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Clause 125

– in a Public Bill Committee at 7:58 pm on 24th March 2009.

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

I beg to move amendment 60, in clause 125, page 71, line 18, at end insert—

‘(f) the educational standards and performance objective.’.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendments 334, in clause 125, page 71, line 18, at end insert—

‘(f) the timeliness objective.’.

Amendment 36, in clause 125, page 71, line 23, at end insert—

‘(c) maintain standards.’.

Amendment 41, in clause 125, page 71, line 23, at end insert—

‘(c) set out a range of comparators with qualifications in other countries specified by regulation.’.

Amendment 139, in clause 125, page 71, line 26, after ‘achievement’, insert ‘and knowledge’.

Amendment 37, in clause 125, page 71, line 28, at end insert—

‘(c) maintain standards.’.

Amendment 42, in clause 125, page 71, line 28, at end insert—

‘(c) sets out a range of comparators with qualifications in other countries specified by regulation.’.

Amendment 38, in clause 125, page 71, line 28, at end insert—

‘(3A) For the purposes of subsections (2)(c) and (3)(c), Ofqual shall publish annually its methodology for determining whether standards have been maintained over periods of (a) 20 years, (b) ten years and (c) five years.’.

Amendment 62, in clause 125, page 71, line 28, at end insert—

‘(c) allow for an objective assessment of how educational standards have changed over time.’.

Amendment 63, in clause 125, page 71, line 28, at end insert—

‘(3A) In order to deliver the assessments standards objectives, Ofqual shall undertake, within 18 months of its establishment, a full review of changes in assessment standards since 1988.’.

Amendment 64, in clause 125, page 71, line 30, at end insert

‘and in the independence, objectivity and credibility of Ofqual.’.

Amendment 219, in clause 125, page 71, line 30, at end insert ‘over time’.

Amendment 65, in clause 125, page 71, line 30, at end insert

‘and in pursuit of this objective Ofqual shall carry out each year sample testing of cohorts at Key Stage 2, 3 and 4 in English and Maths on a basis that will facilitate credible evaluation of changes in levels of achievement in these subjects over time.’.

Amendment 427, in clause 125, page 71, line 34, leave out ‘and’.

Amendment 428, in clause 125, page 71, line 36, at end insert ‘, and

(d) the range of criteria and indicators which underpin any attainment and achievement tables published by Ofqual.’.

Amendment 557, in clause 125, page 71, line 37, leave out ‘regulated qualifications are provided’ and insert ‘the market for regulated qualifications operates’.

Amendment 32, in clause 125, page 71, line 37, after ‘provided’, insert ‘on a timely basis and’.

Amendment 335, in clause 125, page 72, line 2, at end insert—

‘(7) The timeliness objective is to ensure that Ofqual carries out its functions in a timely manner that facilitates the delivery of qualifications on time.’.

Amendment 61, in clause 125, page 72, line 2, at end add—

‘(7) The educational standards and performance objective is to monitor educational standards and performance as a whole in England, to report on how standards and performance are changing over time, and to make comparisons between educational standards and performance in England and in other OECD countries.

(8) In order to deliver the educational standards objective, Ofqual shall carry out sample testing on an annual basis in selected subjects, and shall report annually on changes in educational standards and performance in England and between England and other OECD countries.’.

Amendment 31, in clause 125, page 72, line 2, at end add—

‘(7) Ofqual shall conduct annually a poll of a statistically significant sample of secondary school students to determine the proportion of students who believe that students work harder than ever to gain specified qualifications.’.

Amendment 39, in clause 125, page 72, line 2, at end insert—

‘(7) Ofqual shall conduct annually a poll of a statistically significant sample of secondary school teachers to determine the proportion of teachers who believe that students work harder than ever to gain specified qualifications.’.

Amendment 43, in clause 125, page 72, line 2, at end add—

‘(7) For the purpose of assessing the effectiveness of Ofqual in carrying out its duties in subsection (1)(a), (b) and (c), Ofqual shall establish specific and measurable success criteria for these objectives.’.

Amendment 81, in clause 125, page 72, line 2, at end add—

‘(7) In delivering its efficiency duty, Ofqual shall publish annually the criteria that will be used to make judgements about the efficiency of regulated qualifications.’.

Amendment 35, in clause 162, page 88, line 37, at end insert

‘and the outcome of the specific and measurable success criteria established in section 125(7)’.

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

For those who are keen to make rapid progress, that list of amendments suggests that clause 125 is another part of the Bill with which we have serious concerns that we want to raise this evening. Indeed, it is arguably even more important in its impact on Ofqual’s role as well as its governance and independence than schedule 9 and clause 124. Clause 125 addresses the crucial objectives that it must meet as a regulator, and subsection (1) sets out those objectives, which are:

“(a) the qualifications standards objective,

(b) the assessments standards objective,

(c) the public confidence objective,

(d) the awareness objective, and

(e) the efficiency objective.”

With all those objectives, one would have thought that the Government would have covered the main concerns relating to the standards that could be expected of a body such as Ofqual. Unfortunately, they have not set the right objectives for Ofqual and, in particular, they have defined too narrowly Ofqual’s role in assessing standards. It is for that reason that we do not believe that Ofqual, in its existing form, will be successful in doing what the Secretary of State seems to want and ending the annual debate about standards in British examinations and dumbing down.

As we have said on other occasions, we are particularly disappointed that the Government have not addressed many of the criticisms of standards set out in the excellent report by the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, entitled “Testing and Assessment”. The Committee was clear about the potential variation between the apparent education standards that are highlighted by the regulated qualifications that we have in this country and the underlying measures of educational performance, standards and effectiveness. In paragraph 250, the Committee concluded that

“the Government has failed to address the issue of the standards themselves. In the context of the current testing system, with its ever-changing curriculum and endless test reforms, no regulator, however independent, can assure assessment standards as they are not capable of accurate measurement using the data available. Until the Government allows for standardised sample testing for monitoring purposes, the regulator will be left without the tools required to fulfil its primary function.”

Essentially, the Committee argued that because examination standards and the nature of examinations had changed so much over time, and because of the pressure of comparability brought about by test reform, the targets set by the Government and the different assessment standards used at different times, it was impossible to use one examination, or even a number of examinations, to form an objective assessment of standards over time or at any point in time. It is because of the fundamental uncertainty in the public’s mind, and in the debate on education standards about whether the results of examinations tell us something about educational standards per se, teaching to the test, the dumbing down of qualifications and assessment, or some other change in the mechanism that creates test results—that includes the increased focus because of Government strategies to force school improvement—that we have  the debate about dumbing down each year. Because of all that, the public have no confidence in results as a measure of educational standards.

