With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
agree with Ofqual the circumstances in which he can use the power conferred by subsection (1), and publish the terms of this agreement..
Government amendments 453 and 454.
Amendment 233, in clause 138, page 78, line 23, at end insert
(4A) Ofqual shall include it its annual report a copy of the publication in subsection (4) and how it responded to the determination..
Government amendments 455 and 456
Amendment 141, in clause 138, page 78, line 27, at end add
(5A) Ofqual must set a minimum requirement in respect of an academic qualification relating to the knowledge a person must demonstrate in order to obtain the qualification or qualifications in question..
Government amendment 458.
Amendment 5, in clause 138, page 78, line 31, at end insert
(7) The Secretary of State must not make a determination under subsection (1) relating to the grading or assessment of qualifications..
It is good to have such active participation from Ministers in the debate and to see so many Labour Members present now. Clearly, they are at their best after the lunch break. We now move on to an extremely important clause. If you will allow me, Mrs. Humble, I will start with a quiz for those Committee members who are here. I should like them to tell methey should feel free to intervene if they wishthe significance of the following volumes. I would particularly expect the Minister for Schools and Learners to know the answer. The volumes are Enid Blytons Famous Five adventures, Malcolm Savilles Lone Pine detective stories, The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome and, finally, a book called Keeping Pet Chickens.
Not only have those books not been banned from the reading list, but they are the favourite books of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families; he picked them out in a recent selection. He has apparently been reading one of those titles to children in schools, so I hope that it is not banned.
I refer to those books because, under clause 138, they could find their way into every English examination in the land. They could be a compulsory part of the GCSE English examinations that every child in the country must sit. Under the clause, the Secretary of State is taking extraordinary powersnew powers, as has been confirmed in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poolethat will allow the Government to dictate to examination boards what precise books they will examine youngsters on and what parts of history must be included in history examinations.
The clause has drawn a lot of attention from the educational media and the wider media. The books that I mentioned at the beginning of my comments were drawn to my attention by a leader article in no less than The Times, which published an editorial on the subject on 20 March. The feature was titled Set texts, with the subtitle: It is not the Governments job to hand out reading lists. It was not only The Times that covered the matter. As well as the The Daily Telegraph, there was a leader article in no less a paper than the Daily Express under the headline Brainwashing wont work, which concluded that only the slowest of learners will fail to appreciate that the Secretary of States control freakery and belief in centralised planning are the mark of a crackpot and not a statesman. Those are not my words but those of the Daily Express.
The significance of the clause is set out not only in the exchanges that we had in the evidence sessions a couple of weeks ago, but in the explanatory notes. It is worth reminding ourselves what those explanatory notes say about the clause. I assume, Mrs. Humble, that because my general criticisms of the clause are embedded in the amendments, you will not allow a separate stand part debate on the clause. The explanatory notes say:
This clause allows the Secretary of State to determine the minimum requirements in respect of skills, knowledge, or understanding that someone must be able to demonstrate to gain a particular qualification or type of qualification.
It goes on, very helpfully, to give an example:
For example, it could be used to ensure that the content of GCSEs properly reflects the... Key State 4 Programmes of Study, such as specifying which authors works needed to be studied for someone to gain a GCSE in English.
It goes on to say:
The Government intends that this power would be used only in exceptional circumstances.
However, none of the guarantees in relation to that, or to intervention on grading or assessment, are embedded in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that more and more legislation is couched in the terms that powers given to various Secretaries of State will be used only in exceptional circumstances. Those who find themselves on the receiving end of the use of such powerswhether those who are spied on by local authorities, or Members of Parliament in their officesknow only too well that exceptional powers tend to be used by those who are granted them.
The hon. Gentleman is right. When those exceptional circumstances are not even contained in the Bill, we have to ask whether such assurances are really worth anything. Such concerns have clearly not only been expressed in the media and Parliament; they are also concerns that Ofqual has shared at some point in time. A section of the notes that Kathleen Tattersall, the chair of Ofqual, sent to members of the Committee before our evidence session touched on the clause. It said that her officials have had detailed discussions with DCSFone always knows when one hears the phrase detailed discussion that a concern lies at the root of the issueabout the Secretary of States power to determine minimum requirements in relation to certain qualifications, as set out in clause 138, and that Ofqual must be sure therefore that the Secretary of States powers do not undermine its ability to act independently, either in reality or in the perception of the public and other stakeholders.
Ofqual has been concerned about the issue, and it has discussed it not only with members of the Committee, but with the Secretary of State himself. There was an exchange of letters between Kathleen Tattersall and the Secretary of State on 10 February. When such concerns require a public exchange of correspondence, there clearly are serious concerns. Our concern is that they have not yet been resolved.
We also had some exchanges on the issue in our evidence session on 10 March. The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North was cross-questioned on the matter. She cited Shakespeare as an example of the type of direction that the Secretary of State might give on what should be contained in an English examination. Although she said that in relation to history, I assume that she meant that Shakespeare was important in our history, but that he should be embedded in the English examination.
