Education: Reform of GCSEs — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 11th June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:10 pm, 11th June 2013

My Lords, with your permission, I should like to repeat a Statement on the future of examinations. The Statement is as follows.

“There is now a widespread consensus, underpinned by today’s authoritative report from the Education Select Committee, that we need to reform our examination system to restore public confidence. That is why today we are publishing draft details of new GCSE content in core academic subjects and the independent regulator Ofqual is publishing its own consultation on the regulation of reformed GCSEs.

We are publishing the draft content in English, maths, science, history, geography and modern and ancient languages alongside this Statement. We will consult on that content over the next 10 weeks. We expect that these subjects, with the exception of languages, should be ready for first teaching in September 2015, with the first exams being taken in the summer of 2017. Languages and other subjects should follow soon after with first teaching from September 2016 and first exams being taken from the summer of 2018.

The new subject content published today has been drawn up in collaboration with distinguished subject experts, many of whom have expertise and experience in teaching, and we would like to thank them all. In line with our changes to the national curriculum, the new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That means more extended writing in subjects such as English and history, more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science, and more testing of mathematics within science GCSEs to improve progression to A-levels. It also means more challenging mechanics problems in physics, a stronger focus on evolution and genetics in biology and a greater focus on foreign language composition so that pupils require deeper language skills.

The higher level of demand should equip our children to go on to higher education or a good apprenticeship. We can raise the bar confidently knowing that we have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools to help students achieve more than ever before. Our education reforms, the growth in the number of academies and free schools, the improvements in teacher recruitment and training as well as sharper accountability from improved league tables and a strengthened Ofsted are raising standards in state schools. This means that new GCSEs will remain universal qualifications—accessible, with good teaching, to the same proportion of pupils as now.

The specifications that we are publishing today also give awarding organisations a clearer indication of our expectations in each subject. Under the previous system specifications were too vague. This caused suspicion and speculation that some exam boards were ‘harder’ than others, undermining the credibility of the exam system as a whole. Including more detail in our requirements for subject content should ensure greater consistency and fairness across subjects and between exam boards. We hope that by reducing variability in the system we can ensure that all young people leave school with qualifications respected by employers, universities and further education.

While making GCSE content more rigorous we must also correct the structural problems with GCSEs that the coalition Government inherited. As today’s report from the Select Committee confirms, the problems with English GCSEs generated last summer proved beyond any doubt that the current system requires reform. Both the Select Committee report and Ofqual recognise that controlled assessment, which counted for 60% of the English GCSE qualification, undermined the reliability of the assessment as a whole. That is why I asked Ofqual to review the regulatory framework for GCSEs, to judge how we might limit coursework and controlled assessment and to reflect on how we could lift the cap on aspiration by reducing the two-tier structure of some GCSEs. I have also asked Ofqual to explore how we might reform our grading structure, better to reflect the full range of student ability and reward the very best performance.

Ofqual’s consultation sets out how reformed GCSEs can be more rigorous and stretching and encourage students to develop and demonstrate deep understanding. It is proposed that coursework and controlled assessment will largely be replaced by linear, externally marked end-of-course exams. It is proposed that the current two-tier system will end except where it is absolutely essential, in maths and science. In those subjects, Ofqual is consulting on how to improve the current arrangements to deal with the concerns that we have expressed about capping aspiration. Ofqual is also consulting on a new grading system which gives fairer recognition to the whole ability range.

Young people in this country deserve an education system that can compete with the best in the world, a system that sets and achieves higher expectations. Today’s reforms are essential to achieve this goal. By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling and more stretching, we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education that will equip them to win in the global race. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:16 pm, 11th June 2013

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement today. He will know that the department and the Secretary of State have a rather chequered history on education reform—less about linear reform and more about stops, starts and U-turns. It has been difficult for politicians to keep up with his thinking, let alone the head teachers who have to plan for the changes, the teachers who have to deliver those changes and the parents who would like to understand what is to be expected of their child. As a result, a great deal of cynicism and anger has developed about the mixed messages coming out of the department, the pace of change now being demanded and the lack of engagement with the profession prior to the curriculum changes being published.