In their response to the Committee’s report, the Government were commendably honest. In paragraph 50, on page 12, they say not only that they do not accept the Committee’s recommendations on sample testing but, in commendably clear terms, that

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

That is extremely clear and one of the reasons why we are unhappy with these measures. Essentially, we believe that there needs to be a body that is able to monitor and track standards over time. That body should be able to ensure that different qualifications are consistent between themselves and over time through the way in which it measures standards as well as measuring those standards separately from changes in the qualifications.

One of our concerns when we took evidence on this matter a couple of weeks ago was whether Ofqual would be able—even over time—to develop into a more independent body capable of the wider role that the Government do not presently envisage in monitoring overall educational standards. Our amendments seek to address the wider role that we think Ofqual should have, giving it powers and duties to carry out the sample cohort testing that we think will be necessary to create an assessment of what is happening to underlying educational standards.

When we took evidence on this issue we had ambiguous and arguably mutually inconsistent statements from those who gave evidence. On 3 March we heard from Kathleen Tattersall of Ofqual, who indicated that Ofqual does not necessarily need an explicit power in this area. She said:

“My understanding of the legislation is that we are not precluded from such thoughts down the line”.——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 66, Q175.]

However, she did not think it necessary to put those powers in this particular Bill. I would hope that if Ofqual was determined to prove itself to be a regulator and watchdog with teeth, it would want to take those powers and would push to do so. I was reassured by Kathleen Tattersall’s view that the legislation did not preclude Ofqual pursuing that type of strategy over a period of time. That was not what we were told by the right hon. Member for South Dorset when we took evidence from him on 10 March. When he was questioned about sample testing, he said:

“As Ministers, we want to decide whether it is appropriate to hold standardised sampling tests whereby the same test is taken every year by different cohorts of children.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 10 March 2009; c. 163, Q375.]

In other words, the right hon. Gentleman did not think it appropriate that Ofqual should simply take such powers of its own accord. Clearly the Minister felt, for whatever reason, that it would be the duty and responsibility of Ministers to be clear whether cohort testing was used, as well as the existing qualifications testing, so that we could figure out whether standards were improving or declining over time.

Then, however, a couple of questions later we heard from the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, who was much more open to the possibility of using the type of standardised sampling testing that her colleague, the Minister for Schools and Learners, the right hon. Member for South Dorset, appeared to have ruled out just a few questions before. The hon. Lady had said:

“There is nothing in the Bill preventing Ofqual from doing standardised sampling if that is the way that it wishes to fulfil its duties. It will be up to Ofqual to decide whether that is the best way.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 10 March 2009; c. 163, Q378.]

The hon. Lady went on to make it clear that there is nothing to stop Ofqual carrying out sample testing if it wishes to do so. I was encouraged by the hon. Lady’s openness to the possibility that Ofqual might want to do that, because it indicates that she might have in the back of her mind the possibility that Ofqual may over time develop into a body that is able to take a wider view of its responsibilities in relation to monitoring standards. Some amendments touch directly on this. However, I would appreciate clarification from Ministers on what the actual position is. Is it the Portsmouth, North position, which is that—though this is not embedded in the Bill—it is perfectly acceptable if Ofqual want to carry out this type of standardised testing? Or is the position as described from Dorset South, which is that it is appropriate only for Ministers to make such decisions?

When I had a conversation with Ofqual some months ago, it seemed to me that although it had not necessarily thought through this issue in detail it was at least open to the possibility that, in time, it might use such measures. At the very least, I want to ensure that the Government are clear that if Ofqual wishes to do so then it should be allowed to do so.

One issue that is crucial and ties together a number of these amendments is what we mean by educational standards. We have heard from the Government’s response to the Select Committee report, that the Bill and the establishment of Ofqual is designed to create a body not to objectively look at educational standards as a whole, but to regulate the existing qualifications framework. The potential for differences between what is implied from changes in exam results in terms of regulator’s qualifications and what might be assumed about underlying standards is very important and quite topical.

I noticed at the end of last week that Mike Creswell, the director-general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, issued a number of public comments and warnings about the introduction of the modular system for GCSEs, which is being brought in from September. The modular system will allow the GCSEs to be taken over a period of time, module by module. Moreover, it will allow for quite a number of retakes. I cannot remember exactly how many, but potentially quite a few. Dr. Creswell said that pass rates rise when a modular system is introduced. He said that such a rise would lead to direct concerns about standards. He referred to the widespread view that standards are being eroded.

Dr. Creswell pointed to international evidence that suggested that modular exams increased the results. He said that everywhere in the world, pass rates seem to rise when a modular system is introduced. Such a rise is not  particular to GCSEs and A levels. He went on to mention how students can achieve higher results, which creates the appearance of educational standards improving, when modular qualifications are introduced. We took evidence from Katherine Tattersall on that issue when she was in front of the Committee. I asked her if she would

“expect a cohort with the same abilities that had previously gone through under the old qualification to get the same broad distribution of grades in the new examination, even if its composition, modules and coursework has changed?”

Kathleen Tattersall’s first answer was rather ambiguous. However, once I said that she could assume that the abilities of the cohort were identical to those of the previous cohort that had taken examinations under a non-modular system, Kathleen Tattersall replied by saying:

“Assuming that they are identical”— in other words, the cohort—

“in a very large cohort, you would expect a broadly similar pattern, even if there are some shifts because of the nature of the curriculum change or the accessibility of the examination, modules or whatever.”—[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 78, Q204.]

That was a relatively clear answer with studied ambiguity around the edges. It was a lot clearer than the Minister’s response to the same question. This is not some sort of theoretical question that is not going to emerge in the very near future. This is an issue that will arise in the very near future when the modular qualifications come in. If exam results rise, there is bound to be the suggestion that it is due to a “dumbing down” and a change in the assessment for these particular examinations. If we cannot get a clear view from the Minister on whether or not the intention is, as Kathleen Tattersall said, to keep the broad grade distribution similar after modular examinations come in or on whether the Government will allow the examination results to rise, as Mike Creswell suggested last week, we really will be in a horrific muddle in terms of what we mean by examination standards. Moreover, it may erode confidence in examination standards and in the job that Ofqual does to maintain those standards over a period of time. That challenge will arise very early in Ofqual’s period as an independent regulator, so meeting it will be crucial in determining if there is going to be confidence in the job that Ofqual does.

In that regard, I would like to draw attention to the explanatory notes to the Bill and to some of the comments in them about the job that Ofqual will be expected to do. In particular, I would like to draw attention to paragraphs 342 and 343, where there are extensive comments on what the duties of Ofqual will actually mean in relation to maintaining standards.