I wonder whether the Minister would care to let us know in her comments later whether she can think of any other examples in the English and, perhaps as interestingly, in the history examinations where the Government think that particular authors or events in history are so important that they should be an obligation for qualifications that cover those subjects.
We also had some uncertainty from Ministers over the significance of the powers in the clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked the Minister whether the powers in the Bill were new. With great frankness, she admitted:
We do not know and we are going to find out.[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 10 March 2009; c. 171, Q405.]
It did not take long before she was true to her word, and she did find out. She wrote a letter to my hon. Friend, dated 14 March 2009, confirming that there is currently no explicit statutory power to determine such matters and that such powers may exist in some way through the back door. The letter cheekily suggests in paragraph 4 that the effect of clause 138 is to limit, in practice, the powers of intervention that Ministers have. How it can do that while giving the Secretary of State an extensive power that he does not possess at the moment is an interesting question, to which we shall no doubt hear a response from the Minister in a minute.
I suppose that I could save until later my response to what I expect the Minister to say, but it may be better to add to my comments at this stage by anticipating some of the arguments that she is likely to deploy. She will undoubtedly talk about getting the balance right between public policy and interfering with examinations and give us many assurances about the circumstances in which the powers will be used. We need to remind her that the Government already have a great deal of power to influence what is taught in schools.
The national curriculum is an inordinately long document with a great deal of specificity, particularly by comparison with the expectations in the past 100 years about the degree to which Governments would try to meddle in what is taught in our schools. There will also be the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which we will debate under part 8, the funding regime and the Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval, which we will also talk about later and which advises the Secretary of State and allows him to withhold the funding of particular qualifications.
Our view, therefore, is that the power would be needed only if the Secretary of State was determined to promote his own pet subjects in the history curriculum or his own pet reading list in the English curriculum, for example. We question whether it is right to give politicians the power to prescribe in such detail what should be taught in our schools and what should be part of the qualifications that every young person may need to have.
There is a risk that we will give excessive powers to Here today, gone tomorrow politicians to put all sorts of nonsense on reading lists and decide that bits of history are in fashion and then out of fashion. There is also a risk that Secretaries of State and other Education Ministers will feel obliged to react to the latest newspaper headlines, or, perhaps more likely, to garner newspaper headlines by introducing new obligations through the examinations system, many of which might be counter-productive in terms of allowing schools and colleges to do their job and respond to the needs of their pupils. It also opens up the potential for much lobbying from all sorts of groups familiar to many hon. Members to have their own pet subjects put into the national curriculum or the qualifications that many or all youngsters have to have. The split between subject and design criteria is not nearly as simple as many Ministers and the Secretary of State may think. For example, by promoting particular subject criteria, we directly affect the design criteria and vice versa.
We therefore may want to divide the Committee on whether the clause should be in the Bill at all. We have tabled a number of amendments532, 533 and 5which I am going to speak to now. Amendment 532 came from our discussions with Cambridge Assessment, one of the accrediting bodies. It does not change the Governments intentions but clarifies the restrictions on the role of the Secretary of State by including in the Bill the undertaking about the power being used only in exceptional circumstances that is in the explanatory notes.
Amendment 533 does not change what the Government appear to want to have in the Bill. It clarifies the restrictions on the role of the Secretary of State in relation to having to
agree with Ofqual the circumstances in which he can use the power conferred by subsection (1).
Finally, amendment 5 does not seek to clarify what the Government claim are their intentions in the Bill through the explanatory notes. It clarifies the restrictions on the role of the Secretary of State by making it clear that
The Secretary of State must not make a determination under subsection (1) relating to the grading or assessment of qualifications.
An awful lot has been put in the Bill that is of low importance and that probably should not be there. I gave an example the other day of the obligations that were being placed on Ofqual to review the structure of its committees every few yearsa degree of prescription that seems completely unnecessary. If such obligations and details are in the Bill, the safeguards contained in the explanatory notes must at least be included to make clear the safeguards that the Government recognise. That would deal with some of our concerns, although whether the powers given in clause 138 have any place in the Bill or in a country where we would not expect elected politicians to dictate to such an extent to our schools and pupils is quite another matter.
If we look at any opinion poll over the past 20 years that lists the public issues of most concern, education is rarely out of the top three. There are genuine reasons for that concern: Ofsted reports, for example, that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough or that one in five 11-year-olds leave primary school still struggling with literacy.
At the same time, the curriculum has been watered down and the rigour and content of exams diminished. Much of that is driven by ideology, though not always that of the Minister and her colleagues. Often, it is driven by a child-centred John Dewey-type ideology, the dominant orthodoxy of those who have reached prominent positions in the educational establishment. The public are hugely anxious about such trends. I know of many left-of-centre journalists who, against their own principles, have taken their children out of the state sector because of such concerns. That is fine for those who can afford it, but for most people the state sector is the only option, hence peoples concerns in the opinion polls.
