Clause 170

– in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Qualifications: general functions

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

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments 491, 492 and 494.

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

Beginning with amendment 490, clause 170(5) makes explicit provision for the QCDA to develop, set or administer certain tests or tasks, which the QCA has been doing successfully for some years in relation to key and basic skills qualifications. The subsection mirrors one inserted into the Education Act 1997 by the Education Act 2002 to reflect that work. We need the QCDA to do such work in the future, but having reviewed the provision, we concluded that the QCDA can do those things under clause 175 of the Bill. Therefore, the provision is not needed and should be removed from the clause.

Amendment 491 clarifies how clause 171 will work. The clause allows the QCDA to assist Ofqual in the development of qualifications criteria—it is therefore a key clause to make Ofqual effective. One of the key reasons for establishing Ofqual as an independent regulator was to get rid of the current conflict of interest in QCA’s functions, where it is responsible for both the development of criteria of qualifications and their regulation, including public assurance about the maintenance of standards.

In future, we envisage the process to operate as follows. The QCDA will draft or amend the criteria for public qualifications. It may do so off its own bat—for example, if it is time for a review of the criteria—or it may do so because the Secretary of State has asked it to. If it was the latter, the Secretary of State may have issued a determination under clause 138, setting out the minimum requirements for the qualification on knowledge, skills or understanding. Once the QCDA has developed the draft criteria, it will send them to Ofqual, which will then check and confirm that it is happy that the criteria allow standards to be maintained. If it is, it will formally adopt them, proceed to regulate against them, and invite awarding bodies to submit proposals for qualifications that meet the criteria. That will be a useful check on the  quality of the QCDA’s draft criteria. It also means that Ofqual, not having been responsible for developing the criteria, will be credible when it provides assurance about the qualifications developed against them. But if Ofqual was not happy with the draft criteria, it would send them back to the QCDA for redrafting. The decision on whether to adopt the criteria will be fundamental to the confidence in the new system.

Amendment 491 will change clause 171 so that the QCDA has a duty to assist Ofqual in setting criteria where a section 138 determination has been made. Giving the QCDA a duty reflects the importance of the clause, and, given the need to avoid a conflict of interest, we would expect the QCDA to undertake criteria development where such a determination has been made. Linking it to section 138 will allow the Secretary of State to retain an overview of the QCDA’s priorities: by issuing such a determination he sets an expectation that it will be drafting the criteria. But it is an important principle that Ofqual continues to own the criteria to allow it to maintain a control of standards, which is why the duty only kicks in if Ofqual makes a request.

Even where a section 138 determination has not been issued, the QCDA may still assist in setting criteria—although it will not be under a duty to do so. As I have said, we would not expect to issue a section 138 determination as a matter of course.

Amendments 492 and 494 follow on from amendment 491. Amendment 492 clarifies that the assistance that QCDA may provide to Ofqual in connection with Ofqual’s qualification functions does not include financial assistance; it would be peculiar for one public body to be able to provide financial assistance to another. To ensure there is not a more general overlap between the respective powers of clauses 171 and 175, amendment 494 clarifies that clause 175 cannot be used to provide assistance that is within the scope of clause 171. On the basis of that explanation, I hope that the Committee will accept the amendments.

Amendment 490 agreed to.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 5:30 pm, 26th March 2009

I beg to move amendment 146, in clause 170, page 92, line 25, at end add—

‘(6) All qualifications which are approved by the QCDA and Ofqual must be funded by the Secretary of State, notwithstanding any advice which may be given to the Secretary of State by the Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval or any other body.’.

The amendment would insert a sixth paragraph at the end of clause 170, which sets out QCDA’s duties and powers in relation to qualifications within the agency’s remit. The amendment would ensure that all qualifications that are approved by QCDA and Ofqual would be funded by the Secretary of State, notwithstanding any advice that the Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval or any other body might give him.