If you do not mind, Mrs. Humble, I will just read briefly some of those comments for the convenience of the Committee and for the record. Paragraph 342 of the explanatory notes says:

“Ofqual must perform its functions with the aim of ensuring that comparable qualifications and assessments — whether they are contemporaneous or delivered at different times — indicate a consistent level of attainment. If the requirements of a qualification have changed over time, perhaps because the requirements of the industry they relate to have evolved (this will be a particular issue in the IT industry, for example), it may be that a modern qualification  is not comparable with its predecessor and therefore that Ofqual does not have to secure a consistent level of attainment. But if two qualifications are comparable, Ofqual must act to ensure that they do indicate a consistent level of attainment.”

When the Minister responds later, I would be particularly grateful to know if this paragraph should be interpreted as meaning that, for example, in the case of modular qualifications there would be a duty to act to ensure a consistent level of attainment between the modular qualification and the predecessor non-modular qualification, or if the modular qualification in some way constitutes a new qualification, where there might be a permanent ratcheting up in the results that are accepted.

In paragraph 343, there is a description of the job that Ofqual will have to do, which is just as intriguing when it says:

“The standards of qualifications and assessments — the benchmarks against which learners are measured — are not the same thing as the standards of education more broadly. “Standards” in this first sense are like the height of a hurdle, and Ofqual’s objective is to keep that height consistent between comparable qualifications and assessments. Whilst it is generally a policy objective of the Government to improve the quality of teaching and learning such that the number of people able to jump the hurdle increases (which is how the term “standards” is more commonly used), that is not a concern of Ofqual’s under its standards objectives.”

So I would also like to be clear about precisely what that means and to what extent Ofqual will concentrate on comparability between qualifications that are available at any point in time, rather than ensuring that there is confidence about the general level at which the hurdle is being set and whether or not that hurdle is changing, in terms of its height, over time.

Those are two of our principal concerns. First, there is the fact that Ofqual’s role has been defined in such a narrow way, regulating specific qualifications rather than standards as a whole. Secondly, I would suggest that there is ambiguity and confusion in the Government about what the maintenance of standards, even in regulated qualifications, means over time.

Therefore, I would like to address some of the specific amendments, taking into account the fact that some of the comments I have already made really explain why we have tabled some of them.

Amendments 60 and 61 would add an overall responsibility for maintaining educational standards to Ofqual’s objectives. In other words, they would add to the five objectives, which are currently set down in clause 125(1)(a) to (e), a clearer objective for maintaining educational standards over time. We think that that is absolutely crucial if Ofqual is to do the job that most people would expect it to do, rather than this much narrower job that the Government have given it to do.

Amendment 61 would not only make it clear that there had to be an educational standards and performance objective, but would place a duty on Ofqual to carry out sample testing annually in selected subjects and to report on the changes in educational standards over time, comparing not only the standards in any one year with those of previous years, but standards in the United Kingdom with those in other OECD countries. We know that the Government’s line on that is that Ofsted is supposed to be carrying out an evaluation of school standards, but if the Minister is fair-minded and reasonable, she will not consider that Ofsted is remotely carrying that out or trying to carry it out in the way  envisaged in amendment 61, nor will she try to argue that the international surveys of educational performance are carried out on a reliable and consistent enough basis to serve as an excuse for Ofqual not doing the work itself. Those two amendments are extremely important to the wider role that we want Ofqual to have.

Amendment 62 would add to Ofqual’s objective for assessment standards a duty to ensure that its regulated assessments allowed for the monitoring of changing standards. In clause 125(3)(b), the objective set down in relation to assessment standards is that there should be

“a consistent level of attainment (including over time) between comparable assessments.”

Our point is that those assessments need to be not just about comparable assessments and comparable qualifications; they also need to be invariant to the changes in the composition or assessment standards for particular qualifications.

Amendment 63 would add the duty that Ofqual should review changes in assessment standards to date as part of its objectives. That is a very important point if Ofqual is to have any credibility in relation to the debate about what has happened to educational standards in the last decade or so. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned a number of studies that have commented on the change in educational standards in the last decade or so and he cited some quite important and independent evidence from commentators who believe that grades in GCSE, A-level and other qualifications today are not comparable to the grades from five, 10 or 15 years ago. For Ofqual to do its job effectively, there must be an expectation that it will not only try to make sensible judgments going forward, but will be able to inform us about what has been happening to standards in recent years, which is bound to be of public interest for a long time.

Amendment 64 would ensure that Ofqual had to demonstrate its independence and objectivity as part of the public confidence objective. In clause 125(4), there is a duty

“to promote public confidence in regulated qualifications and regulated assessment arrangements.”

It is vital that Ofqual delivers confidence not only in regulated qualifications, but in Ofqual as a body in terms of its independence, the integrity of those who work for it and its ability to challenge the Government, and in terms of the judgment that it makes about standards being broad and meaningful, not narrow and restricted in the way that the Government seem to envisage.

Amendment 65 would place an additional duty on Ofqual to carry out cohort testing to assess changes in standards over time. Depending on one’s point of view, it either complements or overlaps with amendment 61. Amendment 219, which—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

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

Unless there is any pressure from the Committee for me to recap my speech, I will finish up on the amendments that we were discussing. We were  up to amendment 219, which would add, to Ofqual’s objective of promoting public confidence in qualification, an assessment of standards over time, so that we are not looking at just one particular point. That would clarify clause 125 and the duties of Ofqual as they stand.

Amendments 427 and 428 would add a duty on Ofqual to publish the criteria that it may use for any attainment and achievement tables. That raises the important issue of whether the existing tables, which are generally produced by the Department, should be published with the scrutiny of Ofqual, and indeed, by Ofqual. It also invites the Government to consider the degree of openness about how those tables are pulled together and how the assessments are achieved.

Although some of the existing league table information that is published is imperfect in many respects, it is important, in terms of the public debate and accountability to parents. It would be useful if the details of the calculations involved were brought into the public domain. Proper publication of the criteria, with the opportunity for general academic and statistical debate, would potentially shine a light on the extremely grey area, with its huge impact on schools and colleges. The transfer of that function from the DCSF to the new regulator would also remove yet another area of suspicion from the public debate about standards, thereby increasing public confidence as well as meeting the awareness objective that amendments 427 and 428 deal with. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will see the benefit, not only of being open about the existing tables that have been published, but in considering and responding to the possibility, at some future stage, of having the tables and the information published by Ofqual, rather than by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I would like—to save time—to comment briefly on the amendments that have been tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. Amendments 334, 32 and 335 are about supporting the crucial timeliness objective, which bears on the issue of ensuring that Ofqual is not involved in rushing through qualifications that have not been properly considered. We will strongly support those amendments if the hon. Gentleman wishes to push them to a Division. Amendments 36 and 37 touch on the issue of the maintenance of standards, and we strongly support those amendments. They seek to clarify what is meant by the existing provisions in clause 125, which talk about standards between comparable regulated qualifications. We support amendments 41 and 42, which are about international comparisons, and amendment 38, which would require Ofqual to publish the standards that it uses on methodology. We have signed the hon. Gentleman’s amendment 557 on the market for regulated qualification to ensure that it has the characteristics of a market. We also support amendments 43, 81 and 35, which would require Ofqual to have measurable criteria to assess its success in meeting the various standards.