Elected politicians need to respond to those concerns, and need to be able to respond. We all received the letter from the Minister which, with the usual rigour and attention to detail that we have come to expect from those involved in the Committee, was dated 23 March 2009I know it has been a long Committee, but not quite that long.
Of course we want Ofqual to be an independent regulator. I have already set out my concerns about whether it will be independent of those who are responsible for the problems with todays educational system and who seem determined to create more problemsthose in the educational establishment who put ideology ahead of evidence of what works. We want Ofqual to be independent from ministerial interference on issues such as grade boundaries, which has always been the position of the QCA regulatory division, which would never countenance such interference. I do not believe that there ever has been such interference, either from this Government or previous Governments, but Ministers must have reserve powers to set minimum standards. In a democracy, when education is of such concern to the public, we cannot remove from Ministers every lever to effect change that would raise standards.
My understanding of the hon. Gentlemans policy, which we were discussing earlier, is that the Conservative party is happy for good-quality state-funded schools to opt out of the national curriculum. How is that consistent with saying that there should be this degree of central direction?
When schools opt out of a system, in a system that has plenty of surplus places and makes it easier for new schools to enter into the state sectoras set out in our policy Green Paper, Raising the bar, closing the gapthere would be genuine choice to allow parents to choose a school. The independent schools and independent sector are not subject to the national curriculum and, notwithstanding that, the reason that they still provide high-quality educationworld class in the majority of independent schoolsis because the market forces them to provide the high-quality education that parents want.
Our state education system has to date been a state-provided system that is not responsive to the needs of parents. It has no need to be. There are few surplus places and one has to go to ones local school, or a school to which one is allocatedin theory one has a choice, but in practice most parents do not have a genuine choice of school. It is therefore important, under the current system, that schools provide a curriculum and exam system that respond to the needs of parents.
It is the role of the state to replicate the market through things such as the national curriculum. That does not mean that we want to regulate and provide detail down to the last dot and comma, but national politicians have a responsibility to ensure that public services that are directly provided by the state respond as closely as possible to the needs of parents. The only methodology through which parents can exercise such a power at present is our elected democratic process.
May I explore the hon. Gentlemans argument further? Is he saying that he is happy for good quality state-funded schools not to have to teach Shakespeare, for example, which is an obligation under the national curriculum at present, and that such schools should not be obliged to offer qualifications that would include Shakespeare? Does he believe that such things should be left to the market and to preference?
No, I do not take that view. The state has a very important role to play in providing examinations, and that is why we agree with the power under clause 138 for the Secretary of State to set minimum standards for assessments. If schools do not want to take up the examinations or assessments provided by the state, they will be able to turn to the marketplace. That is why the independent sector is not required to set GCSEs for schools.
We do not currently have a genuine marketplace within the state sector for school provision. If we get to a position where parents have a genuine choiceI mean a genuine choice, not a theoretical oneof schools, it would be possible to relax the system, because, given what we know from opinion polls about what parents want from schools, they would not choose a school that does not teach Shakespeare or does not provide exams.
I understand the hon. Gentlemans argument about having a proper market and choice. He is saying that, even though he wants the Secretary of State to have the power outlined in clause 138 to set minimum standardsin underperforming schools perhaps, or at least until there is a markethe is willing for state-funded schools not to be obliged to teach particular authors, including Shakespeare, or to insist that students be examined on such authors through GCSEs and other qualifications.
The hon. Gentleman talks about a theoretical position that I hope will be reached where parents have a genuine choice of schools for their children. In such circumstances, they should be able to choose. If they want a very progressive education for their children that does not require academic rigour and study, there is a case for allowing that under a system in which they can genuinely choose. We are not currently in such a position, so we need to ensure that our exam system is rigorous and has minimum standards. That is why we agree with the power that the clause gives to the Secretary of State to determine minimum requirements. The Bill does not determine maximum requirements, only minimum ones.
According to the explanatory notes, the Secretary of States power will be used only in exceptional circumstances and it
does not allow the Secretary of State to make determinations relating to parts of the qualification such as grading or assessment. Such matters remain solely for Ofqual to determine.
The notes go on to state:
Those issues were reiterated in the Under-Secretarys letter of 14 March 2009 to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, to which the hon. Member for Yeovil also referred. The fourth paragraph of that letter states that the effect of clause 138 is in practice to limit the role of Ministers by setting out what Ministers can determinethe skills, knowledge or understanding which someone must demonstrate in order to obtain a specified qualification. It says that Ministers will not be able to decide, for example, on grading, structures, assessment methods or how standards will be maintained, and that they may express a view on these things from their policy perspective, but the final decisions will be for Ofqual.
We agree with that, but I understand the reasons behind the hon. Gentlemans amendments, particularly amendment 5, and his general concerns, especially given that the Government are more concerned about the message than genuine reform and higher standardsnothing delivers a better message than exam results rising year on year. Although we do not support amendment 5, because I do not believe that Ministers have ever sought to interfere with grade boundaries, absolute transparency will be necessary when Ministers use the power in clause 138.
