labour’s Tech Bac. We have seen from the Secretary of State that vocational education is, at very best, an afterthought, and in reality his policy on vocational education is a total shambles. I believe that education is crucial.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman’s predecessor as shadow Secretary of State, Andy Burnham, welcomed in full the Wolf report on vocational education, which preceded consultation on academic subjects. Does he welcome it in full, or has he changed Labour’s position?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I certainly welcome the Wolf recommendations in full—absolutely in full. They provide an important guide for the work we are doing to develop vocational education. However, the Secretary of State may want to return to the Dispatch Box to explain why the Conservatives dismiss the technical baccalaureate—will he take this opportunity to support it?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

I am delighted to take this position again. I do not want to turn this into a conversation, but it is striking that before I asked my question the hon. Gentleman said our plans for vocational education were a shambles and he now says that the report, which we have implemented in full, was absolutely right. I am therefore in two minds about what the shadow Secretary of State’s position is on vocational education. On the one hand he endorses the Wolf report, which we have implemented, and on the other hand he says that our proposals for vocational education are a shambles.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The reality, as a number of colleagues on my side were shouting, is that the Secretary of State has not implemented fully the Wolf report. We will support him in doing so. We will work with the Government to develop a technical baccalaureate if they are serious about it. However, if the Government were really focused on these issues, they would not have done what they did to the engineering diploma.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The Secretary of State is keen to intervene and I will take his intervention. Why did it take the intervention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reassemble the engineering diploma?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

Which parts of the Wolf report implementation have we not fulfilled and the shadow Secretary of State would like us to fulfil?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The full implementation of English and maths right through to 18 is in the Wolf report and the Government have not said that that is one of their plans. We believe, for the reason given by John Howell on the Government Benches, that English and maths to 18 is vital to our future. The technical baccalaureate is a proposal that we have made and the Secretary of State’s junior Minister has backed it. We want to see movement forward. It is not just about the Wolf report; it is about moving forward to a system where we have vocational qualifications that are fit for purpose and where English and maths sit alongside those good, vocational qualifications.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman says that there is one thing in the Wolf report that we have not implemented—English and maths to 18. I would contest that. Is that the only thing that he can think of? Have we implemented everything else? I should point out that there is no reference to the technical baccalaureate in the report.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am sorry that the Secretary of State seems to regard young people continuing with English and maths to 18 as a trivial proposal in the Wolf report—it is a central, important proposal. If he moves to implement it now he will have our full support, because it is vital to the future of this country. If vocational education really was at the heart of the Government’s proposals, why was he silent about it when he made his announcement in September? Why was the focus of the announcement in September on the EBacc subjects and anything else an afterthought: EBacc certificates for English, maths and science, EBacc certificates later for the other EBacc subjects, and then some vague possibility that Ofqual would devise other certificates for other subjects? If vocational education in creative and other academic subjects were really being given the seriousness that the Secretary of State claims, we should have a set of reforms that apply across the entire curriculum, not the narrowing of the curriculum that the Government have proposed through their English baccalaureate certificates.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

I would just like to repeat my question. Are there any other recommendations in the Wolf report that we have not implemented?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The Secretary of State should stop digging. I welcome the Wolf report. It was published, as he pointed out, when my predecessor was in this position. I have been in this position for 15 months. The Wolf report is important, but the world is moving on. It took us to propose a technical baccalaureate. I am delighted that, albeit belatedly and half-heartedly, the Government seem to be supporting that, but my central point is that he set out proposals last September that were silent on the technical and practical subjects that are so vital to vocational education. I look forward to the day when I answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions from the Government side of the House, but he seems very keen to question me today. I will of course take his final intervention.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

I am sure we are all grateful that this will be the final one. First of all, the hon. Gentleman says that we have moved on from the Wolf report, so having welcomed it he now believes it is obsolete—that is interesting. [Interruption.] Well, if it is not obsolete, can he tell us which aspects of the Wolf report—not the one that he has mentioned; we will return to that—we have not implemented? Are there any others at all? I am all ears.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I reaffirm that we welcome the Wolf report in full. We are in favour of English and maths to 18. As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the Government did not come forward with proposals for that. When and if they do so, we will give them our support. The Wolf report is very important. It is not obsolete; it is an important piece of work that needs to be fully implemented. We will support full implementation, but we need then to move to build on that. The technical baccalaureate is a proposal to achieve that. English baccalaureate certificates that will not be in crucial creative, technical and practical subjects risk undermining the progress that the Wolf report has given us. If he says that we are going to have a new—I think he has used the term “golden standard”—qualification called the English baccalaureate certificate that will apply only to certain subjects and will be given a high status in the accountability framework, that is bound to lead to an acceleration of the trend that I have already described, where fewer schools are doing design technology, fewer schools are doing art and fewer schools are doing drama. That is surely something that all sides of the House can be very concerned about.

Photo of Julie Hilling Julie Hilling Labour, Bolton West

Recently, I met Airbus and Rolls Royce, who said that they are having to recruit graduate engineers from abroad, because we are not producing enough of them in this country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s changes will make that situation far worse that it already is?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes the point powerfully, and it is absolutely the right point to make. It is not simply Opposition Members who are making it—it was the central argument of the CBI’s excellent report on education before Christmas, when it called for a pause in the Government’s proposed EBCs. That is why, in our motion, we urge the Government to rethink. We have reflected on what we are hearing from business, as my hon. Friend rightly reminds us, and from the world of education that they are not the reforms that take our education system, our economy, or our broader society in the right direction.

The Government’s plan for EBCs is very much in tune with the Secretary of State’s wider programme for education: a narrowing of the curriculum, backward looking in terms of assessment, and a policy for the few, not the many. Last year, the Secretary of State presided over the fiasco in GCSE English marking. Now, on his plans for changes to exams at 16, week after week we see increasing opposition, whether from business, entrepreneurs, teachers or parents. In contrast, I want to see a true baccalaureate approach to assessment and qualification reform. Labour Members are working to build a consensus in the worlds of business and education on reforms that will work and will last; reforms that will strengthen, not undermine, our standing in the world. On that basis, I commend this motion to the House.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point of order in a moment. Just before I call the Minister for Schools, Mr Laws to respond from the Government Front Bench, I should say that in order to try and accommodate the level of interest, I have decided to impose an eight-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution. Mr Brennan, I could never forget you and I was in no danger of doing so.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that, unusually, the Secretary of State has decided to wind up the debate rather than to respond to the opening speech and has intervened on the shadow Secretary of State on five occasions, is there any means by which the time could be extended to allow the Opposition Front Bench the opportunity to intervene on him the same amount of times without him being able to cry shortage of time?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools 1:09, 16 January 2013

We warmly welcome today’s debate on what is an incredibly important topic. It has already been surprisingly interesting because of some of the shadow Secretary of State’s comments on his party’s developing policy. I praise him for the candour with which he has approached the debate.

I thought I heard the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the qualifications framework and examination system that we inherited from the previous Government were seriously flawed and ripe for reform. I think I heard him acknowledge that there were problems with the system of modularisation. I think I heard him welcome the radical and dramatic reforms—many of which seek to deal with problems that emerged under the last Government—pioneered by Alison Wolf as a consequence of her report. I thought I even heard him acknowledge, under cross-questioning by my hon. Friend Mr Gibb, that the last Government were wrong to deny state schools the ability to use IGCSE qualifications, which are now used widely in the system.

Partly as a consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s candour, therefore, and partly because of the forensic cross-questioning he received from those on the Government Benches, we have made a lot of progress in establishing that the existing examination and qualification system is deeply flawed and that we are right to be pioneering change.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

May I tempt the right hon. Gentleman to match my candour? I mentioned the engineering diploma, which was one of the qualifications downgraded by the Secretary of State. The industry responded and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to reassemble a version of the engineering diploma. Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge, with matching candour, that the way in which that was handled was a disaster for that crucial area of industry?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

The hon. Gentleman has been listening to too much tittle-tattle. The Secretary of State and all members of the Government are committed to a credible and strengthened vocational qualifications framework. I will say more about that later.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

Given that we are having these confessional moments, will the right hon. Gentleman also welcome the fact that the shadow Secretary of State has endorsed in full the Wolf report, which stated that under the last Government more than 400,000 teenagers were taking vocational qualifications that were essentially a waste of time?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, that was the second or third of the four confessions we heard from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman today.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

In the spirit of interventions set by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, of course I will give way.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I am sure the Minister is grateful to his right hon. Friend. Does the Minister recognise these words?

“There has been a breathtaking rise in performance in education since 1997. Inner London was a basket case pre-97; ninety per cent of students were failing to get decent grades at 16 back then. The improvement’s been astonishing, dramatic, unbelievable.”

They were his words in February 2010.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

As a revelation, something that I said on television three years ago is not particularly impressive.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I will make a little progress before I take other interventions.

In spite of the rather political exchanges we have heard from the Opposition Front-Bench team, I want to say that, as Lord Adonis has recently written, education should not be a political football. We are talking today—this is why the shadow Secretary of State was right to table the motion—about designing a new qualifications system for millions of young people in this country. They and their parents expect us to take the right decisions for the right reasons. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I both want to hear from Members from all parties today. The coalition Government have strong views on this issue, but we always listen to those who have sensible and constructive contributions to make.

I should also confirm that, with your permission, Mr Speaker, and as Kevin Brennan mentioned a second ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be replying to the debate rather than opening it for the Government. That enables me, with your permission, Mr Speaker, to be absent for a short period to fulfil an existing commitment, for which I apologise to the House.

Before I turn in detail to the points raised by the shadow Secretary of State, I would like to step back and consider briefly what the Government are seeking to deliver. Our ambition, quite simply, is to raise standards for all young people. We believe that the majority of young people are capable of leaving education with a wide range of good qualifications at good grades. We are also determined to close the wholly unacceptable gap between outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils and the rest, which is why we have introduced the pupil premium and many other reforms. Of course, however, improving results and closing the gap are ambitions shared across the House, and I have never been shy in acknowledging some of the progress made under the last Labour Government, including in places such as inner London, where we have important lessons to learn.

If we are to realise this ambition for the schools system, however, we also need to ensure that our education system is delivering in at least three key areas. First, we need to know that the improvements in exam results are real and do not simply reflect grade inflation and falling standards. Secondly, we need to ensure that young people are choosing subjects because of their quality and relevance, not simply in order to meet league table and accountability targets, as I fear was the case for a period under the last Government. Finally, but crucially, we need to ensure that the content and stretch of qualifications is appropriate for the highly competitive environment—the shadow Secretary of State talked about this—that we will face in this century. We should be setting standards of stretch and rigour in our qualifications, not just to ensure the credibility of domestic standards over time, but to guarantee that the educational aspirations and outcomes for English children match the very best in the world.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Jonathan Ive, the designer behind the iPhone, has said of the EBacc:

“It will fail to provide students with the skills that UK employers need and its impact on the UK’s economy will be catastrophic.”

He said that the EBacc

“will starve our world leading creative sector of its future pioneers.”

What does the Minister say to that?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I do not agree with that suggestion, otherwise I would not support the reforms. Indeed, I believe that they will have exactly the opposite effect in delivering higher standards and the ambitions I have just set out.

To be blunt, most people consider that, in the three areas I have just set out—as key ambitions for our qualifications and examination system—the last Labour Government failed to deliver. They failed to maintain standards, and confidence in standards, over time, as I think the shadow Secretary of State acknowledged; they failed to ensure that children were always choosing qualifications for the right reasons, and I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge that serious criticism; and in their commendable ambition that all should succeed, they failed to ensure that the rigour and stretch of our qualifications kept pace with the best in the world. Therefore, the qualification reforms that we are debating today have two objectives: first, we want to restore confidence in standards, and secondly we want to ensure that the quality of our qualifications matches the best in the world.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I want to ask the Minister about the best way of preparing young people for life and the world of work. Does he honestly think that a three-hour exam at the end of two years does anything other than test a theoretical knowledge, and that the ability to demonstrate a good theoretical knowledge does not translate into skills for life or work? He must accept that and there must be some balance between the theoretical knowledge demonstrated in an exam and other demonstrations of ability, as far as employers and life skills are concerned.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

Of course, there are some subjects for which practical skills have to be able to be assessed properly, but in fairness the hon. Gentleman should also acknowledge the serious concerns about coursework and the credibility of assessment. It is sensible to address those concerns in our reforms, and I believe that for many subjects it is possible to do that without compromising high-quality accountability in the qualifications system.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I gave three examples in my speech of areas of practical coursework—in geography, science and English. Does the Minister disagree with me about any of those?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. I am happy to look at the areas the hon. Gentleman suggests, although so far I am not personally persuaded that I have heard clinching arguments for some of the subjects. Far more obviously we potentially need a different system of assessment in subjects such as art and music, but I am not sure that he has so far made a convincing case for some of the areas he has mentioned.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I want to make a little progress, then I will take some other interventions, but I am conscious of the fact that a large number of people want to speak.

Our reforms combine rigour with a commitment to fairness and social mobility. They will raise the bar, but they will not shut the door on any young people. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether we would have a system in which a defined proportion of students would be able to get particular grades. I can assure him that we are absolutely not going down that route. We launched a consultation on 17 September setting out our proposals for reform. That consultation closed on 10 December. The Secretary of State and I and other Ministers are now taking the time to consider all the responses carefully before we make final decisions.