I hope that that has given some opportunity to raise what, we believe, are serious concerns about the objectives of Ofqual, and about the way in which it pursues those objectives. Without Government measures to address the concerns that we have, the establishment of Ofqual will be a failure and it will not bring about increased  confidence in educational standards among the public and others, which should, after all, be the prime objective of this part of the Bill.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 8:45 pm, 24th March 2009

Clause 125 sets out the objectives and duties of the new Ofqual organisation. There has clearly been a change of policy since the decision to establish Ofqual was announced in September 2007, because in the initial impact assessment, published in December 2007, the approach set out was that Ofqual would be a high-level regulator. The impact assessment refers to

“removing the examine each qualification specified by an awarding body” before it is accredited and placed on the national qualifications framework and the national database of accredited qualifications. The approach was to be to strengthen the focus on risk-based regulation, regulating at the highest level of the system and trusting awarding bodies to develop qualifications without micro-regulation but with robust monitoring systems in place. That approach seems to have been changed to the one in the DCSF letter of 10 October, which states:

“Ofqual will be able to strike the right balance between regulating at the level of awarding bodies...and at the level of an individual qualification.”

A brief explanation of the reasons for that change of policy would help the Committee in its deliberations on the clause.

Another oddity in the arrangements is the contorted explanation that the Government give for why the reforms are necessary. On the one hand, they say that standards have been rigorously maintained over the years and between exams, but on the other hand, they say that an independent regulator needs to be created to boost public confidence. That contortion ends up being a patronising view of public opinion and of employers and universities.

According to the Minister, the decline in public confidence is misplaced and is based on reading too many newspaper articles that are wrong. According to such a view, employers are wrong to complain about school leavers having lower levels of basic skills in literacy and maths; employers must simply have become more demanding in the skills that they are seeking. The independent schools are wrong to complain about GCSEs and their move to the IGCSE is, in the words of the Secretary of State, just a “marketing tool”. According to such a view, universities are wrong to say that they need remedial classes to bring new undergraduates up to minimum level of knowledge that they need to start university courses, because that is a consequence of the success of widening access.

Let me give one example of the sort of doublethink that I am talking about. Paragraph 4 of the DCSF September 2007 letter on a new model of regulation of qualifications states:

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

Considering the QCA’s robust independence and the Government’s confidence that standards have been maintained, one wonders what the need for reform is.  According to the Government, things are just dandy. However, that document goes on to state:

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

Well, the pesky public and their debates—how dare they have such opinions when the QCA provided reassurance.

The changes are all about finding a way of telling the public that standards are fine in a way that they will believe. That that is the prime object of new Ofqual was clear in the evidence of Kathleen Tattersall who said that

“Ofqual had been set ensure that there is a better understanding of the issue and to assure public confidence”.

Later, she said

“We have been set up to address issues of public confidence in the qualifications system.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c.70-71, Q184 and 185.]

I could spend the next 20 minutes listing report after report that demonstrates that standards in the main public exams have consistently been slipping over the years. Some examiners and educationalists even admit to it on the grounds that it is in support of a wider objective of widening access to qualifications and ensuring that pupils leave school with some evidence of achievement.

The 2007 study by the centre for evaluation and monitoring at Durham university is an important piece of work. It concluded:

“It seems clear from the data presented here that candidates of comparable ability are being awarded higher grades each year, both at A level where the trend has been consistent and substantial since 1988, and at GCSE where the change seems smaller and more intermittent.”

We know that those studies show that sixth-formers with the same ability awarded a C in the late 1980s would now be getting A. It is also clear that there is no consistency of standard between grades in different subjects. As Professor Tymms of the CEM at Durham said recently,

“We need to recognise that an A in physics may not be the same as an A in theatre studies. These things are not equivalent and we need to take that on board”.

Amendment 36 was therefore tabled to make Ofqual’s qualification standard explicit. It would add a duty to maintain standards. That is necessary because there appears to be some uncertainty about whether Ofqual is capable or even willing to fulfil the duty in clause 125(2)(b) which requires it to secure that qualifications

“indicate a consistent level of attainment (including over time) between comparable regulated qualifications.”

A newspaper story headlined, “Exam standards body unsure how to prevent dumbing-down” states:

“In minutes leaked to a Sunday newspaper, Ofqual chairwoman Kathleen Tattersall said there was no clear picture of how to maintain standards when new style exams are brought in this summer...According to the Observer, when addressing Ofqual board members, Mrs Tattersall said the body and exam boards ‘need to arrive at a clearer picture of what is meant by ‘maintaining standards’ when the structure of qualifications changes’.

‘These issues have implications for the revised A-levels, including the ASs in 2009, the new modular GCSEs and diplomas,’ she added.”

The chairman of Ofqual is saying that the new modular GCSEs, compared with the GCSE before modularisation, will make it difficult to ensure that standards are maintained.  Even in the first few months of its existence, while still a part of the QCA, Ofqual has been unable to prevent the QCA from pressing ahead with modularisation of GCSEs, despite the fact that one consequence of doing so was that Ofqual would not know how or whether it could establish that standards were being maintained.

Dr. Cresswell, whom the hon. Member for Yeovil also cited, is the director general of the exam board AQA. He said recently that the new modularised GCSE would be easier to pass because students can retake sections many times. The question is why Ofqual did not stop the QCA proceeding with modular GCSEs, particularly given the problems that they have caused with A levels.

Amendment 37 would amend clause 125(3) by adding the requirement to maintain standards in the assessment standard. Clause 125(3)(b) states that assessment should indicate consistency between comparable assessments. Consistency, like equality, can mean bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator, or it can mean levelling up. It appears that unless there is a statutory requirement to maintain standards, the Ofqual approach will be to level down.