JACQA is new and has a low profile, so I have no criticism of you, Mr. Chope, if you are unaware of it. For the Committee’s information, however, I have obtained a paper entitled “JACQA: Frequently asked questions”. It is not clear how frequently the questions are asked, but the first question, “What is JACQA?”, suggests that they are not asked very frequently at all. The paper explains that JACQA is

“a new committee that is being set up to advise the Government on the public funding of 14-19 qualifications in England. We want to ensure that all publicly-funded qualifications help young people to unlock their talents and achieve their aspirations—we are therefore introducing a new process to ensure that public funding is directed only at those qualifications that meet this requirement.”

In response to the second question, “Who is on JACQA?”, the paper notes:

“JACQA will be made up of representatives from employers and all parts of the education and training sector. It will be co-owned and jointly chaired by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (subsequently to become the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency), and the Learning and Skills Council (subsequently to become the Young People’s Learning Agency).”

JACQA is an important body for the reasons given in the answer to the fifth question, which explains that JACQA is an advisory committee and, although it does not have any statutory powers, it

“will make recommendations to the Secretary of State on which 14-19 qualifications should be eligible for public funding.”

The Government talk about setting up independent bodies such as Ofqual and QCDA to give independent advice and make rational judgments about particular qualifications, but the paper’s 13th question reads:

“Is it possible for a qualification to be accredited by Ofqual, but then rejected for funding by JACQA?”

The answer, significantly, states:

“Yes; accreditation and Section 96 approval are separate processes. A qualification could be accredited and then privately funded.”

A qualification could therefore be approved by Ofqual and QCDA, but not receive any funding.

Why have the Government decided to set up JACQA? It means more bureaucracy and an additional power for the Secretary of State, and essentially cuts away much of the independence that the QCDA, arguably in partnership with Ofqual, has. Those bodies can develop qualifications, consult and do independent work, but ultimately, on the basis of an obscure body, they can discover that none of those qualifications will be funded by the Government.

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

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and that is precisely the situation that we find ourselves in now with the international general certificate of secondary education, which has been approved by the QCA, or Ofqual, and now we await a recommendation from that body to find out whether there will be funding. Meanwhile, we have a two-tier system in which the independent sector is allowed to teach the qualification and the state sector is not.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is not just an argument for educational boffins. It has a real practical impact now, and it is a mechanism through which the Government can fail to fund qualifications they do not like. It is a mechanism through which they can pursue a narrow range of qualifications, rather than allow a market in qualifications to develop in the way that we discussed in part 7 of the Bill. Perhaps it is a way for the Government to deliver the slightly vague notion of coherence that we found out about at the beginning of this part. That appeared to be something to do with quality in the Minister’s mind, but we suspect it is more about the Government dictating centrally which qualifications they do and do not like and preventing a  genuine market in qualifications. That is a real concern to us. Essentially, it means that there is a power to veto the measures and to veto qualifications that may be good and of use in the private sector, and which state sector schools and colleges may wish to use, but which they are not permitted to use because the Secretary of State vetoes them. The amendment is a perfectly sensible one.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

According to all my hon. Friend’s research, is it a matter of public knowledge whether the Secretary of State always follows the advice of his advisory body, or whether he has supreme power anyway?

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

That is a very good question. I am desperately looking for the answer on my list of frequently asked questions about JACQA. Unfortunately, I do not have it. My hon. Friend raises a very important point and I think that the Minister, who is smiling in an encouraging way, intends to answer that question when she sums up. She might also say when the first meeting of JACQA was. It would be helpful if she clarified which qualifications have been referred to JACQA for its advice.

The amendment is important because it means that we could have high-quality qualifications that would be of use in the private sector and that maintained schools might wish to use. The qualifications could be denied to those schools not because of QCDA or Ofqual, but because of some obscure committee giving advice to a Secretary of State, who might wish to strangle qualifications that he or she sees as competing with the range of qualifications approved by the Government. I therefore hope that the Minister can respond to some of the points made, including those made by my hon. Friend, and assure us that she is going to get rid of that dreadful committee and allow QCDA and Ofqual to do the job that they are there for.

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

As the hon. Gentleman explained, his amendment would require the Secretary of State to fund any qualification approved by both Ofqual and QCDA, regardless of advice given by JACQA or anyone else. The amendment is a little unclear but I assume that by “approved by Ofqual” it means “regulated by Ofqual”.