Amendment 233 would require Ofqual to publish in its annual report each of the determinations published under clause 138(4), together with a note setting out how it had responded. There should be no problem with a Secretary of State, acting in good faith and trying to ensure rising standards, being open in the use of this power. Giving that determination maximum transparency and accountability would strengthen Ofquals independence. Amendment 141, which deals with clause 138 as well, would require Ofqual to set a minimum requirement of knowledge that must be learned before the qualification can be awarded. That returns to our earlier debate about knowledge versus skills. However, it also relates to public concern about the reduced quality of knowledge required to pass GCSEs. Last November, in an article in The Sunday Telegraph, Terence Kealey wrote:
Would you like a GCSE in science? Don't worry, you may not need to know much science actually to get one. Last Monday, Graham Stuart, the Tory MP for Beverley and Holderness, read out to the Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families a question from a recent GCSE science paper: A nuclear power station is to be built. (1) It will provide more employment in the area. But (2) any release of radioactive material would be very dangerous. Which of these two statements argues in favour of siting the nuclear power station in the area?
Mr Stuart then asked if the department is really sure that we are providing pupils with a rigorous scientific understanding? But he was answered by Jim Knight MP, the schools minister, with Yes. I am absolutely happy that we are, and we have set up Ofqual to provide more public reassurance.
If we have set up Ofqual to provide that assurance, let it do so, by setting out clearly the actual knowledge required when setting pass marks and grade boundaries.
The same point applies to equivalencies. A merit in an International Therapy Examination Council diploma in tanning treatments is worth 45 pointsthe same as a grade A in one A-level module. Speaking at a recent seminar in London, Isabel Nisbet said that she has begun to wonder whether it really stands up against A level maths and that it seems to raise doubts about accrediting self-tanning courses as level 3 qualifications. She also said that her aide said that she chose it as an example of the tough judgments that the watchdog should make. Amendment 141 would help Ofqual to make those tough judgments and choices.
I have listened to both hon. Gentlemen with interest. Clause 138 has become something of a clause cĂ(c)lĂ¨bre, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, and I want to set out the Governments position in light of that media interest.
I can state categorically and unashamedly that ministerial interest in the school curriculum is not only legitimate, but necessary. That position has been established since the launch of the national curriculum two decades ago. This is not a sinister new development, as some have suggested. Ministers need to be democratically accountable for the curriculum. They need to be able to stand at the Dispatch Box and explain, for example, how the curriculum is ensuring that the next generation of young adults entering the work force will have the skills that employers are looking for; how they are preparing young people to play a full part in society when they grow up; how they are developing the maths, science and foreign language skills required for future economic prosperity, and how they are passing on to the next generation the knowledge and understanding that we consider to be the rightful inheritance and entitlement of every childour history, culture and knowledge of the world. That is a significant responsibility, and Ministers must approach it wisely. They must listen to a range of advice from the QCDA and elsewhere. They must allow teachers the space to exercise professional judgment within the requirements of the curriculum, and they must not change it too rapidly. For a Government to abandon their responsibility for the curriculum would be extraordinary.
Qualifications are closely related to the curriculum. They are an assessment of a learners attainments, reflecting what the learner has been taught. Qualifications can help drive and focus teaching, which is why they are so important when making educational policy. As with the curriculum, it would be extraordinary for a Government to give up any say in what qualifications should be available.
There is a power to direct the QCA under the Education Act 1997, and the QCA is currently accountable to Ministers. That is why we say that it is not a new power.
As I explained, the power to direct the QCA on how it exercises its functions includes its function for setting criteria for the accreditation of qualifications.
I am listening with interest, but does the Minister share my concerns about amendment 141? It considers qualifications solely in respect of the knowledge that a person has. When I was redesigning the master of business administration course at Cranfield school of management with my colleagues, we considered knowledge, skills and ability, but is not the true test of knowledge how it is translated into action and how it is used in the workplace as well, of course, as its value in and of itself?
I thank the my hon. Friend for her intervention. I shall come to that point later.
I grateful to the Minister for giving way; she has been most patient. I am not convinced by her earlier answer. Surely she is not going back on the statement that she made in her letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. She clearly said that there is currently no explicit statutory power to determine such matters.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to section 26(1) of the Education Act 1997, which states:
In carrying out their functions...the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority shall(a) comply with any directions given by the Secretary of State; and (b) act in accordance with any plans approved by him.
Those are wide-ranging powers indeed.
They may be wide-ranging, but unless the Minister is suggesting that her letter of 14 March 2009 was wrong, she has already confirmed that there is currently no explicit statutory power to determine such matters.
We are dancingexcessively soon the head of a pin. There is no explicit statutory power that mentions qualifications. The wide-ranging power that I cite states:
any directions given by the Secretary of State; and...any plans approved by him.
We are becoming bogged down, so I shall move on.
