Backbench Business — Education Committee Report (GCSE Reform)

Canterbury City Council Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:27 pm on 31 January 2013.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 3:27, 31 January 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of the publication of the Eighth Report of the Education Committee, From GCSEs to EBCs: The Government’s proposals for reform, HC 808.

It is a pleasure to participate in this relatively new way of presenting reports to Parliament.

I have in my hand a copy of the report “From GCSEs to EBCs: The Government’s proposals for reform”, which was published today. Decisions about reforming GCSEs and the way in which they are administered are some of the most important decisions that Ministers will make. Those decisions will have profound and far-reaching consequences that will affect the lives of many children for years to come, and they need to be considered carefully, as part of a coherent review of curriculum, assessment and school accountability for this stage of education.

The Education Committee was not reassured by the Secretary of State’s assertion that

“coherence comes at the end of the process.”

Coherence is achieved not by accident, but by design. No sensible reform of assessment can take place without clarity in regard to what is to be taught and how the qualifications will be used in the school accountability system.

The Education Committee believes that the Government have yet to prove their case that GCSEs in key academic subjects should necessarily be abolished and replaced by the new English baccalaureate certificates. We also fear that they are trying to do too much too quickly. We agree with them that improvements should be made to GCSEs and to the system in which they operate, in order to restore public confidence in our exams.

We welcome the changes that the Government are introducing, such as a return to end of course exams in most subjects and limits on the number of re-sits, but the Government must demonstrate that the GCSE brand is so discredited that it is beyond repair. Ministers want to introduce a new qualification and a step change in standards, and to alter the way in which exams are administered, all at the same time and to a tight timetable.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important facets of any examination system is the trust that employers have in it?

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

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The Government want to restore the currency of 16-year-olds’ qualifications, and restore confidence among employers and universities in the value of those qualifications. That is one of the Government’s aims and they are right to take that approach. Although I am not talking about the main, fundamental changes beneath the surface, it is interesting to note just how few people from the university sector or employers agree with the decision to abolish GCSEs in the core subjects. They worry about what that says about the other subjects left behind—I am sure that my hon. Friend will be concerned about what it says about GCSE religious education. How can it be right that those subjects are seen as second tier compared with the reformed EBCs?

We saw last year, with GCSE English, the turbulence and disruption that can happen when changes are made to a high-stakes qualification. The Government are proposing change on a much greater scale and the risks are correspondingly higher. We are concerned that rushing through multiple fundamental changes could jeopardise the quality of the reforms and the stability of the wider exam system. The Committee has particular concerns about how well the Government’s proposals will serve lower-attaining pupils, who are often the most disadvantaged. It is unclear how raising the bar will automatically help those young people, and we call on the Government to rethink their plans for a statement of achievement, specifically for lower-attaining pupils, as it could be less useful to young people than a low-grade GCSE or alternative qualification. It must not be allowed to become a badge of failure. One of the Government’s stated priorities—rightly so—is to narrow the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students. We have not seen evidence to suggest that EBCs will do that any better than GCSEs already do.

The Committee agrees that changes are needed to the way exams are run. We concluded in our report last year that the current system leads to downward pressure on standards. All options for reform, including franchising subjects to exam boards, have benefits and drawbacks. Our concern is that the Government need to give proper consideration to the likely unintended consequences of franchising, as well as to the complexities of the tendering process. Today’s west coast main line news shows how easy it is for Governments to get that wrong, and the profound and expensive consequences that can arise.

Significant concerns about the Government’s proposals have been expressed by curriculum and assessment experts, including the chief regulator at Ofqual, and by employers and key figures in the arts world. The Secretary of State told us that

“if a red light flashes, we will take account of it.”

What we are saying to the Secretary of State today with our report is that we believe a red light is indeed flashing, and we call on the Government to take time for careful consideration, slow the pace of change and ensure that their reforms are built to last.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Chair and the rest of the Committee for their report. Does he agree that the problem with the Secretary of State’s EBC proposals is that although there is a consensus that we need reform to exams at 16, this is the wrong reform, being done to the wrong timetable and being done the wrong way round, because we do not yet know what the curriculum is? As a former teacher and educator who went through this kind of change when GCSEs were introduced after O-levels, I cannot, for the life of me, see how this change can actually take place. Even if it does, I cannot see how it can last for long. Without proper piloting and proper consensus across the educational and political worlds, these major high-stake exam reforms just do not last, as we know from experience. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be better if the Secretary of State listened to what the Committee said, scrapped this particular proposal and worked together across the piece for a lasting reform that will command a broad consensus and would be proofed against any future political changes?

