Clause 167

– in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Objective

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

I beg to move amendment 34, in clause 167, page 90, line 31, leave out ‘coherence’ and insert ‘rigour’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 226, in clause 168, page 91, line 15, at end insert—

‘(g) information provided to it by recognised awarding bodies.’.

Amendment 387, in clause 168, page 91, line 15, at end insert—

‘(g) the desirability of promoting the acquisition of academic knowledge.’.

Amendment 386, in clause 168, page 91, line 21, at end insert—

‘(d) persons whom, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, represent the interests of employers or institutions within the higher education sector.’.

Amendment 145, in clause 169, page 91, line 37, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment 388, in clause 170, page 92, line 12, at end insert—

‘(c) must have regard to the importance of maintaining the rigour of academic qualifications.’.

Amendment 389, in clause 172, page 93, line 10, at end insert—

‘(c) must have regard to the importance of maintaining the academic rigour of the curriculum.’.

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

Clause 167, which is probably the shortest one in the Bill, sets out what the QCDA’s objectives should be. It says that:

“The QCDA’s objective is to promote quality and coherence in education and training in England.”

I can understand “quality”, which we support. However, I do not understand the purpose of inserting the word “coherence” into education and training. Clearly, we do not want incoherence in education and training, but there is no need for it to be an ordered and coherent activity. The market should decide—whether that is within the state sector, or between the state and independent sector. The schools will decide what the education should be and parents should decide what type of education they want for their children. The more diverse the education system, the better, so that we can use best practice from all over the country and from all kinds of institutions.

I see no purpose in having the word “coherence” in the very short objective that is set out for the QCDA in the clause. Amendment 34 therefore seeks to leave out the word “coherence” and insert the word “rigour” because parents are seeking rigour from the education system. I do not want to rehearse the debates that we have already had in the Committee about trying to restore rigour and standards to our education system, our qualifications and our curriculum.

Amendment 387 inserts into clause 168, which concerns the general duties of QCDA, the phrase:

“the desirability of promoting the acquisition of academic knowledge”.

Again, I do not want to reprise our earlier discussions about the debate that there has been in this country  between skills and knowledge—the idea that one can teach thinking, historic, or scientific skills in a disembodied way that is divorced from the knowledge being taught.

Over the past 10, 20 or 30 years, there has been a drift away from knowledge towards skills. Children are learning about chronology or data analysis in history, but very often they are failing to learn about the Saxons, the Romans, the middle ages and periods of history that are important to Britain, Europe and the world. The children may well have those esoteric skills, which I doubt that they will have acquired, but their knowledge of history is sketchy. I sat in on a lesson in a secondary school recently where they were learning about data analysis and intuiting the evidence. A portrait of Henry VII was displayed to the class, which were asked to intuit from that portrait things about Henry VII. The answers that the children were coming up with were that he was rich because he had a fur thing around his neck and that he was full of himself because he had all this gilt on his clothing, but that is an irrelevance. Nothing was said about his battle with the barons or the fact that he was actually short of money, hence all the problems that Henry VII suffered during his reign. That is not the way our education system should be going, but it is the way that it is travelling at the moment.

The purpose of amendment 387 is to insert into the objectives of the QCDA the desirability of promoting the acquisition of academic knowledge. No parent in this country would find that an odd objective to insert—I am surprised that that objective is not already set out in the Bill.

Amendment 386 inserts a subsection (d) into clause 168:

“persons whom, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, represent the interests of employers or institutions within the higher education sector.”

That is a requirement to consult those people. Qualifications serve three purposes—they serve the students or people who take the tests, as our education systems serves them, but they also serve the users of qualifications, which are the institutions of higher education and employers. They need to be consulted when the QCDA is considering its work and the reforms that it is implementing in the curriculum.

Amendment 388 adds a subsection to clause 170, saying that the QCDA

“must have regard to the importance of maintaining the rigour of academic qualification.”