For example, the Minister talked about the involvement of distinguished subject experts in drawing up the subject content, but he will know that there is a great deal of discontent among those very advisers that their advice was ignored and that they did not recognise the final subject drafts being published. There was even some suggestion that the Secretary of State had removed some of the advisers at a late stage and taken on the task himself. What reassurance can the Minister provide that the draft subject content is genuinely based on the best external advice available and receives their broad support?

Secondly, there is a real concern that the views of parents were not properly sought before these changes were announced. Most parents are passionate about their children’s education and well positioned to know what excites and inspires their child at school. They want to know that standards will apply across the sector—not one rule for academies and another for maintained schools; they worry that unqualified teachers are being allowed back into classrooms by this Government; and they want to be reassured that any new curriculum will provide their child with the qualifications and skills to get decent employment in the future. What steps have been taken to give parents a real and powerful voice in the final shaping of these proposals before they are agreed?

Thirdly, the Minister will know that in the past business leaders and the CBI have expressed concerns that the emphasis on learning and repeating facts that is now being proposed, rather than understanding the importance of collaborative working and creative thinking, are taking the curriculum proposals in the wrong direction and not producing young people with the soft skills necessary in today’s business world. To what extent have the future employers of these young people been involved in drafting the curriculum proposals, and do these now meet with their approval?

Fourthly, the Government are already committed to raising the participation and school-leaving age to 18. This is a policy that we also endorse. However, these proposals cover only the teaching provision to 16. Does the Minister agree that it would have been better to review the curriculum and assessment provisions in a streamlined way through to school-leaving age, rather than approaching it in this piecemeal way? What thought is being given to providing a meaningful education to young people who do not want to study the traditional academic A-level route and who would prefer a quality vocational offer, particularly those in the 16-to-18 range? How does this fit in with these proposals?

We all share the determination to have high standards and rigour in our teaching and assessment of young people. We are proud of our record of driving up standards in the past—the Secretary of State has previously acknowledged our record in this regard—and we support the reform of controlled assessment of coursework in examinations. Clearly, everyone has to have confidence that assessments are carried out objectively and rigorously, but we very much oppose the move back to assessment purely at the end-of-course exams. The Minister spoke of a “cram and forget” culture in exams, but that is the inevitable feature of measurement by exams.

A three-hour exam can never give a child a chance to show all they have learnt over a two-year course, nor can it show the depth of understanding that they can demonstrate in a well-structured piece of coursework. A minority of children will have an innate talent for learning and regurgitating facts. Good for them; we wish them well; but that is not how most children learn or show their abilities, and these are not necessarily the skills that employers want either. The answer has to be a mix of assessment methods to ensure a fair outcome. Can the Minister therefore explain the evidence by which this major change in assessment has come about and what consultation will continue to take place on whether it is fair and viable?

Once again the department has been guilty of rushing out proposals which have major consequences for the next generation of young people. There should be a national debate on the implications and a genuine commitment from the Government to listen and change. Sadly, this department does not have a great record on meaningful consultation, but I hope on this occasion the Minister can reassure this House that there will be a full opportunity to influence the eventual outcome of these changes within both this House and the country before a final decision is taken.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:22 pm, 11th June 2013

I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s comments. I was rather surprised to be asked to make this Statement because it seemed to be one more opportunity to highlight the grade-inflation confidence trick that the previous Government pulled on the public of this country. It is true that grade inflation has been going on for a long time. According to a detailed study by King’s College London and Durham University, over the past 30 years-plus in maths the attainment levels have hardly moved, yet the number achieving grade C in maths GCSE has gone up from 22% to 55%. Between 2006 and 2009 achievement at grade C in English and maths increased by eight percentage points, defying all international evidence about the actual levels of achievement. We all know that the current system suffers from dumbing down and grade inflation and that the modular system has much more potential for manipulation. The blowing up of English last summer was the last straw in providing evidence in relation to this. It is not a question of whether we should do it; we must do it, and we must do it now if we are to render our education system competitive in the international world.