Clause 138 allows the Secretary of State to set minimum requirements for qualifications relating to knowledge, skills and understanding. In it, we seek to balance two interests. On one hand is the legitimate interest of Ministers in the content of qualifications; on the other is the need for the regulator to be able to ensure that standards are maintained in order to provide public assurance. The interim Ofqual has gone on record to say that it is happy with the letter. On 10 February 2009, Kathleen Tattersall said:
I fully support the principle that Government should set the broad policy objectives...I am pleased that the Bill clarifies this balance of responsibilities, making it clear that the Secretary of State can specify publicly minimum requirements in respect of a limited range of aspects of a public qualification; and that Ofqual would need to meet those requirements when setting criteria for recognition or accreditation, in a way that will not encroach upon territory which is clearly the responsibility of the independent regulator.
Ministers will not be able to decide how qualifications are graded or assessed, or how standards are set. It is a real reduction in power, which is being given up to the independent regulator. Ministers may have views, but the final decision will be Ofquals alone. Of course, the content of qualifications can affect standards and assessment, so under clause 138, the Secretary of State will only be able to set minimum requirements for a qualification. He will not be able to reduce the requirements of a qualification, which might make it impossible for Ofqual to maintain standards, and Ofqual will continue to control the criteria that specify the requirements of a qualification. It will not be for Ministers to tell Ofqual how to deliver the minimum requirements.
When the Minister was questioned on this issue in the evidence session a couple of weeks ago, she cited Shakespeare as an example of a requirement that she might embed in English examinations, so people would be obliged to read and be examined on Shakespeare. Can she explain why she decided that Shakespeare should be given priority over other great authors, such as Chaucer, Dickens or Jane Austen?
I was merely citing an example. I will come back to that point, with the examples that the hon. Member for Yeovil asked for, if he will be patient.
As with the curriculum, Ministers will need to use the powers wisely. We have publicly committed to safeguardswe will agree a memorandum of understanding with Ofqual over the use of the clause. Qualifications development is complex and takes time to get right, and we will not be making determinations every five minutes. It is more likely that the power will be used to require GCSEs to relate to the key stage 4 national curriculum, which they assess, than to require the use of specific text books.
Without clause 138, Ministers would lose any decision-making power over qualifications. Let me illustrate that point. Some years ago, a working group led by Sir Mike Tomlinson published a report on 14-to-19 qualifications. That high-profile report generated a lot of debate, with commentators and politicians on all sides taking a view. Four years ago, my ministerial predecessors published our response in a White Paper that set the direction of travel that we are still following today, in particular, with respect to 14-to-19 diplomas for which young people are now studying.
If the Bill had been in force without clause 138, none of that debate would have been possible. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Yeovil has had a chance to read the indicative regulations. An indicative determination would be the minimum requirements of the 14-to-19 diploma.
I will move to another point. The hon. Gentleman has said that he wants to introduce a general diploma. Without the power in clause 138, he could not do that. If the power was not there, the regulator might refuse to implement it and there would be nothing that the hon. Gentleman could do about it, in the highly unlikely event that he was in a position to introduce a general diploma.
I am not quite sure why that conclusion follows from her observations. There already are accrediting bodies, a national curriculum and the QCDA, which will develop the curriculum, and the Government power not to fund qualifications that do not meet the requirements of the Secretary of State, so what does this measure add to that array of powers?
It gives Ofqual powers to set the criteria, which are owned by Ofqual, so it needs to have the powers. Without clause 138, only a regulator can decide what is in a qualification. Ofqual may agree voluntarily to set criteria to meet a Ministers requirements. In practice, I hope that clause 138 determinations are unlikely to be necessary very often, because Ministers and Ofqual should aim to have a good working relationship, whereby Ofqual will agree to regulate for qualifications that deliver policy proposals, provided that those proposals are made to maintain standards.
Clause 138 is important for three reasons. First, as I have said, it is important because ministerial interest in qualifications is legitimate, and the clause is explicit about what matters Ministers have a say in and clear about what matters are not for them to decide. Secondly, it provides for the unlikely event that Ofqual starts behaving unreasonably and refuses to deliver the qualifications that Ministers want, without giving any good reasons. Thirdly, it ensures transparency. If Ministers want to influence what is in a qualification, there is no need for behind-the-scenes negotiation. They can make a determination, they have to publish it and they are accountable for it.
I want to move on to the five amendments to this clause that are not Government amendments. First, amendment 532 would mean that the Secretary of State could make a determination specifying minimum requirements only in respect of the qualification in exceptional circumstances. Often, it will not be clear whether a particular set of circumstances is exceptional. That is a fundamental difficulty with the amendment. Lawyers could spend a lot of time arguing about whether a particular set of circumstances is exceptional. That lack of clarity and the uncertainty that it would give rise to means, in our view, that the wording of the amendment does not work.