Before I turn to some of the more detailed points, let me say a little more about the case for change. GCSEs were a bold and radical development in education policy. They introduced the idea that all children, whatever their background or ability, could sit a single exam in all academic subjects and receive a grade recognising their progress. GCSEs replaced a system that was fundamentally unfair, in that it divided children into winners and losers at an early age and helped only a minority of students to prepare for further study and decent jobs. The crucial principle of universality is one that we as a coalition Government are determined to retain. Contrary to what the shadow Secretary of State said, our reforms look forwards. They do not look backwards. There will be no return to the divisive, two-tier system of the past. The reforms also look outwards, to learn from the best-performing systems in the world today—systems that deliver rigorous qualifications, accessible to all children. However, 25 years on, the GCSE is now ready for change. Students and teachers are working harder than ever, but not all are achieving qualifications that properly reflect their ability and support them to progress successfully.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

By and large, many of the reforms that have been proposed would have my support of that of my party. The Minister talks about consultation, but given that there are exam boards in those parts of the United Kingdom where education has been devolved and where students will be applying to universities in England, for example, and given the need, therefore, for comparability of results in the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, what consultation has he had—or does he plan to have—with Ministers responsible for education and exam boards in parts of the United Kingdom other than England?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his broad support for some of the proposals we are debating today. I believe in devolution in the United Kingdom, as does he. Where individual Administrations and Governments decide that they want to go down a different route, it is right that it should be open to them to do so. Indeed, I believe we can learn in the United Kingdom about different solutions that people choose and then work out over time which are seen to succeed. However, I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the point the hon. Gentleman makes. If there is anything we can do to assist with some of his concerns, I am certainly willing to contemplate that.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

The right hon. Gentleman has explained the need for change at GCSE and provided an analysis—an accurate one for the most part—of the legacy from the Labour party. Can he explain why abolition of one suite of GCSEs is the right response, rather than simply introducing the measures and changes he has itemised for GCSEs as they stand?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points and the work that the Select Committee on Education has done on this and associated areas. I believe that in some of the core subjects where we are making these changes there is value in signalling the extent to which they will be improved and varied from the existing GCSE qualifications. There is some merit in underlining—through a change in how we describe these qualifications—how fundamental the changes could be. That will also be relevant for people when they assess the suite of qualifications and their future value in the labour market.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being most generous. He is right about signalling. Is there not a risk from the Government’s saying officially that GCSEs as a brand are broken and irrecoverable of sending the signal that the remaining GCSEs—most subjects—for which children will spend an awful lot of time studying are also broken? Surely he must either have plans to abolish GCSEs altogether or recognise that such signalling has risks as well as benefits?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and that is exactly why we say in paragraph 4.7 of the consultation paper that to

“ensure the benefits of this more rigorous approach to the English Baccalaureate subjects are felt across the whole curriculum, we will ask Ofqual to consider how these new higher standards can be used as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications, beyond these subjects at 16, to replace GCSEs”.

I promise him—I will come to this later—that we have no intention of allowing the status of the other subjects, which are not at present in the core English baccalaureate certificate, to be downgraded. We place huge value on those subjects, and I will set out later how we will take the matter forward.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I will take one more intervention, then I will have to make some progress in order to allow others to get in.

Photo of Angie Bray Angie Bray Conservative, Ealing Central and Acton

Is not the most important signal that we must send on behalf of young people a signal to future employers that they have been rigorously tested in a way that will make them suitable for work? That is the way we will take our economy forward in future too.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Whatever policy solutions different employer groups favour, there is an absolute consensus that the problems we are setting out to address are real ones in the system which all the employer groups want us to address.

As I have said, I believe there has been a real improvement in education over the last two decades, but it is now widely accepted in all parts of the House that there has also been grade inflation. Until summer 2012, GCSE pass rates had increased every year since they were first introduced, but when we compare that achievement with our performance in international tests—where there is no incentive for achievement to be inflated—we see a different story. Between 2006 and 2009, the proportion of students achieving a C grade or higher in English and mathematics at GCSE increased by 8%, but England’s ranking in the OECD’s highly respected programme for international student assessment—or PISA—league tables stagnated over the same period. Universities and colleges complain of the need to provide remedial classes for apparently well qualified new students. That is why the shadow Secretary of State for Education has said:

“Sensible, thought-through and evidence-based measures to increase rigour and tackle grade inflation will have the…support of the Opposition”.—[Hansard, 26 June 2012; Vol. 547, c. 175.]

Significant evidence of grade inflation is available in a range of academic reports, and I am pleased that that is now common ground among many of us.

The coalition Government have already acted to address some of the problems that emerged under the last Labour Government, including those that have caused the recent problems in marking GCSE qualifications—problems that have their origin under the previous Government and not, in fairness, under this Government or this Secretary of State. We have started to address the weaknesses of the current GCSEs, which privilege bite-size learning over deep understanding. Ofqual, the independent exams regulator, has already acted to make the GCSE more rigorous—for example, by tackling the re-sit culture and restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar. We have introduced the English baccalaureate, which has powerfully incentivised more pupils to study key academic subjects. We did not hear from the shadow Secretary of State about the enormous increase in uptake in areas such as modern languages since the English baccalaureate was introduced, which I would have thought most Members would welcome.

However, we need to go further. We believe in the professionalism of teachers and those who set exams. They want to do what is best for students—rigorous teaching and rigorous assessment—but the system they are currently working in is flawed. The combination of competition between exam boards and a high-stakes accountability mechanism in the form of league tables has led to a race to the bottom by exam boards. We must address that. In our consultation, we proposed introducing single exam boards for each subject, with franchises given to the winning exam board after a competitive process. In a letter to the Secretary of State on 26 September last year, the shadow Secretary of State made it clear that he supported that proposal. Others have raised delivery issues and risks in relation to the proposal, and we will look carefully at all those points. We will also shortly be publishing a consultation on how we will reform the accountability system for schools.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The Minister referred to “others” expressing their concern. I assume that among them was Ofqual, which wrote to the Secretary of State in November to express its concern about the timetable for change. Will the Government consider adopting a different timetable so that, if changes are to be introduced, they can be implemented with care?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

All those issues are, of course, part of our consideration following the consultation. We have already made the decision, at the time that we made the announcement on the EBCs, to move back the start date so that they will not start being taught until September 2015. We will ensure that the timetable for delivery is achievable.

As part of the accountability consultation, we will consider floor standards and incentives to take high-value qualifications. We will also consider appropriate incentives for schools to teach all their students well, rather than focusing only on students near the C/D borderline.

Let me now turn to some of the specific issues that have been raised during the consultation. The Secretary of State and I are determined that these new, more rigorous qualifications will meet the needs of the vast majority of students who are currently served by the GCSE. The reforms and improvements to education that we are making will enable more students to operate at a higher level—that is exactly their point—and, as exams become more rigorous, we will equip students to clear that higher bar. So there is absolutely no reason to believe that there will be a substantial change in the proportion of students achieving a good pass. Indeed, our clear aim is that, over time, a higher proportion of children will secure a good pass.

The consultation has shown that there is an understandable concern that we should continue to give strong support to many subjects that are not part of the EBC core subjects of English, maths, science, history, geography and languages. The Chairman of the Select Committee has raised that point today. I want to make it absolutely clear to all Members that the Department for Education remains fully committed to ensuring that pupils receive a well-rounded education, with high-quality music, art and design, drama and dance all playing an important part.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

The Minister has referred to the uptake of foreign language studies on a number of occasions. The reality is that most schools have been ditching the subjects that children might have wanted to study, simply to comply with the Ebacc requirements. Where is he going to find room in the school timetable, after the Ebacc subjects have been accommodated, for the teaching of all those subjects that he has just mentioned?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

First, we have made a deliberate decision to keep up to 30% of the school timetable available for the teaching of non-EBC subjects. Secondly, I think my hon. Friend is being rather generous about the reasons for the massive decline in the study of subjects such as modern languages. That happened because schools and others had an incentive to encourage students to go for the qualifications that were easier to pass, even if they were not right for their education and future progression. That is exactly why we are addressing those issues in our reforms.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I am going to have to make some progress, I am afraid.

Parents want to see their children secure a strong grasp of the core academic subjects, but they also want them to have a fully rounded education, with opportunities in the other areas that I have mentioned. We are determined to ensure that those opportunities will be available. We are committed to ensuring that pupils will be able to take good-quality qualifications in all subjects at the end of key stage 4 that are fair, rigorous and rewarding. Indeed, we said in our consultation that we would ask Ofqual to consider how the higher standards that we are proposing for core EBCs could be used as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications at age 16 to replace current GCSEs. We acknowledge that there are subjects for which 100% reliance on formal written examinations is not the best form of assessment, and we will be working with Ofqual, the Arts Council and others to review qualifications outside the core EBacc subjects. Will make an announcement, including on a proposed timetable for reform, in due course.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

May I probe my right hon. Friend a little further on the subject of tiering? The GCSE was tiered in certain subjects, and I understand that, with the introduction of the EBCs, that will be abolished. Will he tell us what share of children took tiered GCSEs last year? What are the positive and negative implications of the loss of the tiering that was found to be necessary to provide an appropriate assessment of a child’s level of attainment?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue. We are looking at it closely as part of the consultation. I think he would acknowledge that the principle behind our reform is absolutely right. We will look at individual subjects to ensure that the reform is deliverable and that it has the intended consequences.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

May I reinforce the point made by the Chair of the Select Committee? Ofqual’s letter to the Secretary of State in November states:

“Our first concern is that the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment…Our advice is that there are no precedents that show that a single assessment could successfully fulfil all of these purposes.”

What is the Minister’s response to that?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

These are the issues that we are taking account of as part of the consultation. As I have said, we will reflect carefully on all the responses and make our announcement shortly.

Turning to vocational qualifications, I also want to make it clear that this Government fully support high-quality vocational study. We believe that all students benefit from having a strong academic core of qualifications, particularly up to age 16, but good quality vocational education will remain an option, both pre-16 and post-16. We have already committed to improving the quality of vocational education so that those 14 to 16-year-olds who are better suited to vocational qualifications can be confident that those qualifications will be comparable with the best academic qualifications in terms of content, assessment and opportunities to progress. In the past, too many vocational qualifications simply did not measure up.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

I must make progress, I am afraid.

This coalition Government have rightly sought to address the major challenges about the future of our qualifications system. Securing the right qualifications and examination system for young people in this country is one of the most important tasks for our Department, so it is absolutely right that we should take time carefully to consider all the contributions and views before we make our final decisions. What is clear is that the current system cannot continue as it is. I welcome the support of the shadow Secretary of State for that view, and I am only sorry that more Labour Members do not recognise the necessity for some of the detailed proposals that we are making.

We have a shared aspiration in this House for much better performance by all our young people, and that is welcome, but if we are truly to serve the interests of all young people, including the most disadvantaged, we have to be prepared as a country to face the other challenges. We must have an examination system that commands public confidence and in which changes in results truly reflect changes in real standards and performance. We must have a qualifications system that supports students to make the right subject choices that will lead to progression and success. We must have a qualifications system that matches the best of any country in the world, and that challenges and prepares our young people to reach world-class standards. Those are challenges that some others might wish to duck, but this coalition Government are united in their determination to take the right decisions for this country, and for its young people in particular.

Photo of Pat Glass Pat Glass Labour, North West Durham 1:38, 16 January 2013

The Education Select Committee, of which I am a member, has held detailed discussions with the Secretary of State, with curriculum and assessment experts and with others in the field, including representatives of universities, other learned bodies and employers, on the Government’s proposals to change examinations at 16. I know that many Members want to express their concern that the proposed Ebacc will restrict and limit qualifications, particularly in religious education, music, information technology and art. I have spoken about that many times in the House, and I do not propose to focus on it again today, but I want to repeat that subjects such as RE and music have a huge role to play in underpinning other vital subjects—philosophy, ethics, mathematics, even medicine—in later and higher learning. I find it strange to hear the Minister say that he is not downgrading these subjects. How can some subjects not be downgraded if other subjects are being upgraded? That simply does not make sense.

As I understand it, the Secretary of State proposes to introduce the EBacc qualification as a replacement or as a higher-value qualification for GCSEs in 2017. Perhaps he will clarify that for me in his summing-up speech. He proposes to change the way all examinations are administered, yet we saw the chaos created in the system in 2012, when the administration of just one subject—English language—was changed. At the same time, the Secretary of State proposes to franchise examinations and to open them up to wider competition.

Although there are, in my view, dangers in each of those proposals, collectively the impact will be a recipe for chaos and disaster in the system. That is why I want to ask about the cumulative impact of all these changes.

What is so important about GCSEs is that they are examinations for all pupils of all abilities. They were initially introduced by a Conservative Government in 1988 in response to huge unhappiness, largely among parents, many of whom were middle class and whose children had been pushed down the CSE route. The Secretary of State at the time built a huge consensus around GCSEs. There was cross-party support for their introduction in this House, supported by teachers, head teachers, universities and learned bodies, parents and employers. I fail to see any such consensus on the introduction of a replacement for GCSEs. My understanding is that many of the people in the groups I mentioned have not been spoken to at all and that the independent body, Ofqual, has expressed real concerns about this change. The Secretary of State told us in the Education Committee that he intended to talk to the winner of the Turner prize—so that should help.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he intends to introduce this new examination in 2017 as a replacement for GCSEs or to create a two-tier system with GCSEs as the lower qualification? There is a lack of clarity about that.

The evidence presented to the Education Committee has demonstrated that while reform to GCSEs is required—indeed, periodic reform to any qualification is required—the brand is not broken and that it is the Secretary of State himself through his language and actions who is intentionally trying to damage the brand beyond repair for his own ends. Everyone who has spoken to him—and I mean everyone—has said that GCSEs deliver what we ask them to do, and that issues such as modularity versus linear or grade creep can be repaired, changed and improved within the GCSE brand.

Let me move on to the way in which we deliver examinations. We on the Select Committee have looked at that, too, and we agree that there is a conflict of interest where examination boards are both designing the syllabus and setting the examinations. We saw the remedy in separating that out, without necessarily opening the whole thing up to competition. The Secretary of State has told us about his plan to move towards “relationships” rather than contracts as a way of getting round EU contract law. Good luck with that! I do not think that will fool anybody, least of all the courts. My worry is that the current expertise in Guildford, Oxford and Cambridge will exist in future years in multinational companies in New York, Berlin and Frankfurt, without any involvement of our universities and learned bodies. We look as if we are doing for examinations what has been done in rail and energy, which has not exactly been a huge success. I ask the Secretary of State to think carefully about that.

Each of these proposed reforms has dangers, but I am mostly concerned about the cumulative impact of doing all this at the same time. One insider in the system recently told me confidentially, “When the blood bath happens, I expect this Secretary of State will be long gone.”

Important though they are, we are not talking about trains, electricity lines or reservoirs; we are talking about our children and their futures. There is real danger in what the Government are proposing—in the timing but, most importantly of all, in the cumulative impact of these proposals. I ask the Secretary of State to think again about them, especially about the aim to deliver everything at the same time. The risks are huge and the potential for chaos is massive.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 1:44, 16 January 2013

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which has been interesting and stimulating up to this point. What are the aims of Government policy in education? There are two: to raise standards for all, and to close the gap between rich and poor. I think those two aims bring the whole House together in support.