This measure will give to QCDA the power that currently rests with the Secretary of State to decide which regulated qualifications should be funded. That is not an extra power; it makes more transparent the operation of the existing power. Funding approval goes to the Secretary of State under the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

Ofqual’s role is to ensure that regulated qualifications are of good quality, whether those qualifications are used by maintained schools, colleges, independent schools, employers or others. However, just because a qualification is of good quality does not necessarily mean that it should be approved for funding in maintained schools and colleges. Qualifications used in state schools must fit in with the national curriculum. More generally, the Government’s 14-to-19 qualification strategy sets out how we plan to rationalise the qualifications offer to make sure that it is easily understood, provides clear progression routes and meets the diverse needs of all young people.

The strategy is partly in response to complaints from schools that the current qualifications offer is confusing. We want to make it easy for young people to see what options are available to them, and to ensure there are no dead-end routes. It is entirely legitimate for the Government to decide which qualifications to fund, and, in particular, to decide not to fund some regulated qualifications. We have said, as a matter of policy, that we will normally approve funding only for qualifications that are regulated by Ofqual. Paragraph 21 of schedule 12 reinforces that by requiring ministerial consultation with Ofqual prior to approving funding for a qualification that is not regulated.

We have put in place the Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval, known as JACQA, which is a joint committee of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Learning and Skills Council. If the Bill is passed, it will be a joint committee of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and the Young People’s Learning Agency. JACQA is an advisory committee that first met in December 2008. It provides Ministers with informed advice on which qualifications are consistent with the qualifications strategy; but it is, and should remain, Ministers who are responsible for decisions on which qualifications to fund. They are accountable to Parliament for those decisions in a way that QCDA would not be.

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

Is the Minister saying that her prime concern is that QCDA might approve qualifications that are not consistent with the national curriculum, and that she wants JACQA to check on that incompatibility?

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

JACQA is there to advise Ministers on any issue. My point is that Ministers are accountable to Parliament, whereas QCDA is not, and that Ministers should be responsible for decisions on which qualifications to fund.

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

Other than inconsistency with the national curriculum, what reasons might there be for being concerned about or rejecting a qualification?

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

I suppose that the main concern would be in relation to our 14-to-19 qualification strategy going forward in maintained schools. We have said on numerous occasions that we intend to have only four principal qualification options available nationally, beyond 2013, that are eligible for public funding: GCSEs and A-levels, diplomas, apprenticeships and progression pathways within the foundation learning tier.

The amendment would require the Secretary of State to accept a recommendation by QCDA to fund a qualification, but would also require him to ignore a recommendation by JACQA, which will be a joint committee of QCDA. The current arrangements are transparent and the accountability is clear, whereas the amendment would be confusing. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.

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

I am afraid that I still have concerns about this matter. It seems odd to establish all these independent bodies, including QCDA, and then to reserve all these powers to the Secretary of State. The Minister has explained that she would be concerned about national  curriculum issues, and that might be understandable, but it is not clear to me whether the availability of a qualification that was in some way inconsistent with the national curriculum would necessarily compromise the duty on schools to follow the national curriculum.

The Minister gave much more of a clue to the Government’s thinking when she spoke about their desire for a limited number of qualification options and their desire to control the qualifications offer. That is much more what this is about. I understand her concern that we could have a proliferation of qualifications in the future, and that it might be difficult for universities and others to make judgments about them. I also understand that there might be a disadvantage to young people in educational institutions where certain qualifications are not on offer, but if the Government seek to regulate the qualification market in the way that I suspect they intend to, which is signalled by the establishment of such a body, the safety valve—

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

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if his amendment is accepted, the danger is that Ofqual will look at funding considerations when deciding whether to regulate a qualification? That is not the purpose of Ofqual.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 5:45 pm, 26th March 2009

I am not sure why Ofqual would need to consider that, particularly as the QCDA will already have an important responsibility in that area. We suggest that the qualifications approved by both QCDA and Ofqual should be funded by the Secretary of State. Allowing those qualifications to be used in the maintained sector is a safety valve when the Government’s qualifications offer does not do the right job. That safety valve should be available to hold the Government to account. I am disappointed with the response, and I will seek to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 170, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.