I think that amendment 532 seeks to address two concerns and I have some sympathy with both. The first concern might be that Ministers should not make frequent changes to qualifications and therefore that determinations should be made only occasionally. I agree with that view. Qualification reform is complex, takes time to get right and the stakes are high, particularly, of course, for the learners who would be affected. Ministers should not issue new determinations unless it is appropriate and necessary to do so. However, I do not think that we can write that into the legislation. There is no clear or easy way of describing that, and amendment 532 does not achieve that description. Instead, we should rely on the memorandum of understanding that we have put in place, and on Ministers taking seriously their responsibility to learners, along with the transparency that is created by having an independent regulator to prevent problems.
I appreciate the fact that the Minister said that she is quite sympathetic to the concerns that underlie amendment 532. However, is it really that difficult or impossible to put the wording in the amendment in the Bill? After all, we were discussing earlierI think that it was only this morning, although it seems like some time ago nowclause 126(7), in which the Government specify:
Ofqual must perform its functions efficiently and effectively.
At that time, I questioned the fact that those words are very general.
Given that the Government are willing to have wording that is so general in a Bill of this type, surely there is no reason at all why they cannot make it clear in the Bill that this power in clause 138 is one for exceptional circumstances? Alternatively, the Minister, with all the support that she has to hand, might be able to introduce a different form of words that could express her intentions in the Bill.
I think that I made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that the Bill is the right place for that and that we should rely on the memorandum of understanding. However, another concern lies behind amendment 532. I think that it says that Ministers should make a determination only occasionally because normally it would be unnecessary. We would hope that ministerial policy decisions relating to qualifications, as put forward through draft criteria developed by QCDA, should be easy for Ofqual to accept. We do not want Ministers relationship with Ofqual to be characterised by the need to issue formal determinations. However, I do not see how that could be required in law. I think that we should use the memorandum of understanding.
Amendment 533 would require the Secretary of State to
agree with Ofqual the circumstances in which he could make a determination specifying minimum requirements in respect of a qualification
and publish the terms of the agreement..
As the Secretary of State said in his letter to Kathleen Tattersall last month, it is certainly our intention to make and publish such an agreement with Ofqual. We could, therefore, put it in the legislation. However, the problem with doing that is that there cannot be a legal duty on the Secretary of State to agree something with Ofqual, because ultimately, by refusing to come to an agreement, Ofqual could veto the use of the power, which would undermine the intention of the provision. Again, I must ask the Committee to trust the public commitments that the Secretary of State has made to develop an agreement.
The amendment would also delete the requirement to publish a determination. I am not clear why that has been proposed. The requirement to publish is key to ensuring that the system is fully transparent and therefore that confidence can be maintained.
Amendment 233 would require Ofqual to include in its annual report a copy of any published determination that the Secretary of State makes and how Ofqual responded to such a determination. We do not need that provision in the Bill. A determination will be in the public domain, and I suspect that Ofqual would want to refer to it in its annual report. The Secretary of State is required to publish any determination and there will need to be public consultation on the criteria and conditions that are set to give effect to that determination. The Select Committees will doubtless want to discuss any section 138 determinations with Ofqual as part of the oversight of its work.
On amendment 141, Ofqual will have discretion to decide when a qualification requires individual scrutiny. In such a case, it would require that the qualification was accredited. Ofqual would then publish criteria, which might be drafted by the QCDA, for the accreditation of qualifications that are subject to the requirement. When appropriate, the criteria would have to include, for example, the academic content that must be covered in the qualifications for them to be accredited. What would be required by the amendment will happen anyway, so I do not see that it would add anything.
Amendment 5 would make it explicit that the Secretary of State does not have the power to make a determination to specify requirements in relation to the setting of grades or the assessment of the qualifications. I strongly agree with the sentiment of the amendment. Grading and assessment are very clearly the domain of the regulator. A Minister who sought to make a minimum requirement relating to such areas would risk undermining the independence of the regulator and, therefore, the credibility of the qualification system. That is why the Bill will prevent the minimum requirement on grading or assessment. Clause 138(3) clearly defines a minimum requirement as
a requirement that relates to the knowledge, skills or understanding which a person must demonstrate in order to obtain the qualification or a qualification of the description in question.
Therefore, a requirement is about what someone must demonstrate, not how it is demonstrated or how the achievement is recorded. The definition does not, therefore, allow requirements relating to the setting of grades or assessment.
The amendment would not affect the nature of the minimum requirements that the Secretary of State can determine. The Government have made clear what the respective roles of Ofqual and Ministers should be on qualifications, and interim Ofqual has indicated that it is content with that position. If a decision relates to grading or standards, it is rightly a matter for the regulator. That is exactly what is written in the Bill. I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Such an amendment is unnecessary because the Bill will already prevent Ministers from doing what the amendment says they must not do.
Government amendments 453 to 456 and 458 fall into two groups. First, amendments 453, 454, 456 and 458 relate to ensuring that the Secretary of State can vary a determination as long as he publishes and gives notice of it to Ofqual. We do not intend to use the measure very often. As I said, changing the broad content of qualifications such as GCSEs is not something to be undertaken frequently, but nor must we be in a position in which qualifications fail to evolve over time. The amendments allow the Government to change the high-level requirements over time as the curriculum evolves.