In October last year, in response to reports that Edexcel was awarding C grades in its new science GCSE to pupils achieving only 20 per cent., Ofqual was asked to adjudicate after the three exam boards failed to reach agreement on the boundaries. According to The Guardian,

“On August 7, Ofqual’s acting chief executive, Isabel Nisbet, wrote to AQA’s director general Dr Mike Cresswell to say: ‘For the sake of this year1’s candidates, we consider it essential at this point to ensure the comparability of grade standards across awarding bodies...After considering various possibilities we have reluctantly concluded that the least problematic solution for this summer is for AQA to bring its grade C standards into line with the others’”— in other words, lower them. The article continues:

“In a written reply, Cresswell said it would only do so ‘on balance and under protest’.

He wrote: ‘AQA is extremely reluctant to adopt a standard for GCSE science which is less comparable with the past than it needs to be.’”

The Guardian went on to say,

“He added that Ofqual had made the request of AQA ‘rather than requesting the other awarding bodies to adopt standards more clearly in keeping with those of the past’.”

Dr. Cresswell told the Times Educational Supplement:

“I’m absolutely certain that standards between 2007 and 2008 could have been maintained more effectively.”

In a separate statement he said,

“The standard set for a Grade C on this year’s GCSE science examinations was not as close to the past grade C standard in science as we believe it could have been.”

So Ofqual failed its first test of maintaining standards.

Amendments 41 and 42 require Ofqual to set out a range comparators with qualifications in other countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said in a recent speech at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s school,

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

I know that when the Minister replies she will trot out the TIMSS—trends in international mathematics and science study—survey. That survey, of course, did not include France, Finland, Belgium, Ireland, Portugal or Spain—except the Basque region. Denmark and Holland did not take part in the year 1 study. Most importantly, of 137 secondary schools, 11 refused to take part in this country’s sample which meant using substitute schools, thus undermining the theory of sampling, since it is likely to be the weaker schools that refuse to take part and not the proper average across all schools in this country. Even so, this country was still outperformed by Russia, Kazakhstan and Hungary as well as Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. It is also striking that the TIMSS 2007 survey contrasts so starkly with the 2006 PISA—programme for international student assessment—survey, in which the UK was ranked sixteenth, equal with Poland.

Amendment 139 would amend clause 125(3)(a) so that the assessment standards objective includes the requirement to promote the development of regulated assessment arrangements to give a reliable indication of knowledge as well as achievement. The explanatory note says that regulated assessment arrangements means arrangements made for assessing the progress of pupils at each key stage of the national curriculum and the early years foundation stage. We agree with the importance of such assessments giving a reliable indication of achievement, but it is equally important that they measure the level of knowledge a pupil has amassed.

There is considerable pressure from some in the education establishment to move towards a skills-based curriculum, where pupils focus on acquiring relevant competencies rather than a store of knowledge. Indeed the new key stage 3 curriculum has already taken significant steps in that direction. The key stage 3 section of the national curriculum website says,

“If young people are to be prepared for the future they need to develop essential skills and qualities for learning, life and employment. These include skills that relate to learning in subjects as well as other more generic, transferable skills. A dynamic, forward-looking curriculum creates opportunities for learners to develop as self-managers, creative thinkers, reflective learners, problem-solvers, team workers, independent learners, and effective communicators.”

At the heart of the outcomes of that skills-based approach to the curriculum is the belief that knowledge is less important because students can always look up a particular fact. What is more important, it is argued, is a focus on generic skills such as communication ability or competency in research, which can be applied to each problem in life that a person encounters. That is often called learning how to learn.

Of course, that analysis is only partly correct. School cannot equip a person with the sum total of knowledge that they will ever need and people should be ready to acquire more knowledge as they progress through life. The point we disagree with is that abilities or skills can be taught in disembodied form, rather than acquired as a product of gaining more knowledge. The American academic, E.D. Hirsch, has looked at that issue and, in an article in the American Educator, wrote:

“The progressive theory that students should gain knowledge through a limited number of projects instead of by taking courses in separate subjects is based on the following reasoning. If you learn a bunch of facts in separate, academic courses you will  passively acquire a lot of inert, fragmented knowledge. You will be the victim of something called ‘rote learning.’ But if you engage in integrated, hands-on projects you will achieve integrated, real-world knowledge. By this more natural approach you will automatically absorb the relevant facts you need.”

However, one learns by acquiring knowledge, which gives rise to learning how to learn. One will learn to think scientifically, mathematically and historically. One will learn, the progressives claim, all-purpose transferable skills such as questioning, analysing, synthesising, interpreting and, of course, problem solving. Indeed, a well-educated person will acquire—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

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

I was saying that we on the Opposition Benches disagree that abilities or skills can be taught in disembodied form rather than acquired as a product of gaining more knowledge. Hirsch says that

“the consensus view in psychology is that those skills are gained mainly through broad knowledge of a domain. Intellectual skills tend to be domain-specific...the important question is: How do we best prepare our students for lifelong learning? Is the in-depth study of a few topics, practice with a variety of ‘thinking skills,’ and access to the Internet the best formula? Cognitive psychology suggests it is not.

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by the cognitive research.”

The move to a competence-based curriculum over the past five years under the aegis of the QCA has been one of the principal causes of the downgrading of our exam and education system in recent years. Ensuring that children leave compulsory education with a minimum store of knowledge, concepts and ideas is vital to enabling them to participate in and contribute to modern culture and life.

Amendment 38 would add a new specification to the assessment standards objective. It would require Ofqual to publish annually its methodology for determining whether standards had been maintained on assessment and qualifications over periods of 20, 10 and five years. The measure would enhance the objectivity and transparency of Ofqual’s work, leading it to be a more effective and trusted regulator. I have already cited the YELLIS and ALIS studies that provide evidence that grade boundaries have been slipping. The evidence for that viewpoint is not just academic; it is also powerfully reinforced by the experiences of key groups with an insight and interest in this area of policy.

The CEM at Durham university published a briefing book on the 2008 GCSEs and A-levels, giving the results of a survey of members of the Institute of Directors and university tutors. The 2008 survey discovered:

“Only 12 per cent. of IoD members feel the Government’s performance on education and skills has been favourable to business over the last 10 years. 55 per cent. believe it to have been unfavourable. IOD members believe the quality of education provided by schools, colleges and universities has declined over the last ten years. The deterioration is perceived to be most acute at school level. 27 per cent. of directors thought the quality of education in schools had improved, compared to 47 per cent. believing it had got worse.”

The survey also discovered that

“employers consider young people’s proficiency in a range of skills has weakened over the past decade, particularly in writing and mathematics.”

The report also included an investigation into the views of the university sector. It stated:

“In a sample survey of 100 university admissions tutors, 72 per cent. thought the quality of undergraduates beginning a course in their department had either remained the same (32 per cent.) or deteriorated (41 per cent.) over the course of their involvement with admissions. 28 per cent. thought the quality of students had risen.”