Expert advice from the university of Durham and elsewhere is that there has been grade inflation, which means an undermining of confidence in the currency of GCSEs. It has to be said that we saw some occasionally rushed changes driven by the Department under the last Government, which contributed greatly—although we have not yet reached our conclusions on it—to the GCSE English furore last year. The truth is that changing so many elements at the same time contributed to the difficulties we saw with the English GCSE last year.

I agree with many of the criticisms made by Ministers. I believe there are issues surrounding modularity, and I am delighted to hear from the Minister that he is not moving towards an absolute position on every single subject. It is right to be informed by an understanding that modularity has been counter-productive in too many ways, without necessarily getting rid of it where it is the best way of delivering the most effective assessment.

The Government’s move to reduce the number of re-sits is also correct, as is their move to address equivalences. The shadow Secretary rightly raised some issues about one of the few successes that came out of the diploma debacle—specifically, the engineering diploma. As disasters go, the fact that it has been reconstituted at whoever’s behest suggests that it has not been that catastrophic and that sufficient flexibility exists in the system to allow the good elements to be retained.

As I have said before in education debates, we attempt to define what is wrong with the current system, perhaps spending rather too long on that, and we then talk about the nirvana we would like to move towards, doing very little on what is in front of us now—the mechanics of the changes. We do not give them enough protection because we get into a fight with one side defending its period in office and another side pointing out that there are some serious problems and asking whether the other side is going to deny it.

To his great credit, as has been acknowledged, the shadow Secretary of State has said that he could see a few problems but that that was as far as he could go. That does not mean, however, that the Government’s particular recommendations are the right ones. It means that there is a case for change. We then have to make sure that we examine it. As for the controversy over the diploma, I recall the now shadow Chancellor, whom I would describe as gleaming-eyed in his certainty, sitting before us as expert after expert came before the then Children, Schools and Families Committee and said, “Slow down; listen to the evidence; take your time; get this right; there is a real chance for a legacy”—leaving something that, if got right, would last for whoever was in government in the future. Ed Balls did not listen, and we ended up with much of what was positive about the diploma being lost, with only some of the good salvaged from it. We do not want to make that mistake again. It is important that we carry people with us, not least politically. Otherwise, whatever happens to the Labour party at the next election or the one after that, we will not see the benefits of having a more rigorous system in place.

I ask the Government to consider some slowing down. The Secretary of State told the Select Committee that

“coherence comes at the end of the process.”

Well, I think coherence comes at the beginning of the process. To look at it simply, if we are dealing with assessment, we first need to work out what needs to be taught—the curriculum. That can be looked at in isolation and work can be done on what we think should be taught. Everything else then needs to be looked at coherently. We need to look at the assessment that matches it, and then at the system of accountability that drives behaviour in schools, drives the allocation of teachers to certain types of pupils in all sorts of ways. The Government have acknowledged that, and we need to get it right.

We have had an announcement on new qualifications before we have had the findings of the secondary curriculum review. I think that looks like putting the cart before the horse. It would be helpful to have those findings. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for undertaking to do an accountability review, but qualifications and accountability need to be seen as a coherent whole, working with the curriculum and the syllabus. I worry that we have not quite got that right.

Appropriateness of assessment is an issue. The Government want to set the bar higher. The Secretary of State is a dynamic man, who wants people to aspire and thinks that a lack of aspiration and acceptance of poor performance has gone on too long, and has entrenched poverty. He is right about that. But if we move the metric up, what is it about the measure that will change teacher quality? It can have some effect, but let us face it, is it the key driver of improvement in education quality? I do not think so. If we exclude equivalencies, in 2011 48% of children did not get five good GCSEs including English and maths. If the GCSE currency is so bankrupt, weak and devalued, and yet half of children are failing to achieve that measure, it is not obvious that pushing it up will magically lift performance, unless the accountability is wrong. However, our accountability is driven and focused to an obsessive and damaging extent. It pushes schools to focus desperately on trying to get people over the line, and yet 48% of kids still do not get over it. That is not because they are not focused enough on it; they could not be more focused—they are excessively focused on it.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

Is it not possible that moving the metric up could have the perverse outcome of demotivating people?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

My hon. Friend, who serves on the Education Committee, leads me neatly on to structure.

How sufficient was the understanding—I did not have a sufficient understanding—of the nature of how our qualification system works? I come back to tiering. Ministers did not know—they will correct me if I am wrong—the share of young people who were doing tiered exams. Last year, in AQA English—the largest board—45% of children did the tiered exam. One of the Secretary of State’s objections is that by putting them into this thing where, a bit like the old CSE, the top grade they could get was a C, the two-tier system was alive and well within our GCSE system, we just did not know it, and that we must get rid—maybe it came out of coalition politics; maybe it was the leak of the new O-level—of any form of separation or tiering. We must make sure our assessment is appropriate, because otherwise children will sit exams that, unless some genius designed them, put them off learning, rather than encouraging them. [Interruption.]

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

While the debate rages in front of me, I want to check—[Interruption.]

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I say to Mr Brennan and the Secretary of State that that is enough. Let us hear the intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I thought the Secretary of State was giving another of his famous soliloquies in his team meetings, which we heard about this morning.

What is the view of Mr Stuart on the role of assessments within qualifications and the balance between that and end-of-year exams, because that is one key change in the EBCs proposed by the Secretary of State?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who serves with distinction on the Education Committee. I am sympathetic to the Government’s view on a move to more linear exams, notwithstanding that the Secretary of State must be careful not to tread in areas that are rightly those of Ofqual, the independent regulator. The fact that controlled assessment is being reviewed—I forget exactly what stage it is at—by Ofqual suggests that it, too, has concerns, which I think it has expressed to the Education Committee previously. It is right to ensure that the system has public confidence. If we improve assessment within schools, and our confidence in it, we might be able to move the balance back in the right direction. I think the Government are right to say that the assessment should come more towards the end of the process.

There are two parts to the administration of exams. First, there is the wholly new EBC qualification, which has been introduced on the basis that the GCSE brand is broken, at least for the main subjects that are not being upgraded—Pat Glass was right to mock slightly the idea that one can upgrade one without effectively downgrading the other. I am not sure the case has been made. It takes a long time to establish a brand in the education market, and I do not see why we should not repair what we have got, which I do not see as fundamentally broken. I have met Engineering UK and employers of all sorts, and notwithstanding their agreement with the Secretary of State on many of his insights about the need to tighten what we have, none of them thinks that establishing a wholly new qualification is the right answer.

The second part is the issue of moving to a franchise system. On that, the Department for Transport and its troubles are lesson enough to go slowly. Ofqual itself has said that if we insist on creating new qualifications, we should at least consider decoupling from the market reform. Handing over to lots of people a five-year monopoly on provision of the most sensitive exams before really thinking through the incentives and possible implications is perhaps not the wisest thing to do.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Labour, Gateshead 1:56, 16 January 2013

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Pat Glass, and Mr Stuart, the Chair of the Education Committee, who has made a thoughtful contribution to the debate.

My hon. Friend Bill Esterson has mentioned that at the Education Committee’s session this morning, the former children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, referred to weekly, often cancelled, ministerial meetings, which I think he said were often like soliloquies. I asked him who was doing the soliloquising. He said, “Can you guess?” I asked him whether it was more Hamlet than Lear, or more Lear than Hamlet. He said, “Well, think about that yourself as well.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about English baccalaureate certificates and the education of our current and future generations. As a member of the Education Committee, I have on many occasions expressed my serious concern about the introduction of the English baccalaureate in secondary schools, which occurred initially in 2010 without any consultation with education professionals, and was implemented retrospectively, to the detriment of many improving schools, who were then pushed further down league tables—tables that, I believe, are of questionable use when it comes to adding value to our education system. Can the Secretary of State produce the huge weight of evidence on which he has developed the policy, because I am struggling to find much of it?

As we have heard, the Government propose to replace GCSEs in the EBacc subjects—maths, English, the sciences, a language and history or geography—with English baccalaureate certificates. From what we can gather, that would involve three- hour end-of-course exams and no coursework element. I am troubled by many parts of the proposals, which I will attempt to go through systematically.

First, on the consultation regarding EBCs that ended in December, members of the Education Committee, parents, students, governors, businesses, teachers, head teachers and other education professionals have expressed considerable concern that the proposals have been rushed through and that the consultation parameters were too narrow and did not allow for comprehensive discussion. Many, including me, believe that the proposals surrounding examinations should not have been decided upon, and certainly not introduced, until the forthcoming review of secondary school accountability and the secondary national curriculum had taken place. Another result of the policy will be the introduction of a two-tier education system, in which pupils who do not achieve the EBacc will be given a statement of achievement that will not reflect their true ability or potential to employers and colleges, who will more than likely deem a certificate of achievement as inferior. I am afraid that that is a sad fact of life. That is largely owing to creative and vocational subjects being disregarded and assessed as in some way second class. I reiterate the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham: how can we upgrade some subjects without having the impact of downgrading others?

Such an attitude to creative and vocational subjects is disgraceful and worrying, given our country’s history of ingenuity and technological entrepreneurship. I question a policy that places the importance of Hebrew and classical Greek above that of business studies, information and communications technology, or design and technology. Those subjects were taken by one of my parliamentary staff, who is now studying for an MA and who considered them to be invaluable to her personal development. Several other valuable subjects have been removed from the menu.

In restricting subject options, we are also restricting pupil potential. Any system that prevents our young people from flourishing should not be endorsed, and should certainly not be introduced. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will revise his policy if proof materialises from universities and employers that the education system is failing to prepare young people for further learning and work in technical and artistic fields.

Another aspect of the policy that concerns me is the likelihood that, in the case of most subjects, there will be no assessment other than a three-hour end-of-course examination. That, too, highlights the two-tier nature of the policy. Many pupils thrive on an examination system that involves a combination of modular work and examinations. By introducing a qualification based purely on exams, the Government are almost casting aside all the pupils who do not excel at examinations but have a flair for coursework. I believe that that is counter-productive, and that it will be detrimental to a large proportion of young people. It strikes me as an idea that springs from a vision of a golden age of education in the 1950s, and possibly even the 1850s: an idea based on nostalgia for an era that never existed.

In my opinion, too much emphasis is being placed on employability. I believe that we should be asking ourselves what education is for, and concluding that it should be about trying to provide a system which, while preparing young people for work and working life, also produces well-rounded human beings. Employers, moreover, are likely to require a measure of an individual’s capacity to work systematically for a given period, rather than his or her ability to perform for three hours in a one-off three-hour afternoon examination. Let us help to prepare our young people to thrive and contribute to our community, rather than trying to retrofit them through a citizenship service. Let us try to do that while we are educating them.

I believe that, if we are to answer the question of what our education system is for, we should begin by revisiting the Tomlinson review of 2004, and using it as a starting point for the fashioning of education policy for the future. I think that that would be greeted warmly by a great many people in the education profession. I also think that the review has been broadly regarded as a missed opportunity from the period between 1997 and 2010 when Labour was in government, although I should add that Labour was faced with a massive education mess to clear up in 1997.

During an Education Select Committee session, the Secretary of State suggested that it would be possible for more children to succeed in a more difficult exam because they would be “taught better”. I found that response almost delusional. I believe that such comments devalue the hard work of our teachers, who work in difficult, emotionally draining environments, and many of whom already give far more than what is expected of them. It is all very well constructing an education system and a menu of examinations that may or may not fulfil the needs and aspirations of thousands of clones modelled in the image of the Secretary of State for Education, but the vast majority of children, I am glad to say, are not like that.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton 2:03, 16 January 2013

It is a pleasure to follow the soliloquy of Ian Mearns, although I should point out that the EBacc combination of GCSEs will not drive out subjects such as ICT and business studies, or, indeed, art and music. When English, maths, science, history or geography and a modern language are taken into account, 30% of the curriculum time will still be available, so there is no need for those subjects to be excluded.

I understand what was meant by my hon. Friend Mr Stuart, the Chairman of the Select Committee, when he described the reforms as “the driver” of higher standards, but they are not “the driver”, and were not intended to be. They are “a driver” when combined with the other reforms that the Government have introduced and are introducing in, for instance, improving initial teacher training, raising the bar for entry to the profession, making changes in the curriculum, and changing standards of behaviour in schools. I believe that, taken together, those changes will bring about significant improvements in standards in our schools.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that pupils are not required to drop creative subjects, but that has been the result. He has referred to improvements in behaviour and achievement. Interestingly, all the studies of creative education, creative partnerships and so on concluded that they improved the attendance, attainment, behaviour and achievement of children.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I do not disagree with that at all. Creative education and partnerships can be motivational for young people. The creative subjects are very important for all students in all schools, and vocational subjects can be very important motivators for some students. However, I think that we should take a reality check when talking about the EBacc. It includes English, maths and science—all of which are already compulsory for students aged up to 16, as they were under the last Labour Government—and languages, which were compulsory for students aged up to 16 until the disastrous decision in 2004 to make them compulsory only for those aged up to 14. So we are only talking about a humanity, namely history or geography, and one subject cannot drive out all the other optional subjects that young people can study up to the age of 16. I think that those on the other side of the debate are exaggerating the consequences. I also think that it is important to reverse the decline in the number of students taking history and geography, and very important to reverse the decline in the number of those taking modern languages.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I think the point that my hon. Friend is missing is that the study of foreign languages or humanities—subjects that I used to teach—is not always desirable. We should go back to the question of what is best for the child, which is a child-centred education. That means not compelling children to study subjects that will be of absolutely no use to them in the future.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I must disagree with my hon. Friend. In 2000, nearly eight out of 10 young people were taking a modern language GCSE, and all children were studying a modern language up to that point. Their intellectual development will have benefited from the study of that subject, even if it did not result in a qualification.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I will, but I will not take any more interventions after that.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

There is a grave danger that teachers will become increasingly likely to opt for the EBacc subjects and stay away from the vocational subjects, because the vocational subjects will provide less opportunity.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I disagree with that as well. Good schools provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and that will continue to be the case regardless of the reforms, while poor schools will continue not to provide such a broad and balanced education. That is why the Government’s academy reforms and school improvement reforms are so important.