We have listened and we will continue to listen. This is a genuine consultation. We have consulted numerous experts, from Dr Anthony Ashmore, Dr Helen Drury, Lynne McClure, Professor Black, Eleanor Rawling to Charlie Stripp and many others. We have consulted parents and businesses. Businesses have been consistent in their claim that the curriculum is not fit for purpose—42% of employers have to provide remedial training for school leavers; eight out of 10 small businesses do not believe that school leavers are ready for work. The Institute of Directors has confirmed that the value of a GCSE has declined, and the British Chamber of Commerce says that school leavers’ literacy and numeracy are inadequate. In science, the Royal Society of Chemistry has called the decline in science a “catastrophic slippage”. Again, there is no doubt that we have taken this on board. Businesses want pupils to have better literacy and numeracy skills, which these more rigorous exams will provide.

Vocational training is right at the top of the Government’s priorities. The first thing we did when we came to power was to commission Professor Alison Wolf to do an analysis of the over 4,000 vocational subjects, many of which were so-called “equivalents”; this equivalence was another attempt to make the education system look better than it was. We have rigorously gone through those qualifications and reduced them to fewer than 200: those which are seriously valued by employers. We are introducing the TechBac, and have consistently compared our exam system with international systems and found it wanting.

We must drive stimulus in the system for better education. By doing that, in two years alone we have increased the take-up of the English baccalaureate from 22% to 48%. It is absolutely clear that our pupils are capable of far more than we have hitherto asked of them. Nothing I have seen has made me think anything other than that. It is high time that we reformed these exams. We have been accused of doing too much too fast. We have fallen so far down the international league tables that, in order for our education system and our country to be competitive, we must move to make substantial changes now.

Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench 3:26 pm, 11th June 2013

My Lords, I welcome the Statement from the Minister, and the fact that it has come now. Generations of students should benefit as soon as possible from the potential progress that we have marked here.

On a specific point, I welcome the attention to assessment, reflecting the whole range of ability and achievement in our school population. We have been failing to do this, which has been a disincentive to some of our most able pupils. The Minister will be aware of the success of Finland in the PISA international comparisons. Is he equally aware that one of the elements contributing to that success has been an attempt to ensure that the curriculum is more rigorous and detailed? I assume that these are the principles underlying what we have heard today.

Finally, can the Minister reassure us that the policy issues raised here will in fact be assessed, and that evidence as to whether or not they work will be presented to the House in due course?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments; I know that he is extremely well informed on these matters. I was aware of the success of Finland. We believe that Ofqual, particularly after its performance on the English exams, is now a rigorous organisation. The various assessment techniques it is consulting on—one in particular—will be rigorous.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat

My noble friend is absolutely right to say that we need to have a rigorous examination system in which employers, universities, parents and even pupils have confidence and which is as challenging as that in any other country. I am delighted that we are not going back to a two-tier system; that was important to my colleagues.

I have two questions. An exam is hugely important to the pupil sitting it. It can make or break their life chances and expectations. At the moment you go into an exam, you might have great emotional problems. Young girls or young women can be starting their period, which can be devastating for them when they sit their exam. I hope that Ofqual will look at giving support to those pupils in terms of resits.

My second question follows on from the comments made by noble Lords opposite. How do we consult with parents? We bandy around the phrase, “We must consult with parents”, but how is that consultation carried out? Have we ever thought of consulting pupils themselves? They have great experience of exams.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am very interested in my noble friend’s comments. I know that he has vast experience as a teacher. On his last point, I recently read a very interesting report from America, which said that lesson observation was not the best way of working out whether teachers were teaching well; the best way to do that was through exam results and pupil feedback. My noble friend makes a very good point. In relation to pupils who maybe experience particular difficulties with resits, I will take this away for consideration.