Secondly, amendment 455 adds Ofquals functions under clause 131the power to set general conditionsto the list of functions that Ofqual must exercise for the purposes of implementing a determination made under clause 138. That reflects the fact that the Bill has two concepts of the requirements of awarding bodies: criteria and conditions. Criteria are only directly relevant at the time an awarding body applies to be recognised or to have a qualification accredited. As I explained to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, once the criteria have been met and recognition or accreditation has been granted, Ofqual will regulate the activities of awarding bodies through its general and specific conditions. It may therefore need to use the conditions as well as the criteria to implement the determination. For example, if a determination required GCSE English to reflect the national curriculum key stage 4 programme of study, the accreditation criteria for GCSE English would require that awarding bodies submit GCSE English specifications reflecting the programme of study. The clause 131 conditions would require that they continue to offer the qualifications on that basis.
With that explanation, I hope that the Committee will agree to add the Government amendments to the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for that very full response to the amendments. The hon. Member for Wakefield made a point about knowledge versus skills. Amendment 141 would not rule out criteria to assess skills, but the concern is that, over the past 10 years, the knowledge content of some of our qualificationsnot all, but somehas been depleted or removed from the GCSE qualification. Ofqual agrees with us on that point, and that is why our concern is about the level of knowledge: we are not concerned about the level of skills being assessed but we are genuinely concerned, as are the public, about how much knowledge we ask our children to acquire. On many occasions, such knowledge is reduced, and that is very damaging.
I was curious about the hon. Gentlemans use of the tanning salon as an example of something that was not equivalent to an A-level. I am sure that he is far too sensible to use a tanning salon, as are most Committee members, because of the known risks associated with skin cancer, but, given that there are such risks in a tanning salon, does he not think it appropriate that people who operate such salons have a higha level 2 qualification to advise their clients on the appropriate length of exposure to tanning rays and on the sunscreen factor that they should wear?
I agree. If one goes into that industry, a qualification in self-tanning or in how to use a tanning booth is very important. The problem comes when we try to pretend that it is equivalent to a module in A-level maths. It diminishes and undermines the credibility of the vocational qualification, because everybody knows that they are not equivalent, hence the point made by Isabel Nisbet from Ofqual, who is also concerned about that. I cited Ofquals concern about such equivalence, and we must get away from trying to pretend that all things are the same in the pursuit of parity of esteem. Vocational qualifications, if they are high quality, of course have parity of esteem with academic qualifications, but if we pretend that they are the same as academic qualifications, we destroy the credibility of both.
Our concern is about knowledge, and I take on board the Ministers points about amendment 233. It is already a requirement to publish any determination that the Secretary of State makes under the clause. The amendments purpose was to make it crystal clear that there would be transparency. However, given her assurances that there will be transparency, I am happy not to pursue either amendment to a vote.
I am also grateful to the Minister for a very detailed response, and for her usual patience in taking a large number of interventions.
I shall touch on our amendments532, 533 and 5 and then reflect on the wider issues raised by clause 138. The Minister said that she believes that, embedded in the Bill, is the content of amendment 5, preventing the Secretary of State from making a determination under subsection (1) on the grading or assessment of the qualifications. Perhaps it is just the time of day, but I need to reflect on that, to look carefully at her comments and see whether she is right that there is enough protection. If I feel that she has been slightly generous in her interpretation of how much protection the Bill affords, I may return to the issue.
Amendment 532 would include a provision on the power being used in exceptional circumstances. I was not convinced by the Ministers arguments on that. We can point to many other parts of the Bill in which general directions or powers are granted that are far vaguer and more difficult to pin down than the words exceptional circumstances, which are, after all, used very carefully in the explanatory notes. However, I will press that amendment and divide the Committee later, because it is crucial to how these powers will be used.
I should like to reflect a bit on some of the wider issues to do with the extent to which politicians should be able to interfere in the contents of examinations. In spite of the Ministers suggestion that, in some way, there are already powers that allow interference by the back door through the QCA, she confirmed in her letter to the Committee that there is currently no explicit statutory power to determine such matters, which appears to bolster the back-door powers that there may already be. Regardless of whether those powers exist or not, there is an issue of principle about whether politicians should be able to interfere in the ways that the Minister anticipated in her evidence session, when she mentioned that Shakespeare should, in her view, be part of an English language GCSE as an obligation imposed by the Secretary of State. We heard a contrasting view from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, although I accept that he was explaining what would happen in a world with more choice in the education market.
Is it the view of the hon. Gentleman and his party that our school children should not study Shakespeare?
In a few moments. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to stay in the Committee Room to hear me.
I was about to explain the three different positions on this matter. Clearly, I need to do so in more detail than I had initially anticipated. One extreme view, which is interesting, coming from the Conservative partyalthough I accept the proviso of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that this would happen when there was more of a market in educationis that in an ideal world there should be, even for maintained schools, no national curriculum that is as prescriptive as the one that the Government want, which would determine that Shakespeare must be in the English curriculum, for example. I think that he was also saying that in this world of greater choice and freedom in state-funded education, an obligation on the Secretary of State to insist that the examinations embedded Shakespeare, for example, would also not be needed. In his ideal world, he would no longer prescribe what the Minister seeks to prescribe, either in the national curriculum or in the qualifications that youngsters have to take.