There is ample evidence, which I do not want to reprise in today’s debate, that exam standards have declined in recent years—such as from the centre for evaluation and monitoring at Durham university, about how there has been grade inflation in most of the A-levels taken over the past 10 or 20 years.

Finally, amendment 389 adds a subsection to clause 172, saying again that the QCDA

“must have regard to the importance of maintaining...academic rigour”.

None of the amendments is terribly controversial. They are all amendments that the public would support. I hope that the Minister will be able to support them this evening.

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

I am also interested in hearing the Government definition of “coherence”, when we come to the Minister’s response to the hon. Gentleman’s amendments.

I shall speak to amendments 226 and 145. I hope that amendment 226 will not prove too controversial and that the Minister will be able to reassure me in her response, because the amendment adds an additional element that QCDA must have regard to in pursuing its functions—information provided to it by the recognised awarding body. It is important for the QCDA to take into account the expertise and practical knowledge of the awarding bodies. I am sure that the Minister will say that she agrees with that—we had a similar amendment on one of the clauses dealing with Ofqual’s responsibilities and the Minister was able to respond positively. I hope that she will be able to do so similarly on amendment 226.

Amendment 145 is probing, to find out more about the thinking of the Government on clause 169(1)(b), which makes some allowance for the QCDA potentially not to be taking a responsibility for some qualifications in the future. The explanatory notes say:

“The Secretary of State is given the power by order to exclude qualifications from QCDA’s remit”— as is implied in clause 169—

“The order-making power is subject to the negative procedure. This provision is designed to allow for any future changes to the QCDA’s role. The intention is that this power could be used in particular to remove the QCDA’s functions in relation to vocational qualifications, if the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills were to conclude at a later date that it did not wish the QCDA to have advice and review functions with respect to these qualifications. Any such decision would not affect Ofqual’s role in regulating those qualifications.”

I am interested to know why the Government—the two Departments—have inserted that provision into the Bill and whether they think that it would be sensible in the future for vocational qualifications not to be part of the remit of the QCDA. I thought that it would be the Government’s intention to include vocational qualifications and that there was concern that they should be treated differently from the range of academic qualifications. I hope that the hon. Lady can therefore enlighten us about why the measure has been inserted into the Bill and explain what consideration has already been given by her sister Department, DIUS, into whether the change should take place. Is there is a plan to use the exclusion power within the foreseeable future?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families 5:15 pm, 26th March 2009

Amendment 34 would change QCDA’s objectives from those of promoting quality and coherence to promoting quality and rigour, and I shall start by responding to the hon. Member for Yeovil. The “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” defines “coherent” as logical and consistent. Coherence is currently part of QCA’s objective under the Education Act 1997 Act, so it is nothing new.

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

Does “coherence” have any implication for the number of qualifications?

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

The coherent idea is that QCDA is not looking at curriculum and qualifications in isolation, but can look at them collectively to provide quality and rigorous learning programmes for young people. It is not QCDA’s role to look at the number of qualifications.

Rigour is important, but it is intrinsic to quality so we do not need to identify it separately. Nor should we be losing the requirement to promote coherence.

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

Progressive educationalists believe that a quality education should not be rigorous and that it should be child-initiated learning in a loose and play-based way. That would not constitute rigour, but it could constitute quality.

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

In my view, rigour is intrinsic to quality and we do not need to identify it separately. Coherence is important because, as I said, we want to make sure that collectively we have rigorous learning programmes for young people—a point that we are capturing by “coherence”.

Amendments 387 to 389 would give QCDA additional general duties of having regard to academic knowledge, academic qualifications and academic rigour. I do not disagree that QCDA will have to have regard to such matters, but the Bill should not specify everything that it must have regard to. Those requirements are implicit under the Bill in its objective to promote quality and to have regard to the requirements of learners and higher education. QCDA could not deliver those objectives without ensuring academic rigour, so the amendments are not necessary.