Photo of Baroness Wall of New Barnet Baroness Wall of New Barnet Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s Statement. I am involved in skills and in working with employers, and as late as yesterday I hosted an event here for employers who deal with STEM subjects. The information the Minister shared with us is very much in tune with what is being experienced out there.

My first point follows on from the comments about how we engage parents. A key thing that came out from the meeting yesterday was how we persuade parents that the vocational route is as good, as well qualified and as valuable as the academic route, which my Government and previous Governments have endeavoured to take more people through. That is hugely important. When young people look at apprenticeships, very often their parents will suggest that they are the least best option, let alone the message that comes from schools, where career advice is now non-existent, and Connexions has gone—not that I was a great admirer of it; it had lots of faults. However, if we are to get UK plc working in the way it should do, and being as productive and profitable as it needs to be, employers need to know that they have support from parents as well as government and themselves, ensuring that the skills and vocational techniques that apprentices require are just as important.

Secondly, although the Minister has been very sceptical about equating GCSEs with vocational NVQ qualifications, that has made a difference, because it has allowed parents to measure in some way, however accurate the measurement, the value of what their children are learning. I hope that they will also be brought to a productive employment future.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Baroness makes some very good points. It is essential that we now make sure that our vocational qualifications are seen by all— employers, parents and students—as being as rigorous as academic qualifications and equally valuable. The Alison Wolf review, which suggests that we focus down on a core—although still substantial—number of vocational qualifications, is helpful here. However, we started from a very low base. You could get a diploma in a subject—I will not mention the name—which required no examinations at all because it was assessed entirely by continuous assessment. That counted as four GCSE equivalents. We clearly had got to a point where the system of equivalents was out of control. However, we need to see more rigorous vocational qualifications—and the UTC programme is very focused on this. We are seeing pupils, aged 14 and 16, going to UTCs which offer extremely rigorous vocational qualifications, and we need to spread this practice into schools as well.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. I welcome the Government’s intention to introduce more rigour in foreign languages at GCSE. However, there seems little point in improving the system if very large numbers of pupils are effectively disfranchised from access to it. What can the Minister tell the House about the Government’s intention in relation to the pupils in the 20% of state schools that have condensed key stage 3 into only two years, meaning that there are tens of thousands of pupils who do no languages at all after the age of 13, and who therefore have no chance of taking a language at GCSE, improved or otherwise?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Yes, there are quite a few schools that take GCSEs over three years. It is a technique that troubles me a bit personally because we all know that if key stage 3 was better and not the kind of desert it can be, more pupils would do it. The noble Baroness makes a very good point: we are short of language teachers. We have put bursaries in place to encourage language teachers with good degrees into the system, but I will take her points on board.

Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench

My Lords, further to same point, if the new GCSEs are to have a fair chance, will the Government ensure that the timetable for their introduction fully respects the need for teachers right across the board—not just of foreign languages—to be brought up to speed wherever necessary? Is the Minister satisfied that the revised GCSEs respect the special importance of maths and English as underpinning all the other subjects in the examination system?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord makes a very good point. On the timetable, we are now consulting on the subject content and Ofqual is consulting on the regulations. The consultation on subject content ends on 20 August and Ofqual’s consultation ends two weeks later. We plan to publish final versions of both in September or October. The awarding organisations then have about six months to develop their detailed subject specifications and it will take approximately six months for those to be accredited by Ofqual. The full subject specifications should, therefore, be available in September 2014 for first teaching in September 2015 in all the subjects we have mentioned except languages, where first teaching will not be until September 2016. We believe that is ample time for teachers to prepare.