That direct experience of the school system is the real reason why there is concern about dumbing down.

Ofqual cannot succeed in its task of restoring trust to the qualifications system simply by virtue of being independent; there is a much wider and deeper malaise. The only way to address it is by directly assessing the issues that matter to people and, in particular, by analysing standards over the past 20 years and convincing the public that the methodology is truly objective. That is why amendment 38 must be agreed to.

Amendments 31 and 39 would ensure that Ofqual continues to conduct an important poll that it has been conducting for the past few years. Ofqual has been asking a sample of students whether they have to work harder to gain specified qualifications than previous generations of students. In this year’s poll, 48 per cent. said that they work harder than ever compared with 60 per cent. in 2007. A similar poll asked teachers the same question about their students; almost two-thirds of teachers said that students passed with less effort than previous generations. It is a useful poll because, among other indicators, it provides a useful tracking indicator of standards.

Amendments 43 and 81 would ensure that Ofqual publishes the criteria that it uses to make judgments on the efficiency of regulated qualifications—judgments that it is required to make under the efficiency objective listed in clause 125(1)(e). The Association of Colleges, which inspired amendment 81 said that

“The AOC particularly notes that Ofqual will be looking at the sums payable to bodies awarding or authenticating qualifications, and whether they represent value for money. Colleges, currently paying approximately £170 million a year in exam fees, welcome the assessment. However, we would appreciate clarification on the criteria that will be used to make judgments.”

If the Minister could provide that clarification, it would be helpful to the Committee and the association.

Amendments 334 and 335 would insert a new timeliness objective into Ofqual’s list of objective under clause 125(1). Amendment 32 would add to the efficiency objective the requirement to ensure that qualifications are provided both efficiently and “on a timely basis”. That amendment was inspired by Cambridge Assessment, which stated:

“It is crucial that teachers, colleges and schools are able to prepare properly for new qualifications. The timeliness of the  delivery of a qualification, its accreditation and critical decisions, is one of the most basic but important factors in the development process.”

It went on to say that

“Nobody wants to see a recurrence of the introduction of Curriculum 2000, which due to compressed timetables, saw courses starting before textbooks were printed. Indeed, the new A Level specifications containing the new A* grade were delivered to schools before the actual mechanism for grading had been settled. Delays experienced early in the development process can cause significant problems later on when tasks have to be inappropriately hurried.”

Finally, amendment 557 would broaden the scope of the efficiency objective to include a market for regulated qualifications rather than regulated qualifications alone. We agree that Ofqual should have an efficiency objective and that it should include ensuring that payments made to awarding bodies represent value for money. On 7 April last year, The Times reported that schools and colleges were spending more on exams than on textbooks. The figures came to a total of about £700 million: £400 million was spent on fees to exam boards, and £300 million was spent on invigilators. One school head is cited as saying that over five years the school’s exam costs had risen from £30,000 a year to £100,000 a year, despite the number of pupils remaining the same.

There is no question but that it is a serious matter for schools, and that it is likely to get worse as we move towards the modular system for GCSEs. The amendment would require Ofqual to take a broader look at the market for qualifications, which would give it greater scope to analyse such matters. Edexel is strongly in favour of the change, and in its briefing it stated that Ofqual will not be able to deliver on its aims unless it is given the remit of regulating the qualifications system as a whole, rather than a narrow remit of regulating qualifications providers. In particular, Ofqual’s value for money objective requires that it looks at how qualifications are procured by schools and colleges, requiring that broader remit.

Our view is that if Ofqual is to regulate the provision of qualifications, and is to take into account the fees charged to schools, it makes sense to expand the remit of the efficiency objective so that it includes a market for qualifications. That would allow Ofqual to take proper account of all the issues, which is likely to make it a more effective regulator.

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

We have heard two interesting contributions from the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for Yeovil, to which I listened carefully. We went over the ground that we covered in the previous debate, but the issue is obviously something about which the two hon. Gentlemen feel strongly. I thought that under the previous clause we had all agreed that there was a need for an independent regulator, but that was not so clear as the discussion progressed.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said that the measure was a change of policy and that originally we were having a high-level regulator. There has been no change of policy. We always intended that Ofqual would be risk-based, and would intervene and accredit when it needed to, but that it would no longer be required to. I could trade statistics and reports with the hon. Gentleman in the same way as I did when we discussed the previous clause, but I am sure that the Committee will be relieved to know that I do not intend to do so.

I wish to pick up on a few issues. Both hon. Gentlemen spoke about the modular GCSEs. Ofqual will have to ensure consistency between modular GCSEs and their non-modular predecessors. It will be part of its remit.

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

I am perhaps intervening slightly rapidly on the Minister, but the words that she uses are not informative. Will she clarify the doubt in the debate? If we have two cohorts with identical educational characteristics, one of whom is pre-modularisation and one of whom is post-modularisation, would the hon. Lady expect them both to have the same level of grades as part of Ofqual’s duty to keep standards steady over time?

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

In some ways, that will be a matter for Ofqual to decide. Its remit is to maintain consistency of standards. It may well be that when it has looked at all the evidence, and if it can get to that mythical cohort of exactly the same children, which is not an easy situation to reach, it might decide that that is the case. The objective of Ofqual is to ensure consistency between the modular GCSEs and their non-modular predecessors. How it does that will be up to Ofqual. Only one resit of a module is allowed and all the modules are at full GCSE standard.

A question was asked about the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Mike Cresswell, and the GCSE science last year. I wish to correct one important point and emphasise what was said by Kathleen Tattersall in the evidence session, which was that

“Ofqual asked nobody to lower standards.”

We should pick that up. The most important matter that came out of the session from Mike Cresswell, Greg Watson and Kathleen Tattersall was that they all agreed that, when Ofqual was asked to look at the issue, it was probably already too late. The important thing is that the criteria are set at the beginning of a qualification, and that is the time at which all of them agreed that the work should be done.

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

Did Isabel Nesbit not write to the three exam boards saying that they had to reach parity between them and that they had to go to the lower level— Edexcel level—and not the level set by AQA? Therefore, AQA had to lower its grading boundary to match the other two boards.

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

As I understand it, the exam boards were asked to be consistent. I am merely quoting Kathleen Tattersall when she said that

“Ofqual asked nobody to lower standards.” ——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 78, Q204.]

Ofqual asked the boards to reach a consistent standard. The three different bodies had different views of what the standards were and they had to arrive at a consistent view. It is clear that Ofqual was not asking AQA to lower its standards, but to be consistent with the other two boards because people have different views of what standards are, which is probably what our debate has been about.