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invention and I certainly agree with his last point. Let us be clear that the Select Committee’s report does not say that the Government should necessarily scrap the reforms but that they should make the case for them. They need to prove that the GCSE brand is so fundamentally broken that it cannot be reformed. It seemed to us to be difficult to see what was so intrinsic to the GCSE in the core subjects that could not be repaired with the right approach.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to highlight the need for consensus. Some 650,000 children a year move through our education system and there are nearly 500,000 teachers in state schools. This is a mammoth enterprise and not something to which we can make quick changes. The repercussions will go on for a long time and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it well if I chide his party by pointing out what happened with the diploma. Then, we had a Secretary of State who was determined to bring about change and who rightly identified the need to improve vocational education and qualifications in this country, but the assessment and exam experts said that he was going at an unrealistic pace, suggested that he slowed down and said that there was a risk that the tremendous legacy of transforming vocational education in this country could end up withering on the vine. That is exactly what happened. The children who took the diploma will have a certificate that employers will struggle to recognise in a few years’ time, vast amounts of public money were expended and those in the education system who marched to that tune and worked so hard to bring colleges and schools together to deliver the diploma have been left high and dry. We do not want to see that happen to these reforms, which are even more fundamental to the education system. We do not want the reforms brought in by this Secretary of State to go the way of the diploma.

We need only to look back to last year and the English GCSE furore. The judge in the judicial review has not yet pronounced, so I hesitate to talk too much about it, but many of the problems arose from the fact that the previous Government decided to change what was taught, how it was taught, who assessed it and how it was assessed all at once. That caused what happened in 2012 and whenever that many changes are made to a qualification, there is turbulence and volatility. That is why we saw so many schools with a history of doing well suddenly doing badly. The first EBCs will be taught in 2015 if the Government proceed according to their current timetable, so the timing will be tight. This will be a much bigger reform than that of the English GCSE last year and the risks and downsides are great.

We are not saying that the Government have necessarily got it wrong and we agree broadly with their critique of the existing situation. We also agree about the need for more rigour, for reform and for world-class qualifications at 16 to be put in place. We are questioning whether these particular reforms and the abolition of GCSEs in the core subjects need necessarily go ahead. We remain to be convinced of that argument.

A major secondary issue, which is probably less likely to be picked up by the press but could prove phenomenally significant, is the move to franchising. In effect, that gives us an insight into why the timetable is so truncated. Awarding bodies have not seen the outcome of the revised curriculum and therefore do not know exactly what they are supposed to teach, but they are having to design the new qualifications now. They will thereby effectively control the curriculum, rather than schools and educators. The awarding bodies are designing the qualifications now and the timetable means that a winner will be chosen for each of the core subjects by this summer. The Secretary of State will pick a winner who will stay in place for five years. What happens at the end of that time? It brings up a lot of questions.

If everybody who has expertise in assessment in English works for one board and if quite a lot of people retire because they are not prepared to move, meaning that we lose expertise, will there be genuine competition at the end of that five years? Or will we simply have created a monopoly in certain subjects for certain awarding bodies? What about flexibility during that time? What if changes need to be introduced? Will the spec that the Secretary of State chooses this summer have to be fixed in place for five years? We do not really know the detail—there is an awful lot that we do not know—and it important that we get this right.

I want this evangelising, driven, passionate and committed Secretary of State to be remembered as a tremendous, successful and reforming Secretary of State—there is every chance of that—but if he makes errors with the examinations that sit at the centre of our system, he will be remembered not in that way, but as having presided over something that did not work out. I do not want that to be the Secretary of State’s legacy and I certainly do not want it to be legacy of this Government, but I know that Education Ministers are champions who will want to ensure that we get this right, as will the Secretary of State himself.

Question put and agreed to.