Let me now address the allegation that there is a lack of evidence for the necessity of the reforms. There is, in fact, ample evidence. Both the Royal Society of Chemistry and Durham university have found that students of similar ability are being awarded higher grades than their equivalents in the past. A 2012 survey by the CBI—an organisation that has been cited in this debate—found that 42% of businesses were not satisfied with the literacy of school leavers who joined them, and 35% were not satisfied with the maths ability of school leavers. During the short period between 2005 and 2011, the proportion of A to C grades in maths and English rose from 46% to 60%. During the same period, we were falling in the league tables of the programme for international student assessment.

According to Ofqual, demand for GCSE maths and science has lessened, and GCSEs have become increasingly predictable as exam boards have guided schools towards parts of the curriculum that will be examined. As for the International GCSE figures, 295 independent schools have switched to IGCSEs, and they have tended to be the top independent schools. So far, 66 state schools have begun to offer IGCSEs.

I worry about competition between exam boards for an increasing share of the schools’ exam market. That is big business: £300 million a year of business. Inevitably, such competition leads to the chipping away of standards in small increments, which, over a period of years, will result—indeed, has resulted—in lower standards and expectations. In the correspondence that has been cited, Ofqual said:

“We quite appreciate the rationale underlying the market reform proposals and agree that competition has influenced standards in the past.”

One of the most damaging aspects of the last Government’s GCSE reforms was the introduction of modularisation. They introduced that despite the evidence that it leads to more teaching to the test, that it reduces curriculum flexibility for teachers, and that it fragments knowledge. It also increases the number of resits. Research by Rodeiro and Nádas in 2012 found that pupils admitted that they would have worked harder had there been only one chance for them to pass the exam. That is why the Government were right to end GCSE modularisation for those starting their courses in September 2012. They were also right to introduce marks for spelling, grammar and punctuation in those GCSEs where that is relevant: English literature, geography, history and religious studies.

In 2007, under the last Government, the quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, introduced wholesale reform to the secondary curriculum at key stages 3 and 4, which fed into revised GCSEs. We moved from a knowledge-based curriculum to a skills or competence-based curriculum, which, in essence, resulted in a greater focus on the skills of learning and how to learn, rather than the knowledge inherent in a subject.

This 2007 skills-based curriculum has done enormous damage to our secondary schools. The argument of the pro-skills lobby is best summed up by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose website says:

“A 21st century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core…it cannot be an ‘academic’ curriculum where pupils spend most of their time reading and writing and learning facts that have been organised into academic ‘subjects’.”

I fear the Labour party would want to take us back to that position if it were to win the next election.

This is the essence of the argument: with so much knowledge in the world, how can it be possible to select what should be taught in just 11 or 13 years of school? Would it not be better, it is argued, to teach children how to learn so they are equipped to discover for themselves the knowledge they need? This argument is not new and it did not start with Google. Its origins lie in a progressive view of education emanating from Teachers college, Columbia university in New York in the 1920s. However, as E. D. Hirsch argued in his book, “The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them”, the idea

“that a thinking skill in one domain can be readily and reliably transferred to other domains” is “a mirage”. Learning French is very different from learning physics or maths.

At the core of the 2007 national curriculum is a series of general aptitudes, including a desire to produce

“successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve” and

“confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilled lives” and

“responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society”.

All these are worthy objectives, but they should be delivered not through the academic curriculum, but through the ethos of a school.

The 2007 national curriculum translates these objectives into skills-based aims for each subject. In history, for example, the curriculum is divided into the skills of “historical enquiry”, “using evidence” and “communicating about the past”. Therefore, a school can teach as little, or as much, as it wishes of British and world history, provided that it teaches the broad concepts of “change and continuity”, “cause and consequence”, “significance” or “interpretation”. The detailed narrative and complexity of a period of history comes second to the teaching of one or more of these generic skills. As a consequence, much important historical detail is lost, and many very important periods are not taught at all. Meanwhile, the scholarship skills of reading a history book, taking notes, précising, and essay-writing are neglected. That demonstrates why the Government’s reforms are so important.

I am also worried that schools are not setting enough internal tests and end-of-year exams in years 7, 8 and 9. Testing is important, and I was alarmed when I heard references to the Tomlinson proposals, as in the long term they would eliminate any external examination at 16, which would be a retrograde step. There is a study that shows the importance of testing for the acquisition and retention of knowledge.

I urge the House to vote against the Opposition motion.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough 2:14, 16 January 2013

I am going to take advantage of the fact that the Secretary of State has decided to conclude the debate by taking the risk of trying to persuade him to change his mind. I do not know why I think I might succeed in that when so many more eminent people than me, including Sir Nicholas Serota and Dame Liz Forgan, have failed, but I think it is worth a crack. The Secretary of State will be bored by what I am about to say, as I have asked him many questions on this subject, but I believe it is worth another crack because he is a relatively cultured member of the Cabinet. He is one of those rare creatures who still read books, and he recognises the value of creativity.

I have been going on about this subject for some time. My argument is that the Secretary of State should add a further subject to the suite of subjects in the EBacc, so that it is not all about pupils writing out what other people have thought, but is also about them creating objects and learning for themselves. In March 2011, I asked the Secretary of State why 60% of schools that responded to a survey said the introduction of the EBacc had resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum. His general response to me at that point—before I had started being very boring—was rather positive. He said my argument was well-made and he sympathised with it.

I have also been badgering the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on this subject. In November she said:

“The hon. Lady needs to understand that the English baccalaureate has creativity at its heart.”—[Hansard, 22 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 708.]

Frankly, however, it does not, and that is the problem. It is an examination, or suite of examinations, about knowledge. I agree with Mr Gibb that it is very important that people learn stuff, but I also believe that educational achievement is about finding out how to do things. We need to learn things, but education must not be just about learning other people’s facts.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

Do not the kind of tests the hon. Lady is criticising also involve synthesis and analysis?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Indeed, but the point is that pupils are analysing other people’s achievements and creations. One of the reasons why our country outperforms all our competitors in the number of Nobel prizes won is because we have a tradition in our learning and education that combines creative education and learning how to create with excellent science education. That is why we are able to produce so many innovative achievers.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

When all these Nobel prizewinners were at school, were subjects such as art and music option subjects or compulsory curriculum subjects?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Members on the Government Benches have said a number of times that there is space in the curriculum for these subjects. The problem, which none of them has yet addressed, is that since the introduction of the EBacc, school after school has reduced provision in those subjects. A tool is available, which the Government have chosen not to use. I do no think there is a respectable argument not to include in the EBacc at least one subject in which a young person’s creativity is what is assessed. I am arguing not for the exclusion of anything, but for the inclusion of assessment in subjects such as design and technology, music, art and drama.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

George Nicholson, a published composer and director of graduate studies at the university of Sheffield, makes precisely the point my hon. Friend has made about the degrading of creative subjects. Would she argue that, at the very least, a sixth pillar must be added to the EBacc, covering such subject areas, as the Henley review recommended?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

That is precisely the point I am seeking to make: there needs to be an additional pillar that includes these kinds of subjects.

I am worried about the Secretary of State, because in his response to my question about the achievements in Nobel prizes and so on, he said:

“The arts are mankind’s greatest achievement.”

We both share that view, but he went on to say:

“Every child should be able to enjoy and appreciate great literature, music, drama and visual art.”—[Hansard, 3 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 579.]

That is not enough; it is not sufficient for children just to be able to enjoy and appreciate, and one thing we have to do as part of education is to develop in children the ability to create. I welcome Henley’s report, but Robinson’s report on creativity in education, produced more than a decade earlier, rightly suggested that we should define creativity as

“Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value.”

This is one thing that children should learn in school. It is not sufficient to expect them to learn it outside school. Many of us ensure that our children are able to learn it outside school, but many children do not get that opportunity and it is those about whom I am most concerned.

I am also concerned about the effect on our country’s achievements. There is a reason why we are a world leader in creative industries: our tradition of creativity in education and of requiring these subjects to be part of every child’s entitlement. I am concerned—I have yet to hear an answer on this from Government Members—as to whether there is any tool that ensures what I believe the Secretary of State wants, which is that children should be able to learn the ability to create. The schools that he most admires—Eton, just next to my constituency, and others—provide outstanding creative education. They are not following a set of league tables that make them jump through hoops and be judged just against their EBacc levels.

On this issue, I am reminded of the bit in Dickens’ “Hard Times” where Thomas Gradgrind says to Sissy Jupe, who knows everything there is to know about horses, “Define a horse.” She sits there silent, not knowing how to do it, and then Bitzer says, “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth”. That is of course the right answer, because ours is a world determined by facts. The bit of the story that many of us have forgotten is where the inspector speaks later. Dickens has him saying:

“You are to be in all things regulated and governed…by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must”—[Interruption.]

Oh! Trust iPad!

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

That definitely was not in Dickens.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

No, indeed. The inspector goes on to say, “You must not allow flowers and birds on your china, because they aren’t there. You must not allow horses on your wallpaper, because they aren’t there in fact. You must not allow flowers on your carpets, because they are not there in fact.” I do not believe the Secretary of State wants that world, but, unthinkingly, this EBacc is leading us towards it, not because that is what he wants to achieve, but because that is the measure by which our schools will be judged. We know, because every piece of research since he has introduced this measure by which we judge our schools shows it, that schools are cutting their education in creativity and reducing the number of their teachers qualified to teach these subjects. That is betraying future generations and it will damage our country’s international achievement, economic success and, in particular, the success of our creative industries. I beg him to think again, because I think he is capable of doing so and I think he is big enough to do so.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole 2:24, 16 January 2013

I do not have an iPad to quote Dickens from, but I do have a couple of bits of paper with some notes on. I have drawn them up from my time and experience, limited though it may be as I am so young, of being in the classroom, both as a pupil and a teacher. I enter the debate on the EBacc with some trepidation, because the last time I did this I was described in a national newspaper as a “left-wing Conservative”, which contrasted somewhat with a description of me on Twitter this weekend as a “right-wing Tory who should be taken outside and shot”. That had not been posted by a constituent, I hasten to add.

As many people have said, the previous Government certainly achieved some great progress in education and in standards in this country. However, at the end of their 13 years in power an awful lot had not been achieved and some great challenges had not yet been responded to. I wish to describe one thing that I saw in the classroom at that time. All Governments find, sadly, that the teaching profession feels that every Secretary of State is, “The worst Secretary of State we have ever had”—until the next one. We used to hear that all the time, but that was largely because the goalposts were continuously changed. The measures were continuously changed and, as happens with all Governments, we ended up focused entirely on the league tables. The one thing they did do was create an inspection regime that punished schools for happening to be in deprived areas. I did not find that the inspection regime helped teachers; it seemed to be more designed to catch teachers out.

We cannot deny that in terms of literacy and numeracy there is something seriously wrong in this country. A lot of employers say to me, “We get young people coming to us who have bits of paper that say that they have reached certain standards in English and maths, but when we put them into the workplace we find that they are nowhere near those standards.” So clearly something is going wrong. When I was teaching we had what I used to call the great GNVQ fiddle. I got a lot of stick for it because I was also a member of the city council at the time. League tables were being fiddled through vocational qualifications and through equivalencies. I saw that in one of my schools, where young people were not actually given a choice and were instead told that they were going to undertake certain GNVQs because we knew the impact that that would have on our league table position. I recall champagne corks being popped on the front steps of the Guildhall in Hull when we had a 600% increase—a 1,000% increase in some schools—in standards. Schools with some of the most challenging catchment areas that had had terrible results in the past were, suddenly, overtaking schools in the neighbouring authority; much more middle-class schools, which had far less pressure on them and had previously achieved much greater results, were suddenly being overtaken, all on the back of the great GNVQ fiddle. Of course, as soon as the league table measures changed and the gold standard was introduced, the schools in challenging areas, sadly, plummeted back down to the bottom of the league tables.

Something had to be done about modular exams, because they have contributed to a slip in standards. So I support a lot of the thrust of where the Government are heading. However, one issue I have a big problem with is the implementation of the EBacc. We are told that a lot of the elements of it are not going to be compulsory, but the reality is that in the teaching profession schools teach to whatever the measure is. The measure will become the EBacc, as it is becoming already. So there will not be this space available—

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Has my hon. Friend considered what would happen if we were to abolish league tables—[Interruption.] We can do that. What would happen if we then gave the power to head teachers?

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I have considered that, but, sadly, I do not have an answer, as league tables are probably a necessary evil. We need to be able to judge schools against one another. We can play about in terms of how we measure them, but we will end up with a league table. The league table will exist in any case, in the form of a school’s reputation locally, if nothing else. So there always has to be some form of measure. The sadness of the situation is that we put so much emphasis on the league table position when it comes to inspection regimes and all the rest of it, and we sometimes forget about what we are actually achieving for our children.

As I was saying, the EBacc will become, in most schools, the standard by which schools are judged against one another. The theory is all fine, and I have heard talk in the past about how everybody should have access to an Eton education. That is a fantastic theory, but it misses the point that although we want everybody from everywhere to have access to an Eton education, it is not always going to be the desirable or necessary route for every young person. I have nothing against providing that as an option, but it is not suitable for everybody. Sadly, schools are ditching subjects that young people may have chosen to do in the past and students are being forced on to foreign languages and even on to doing subjects such as history, which I used to teach. Perhaps in two and a half years’ time I will be delighted that there is increased demand for humanities teachers. Perhaps the Secretary of State has produced a post-political career employment plan for me, but it would not be appropriate for every young person with whom I have come into contact over the years to take my subject. They will not get anything from it. It is not of any value to them in the future.

Among the guff and nonsense in Every Child Matters, the previous Government talked a lot about a child-centred education, and I would like us in this debate to get back to that. We have talked a great deal about what Government want to see. We have talked about what parents want to see. We have talked somewhat about what employers want to see. But at the centre of all this should be what is best for a particular child. For some children, delivering the EBacc and giving them access to it will be appropriate, but for others that is simply not the case.

When we talk about providing an Eton-style education for everybody, we forget the immense challenges that many of our schools face in delivering. I have nothing against foreign languages, for example. I am learning one myself, with less success than I would like. [Interruption.] I am learning Hebrew, with not a great deal of success. Delivering a foreign language in the school that I used to teach in was incredibly hard. Our young people would go home to parents who would say to them, “Why are you learning a foreign language? What’s the point of learning that sort of muck?” They were not going back to a nice middle-class home. A lot of the kids who I used to teach were not Tarquin and Fluella, who would be driven off to a gîte in France every year where they could practise their French, or where they would be told by their parents the importance of doing that. We have to factor into the discussion the child’s background and the possibility that they will not have support at home.