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

The three exam boards could not reach agreement. They went to Ofqual, which reluctantly said that it was for AQA to bring its grade C standards into line with the others and that it was not for the other two  boards to raise their standards in line with AQA. In my view and, I think, that of the public, that is a lowering of standards.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families 9:30 pm, 24th March 2009

Or it is a consistency of standards. There were three awarding bodies, all of which had robust processes, and one was asked to come into line with the other two. However, the important point is that we get it right at the beginning of the process and not the end. That was the point made by both the awarding bodies and Kathleen Tattersall.

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

The reason why we are concerned is that at its first opportunity to make a crucial high-level decision, Ofqual, instead of making the decision in a direction that would cause standards to rise—that is, requesting two boards to raise their standards of grading to match the other board—decided that the board with the higher standard should lower its grading. That is dumbing down. Our concern is that Ofqual will do that in future, based on the one precedent that we have of its experience so far.

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

It might be helpful if I asked Kathleen Tattersall to write to the hon. Gentleman to explain what she meant in her evidence. Obviously, I am quoting a third party. As I told him, my view is that there were three awarding bodies, all of which had robust processes, that could not come to an agreement, and one fitted in with the other two because, as I understand it, they could not decide among the three of them. However, it might be helpful if Kathy explains the remarks that she made in her evidence and expands on them.

I will not list Ofqual’s objectives, as I think that we are all clear on them, but the five strategic objectives set out a clear role for Ofqual to work in the public interest on matters relating to standards, confidence and efficiency. I do not think that the legislation should go into detail about how Ofqual could go about delivering on its remit; it should make it clear what Ofqual must achieve and give it the powers and freedom to get on with it. For that reason, I will resist the amendments.

On the specifics, I will first speak to the amendments that specify in too much detail how Ofqual should perform its functions, then to those that would give Ofqual too broad a remit. Finally, I will address the amendments that, in my view, simply duplicate provisions that are in the Bill and are, therefore, unnecessary.

Amendments 31 and 39 would require Ofqual to carry out surveys. Ofqual may well wish to do such surveys; it will certainly want to conduct research as its predecessor bodies did and as interim Ofqual has continued to do. The Bill gives Ofqual the power to do all those things. We should not start choosing on its behalf the most appropriate way to achieve its objectives. When Ofqual reports to Parliament, it will have to satisfy Parliament that it has done what it should have done, using whatever tools it feels is right for the job.

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

That is an important and helpful statement, I think. However, is the Minister therefore contradicting the Minister for Schools and Learners, who essentially  said in evidence that it was up to Ministers to decide whether to hold standardised sampling tests in the way that she described?

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

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to sample testing later in my remarks, when I will explain why there is no actual difference between what the Minister for Schools and Learners and I said.

On amendments 38, 41, 42, 63, 427 and 428, we would certainly expect Ofqual to publish evidence underpinning its conclusions on the maintenance of standards. Where appropriate, we would expect it to consider lessons from other countries, but we do not want to pre-judge the best way for it to gather or present that evidence. The public confidence and awareness objectives imply that Ofqual must carry out its work openly and credibly, or it will not be able to promote public confidence and awareness as it must. It will have to operate in that way anyway, so I do not think that we need to legislate for it.

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

The Minister went through the amendments rather quickly, but I think that she touched on amendment 63, which invites Ofqual to reconsider educational standards over the past 20 or so years. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton tabled amendment 38, which is similar. Is the Minister happy for Ofqual to do the job described in amendments 63 and 38?

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

I would envisage Ofqual doing its job. We are asking it to look at and measure standards over time, so it might well wish to go back as well as forwards.

Both hon. Gentlemen touched on the Government’s achievement and attainment tables. It is appropriate for Ofqual to have a role in looking at how those qualifications are scored, because it would help to develop confidence in the objectivity of the judgments. However, we do not need to put those provisions in the Bill, mainly because achievement and attainment tables are not statutory, and it would not be appropriate to make them so. However, we are reviewing them in light of the proposals to develop a school report card and the responses on which we are consulting. We will discuss with the interim Ofqual what its and, perhaps, the QCDA’s role should be under the new arrangements for the provision of information on school performance.

Amendments 43 and 81 would require Ofqual to establish specific and measurable success criteria in relation to some of its objectives. Amendment 43 would apply to three of the objectives—qualifications standards, assessment standards and public confidence—and amendment 81 would apply to the efficiency objective. Amendment 35 would require Ofqual to publish the outcome of the criteria in its annual report. The interim Ofqual agrees that it will need to do that, and is planning to identify measurable success criteria, and report on them, including in its annual report. However, we do not need to include in the legislation a detailed requirement that Ofqual should behave so. It will be accountable to Parliament, and Select Committees in particular are sure to make arrangements to scrutinise Ofqual’s work and assess what it must achieve. That means that Ofqual must ensure that it can demonstrate what it has achieved.

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

I am pleased to hear that Ofqual has agreed that there will be specific and measurable success criteria, and that they will be reported on. Will the hon. Lady say where that has been set out in a public document, so that I can have a look at it? I might have read it already and simply forgotten, but could I have the name of the document, so that I can check that it is on the public record?

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

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman has that information. We will ask Ofqual to write to him with its commitment. We will also ask Ofqual to consider commissioning, after three years, an independent review of the reforms to assess what it has achieved. If Ofqual agrees to that, it will need to decide what performance measures it wants to set.

Amendments 60, 61, 62 and 65 would, in my view, create too wide a remit. They would all change Ofqual’s remit from that of a regulator of qualifications and assessments, which is a challenging enough role, to the impossible task of coming to a single view about standards of performance across the system. We are dealing with two different senses of the word “standards”: the standard of assessment, which is the difficulty of a qualification, and the standard of performance, which is the achievement of learners. Ofqual’s role will be to monitor the standards of qualifications and assessments, and to ensure that they are consistent. We do not say that its role will be to monitor standards of performance. The chair of interim Ofqual and the director general of the AQA awarding body indicated in their evidence to our Committee their view that such a remit would be too wide and would give Ofqual an enormously difficult brief. We agree with that, and we think that Ofqual’s remit should remain focused on regulation of qualifications and assessments.

Moving on to sample testing, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners said:

“I am not sure whether sufficient amount would be gained by doing the standard sampling tests.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 10 March 2009; c. 163, Q376.]

Ofqual could certainly use sample testing if it wished, but only in pursuit of the objectives that we have set out in the Bill. It might decide to do that to validate its achievement of the objective to maintain standards in comparable qualifications, for example, but it could not use sample testing as a way of checking on standards of performance, because as I explained that would go outside the remit that we believe Ofqual should have.