On the point about English and maths going through the curriculum, spelling, punctuation and grammar are worth 5% of marks in history, geography and English literature, and we have increased that to 20% in English language. In science, we are making sure that maths is much more prevalent.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, coursework is a very valuable and flexible means of teaching but it is notoriously difficult to moderate, certainly in history and geography and doubtless in other subjects. The decision to withdraw weight from that element of examination marking is very welcome. The period chosen for the forthcoming consultation coincides with the most disrupted period of timetabling in the secondary sector and the peak workload of the examination authorities, on whose contribution there should also, presumably, be consultation. It also, of course, coincides with the holidays. Is the noble Lord certain that this period is long enough?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We believe it will be long enough. It is important that schools can see the full picture of reform to GCSEs, A-levels, the curriculum and the accountability framework at the same time. As I said, we do not think it is fair on pupils to continue with the current system for any longer than we need to.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that certain groups, such as those with dyslexia or other learning difficulties—I declare an interest here—find coursework a much easier way of accessing an exam result? If it is to be downgraded, will my noble friend give me an assurance that the Government have done a detailed study of what assistance has to be given in examinations, which account for more and more of the marks, to enable this group to pass basic examinations and to access further and higher education, where they have proved that they can succeed? If my noble friend can tell me what has happened, I will be very happy. If he cannot, perhaps he will give me an idea of what type of consultation will be done so that the most modern and up-to-date techniques, such as voice to text and text to voice, might be used to allow these people to access exams on an even footing. We have already heard that we are taking spelling into account. Will the Minister give some indication of what we are doing for this very big group in our society?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My noble friend makes a very good point. We have consulted with organisations representing SEN groups. The points he makes, particularly in relation to voice and text, are technical and something that we should discuss in detail on a separate occasion. It is very important that we make sure that we have consulted all the right people on this difficult matter.

Photo of Lord Sanderson of Bowden Lord Sanderson of Bowden Conservative

Will my noble friend tell me whether in his consultation he will consult the devolved authorities in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and whether there is the slightest chance that they will go along with our plans?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We intend to consult and we would like to reach a consensus. However, it will take all parties to achieve it.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Labour

My Lords, I record an interest as having been, many decades ago, an unqualified teacher. I may tell the Minister that in that job I was not equivalent to a professionally qualified teacher and doctor, who was given the pupils with learning and behavioural difficulties to keep him out of the way. I worry about the Government’s approach to professional training for teachers. Like other noble Lords, I am sure, I came across people who were trained after the Second World War, straight out of the forces. Some of them became good teachers, but many of them became dreadful teachers because they knew little about the education process or the development of children.

Will the Minister also be prepared to listen to representations on the problems of summer-born children and their ability to resit examinations, because they can be a full year younger than the rest of the cohort?

Will the Minister give an answer to another question, even if he is not able to reply now? There is deep concern in agriculture and horticulture that the department removed the qualification. How quickly will it be brought back?

Finally, will the Minister insist that when the consultation goes ahead, it will take into account the interests of pupils, and with the right timing for the training of teachers? Even if we all agree that the changes are right, the turnaround time can be damaging to the group of children who are going through the key years when the changes are taking place.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. It is true that we now have the best generation of teachers that we have ever had. However, clearly we need to do more to improve teacher training, which in this country is very patchy. We need both to improve our TT colleges’ standards generally and have more training in schools.

I am aware of the issue of summer-born children and have seen the statistics, which are stark. I would be delighted to discuss the matter further to make sure that this is properly taken into account. The same goes for the agricultural and horticultural industries.

We believe that the turnaround time is long enough, but we will make sure that all head teachers are aware of the issue of the crossover turnaround time.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his earlier reply, in which he said that there will be discussions with the devolved Assemblies on the implications of these important reforms. May I ask him about the underlying spirit of these discussions? The Minister for Education in the Northern Ireland Executive—ironically, in this context, a Sinn Fein Minister—has said that he wants to see uniformity of standards maintained throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister reassure the House that this will also be the approach of the Government of the United Kingdom? These will be difficult discussions, but I hope the Minister can shed some light on the principles with which the Government will approach them.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord makes a good point. The principles will be based on a strong attempt to achieve a uniformity of standards, consistent with our belief that this system of standards must be a rigorous one.