We are, in effect, setting some children up to fail by forcing them on to a subject that they will not get support with at home, that they do not need in the future or for the basis—

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s speech. I respect his experience and I respect him as a Member of the House, but I am alarmed by what he is saying. Our schools have to be able to redress the background that those children have and make up for the lack of support at home in the school. That is what we must do and what this Government must achieve if they are to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I could not agree more, but we will set young people to fail if we force them down a route on which they will not be supported. In education it is not as simple as saying, “This is the curriculum offered at Eton—the gold standard. This is what we must offer in this school. If the teachers just worked a little harder and if everyone tried a bit harder, we would get the same outcomes.” We would not and we have to understand and accept that. We have to move beyond the theory of what would be lovely to deliver, and deal with the reality of what is deliverable in our schools. I question, as I have already, whether some of these subjects were desirable or necessary for the young people I used to teach and for the employment that they wished to go into.

I have another example. We have just got agreement for a studio school in Goole, with support from the Secretary of State, who came and saw Goole high school at the time. The vision there is to deliver a completely different style of curriculum and to say to young people, “Make the choice at 14 whether to attend the studio school.” The model we have is that there will be a grammar school stream, which will be the academic school, there will be the studio school and there will be a smaller vocational school for the most challenging children. We want them to divide at 14 into those different routes, according to what will be best for them in the future. The problem that we will have if the EBacc becomes the gold standard is that attracting children to the studio school will become incredibly hard because it will look as though it is the lesser choice, compared with the school that will be offering the EBacc. It conflicts a little with the statements and policies that we have had on studio schools, as though we were saying that the studio schools can offer certain subjects, but the gold standard will be the EBacc, which they will not be able to offer.

I like the idea of the technical baccalaureate. I do not care whether it is Labour’s idea or the junior Minister has taken it up as the Government’s idea. It has some merit and I hope we will pursue it.

On measuring, one thing we should measure better is where a child ends up. Never mind measuring the bits of paper; where is a young person in five, six or even

10 years’ time? Then we can make a better assessment whether the education system has provided for them, rather than measuring where they are at 16 or 18.

I am trying not to be too critical because I support much of the thrust of the policy. Certainly, academic rigour is necessary in certain subjects, where they are appropriate for the young person. The one plea that I would make, which is often made by the profession, is that when we get through this, we must have in our schools a period of stability so that everybody—parents, young people and the teaching profession—knows where they are.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Labour, Croydon North 2:34, 16 January 2013

The Department for Education seems to have a habit of not listening to people. The High Court ruled that the Secretary of State had unlawfully failed to consult councils before cutting the planned school building programme. Currently 150 schools, 42 councils and six professional bodies are contesting last year’s GCSE grades fiasco, after the Secretary of State refused calls to intervene. Now, with the English baccalaureate certificate, people once again fear that the Secretary of State is not taking account of their views.

There is of course nothing wrong with reviewing the exam system with the intention of making it more effective, but there are real concerns that the EBacc will be drawn too narrowly, excluding vocational and arts subjects. There are concerns, too, that it will mark a return to the divisive two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs by giving students who are not suited to academic subjects only a second-rate qualification. There are real concerns that by relying almost exclusively on a lengthy final examination, the EBacc will disadvantage students who are bright but not necessarily suited to that particular format, and that it will fail to test their full range of skills. There are further concerns that, allied to league tables, it will undermine the achievement of schools that are most successful in added-value measures.

In Croydon North parents, governors, students, teachers and head teachers fear that the Government are not listening to their concerns about these proposals. In a world where both China and India, every year, produce more new graduates than there are in total in this country, we need to identify, nurture and utilise the talents and abilities of every child in our country. Without that, we will be unable to compete in the coming century because we will fail to harness the talent and unlock the potential of every growing citizen.

Instead of looking forward to the demands of coming decades, these proposals look backwards to the failed two-tier examination system of decades past, a system that classed children as successes or failures without recognising that every child is different and that every child has something to contribute. It also fails to value subjects that are critical to our future economic success. One way that Croydon hopes to improve its fortunes is by attracting more high-tech IT and creative industries, such as the dotMailer business that I had the pleasure of visiting last week. The EBacc places no value on the subjects that will equip local students to take advantage of such opportunities.

Of course academic rigour is necessary. Of course we need to allow the most able students to demonstrate and enhance their abilities; but the proposed single-tier test could result in the most talented not being able to demonstrate their full abilities, and in others not being able to demonstrate their strengths. It is critical that England’s exam system commands the support and confidence of the whole country, not least parents and students, schools, the teaching profession, and business. These proposals do not achieve that, and this rushed consultation is no way to secure the world-standard examination system that our young people need and deserve. I hope very much that the Secretary of State will listen to these voices.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall 2:38, 16 January 2013

We have had, as others have said, a good debate. There are areas of consensus, which is what the shadow Secretary of State wants us to achieve, and those are to be welcomed. The first of those is that there is a need for some reform. I will not rehash what we have already heard, but there have been problems with the system and with people’s confidence in it, which I share.

We need to look at rigour, which is now a fashionable word on everybody’s lips. We also need to examine the pressures of assessment crowding out learning. We want to make sure that there is room for deep, wide-ranging learning so that teachers are free to teach. The coalition Government have been clear about that from the outset. We should be clear that we have excellent teachers, probably the best qualified and best motivated that we have ever had, who are doing a great job. If results have improved, it may be in part because there has been competition between exam boards and changes in assessment patterns. It has also been because of improvements in teaching—the Secretary of State has acknowledged that, and I do too—and because young people themselves have worked incredibly hard to achieve those results. It is not an either/or situation. As Andrew Percy said, we must remember that those young people should be at the heart of all the decisions we take and the discussions we have.

Our duty as legislators is to raise aspiration even further, but to raise it across the ability range too. The Secretary of State has rightly highlighted the small number of people from the most deprived backgrounds—those on free school meals—who have gone on to attend Oxford or Cambridge, so that gives us one measure to consider. I hope—I am sure it is true—that we as a Government will look across the ability range to make sure that whatever people are capable of achieving, they are supported in doing so. It is not just about the very high flyers; social mobility is about making sure that everybody gets to where they could go. That is good for them, but it is also good for us as a country to ensure that we are making use of their skills and talents in future. We want a system that allows them to achieve, supports them in doing so, and does not dispirit or disillusion them in any way.

The Government have acted on vocational qualifications to distil what has worked and what has not—what is of value and what is not—to try to ensure that we have a suite of qualifications that people in business understand and can have confidence in. I welcome that work. The

Government have also been prepared to revisit issues about engineering to make sure that we have got things right. That is a mature and grown-up way of doing things.

On qualifications at 16 and the GCSE, the Government have discussed internally how they should respond to the need for reform. It is unfortunate that back in the early summer a leak was reported in a national newspaper suggesting, some thought, that there was an intention within the Conservative party to move towards a two-tier qualification. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he is happy with a pattern of having one wider qualification that develops in future. The shadow Secretary of State seemed to want to return to where we were with the business of the leak instead of looking at it in the context of a formal Government announcement, but we have moved on from that. I am sure that he would acknowledge that people such as Mike Tomlinson and John Dunford have acknowledged that the proposed qualification is not a two-tier system. For example, the proposed statement of achievement would ensure that the same small number of young people who are not entered for GCSEs get something. Under the current system they have not had anything, so that is a step forward. It is important to get my understanding of that on the record. To his credit, the Secretary of State, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and other Ministers, is considering the views expressed in consultation to make sure that we get it right. That is absolutely the right approach.

I welcome the fact that Opposition Front Benchers have used some of their supply time for this debate. I might question the terms of the motion, but I welcome the debate. In recent weeks I have submitted several bids for a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, and this debate has given me the chance to make the points that I want to make.

I should like to draw attention to a couple of issues that others have raised. On assessment, my right hon. Friend the Minister said that nothing was set in stone. However, the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, Mr Gibb, from whom we have already heard, have been very keen that examination is a recognised and rigorous way of carrying out assessment. The system must work as a good assessment of the young people who are able to take that approach and to achieve under those circumstances.

Others learn and should be assessed in a slightly different way. That is not to say that I agree with programmes of study that are assessed by 100% continuous assessment. We need a balance. In the past, GCSEs were much more balanced, and that has got out of kilter. Assessment through examination during the course is another problem, because it can lead to constant learning and cramming towards a test. I can understand that from young people’s point of view it is good to bank something early on but, on balance, that has negatives.

We want to make sure that coursework is assessed properly. We in this Government trust teachers, so we know that they will be able to tell the difference between something written by the student they have in front of them week in, week out and something that has been written by their parents or friends or has been taken from the internet. It is possible to make those judgments, and we need to support teachers in making sure that they have the skills and knowledge to do so if they are lacking. We can also tighten up through moderation and so on. I hope that the door is not bolted on 100% examination for all subjects, because that bears greater exploration.

Another issue is the name of the qualification. We already have in the English baccalaureate a suite of qualifications that means one thing, and now we have an English baccalaureate certificate, so it is debatable whether the name is right. However, as long as the qualification is right I am more relaxed about its name. There is some justification for discussing which subjects are included and which are not. If it is introduced gradually to different subject areas over time, it is possible that those who get it first will be seen in a different way from those who get it later on, and we have to be careful about that.

I broadly welcome the focus on reform, which has been widely called for by people outside this place as well as by parties in the House. In particular, the statement of achievement is a big step forward for young people.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Given what the hon. Gentleman has said so far, what is it in the motion that he disagrees with?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The motion is set up to say that the Government should scrap their thinking and start again. The Government are examining and will respond to the consultation, which one could call rethinking. [Interruption.] We know what Opposition days are about—they are a chance for the Opposition to get their point of view on the record, as I am sure that they will; in fact, they have done so more successfully today than they have in the past on these issues. [Interruption.] Both sides have had the chance to clarify matters through their conversation over the Dispatch Box; I was not being churlish about the shadow Secretary of State’s ability to get his point across.

I hope that as the Government look at the responses to the consultation they re-examine some of these issues to make sure that we have got this absolutely right. What we want at the end of the process is a qualification that bears the test of time so that the young people who are now being born in my constituency and others across the country and who may well take the examination in future will find that it is still valued and understood by employers, teachers and everybody else. We must get it right. We have an opportunity to do that, and I am sure that the Government will take it.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:47, 16 January 2013

I am delighted to follow Dan Rogerson. I am pleased that he focused on young people themselves. We need a bit of “back to basics” on this subject. We must ask fundamental questions about what we are doing. What are these assessments at 16 for, and who are they for? If we ask about the what and the who, everything else will flow sensibly from that.

We need to bear in mind that we are speaking in a context that is changing. We are not only facing the challenges of the 21st century, not the 19th or the 18th century, but we are at a point where there has been cross-party consensus on raising the participation age first to 17 and then to 18. GCSEs were brought in as a “leaving the system and going into employment” exam, and then that framework was changed so that people leave not at 16 but at 17 or 18. That raises serious questions about what these exams should be like and who they are for.

Assessment is a fundamental part of the educative process. Across this House, there is a joint, consistent commitment to the value of assessment. Formative assessment, which goes on day in, day out in every classroom—it will be going on at this moment in myriad different contexts—determines how learning is driven forward for each individual or clusters of individuals to get the best out of them. That is going on all the time, and it is far more complex than summative assessment. We spend nearly all our time getting excited about summative assessment and the nature of the exams or assessments that take place at 16, 17 or 18, or indeed at other times, but we must get the formative assessment right to make sure that it drives better teaching and better learning.

Members from all parties have made some excellent contributions. I would pick out in particular my constituency neighbour, Andrew Percy, who spoke from experience. Often, in debates such as these, some Members speak from experience and their views resonate because they have sense and power behind them, but others speak as a result of their beliefs. That is not to say that those beliefs are not valid—they often are—but belief as against experience is an interesting dilemma and battle of ideas.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He often says that our policy needs to be evidence-based. Could he give some examples of the exact evidence in addition to that from the teaching profession?

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me pick out just one quote from Deborah Annetts, the chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians:

“It is as if the Olympics never happened. Design—gone, technology—gone, music—gone. This short sighted, wholesale attack on secondary music education will emasculate not only our world class music education system but also our entire creative economy”.

Those may be apocalyptic words, but they reflect the depth and breadth of the views of people who really care. I recognise that all parties involved in the argument care, but I shiver a little when I hear belief after belief, but no evidence. That is a dangerous way of changing and making policy, and it imperils the quality of what goes on both inside and outside our classrooms.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

The hon. Gentleman has been dragged away from a crucial point that he was making about formative and summative assessments. A horse race would have different winners 10 yards before the finish line and 10 yards after it. The crucial thing is not just the who or the what that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but the when. It is the judgments made at a particular age that divide people into successes or failures.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. He reminds us of the central question that I asked at the beginning of my contribution, namely: what and who is this assessment for? Summative assessment is extremely costly. It costs a huge amount in energy to prepare for it and in time spent on it. The whole of the summer term of the final year—year 11—is more or less taken up by summative assessment. We have to ask ourselves whether that time is best spent on summative assessment—and for whom—or whether it would be better spent if it were used more creatively to drive forward other things that we want our young people to have at age 16.

Why have such a wide range of exams at 16 if they exist only for the accountability of institutions? That is the issue. As Mr Gibb has said, there is a problem when those assessments at 16 are used for the purpose of the accountability of institutions. It distorts behaviour if those assessments are taking place for the benefit of the institutions rather than the individual. Qualifications are framed by the curriculum, and the choices that an individual makes in any system—hon. Members have given examples from the past and present of the paths that young people have decided to follow—are influenced by the interests of institutions, not those of individuals.

I fear that we are moving away from the strength of personalised learning, which was beginning to blossom. It was not perfect and issues needed to be dealt with, but there was a consensus behind it that was driving greater achievement, greater progression and greater performance in the post-education world. We are in danger of moving back to another age of greater failure. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole drew attention to the dangers of lowering aspiration and increasing failure, and to the risks inherent in following that route.

I want to draw attention to the work that I have been doing on behalf of the noble Lord Haskins by chairing the skills commission on the Humber local enterprise partnership. It is a business-led skills commission, but I am its chair, which is slightly bizarre. We have been taking evidence from industry. It was more than a year before the Secretary of State met the CBI, but he met News International many times during that period, which is a reflection of his priorities and whom he deems more important on this issue among business and the media.