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

I understand the Minister’s point technically speaking, but will she explain in more detail why Ofqual might want to use sample testing to pursue the aims set down in the Bill rather than those that I would like it to pursue? Under what circumstances would it use sample testing to check the qualifications criteria?

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

Ofqual might wish to use sample testing to check the consistency of a qualification, going across. That would be within Ofqual’s remit, and it can use any method that it wishes to maintain the qualification standard objective. What is not in its remit are the wider standards of performance, which I know the hon. Gentleman would like it to have.

Finally, a number of the amendments are superfluous, such as amendments 36 and 37. The Bill already creates an obligation for Ofqual to secure that regulated  qualifications and assessments indicate a consistent level of attainment over time. That catches the intention behind the amendments—namely, to maintain standards in qualifications and assessment. Therefore, the two amendments are not necessary.

Amendment 64 would give Ofqual the objective of promoting public confidence in its own independence and objectivity. With a remit to secure confidence in the qualifications and assessment system, Ofqual will obviously do that and does not need to be told to, so the amendment is not necessary.

Amendment 139 involves a change of wording, which is intended to ensure that Ofqual would have to consider the level of knowledge indicated by regulated assessment arrangements. As clause 125(3)(a) specifically relates to regulated assessment arrangements, the word “achievement” must mean the same as it does in the legislation that governs regulated assessments—namely, the Education Act 2002 and the Childcare Act 2006. In both those Acts, assessing the achievements of pupils and young children is defined as assessing what they have achieved in terms of gaining the knowledge, skills and understanding expected for the relevant stage of their education. Again, that covers what is in the amendment.

Amendment 219 would make it explicit that Ofqual’s public confidence objective refers to public confidence over time. However, the duty to promote public confidence must mean that Ofqual has to take a long-term view. Confidence cannot be created in a short period, and Ofqual would not be fulfilling its objective if it secured public confidence one year, but stopped worrying about it the next. In clause 125(2)(b), the Bill states that there should be

“a consistent level of attainment (including over time)”.

Amendment 557 would make it explicit in the text of the Bill that qualifications in England and Northern Ireland are delivered through a market system, and would direct Ofqual to secure the efficient operation of that market. That is an unnecessary narrowing of Ofqual’s remit. We want to ensure that all aspects of qualifications delivery are efficient, not just the functioning of the market.

Finally on the superfluous amendments, amendments 334 and 335 would create and define a timeliness objective, with Ofqual having to carry out its functions in a timely manner that facilitates the delivery of qualifications on time. Similarly, amendment 32 would change Ofqual’s efficiency objective, requiring Ofqual to secure the provision of regulated qualifications on a timely basis. Clearly it will have to do all it can to do that, but there are two reasons why it should not be given it as a formal duty. First, inasmuch as it has control over when qualifications are delivered, that is already covered by its duty to perform its function efficiently and effectively. Secondly, timeliness is not an objective in itself; it is a means by which other objectives, such as public confidence, are achieved. For those reasons, I request that the hon. Member for Yeovil withdraws his amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 9:45 pm, 24th March 2009

I am grateful to the Minister for that full response. I have some short comments to make. I thank the Minister for agreeing to ask the chair of Ofqual to  write to members of the Committee about Kathleen Tattersall’s comments in the evidence session, in which she said that it did not ask for the standards of the science GCSE set by AQA to be lowered. I look forward to receiving that letter.

I was encouraged when the Minister said that she would expect Ofqual to conduct studies that make comparisons with other countries. I shall look at her precise words when the record is published and come back to that issue later in the proceedings, because it is important for Ofqual to make those international comparisons.

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

I want to clarify for the hon. Gentleman that I was talking about international comparisons of qualifications.

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

That is what I understood. We strongly believe that comparing our qualifications with those of other countries is important in a globalized world in which people are competing for the same jobs and the same academics across the globe. We have to ensure that our qualifications match the best in the world.

I was encouraged when the Minister said that Ofqual would publish specific and measurable success criteria. Again, she said that she would ask Ofqual to expressly set that out in writing to members of the Committee or provide a reference to a published document in which we can see that commitment made publicly.

We still have concerns about other issues dealt with by amendments in the group. In particular, I intend to ask the Committee to divide on amendment 36, which inserts the important and specific objective of maintaining standards. With those few comments, I await hearing about what the hon. Member for Yeovil is going to do with amendment 60.

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

We have had a good debate and I am grateful to the Minister for her patience in taking a large number of interventions, which were helpful, in some respects, in clarifying one or two points in the Bill. However, I am disappointed that she has rejected all of the amendments that we have tabled. Her objections to some of the amendments were based on the fact that they give Ofqual too big a task. We believe that Ofqual should have that task and that armoury to do its job, and, it appears, the Children, Schools and Families Committee agrees.

The Minister also indicated that she objected to some of the other amendments because they were too prescriptive in telling Ofqual what it should do. I gently remind the Minister of the debate on schedule 9, in which the Government were willing to put the time during which Ofqual would be obliged to review the composition of its committees in the Bill. If the Government are willing to be that prescriptive with Ofqual, the degree of prescriptiveness in some of the amendments was reasonable and more substantive than the detail put into schedule 9.

I am left with concerns, not only about the lack of robustness in Ofqual’s objectives in clause 125, which make us unable to support the whole clause, but also about the two points from my earlier comments. We have made progress with the Minister on sample testing and being able to measure educational standards over  time. It is clear that the Minister does not want Ofqual to do that, but we do, which is why I will press amendment 60 to the vote. The Minister indicated that Ofqual would be allowed to commission sample testing provided that it is in pursuance of the Bill’s measures, rather than the type of approach that we want. I am not sure who will determine whether Ofqual’s sampling complies with the Bill’s measures or whether it is in pursuit of wider objectives, so it would be useful for that to be clarified. Given the length of the debate that we have had, I understand if the Minister would rather write to the Committee on that.

The thrust of Government thinking in relation to modular GCSEs is also unclear. The Minister has understandably indicated that that is an issue for Kathleen Tattersall, but it is also an issue for the Government. As it has been a key issue in this debate, will the Minister consider asking Kathleen Tattersall to write to the Committee with her view of the way in which Ofqual will seek to maintain standards in relation to modular GCSEs?

I want to press amendment 60 to a Division, and we also want a Division on clause 125, which we are unable to support for the reasons that we have given.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Division number 21 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 125

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 36, in clause 125, page 71, line 23, at end insert—

‘(c) maintain standards.’.—(Mr. Gibb.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Division number 22 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 125

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Ms Butler.)

Adjourned till Thursday 26 March at Nine o’clock.