Amendments 386 and 226 would require QCDA to have regard to information provided respectively by representatives of employers or the higher education sector and awarding bodies. In relation to amendment 386, QCDA already has a general duty to have regard to the requirements of employers and higher education under clause 168(2)(b) and (c). If there were specific representatives whose information the Secretary of State wished it to have particular regard to, he could direct it to do so under subsection (3)(c). The amendments are therefore not necessary.

Amendment 226 would require QCDA to have regard to information provided by awarding bodies. As I said, the Bill cannot specify everything that QCDA should have regard to and, of course, it will have listen to, and work with, awarding bodies as it drafts qualifications criteria and keep the qualifications system under review. If it did not do so, it could not do its job properly, which is why it does not need to be told to do so. There is no reason to single out under the Bill awarding bodies ahead of all the other organisations, including subject associations, with which QCDA will need to work.

Amendment 145 would remove the power of the Secretary of State to limit by order QCDA’s remit in relation to qualifications. Its qualifications remit, as defined under clause 169, is broadly the same as that of Ofqual and covers qualifications awarded in England that are not higher education qualifications although, unlike Ofqual, QCDA will have no functions in Northern Ireland. That reflects the fact that Ministers might want advice from QCDA on any qualifications or types of qualifications that Ofqual regulates and, under clause 170, QCDA is under a duty to keep under review all qualifications within its remit.

As was announced last year, ministerial colleagues in DUIS will want to review, in due course, whether QCDA should have a long-term role advising on adult vocational qualifications. There are other bodies that have a role in those qualifications: sector skills councils look at the skills and qualifications needed in individual sectors of the economy and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills will look across the adult skills landscape. If  the QCDA is also looking at adult qualifications, there is a risk of duplication with those other bodies. Therefore, if DIUS Ministers conclude that they do not want the QCDA to look at post-19 qualifications, subsection (2) allows them to remove vocational qualifications from its remit, and the QCDA would no longer be under a duty to keep those qualifications under review.

The amendment would prevent DIUS from rationalising the advice that they get on post-19 qualifications, without further primary legislation. It would force the QCDA to keep reviewing the qualifications, even if doing so duplicated the role of other bodies that were better placed to advise DIUS and DIUS Ministers did not want that advice. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Gentlemen will not press the amendments.

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

Again, I am grateful to the Minister for giving such full responses and for explaining the Government’s thinking behind clause 169 and the excluded qualifications. She has usefully put the Government’s thinking on the record. I need to reflect on what she has said before considering whether we have any concerns about taking such vocational qualifications out of the QCDA’s remit.

On amendment 226, the Minister gave a fairly similar response to the one that she gave when we discussed information from awarding bodies. Although she is unwilling to accept the amendment, I hope that the QCDA will listen closely to those awarding bodies. I shall allow the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to respond to his own amendment, as he no doubt wishes to, but I want to put on record that I am not entirely convinced about the clarity of the word “coherence” and about whether the Bill benefits from it. If one negates the two words in clause 167, one ends up with a fairly meaningless formula, which indicates that the clause does not add any clarity to the Bill and is not useful.

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

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I did not feel that the Minister’s explanation of the use of “coherence” was convincing. Her main argument being that the word was in the 1997 Act when the QCA was established. The history of the QCA over the past 11 years has been anything but coherent. One only has to look at the administration, through ETS, of the standard assessment tests last summer. That was certainly not coherent. Using that word in the 1997 Act has not led to success, therefore we need the word “rigour” in the clause instead of the word “coherence”.

The Minister said that she was also in favour of rigour, so we share that aim. She thought that it was synonymous with “quality”, but I do not believe that it is. One can have progressive, quality exams that are. The Montessori approach is high quality, but few would regard it as a rigorous approach to young children’s education. There are arguments on both sides about whether it is effective. The QCDA should develop a rigorous curriculum for our schools. That is what the Minister and parents want. I hope that the Minister will vote with us as I press amendment 34 to a division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 167 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 168 and 169 ordered to stand part of the Bill.