I have been listening to the views of people in the real world of commerce and business. The reason they are often excited about some of the Secretary of State’s other ideas, such as university technical colleges, studio schools—[Interruption.] Let us give everybody the blessing of coming up with those ideas. The reason they are excited about those experiments is that they give industry the opportunity to help frame the curriculum. They say that that frees up the time. What they are really bothered about—this message comes back strongly across the piece—is not so much academic excellence, but softer employability skills. They take the academic excellence as read. What they say is missing when young people come through the workplace door is their readiness for work. To be frank, the direction of travel of English baccalaureate subjects puts at risk the time available to prepare pupils for employability skills and so on.

It is all very well for the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to say that it should be in the school’s ethos that such things are taught, but he has not done as many timetables as I have. Doing a timetable is a complex business. It is what delivers time to young people—it is a rationing mechanism. Once time has been set aside for something to happen, the time is reduced for other things to happen. What is happening at the moment is a natural and obvious restriction of the curriculum. That does not mean that a breadth of curriculum subjects is not available in different places, but it does mean that individual student choice is being greatly reduced.

I bear witness to the sensible and intelligent contribution of the Chair of the Education Committee, who, as always, spoke with not only a great focus on improving the quality of education, but a great realism. He reminded us of the quality of the brand of GCSEs and of their performance. We may want them to perform better, but he reminded us that they are a brand that deliver and perform quite well, that we could work with and develop them better, and that what people involved in the consultation are saying is, “Let’s get on with it and let’s make it better together, but without tearing up the past or the present.”

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 2:58, 16 January 2013

I want to start by reflecting on the details and the worryingly selective nature of the motion. It is clear that it has been written by somebody who is, sadly, unaware of the fact that the planned reforms of qualifications for 16-year-olds have been welcomed by organisations such as the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation.

The motion completely ignores the fact that Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, has stated:

“We welcome Michael Gove’s new exam reforms. This announcement will undoubtedly help to shore up confidence in the British education system. Business leaders want a stronger curriculum and more rigorous exams, and these measures are welcome progress towards delivering that.”

Sadly, the motion also ignores the wise words of Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the BCC, who has stated:

“Unfortunately, in recent years too many new employees have lacked basic skills and required remedial training for inadequate literacy and numeracy. Employers must be assured that qualifications reliably reflect a given level of skill, and will welcome an end to artificial grade inflation and planned changes to increase rigour.”

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the consultation for the Education Committee’s report on the English baccalaureate certificate, which was heavily subscribed to by people and organisations outside the House, not a single response was overwhelmingly supportive?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

I want to add to that in what I am saying. A responsible Opposition would not cherry-pick individual examples of what is happening with the EBC, but would reflect in their motion the fact that there is support for it. I intend to recognise the support that has not been recognised in the motion or in this debate so far.

Steve Radley, director of policy at the EEF, the largest manufacturers’ organisation, said of the Government’s planned reforms:

“Employers will broadly welcome the need for greater rigour, particularly in English, maths and sciences, having long complained that ever greater academic attainment levels have not produced young people with economically valuable skills ready to enter the workplace.”

Whoever wrote the motion is seemingly unaware that the Wellcome Trust has stated:

“We welcome the proposal to improve the quality and rigour of examinations at Key Stage 4. There is real potential to modernise the curricula with expert input and to ensure a continuous progression to A-levels and further qualifications.”

It added:

“We welcome changes to qualification content that will improve the quality of examinations and provide more challenge for the most able students.”

The author of the motion, whoever they are, does not appear to realise that it is not just the major organisations that represent business that welcome the Government’s—

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

I remember when the hon. Gentleman was in government, and he regularly declaimed the CBI as not being representative of business. The CBI is just one of many organisations. The motion should reflect the fact that there is support for EBCs.

As the Financial Times stated in an editorial published last September,

“these proposals should result in a better assessment of secondary-level attainment.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has stated:

“There are aspects of these reforms which make perfect sense, such as the potential for flexible timing to suit student needs and a retreat from the idea of a two-tier system. For once,”— this is at odds with the shadow Secretary of State

“we seem to have a decent lead-in time, to prepare properly. We are also comfortable with a more demanding standard for top grades, as exams should stretch our most able.”

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am the author of the motion. He accused me of having declaimed the CBI in government. Will he either substantiate or withdraw that comment?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

I will substantiate the comment by saying that I remember the Labour Government not acting on the CBI’s comments. The CBI said every year for 13 years—for five years of which the hon. Gentleman was a Labour Education Minister—that we needed qualification reforms, and the Labour Government did nothing to reflect that. We now have a Government who are bringing in new qualifications, which are being welcomed by the British Chambers of Commerce and the EEF, that will ensure that more young people are prepared for the world of work.

I was going to say, “Whoever penned the motion,” but it was obviously the shadow Secretary of State.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

I was giving the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt, because I thought it might have been written by a new researcher who had just come in. It is obvious that he has no understanding of the current debate or if what is going on in the wider world.

For instance, if the hon. Gentleman had listened to the “Today” programme on 17 September, he would have heard Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, saying:

“I agree entirely with the removal of the modular structure and the resit situation.”

He added that the new exam system

“will give us a system that has more positives than presently”.

The hon. Gentleman, who was an Education Minister in the early 2000s, once rejected Tomlinson and did not listen to his proposals. I hope he will listen to him now.

It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman who wrote the motion does not check his Twitter feed more carefully. If he did, he would have discovered that the Labour peer and former Education Minister, Lord Knight, tweeted at 6.04 am on 17 September that

“GCSE needs reform - modularisation led to gaming.”

There we have a former Minister for Schools and Learners admitting that there is no point in continuing with modularisation. The reforms will deal with that fact.

It is a shame that the shadow Secretary of State decided that it was a good idea to call a debate to oppose bringing back more rigour to our examination system without looking at where the public stand on the matter. According to a YouGov poll taken in June 2012, 60% of the public, including parents, think that it has got easier to get a good GCSE in recent years, compared with only 6% who think that it has got harder. It also shows that 47% of Labour voters think that it has got easier to get a good GCSE in recent years, compared with only 7% who think that it has got harder. Perhaps he should listen to Labour voters. It is not only the public and parents who have little confidence in the current system. According to the latest Ofqual survey, just 51% of students in 2011 had confidence in the GCSE system.

We know why that is. A yawning gap has opened between the image of educational success that GCSEs have presented over the past few decades and the reality of what is taking place globally. While GCSE results have risen to record levels, they have not been matched in international league tables. Fifteen-year-olds in England have fallen down the rankings from seventh to 25th in reading, eighth to 27th in maths, and fourth to 16th in science. As the OECD has commented:

“Official test scores and grades in England show systematically and significantly better performance than international and independent tests”.

It added that

“the measures based on cognitive tests not used for grading show declines or minimal improvements.”

Perhaps we might be able to gain some consensus on that fact. After all, on 26 June last year, the shadow Secretary of State said

“I absolutely acknowledge that there is grade inflation in the system”.—[Hansard, 26 June 2012; Vol. 547, c. 179.]

Perhaps he might also like to acknowledge that, in 1997, 49.9% of pupils entered GCSEs in English, maths, two sciences, a language and either history or geography—the core subjects that now make up the EBacc—but that the figure more than halved by 2010, with only 22% of pupils sitting those subjects. Perhaps he might even like to demonstrate regret for the fact that when he was an Education Minister, Labour decided to remove the languages requirement for 14 to 16-year-olds. By 2010, that had resulted in 200,000 fewer 16-year-olds taking a modern language GCSE. Surely he must be ashamed of that record of achievement.

The Government’s introduction of the EBacc is already having a significant effect on the adoption of rigorous subjects. An Ipsos MORI survey of pupils who will take their GCSEs in 2014 suggests that the percentage of pupils taking the full EBacc will increase from 22% in 2010 to 49% by 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of pupils taking a GCSE in history will go up from 31% to 41%; those taking geography will go up from 26% to 36%; those taking a language will go up from 43% to 54%; and those taking triple science will go up from 16% to 34%.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

Does my hon. Friend share my deep concern about the finding of the Institute of Physics that only 49% of maintained schools sent a girl to take A-level physics in 2011? Does he agree that it is vital that more young people take triple science so that more girls do physics and play a role in our physics future?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood

Absolutely. It is not only the gender balance that we need to tackle. There is also a gap when it comes to the most deprived pupils in society—those on free school meals. My hon. Friend Andrew Percy did not mention that the EBacc shines a torch on underperformance because it shows the gap between those in the most deprived areas and the most affluent in society. We must close that gap by using the EBacc as a crucial measure.

Many countries, including France, Finland, Germany, Japan and South Korea, have more than two compulsory subjects. They have modern languages and history as compulsory subjects. Having more subjects that pupils must take ensures that there is a greater measure.

We are in a global race in which qualifications from the 20th century will no longer equip us with the skills and knowledge needed for the modern world. We need not only to look outwards and emulate countries that are powering ahead, fuelled by a rigorous education system that will not accept second best, but we must also look inwards at ourselves and recognise that if we do not reform our education system we will be letting down future generations of pupils who will be competing in this modern, international world. That is why we need reform—we recognise that the world has changed, and we must change with it.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central 3:08, 16 January 2013

In following Chris Skidmore I should like to consider what he said about the profound effect of the EBacc. We can all agree that it has indeed had a profound effect on creative subjects such as art, design, drama and music, which are clearly being sidelined despite the incredible value that our creative sector brings to the UK economy. Some 15% of schools have dropped one or more arts subjects since the EBacc was introduced, and the latest figures, from summer 2012, show a serious decline in the number of entrants for design and technology: down 5.1%, for art and design, down 2.4%, for music, down 3.6%, and for drama down 6.3%. I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman that the introduction of the EBacc has had a profound effect.

I want to pick up on the theme pursued by other Members who talked about preparation for work and for life, and ask the Secretary of State some questions that I hope he is considering. What are qualifications for? What is education for at age 16 and beyond? What are we trying to achieve with our qualifications? What is in it for young people and for the country? In a globally competitive world in which we struggle to keep up with countries that, until recently, were regarded as developing, we have different needs for our future work force. In a world with technology on a scale that many us never imagined when we were at school, the needs of young people are completely different from those considered when GCSEs were created.

In September, the Secretary of State said in his statement that

“nations that were slow developers 20 years ago are outstripping us economically, and now that ways of learning have been so dramatically transformed in all our lifetimes, it is right that we reform our examination system. We know that the old model—the ’80s model—is no longer right for now…We know that employers and academics have become less confident in the worth of GCSE passes because they fear that students lack the skills for the modern workplace and the knowledge for advanced study.”—[Hansard, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 653.]

No one in this Chamber would disagree with a word of what the Secretary of State said in that statement, but the question is about what we need now from qualifications, schools, education, and for and from our young people. How do we compete in a world where we are rapidly being overtaken by China, India, Brazil and countless other countries?

Employers tell me that they want young people who can solve problems and who have strong communication skills and an ability to get on with others, but good sets of GCSE passes—or other written exam passes—do not necessarily correspond with those three skills. Businesses need staff who will help them to thrive, and we also need people who will start and grow their own businesses. We need excellence in the services that support our creative industries and our high-tech manufacturing that will produce the jobs and growth that will enable this country to thrive and our people to enjoy prosperity.

There is no question but that we need academic qualifications. High standards in English and maths are at the cornerstone of success for this country, but so too are qualifications in engineering and the arts. The young people I speak to want to study vocational subjects—engineering, design and technology, music, art, catering and hairdressing. Those subjects are crucial for young people who want to pursue their chosen career and a country that wants its economy to succeed. In short, success in school and beyond results from the combination of academic and vocational study, and our qualification system needs to reflect that mix.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is spelling things out very clearly. Does he think that the CBI put its finger on the pulse of the issue when it said that there is a risk of making the mistakes of the past by trying to micro-manage what is going on, instead of allowing other things to happen?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

My hon. Friend has vast experience as the former principal of a sixth-form college and he knows exactly what he is talking about. Yes, the CBI made it clear in its report that high-stakes testing at 16 must not be a barrier to achievement at 18. It said:

“There is a risk that the mistakes of the past—both teaching to the test by schools and micro-management of the school system through the means of exams and league tables—may be repeated in the EBC. For this reason, we favour pausing to ask a more fundamental question about the role of examinations before 18, namely what their purpose is.”

I hope that the Secretary of State—while he is sending something out on Twitter or texting one his staff—will perhaps find the answer to that question so that when he sums up the debate he can tell me and, more importantly, the CBI.

The Secretary of State’s proposals indicate a preference for an end-of-year exam, with no assessment or coursework, in a number of subjects, but in the real world how useful is the ability to succeed in a three-hour written exam? I would question whether it is of much use at all. In many jobs, the ability to perform tasks is essential, and, yes, success in work is closely linked to an ability to perform under pressure, often under time pressure. However, in the long run it is the quality of the product or service that an organisation delivers that is critical to success. The role of the individual in contributing to that success does not appear, as far as I can see, to be in any way linked to the ability to pass an exam.

The ability to solve problems, to think on one’s feet, and to communicate effectively face to face, on the phone, by e-mail, in a letter or in a report are all essential skills in the world of work and outside it. They all depend on good English, yet there will be no spoken communication element in the EBC, no testing of real world skills linked to the use of IT in English and no testing of key communication skills such as customer service, which is a vital skill in today’s world. I am not saying that GCSEs were perfect, but surely we are moving further away from a qualification and examination system that measures those real world skills, not closer to it.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend think that the reasons he has set out explain why Lord Baker, who has much experience in this matter, describes the proposals as “a huge mistake” and fears that they will not survive a change of Government?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Yes, and of course Lord Baker was one of the architects of the GCSE system. He recognised the need for change, so he is in a strong position on this matter. He has credibility and a track record, and the Government should certainly listen closely to what he has to say.

Standards in English and maths are crucial. We can all agree on that and we all do, but the question is how those standards are measured. I do not believe that we measure them effectively, either for young people or for the economy, purely through the use of a linear exam system.

In my business career I worked with many young people in telephone call centres, among other places. Call centre managers often bemoaned the lack of basic literacy of the younger recruits. Often those with GCSEs in English of grade C or better were unable to write properly and struggled when talking to customers on the phone. There is clearly a problem, but the solution we found was to help young trainees with practical skills. They included literacy skills, because they had not picked them up at school. The key was to make training practical—to make it relevant to their jobs and to their lives outside of work. Because the training took place at work, it was in context and they understood for that reason. The students were motivated to learn and to do well at work. How do we replicate that within the education system before students go to work? I do not see how it can be done in the artificial environment of a linear exam process.

To make learning practical and real is a simple concept, and we should be able to do it in school. In short, we should be able to design a system where young people learn what they need for life, in a way that motivates them and helps businesses to flourish. However, to make sure young people are ready for life, they need to learn skills that they can use and which are of use to employers.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. He has made a number of interesting and worthwhile points, and has outlined some of the weaknesses that he sees with existing and proposed qualifications. Are there are any qualifications that he thinks hit the nail on the head and do the job that he has described?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I am certainly familiar with some work qualifications. If the Secretary of State is looking for ideas, I hope he will look at them as examples and consider how they could be introduced, with good work experience, into the education system.

To ensure that young people are ready for life, they need to learn skills they can use and which are of use to employers. Someone who has a qualification that shows they can already do a job is of much greater interest. Perhaps the answer I gave to the Secretary of State demonstrates a way of doing just that.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire 3:19, 16 January 2013

A short while ago, the shadow Minister, Kevin Brennan, challenged Dan Rogerson to say what he objected to in the motion. I must say that we new MPs are used to seeing rather stronger worded motions than today’s, which makes me wonder whether the Opposition’s heart is really in it. The motion talks in general terms about requiring a rethink, but without specifying or committing to the things that they think are wrong and the things they would do differently.

The Opposition cite a few opponents of the Government’s plans, however, and they are worth reflecting on. Business, they say, is opposed. My experience from the Education Committee was that, if we were looking for a unified voice from business on qualifications and so on, good luck! To the extent that there is a unified voice, however, it is complaining about the things that Bill Esterson talked about—employability and workplace skills—but it is talking about the young people coming through the system now, not about some change that might happen in the future.

The Opposition also cite as opponents the champions of vocational qualifications, but that ignores the fact that the Government are also reforming vocational education and training. They have commissioned the Wolf review and are now implementing it. We must recognise, however, that Alison Wolf states, again and again, the value of academic qualifications alongside vocational qualifications. It should not be seen as an either/or. From a social mobility perspective, we know that countries with earlier specialisation tend to be associated with lower levels of social mobility, whereas those in which people specialise later do better in that regard.

On the creative industries and the arts, I had the opportunity recently to have a fascinating discussion with Mr Julian Lloyd Webber. Of course, any lobby or interest group will lobby to have its subject as part of the suite of subjects that has this name—many of us will have benefited from hearing from a lot of religious education teachers, for example. On the arts and creative industries, however, the argument is based on a false premise. Britain is a world leader in these industries—a world leader in the arts—but that was achieved without those subjects being forced on pupils in school, with or without a national curriculum.

When the shadow Secretary of State was at school, when you were at school, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I was at school—when all of us were at school—in most schools, art and music were optional subjects at aged 15 and 16 and they were over and above a set of subjects that pretty much everybody would do. The EBacc suite—[Interruption] I like the word “suite”—is not a compulsory set of subjects.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

What the hon. Gentleman says about the education we received many years ago is true, but back then there was not a national league table by which the institution was judged on the basis of whether it had an A-level in art, drama or whatever. That is the fundamental change that has taken place.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that, and it is that focus on the five-plus C-plus—almost regardless of what subjects they are in, with the exception of English and maths, which have held an elevated position—that has caused the problems that now need to be addressed. Even if the Ebacc were made up of a compulsory set of subjects, there would still be ample room in the curriculum for optional subjects, just as there always has been.

I would never claim that everything that happened between 1997 and 2010 in education was bad, but I am afraid that this whole system around qualifications, examinations and league tables is one area where things went badly awry. This was a time of stiffening international competition, yet in this country, we had grade inflation, smashing all domestic records, while slipping down the international league tables. That eroded confidence in the system, and the people that lets down are not the politicians, but the young people themselves.

Although the current shadow Secretary of State rightly acknowledges the existence of grade inflation, that is a relatively new road-to-Damascus conversion for the

Labour party. Until relatively recently, it was keen to keep hammering on that all the improvements in children’s outcomes were actually real improvements and that we should celebrate them, rather than criticise them.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

Both those things are true, which is possibly the point the hon. Gentleman wanted to make, and I absolutely acknowledge the real improvements. We might have brighter kids, and we certainly have more engaged parents and families, better teaching and teachers, better recognition of special educational needs and different styles of learning and all sorts of things that we would expect to improve over time, and which have. On top of that, however, there has without doubt been grade inflation and gaming of the system on an epic scale, and that is what these reforms seek to address. It is worth listing some of those points further.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Labour, Gateshead

I am grateful to my honourable Friend—I will call him my friend because we are friends—for giving way. When I took over as chair of the education committee in Gateshead in 1993, in the previous year fewer than 30% of youngsters got five good GCSEs. In Gateshead the figure is about 80% now—although it is about 55% including English and maths. We cannot honestly think that the vast majority of that change in 20 years was due to grade inflation.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman—and friend—exactly what proportion is accounted for by what. I celebrate the achievements of the children in his constituency and that area, and of those schools. We should never be reluctant to do that: their achievement is fantastic. Some element of that has been a real improvement; what I am saying is that there is also another element. Indeed, I think that everybody across the political spectrum and throughout almost the entire educational establishment—we are still working on the National Union of Teachers—now acknowledges what is a blindingly obvious fact.

The three areas where the gaming and the inflation take place are in the mechanics of the system, the subject mix and competition between boards—I want to return to the point that Pat Glass raised.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

I think I ought to plough on, if I may.

On the mechanics, so many things can be done with the syllabus content and breadth, through modularisation, resits, early takes and, potentially, the questions set and the stringency of marking, although certainly—we extracted this over some weeks in our Select Committee inquiry—an upwards-only tolerance in the expected outcomes across a cohort of students around the country. In other words, every year there is a certain level that we would expect to reach. We could be either side of it; in reality, things only ever went one way, leading to in-built inflation in the system. The second area is the subject mix. It is beyond doubt—some of the statistics that my hon. Friend Chris Skidmore and others mentioned bear this out—that some children have been steered towards subjects that were not the most appropriate for them to study, but which suited their schools in terms of how they would appear in the league tables. Then there was the debacle over so-called equivalences.

The third point—a few hon. Members have mentioned this today—is competition between exam boards. It has been suggested that there is not really a problem with competition between exam boards so long as we separate the organisation setting the exam and the organisation doing the syllabus or specification. I can absolutely see the arguments for having competition at the operational level—delivering exam papers and that sort of thing—but I just do not see the argument for competition in either the specification or the setting of exams. So much of this debate—including when we had it in the Select Committee with some of the exam boards and others—is all about accessibility. I worry about the word “accessibility”. It is a good word—we want more people to be able to access things—but it ends up being used to mask all sorts of other things, all of which ends up meaning: “Well, if we just make it that tiny bit easier, more people will want to do it.”

The bad effects of the competition between different exam boards can be seen in little unexplained spikes in market share for individual boards in individual subjects and in more and more schools using multiple boards for different subjects. The average number of exam boards per school is now about three, which is pretty remarkable when we consider that there are only four boards altogether. That means that almost all schools are using almost all boards. As reported relatively recently in The Times Educational Supplement, there are also relatively new trends, such as schools entering children for GCSE and IGCSE at the same time, to see which one comes out better, or entering with different, multiple boards for early modules and examinations, to see which is likely to give them the best chances of progressing.

Through all this, we without doubt came to a point where we had too much teaching to the test, with children in some schools—not all schools—having a much narrower experience than they should have had. Schools have been paying £100,000 a year on examination entries—a number that doubled in just a few years. It is worth reflecting that had that not happened, we could have had a lot more teachers in this country. Some children were pushed into inappropriate subject choices, with too much focus on the C/D borderline and an overall failure to equip as well as we should our young people to make the most of their talents and our nation to make the most of what we have got in the world.

We have reached the point at which the Government must reset the clock, so that we can have exams that are consistent and understood and that are pinned to the highest world standards. We must remove the race to the bottom between the different exam boards and inspire confidence in employers, in educational institutions and, above all, in young people themselves.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The wind-ups need to start at 3.40 pm. In order to fit in the last two Back-Bench speakers, I am changing the time limit to five minutes. I am dividing the time equally between the two speakers. I call Neil Carmichael.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am perfectly happy to give up my five minutes so that my hon. Friend can speak for 10 minutes.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Neil Carmichael will not get 10 minutes; he will get eight, as that has been the time limit. It is very gracious of John Pugh to withdraw; I thank him for that.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud 3:30, 16 January 2013

I am grateful to my hon. Friend John Pugh for that gesture, although I am not going to speak for what must now be only seven and a half minutes.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman does not have to speak for eight minutes—if he does not, there will simply be longer wind-ups—but he should get on with it.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

First, I want to pick up on a point made by Nic Dakin on beliefs and experience. We all have beliefs and some of us have had experience as well. One of my sharpest experiences was that of marking examinations taken by undergraduates who displayed an innate intelligence but not necessarily a huge ability to communicate. We should all think about that during the course of this debate, because it is important that communication skills and mathematics should be embedded as early as possible.

My second point is that there is much more continuity between those on the two Front Benches than might first be supposed. That came to my attention when I was reading Lord Adonis’s recent book on education. He has paved the way for some of the changes that we are continuing—

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Yes, but Lord Adonis does not support this one.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I am not suggesting that Lord Adonis supports everything that we are doing; I am saying that there is some continuity. That is good, because we need more continuity in education policy. A lot of the measures that we are introducing will be useful, in that they will make things better and build on some of the achievements of the previous Government. That needs to be said.

My third point is that I am a firm believer in the Ebacc, as I stated when the Education Select Committee looked into that subject. In fact, that was the only time I ever voted against the publication of a report. I did so because I believe it is important that the Ebacc should be promoted. One of the myths that needs to be completely debunked is that the Ebacc will stop other subjects being taught. That is clearly not the case, because most, if not all, schools also offer a wider variety of subjects. That is what they are supposed to do, and what they will continue to do. I do not believe that enough attention has been paid to the role of Ofsted in ensuring that schools are going beyond the Ebacc subjects. We need to be much clearer about the process involved in the inspection regime, and about the impact that the Ebacc will have on the delivery of other subjects.

Linked to that is the question of Professor Alison Wolf’s report, which has been discussed by the shadow Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools. I think that Alison Wolf’s report is first class. It sets the scene for proper vocational training. She makes two points, however, that have thus far been overlooked. First, she believes that an academic framework is absolutely necessary for pupils, and that it is not inconsistent with going on to vocational studies. In fact, she notes that it is a good thing to have an academic basis for vocational training. The second point that she makes very clearly in her report is that there is plenty of time in the school day to go beyond the Ebacc and into vocational training. I think that is critical, because it applies to post-16 education—beyond school and into colleges—as well. We need to bear those two points in mind when we think about the EBacc.

It is important to underline what the Minister of State said about the question of universality. I was particularly impressed with it, as I think we should have a system in which all pupils are treated fairly and all pupils have a fair chance of taking an examination, so that we do not get division between one type of pupil and another. One of the great achievements over the last decade or so has been exactly that—and we should celebrate it. I would say, however, that the EBacc builds on that and does not threaten it, which is something of which we should be proud.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

My hon. Friend describes his support for a universal exam. To achieve it, the Government have said, the boundary must be higher than the grade C GCSE. There must be a risk, must there not, that quite a number of people will feel that they have failed and that the certificate of achievement will not be a currency of much value in reflecting the work they have done.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

The currency with the least value is the one that allows too much inflation. The brutal fact is that we want to avoid grade inflation, and the measures being introduced in parallel to this change seek to do precisely that. I think that that is exactly what we need to do.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. When grade inflation is inadvertent, denied, counter-productive or whatever, there is an argument about the level at which the qualification should be set. If we cease grade inflation at some point in time, we will be fixing it as being “the level”. It is interesting to reflect on what the appropriate level is: perhaps we should have something much harder, but the Government appear to be talking about reversing that inflation and setting the level of a pass—however it comes out—at a higher level than it is now. Already, 50% of kids do not achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I thank my hon. Friend for his second intervention. The simple answer is this. What we need to ensure is that we have a set of grades whereby the student can be properly assessed and valued. That is what we need to do, that is what the EBacc is all about and that is why grade inflation should not be welcomed or tolerated. It needs to be dealt with not just through the type of examination and certificate, but through the way in which marking and so forth is done.

I shall finish on the point about business. Much has been said about whether business wants the change. In my constituency, business definitely does. I run a festival in manufacturing and engineering each and every year. I do it because I really want to encourage young people to get involved in those key areas, which would clearly benefit from the EBacc. At every festival, I pick up the fact that business wants to know that people are coming out of schools with more experience and more capacity in mathematics and the STEM subjects more generally. The EBacc will help, so that is what we should aim for.

It is a false description if people say that when something starts off, nobody wants it. When it proves itself, as the EBacc undoubtedly will, business will see that the right decision has been made. That is an important point. Anyone who talks to the organisations that represent engineering, manufacturing and associated activities will find that they are interested in the move towards the EBacc, that they think it is the right way to test and examine children and that they think it will be useful to them when they start recruiting. I shall conclude on that note.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 3:39, 16 January 2013

We have had a high-quality debate this afternoon with contributions from my hon. Friend Pat Glass, Mr Stuart, my hon. Friend Ian Mearns, Mr Gibb, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, Andrew Percy, my hon. Friend Steve Reed, Dan Rogerson, my hon. Friend Nic Dakin and Chris Skidmore. We found out from him that at 6 am in the morning, he is checking Lord Knight’s Twitter feed—not something the rest of us would necessarily do at that time of night.We also heard contributions from my hon. Friend Bill Esterson and the hon. Members for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). The hon. Member for Kingswood was obviously only half awake because he seemed to think that Lord Knight’s Twitter feed said that he supported the proposals, which is certainly not the case.

It is more and more clear that the Government’s proposed EBacc certificate is the wrong reform on the wrong timetable. What is more, the Secretary of State has got it the wrong way round. In one sense, I am certain that he agrees that it is the wrong reform, because we know that it is not the reform that he wanted. He announced the reform that he wanted using the now traditional method for making important Department for Education announcements—via a leak to the The Mail on Sunday. He was celebrating his great news triumph when word got through to the Deputy Prime Minister in his hotel room in Rio, presumably wearing his onesie—[Interruption.] That is true; it might be too hot in Rio for a onesie.

The Deputy Prime Minister was so furious with the Education Secretary that he not only made him withdraw his plans and modify them into the incoherent mess that we have been hearing about today, but made him sack his trusted lieutenant, the former schools Minister, and replace him with the current part-time schools Minister, who I think is off in the Cabinet Office doing his other job—a Lib Dem incubus in the Secretary of State’s lair.


He has now come to the Chamber. A bit like horsemeat in a burger, it can be swallowed but it is not very palatable. Even the Secretary of State thinks that it is the wrong reform, because he has had to drop the overtly two-tier approach that he favoured for the covert one that we have heard about today. Everyone else knows that it is the wrong reform, because it does not address, as we have heard overwhelmingly from Members on both sides of the House, the real issues and challenges for education at 16.

First, the reform is anti-creativity. Many people are asking: what do the Secretary of State and the Government have against creativity? As we saw in a debate on the EBacc certificate in another place on Monday, he calls his new qualification a gold standard, but how can a qualification on which the Secretary of State places such a valedictory appellation have no place for the arts? As the former Education Secretary, Baroness Morris of Yardley, in another place said:

“How can an assessment that marks the end of the national curriculum not recognise achievement in music, dance, drama, art, design and craft?”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2013; Vol. 742, c. 547.]

The EBacc is also the wrong reform because it does not seriously examine the purpose and relevance of high-stakes public examinations at 16 when the participation age has been raised to 18. That topic is causing a veritable buzz in the world of education. The Secretary of State needs to listen not just to his closest advisers and cronies and his own soliloquies. We need a proper debate and consensus around reform, which addresses the key issues that the Chair of the Education Committee has often cited, as he did again today—in particular the long tail of underachievement. Perhaps we should rename the EBacc certificate the GOVE—general opposition to vocational education—because the Secretary of State has nothing to say on how we can have a gold standard in vocational education. That is why we have had to take the initiative in developing the Tech Bacc, in which he seems so uninterested.

Another reason the EBacc certificate is the wrong reform is its rigid and mystifying insistence that it should be assessed by final essay-based examination only. The Secretary of State was rightly asked earlier whether it is his role to decide that anyway, and perhaps we will get an answer in his speech, but essay-based exams measure only a narrow range of skills and knowledge. I have been trying to understand what makes the Secretary of State so against controlled assessment and practical exams and why he thinks the only valid way of testing anything is a three-hour written examination at the end of a course. What traumatic event in his past could have led him to have this seemingly inexplicable aversion to the appropriate use of controlled assessment and his insistence that only written exams should count? Then I remembered—

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

He is ahead of me—he is very quick. The driving test is administered on a basis of a written test combined with a practical controlled assessment, and the Secretary of State failed his driving test on six occasions. And this is the man who does not believe in re-sits!

Had the driving test consisted of a course in the theory of driving followed by a three-hour written test, the Secretary of State would no doubt have passed first time, with flying colours. He might have achieved a merit, perhaps even a distinction, maybe an A* for demonstrating his in-depth understanding of the intricacies of the highway code. But would that have made him a better driver, and would the public have been safe with him behind the wheel? Possibly not.

This is the wrong reform, and it is also being carried out according to the wrong timetable. It is not just the foot-draggers, the naysayers and the vested interests who are saying that. It is being said by Glenys Stacey, the head of Ofqual and the Secretary of State’s guardian of exam standards, who has written to him expressing her concerns—incidentally, we know about her letter only as a result of dogged forensic questioning of the Secretary of State by the Education Committee—and it is not being just said by Ofqual either. In response to a recent survey, more than 80% of teachers said that the changes were being rushed, adding to the huge majority of heads who said that the changes would not be an improvement, and reinforcing the call from the CBI—about which we have already heard today—for a pause in the Government’s timetable.

I am old enough to have taken O-levels—I also have a CSE in woodwork, a grade 1—and A-levels, and I taught for O-level, GCSE and A-level. One thing that I do know is that it is impossible to introduce successful examination reform without being clear about the curriculum, without consensus, and without proper piloting of new qualifications. GCSE reform was kicked off by Shirley Williams, and brought in by Keith Joseph after many years of development. It is necessary to aim for that breadth of consensus at the start if lasting reform is to achieved. However, the English baccalaureate certificate proposal is not a product of consensus based on evidence; it is being rushed through to meet a political, not an educational, timetable. That is the wrong recipe for reform, and the right recipe for chaos.

The Secretary of State’s reform is being introduced for the wrong reasons, the wrong way round. The Secretary of State says it is about rigour, but rigour is achieved through engaging, imaginative, high-quality and creative teaching, not through dispiriting learning by rote that is based only on facts. That is not a recipe for rigour; it is a recipe for rigor mortis in the classroom—the stiff dead hand of Gradgrindian misery about which we heard earlier.

In a recent television interview, Lord Baker reminded us of the welcome contrast between the current CBI report on education and that of one its predecessor bodies, which states that all that was, or should be, required of the curriculum was that it should teach “literacy, numeracy and obedience”. Sometimes, listening to what is said by members of the Government, I wonder whether that is what they believe now. As Lord Baker also said, if that is all we think is required today, God help us, because that is the attitude that has created

“the long tail of underachievement”, demotivated generations of young people, and wasted the talents of so many.

It is, however, the background noise that hisses around the Secretary of State’s approach to this reform. The proposal is the wrong way around. It puts the cart before the horse, the exams before the course, and the outcomes before the aims.

Here are some possible aims of a curriculum for the Secretary of State. It should produce

“a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively; a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning; an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and, a concerned citizen who is rooted” in his country,

“has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others”.

The Secretary of State may think that that is wishy-washy. It is, in fact, a list of the aims of the curriculum in Singapore, and perhaps he ought to take a look at it before he starts to design a new exam system. How can this style of examination achieve those aims? It cannot, which is why Singapore has been reforming its education in our direction.

This is a case of wrong reform, wrong timetable, wrong way round: wrong, wrong, wrong. The new three Rs are all spelt with a W, standing not for “reading, writing and arithmetic” but for “wrong, wrong, and”—as the Secretary of State might say—“thrice wrong”.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education 3:49, 16 January 2013

First, may I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State, Stephen Twigg, on securing this debate? It has been advantageous to the House and of benefit to me to be able to hear a range of views about how we might reform and change our examination system, and I am grateful to all Members who spoke in what felt at times almost more like a seminar than a parliamentary debate. As well as speaking with passion from the heart, many Members had specific experience. Steve Reed was a distinguished leader of a successful Labour council, and the hon. Members for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and for North West Durham (Pat Glass) have both had council responsibility for children’s services, and under their stewardship standards for their children were high. [Interruption.] Forgive me: the hon. Member for North West Durham has a range of past experience that qualifies her to speak on these subjects, but, sadly, she was never a councillor.

All the contributions have given me an opportunity to reflect on what we should assess and on how we should assess achievement at the age of 16. One of the important consequences of the process of consultation we have initiated is that a vigorous debate has been taking place, not only in schools and among teachers, but also, as Fiona Mactaggart pointed out, among people in the creative and cultural worlds. As the shadow Secretary of State pointed out, business organisations and associations have also engaged in that debate.

There was, perhaps, consensus among Members that the current situation is unsatisfactory. The shadow Secretary of State quoted the CBI liberally in his speech. The CBI is no friend of the situation that prevailed under Labour for 13 years, however. This is what the CBI report on education says about the situation we inherited from Labour:

“This approach represents a triumph for relativism, with pupils either taught to the test while developing no real mastery of the subject being studied or left to fester in study of subjects where they will do least harm to the school’s overall results and league table position. In truth, however, this cult of relativism has blighted every stage of their educational journey.”

Those are strong words and, as my hon. Friend Chris Skidmore pointed out, they reflect a broad consensus in the business sector that we need to change our examination system.

Understandably, the CBI and others have questioned the purpose of assessment at 16. As my hon. Friend Mr Gibb pointed out in a brilliant speech, it is important that we have rigorous, summative assessment at that stage. The Labour party has questioned the appropriateness of that. If Labour believes we should get rid of proper, rigorous assessment at the age of 16, it should say so. If, as the shadow Secretary of State hinted in an interview in The Guardian, Labour believes we should go back to the 14 to 19 Tomlinson diploma approach, it should say so. Disappointingly, although the critiques mounted from the Opposition Benches had much to recommend them in terms of forensic detail and passion, precious few positive alternatives were offered.

We were accused of having neglected the vital importance of a rounded education in two specific areas: cultural subjects and vocational subjects. I want to say a little about each. There was an exchange—I was tempted to call it a dramatic monologue, or soliloquy, punctuated by noises off—between the shadow Secretary of State and myself on the Wolf report, but putting that to one side, I am pleased that there seems to be consensus about the Wolf report and its recommendations. The shadow Secretary of State says it is important that English and mathematics are taught to the age of 18. We should bear in mind that Professor Wolf says people who have not secured a good GCSE pass or equivalent in English or maths at the age of 16 should carry the subject on, and that is Government policy. We would only contend, however, that people who secure a good pass in English and maths at 16 but who wish to specialise in other, perhaps creative or vocational, areas should not be forced to carry those subjects on. We should develop courses for such people who want to move beyond GCSEs. Someone may not want to pursue A-level mathematics, but may believe that a mathematical course would be appropriate, and we have worked with Cambridge university and Professor Tim Gowers on that area.

The care we have taken to implement every detail of Professor Wolf’s report reinforces the fact that before we said how we were going to reform academic qualifications, we said how we were going to reform vocational qualifications. We have heard a lot about carts and horses, and about priorities, in this debate. We put vocational qualifications ahead of academic qualifications in our desire to reform. I am not just talking about the Wolf report; the Richard report on apprenticeships, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills rightly welcomed recently, as I have done, sets a path for the reform of the most trusted brand in vocational education—the apprenticeship. The Richard report was welcomed yesterday by Lord Adonis and it points out the steps we have been taking to change apprenticeships so that they are no longer an ideal theoretical driving test, such as that described by Kevin Brennan. They are no longer the inadequate, poor qualification that, sadly, used to exist in some cases. An apprenticeship will now be conferred on somebody only where they not only secure English and maths to an acceptable standard, but have an occupationally specific qualification which guarantees or confers mastery in a specific area and can be graded on more than simply a pass-or-fail basis. The fact that this reform was so carefully designed and has been so widely supported underlines our support for improving vocational education.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Secretary of State for Education

May I bring the Secretary of State to the subject of today’s debate? In my opening speech, I asked him about the issue about which Ofqual has raised real concern: the preparedness of the system to be implemented in the way that he says. Is there any possibility that he will change the time scale in response to the real concern that hon. Members on both sides of the House have reflected today?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

I was grateful that a number of concerns were raised about different parts of implementation, and they have been raised during the consultation. It is important that I look seriously, as I am doing, at all the points raised in the consultation. Following on from the very good speech made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, it is important that we respond having reflected on all the points that were made and that our response is not simply yes to this and no to that in a piecemeal and cherry-picking way. We should present a sustained and coherent response to what has been an informed and helpful consultation.

I wish briefly to discuss creative subjects, because, in a brilliant speech, Fiona Mactaggart both paid me a compliment and set me a challenge. One thing I would say is that there is ample time in a well-constructed curriculum for creative subjects, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend Damian Hinds and a number of other hon. Members. The idea that this Government have not been taking creative and cultural education seriously is belied by the facts. First, we ensured that we had a national plan for music education, following on from Darren Henley’s report, that has seen not just sustained investment in new music hubs that provide high-quality music education and increased access to instrumental tuition, but our expanding of the In Harmony orchestra initiative, which was borrowed from the El Sistema idea in Chavez’s Venezuela. We have also commissioned a report on cultural education from Darren Henley, which has led us to implement a variety of changes, including having a cultural passport for every child to record their cultural and creative engagement during their time at school. We have provided extended access to Saturday schools for those able and capable in art and design. In addition, a Conservative Government—not a Labour Government—have for the first time introduced a national youth dance company for talented and gifted individuals who want to and should make a success in dance. So the future Akram Khans and Michael Clarks will have that opportunity as a result of our changes.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

We have only two minutes left and there are still a number of points to cover—

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education

In a speech that was significantly longer. In the time available, I wish to deal with one or two of the other points that were raised, particularly the one discussed by the Chairman of the Select Committee. He asked whether qualification reform is the key driver of change and improvement in education. The answer, which I wanted to underline, was given by my hon. Friend Mr Gibb: it is a key driver. The hon. Member for Cardiff West pointed out that nothing matters more than the quality of teaching, and that is right. But the qualification reforms that we have put forward will ensure that there is more time for teaching. If we remove controlled assessment, which teachers tell us takes between six and eight weeks of what could be teaching time, we allow more high quality teaching to be made available to the students who need it. So there is a link between the style of assessment and the capacity to improve a child’s education.

Let me take this opportunity to point out that we do not need to change, nor is it the case simply that we can make requests of Ofqual. Ofqual can consider them and has in the past made wise judgments. I should say that the shadow Secretary of State has consistently questioned the judgment of Ofqual. We have been clear that it is an independent regulator and we back it.

In the course of the debate, a number of misconceptions were repeated. It is the case that we believe that a move away from modular towards linear assessment reduces the chance of gaming and frees time for teaching, but it is important to say that we do not think that every subject should have three-hour exams. Nowhere in our consultation have we said that three, six, nine or 12-hour exams are appropriate. We believe that rigorous examination in academic subjects requires the deployment of end-of-course linear assessment, but there are a variety of subjects, many of them creative, which, as the Arts Council recognised, should be assessed in other ways.

I note that it is 4 o’clock. I hope this conversation can continue. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House for your indulgence and, in particular, I thank the Members who contributed to the debate for the brilliant speeches that I so much enjoyed the opportunity to listen to this afternoon.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 239, Noes 308.

Division number 134 Opposition Day — [14th Allotted Day] — Examination Reform

Aye: 238 MPs

No: 307 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Abstained: 1 MP

Abstained: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft Charging Orders (Orders for Sale: Financial Thresholds) Regulations 2012. The Ayes were 279 and the Noes were 214, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]