But we are living in a world, today, in which Ofsted says that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough. While that situation persistsI expect that it will persist for some timethere needs to be a considerable degree of prescription to ensure that, through the national curriculum and our exam system, schools are providing the kind of education that parents require.
Yes, I register that point, but even in the discussions in the Select Committee there is a wide range of views about how the national curriculum should develop. Conservative party policy nationally is that academy schools should be able to opt out of the national curriculum. I appreciate that the hon. Gentlemans perfect world would take a period of time to evolve, but he is saying, helpfully and in a principled way, that his vision is that the maintained sectorin future, when standards have risen and the choice is therewould be able to operate in the same way as the independent sector, so there would be no need for a prescriptive national curriculum and no need for such prescriptiveness in the examinations.
Of course, in that world schools would be teaching Shakespeare and a rigorous academic curriculum, including the three separate sciences and good maths and literacy. That is the ultimate aim of all Committee members, is it not?
I suspect that that is probably so and I would be surprised if the schools were not doing that, but the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants schools to be free to do so or not to do so. They might decide that Chaucer is very important and select examinations in which other key authors who are named in the national curriculum are specified, such as Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Bronte, H. G. Wells or Wordsworth. There is no obligation to cover any of those authors in qualifications at the moment. The hon. Gentleman thinks that schools would do that, but acknowledges that parental choice would also be influential. Parents might want a school that does not teach some of those subjects. It is a logical consequence of his policy that some schools might not cover Shakespeare in their curriculum and might chose qualifications that do not cover him.
On the other hand, the Minister wants not only to prescribe through the national curriculum, but has made it clear that she wants the Secretary of State to have the power to direct that particular authors should be covered in qualifications. That is an extraordinary degree of direction. The Minister has cited Shakespeare as if it is obvious that he should always be covered in English examinations. By picking out Shakespeare, she has left out a long list of authors who presumably she does not believe need to be covered in English examinations. [Interruption.] She is pooh-poohing that from a sedentary position, but her implicit position is that Shakespeare should have special status, whereas Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Hardy, Keats, Wordsworth, WellsI could read out lots of other names if you want me to, Mrs. Humbledo not have the same status. The Minister is quite happy to jettison them all and leave them to the devices of the national curriculum and schools.
Far be it from me to come to the Ministers defence, but is it not the case that the former Secretary of State intervened because there was a danger that Shakespeare would be removed and would not be taught in schools? There was no evidence that those other authors were not being taught. He intervened to tackle the specific problem that Shakespeare would not be taught in some schools because it was difficult, whereas those other authors probably would have been taught.
Really? Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that all those schools that were not teaching Shakespeare were teaching Chaucer, Blake and Dickens? I very much doubt it.
In any case, the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Secretary of State would determine such things if his reforms were accepted. Under his model, the market would decide through parental preference. He will have to accept that some parents might prefer not to have some authors on the list.
The issue of authors and English examinations seems relatively simple in comparison to history. So far, we have not tempted the Minister to indicate which parts of British or foreign history she thinks should be obligatory for the GCSE. I will give way happily if she wishes to pick any out. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that she will not pick out the bits of history that should be covered in the GCSE examination. The Secretary of State will have that power under the clause. He could decide tomorrow morning that particular parts of British history should be included in the history examination. He could specify that the history of the labour movement should be covered in the examination. We could have that degree of political control.
As the Minister asked for it earlier, my view is that it is reasonable to have a minimum curriculum that sets out the key expectations, but that it is unreasonable and unnecessary to embed that curriculum in the examinations system. It is not necessary for Ministers to micro-manage the curriculum to that extraordinary degree. Anyone who is interested in this matter can look at the long list of authors in the national curriculum who are regarded as an acceptable part of the English literary heritage. Goodness knows whether Ministers have approved that list or been involved in who is included or who is taken out. There is also a list of contemporary writers. Goodness knows which Ministers were involved in selecting Jennifer Donnelly, John Fowles and Susan Hill to be part of that approved list.
I question not only whether we need to be so detailed and prescriptive in the national curriculum, but whether Ministers need to take these extraordinary powers to specify such things for qualifications. Like The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, many other newspapers and many colleagues in Parliament, I do not trust here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians to take the right decisions about what should be embedded in our exams. The Minister is on slightly different ground when she talks about the structure of qualifications and the interest that the Government might have in that. They already have a great degree of influence over that through the QCDA and through the Secretary of States powers not to fund particular qualifications. We have this body that we will discuss laterJACQAwhich gives advice to the Secretary of State about whether any of these qualifications should be funded in the first place.
In her comments on the structure of examinations, she mentioned that she might want these powers where Ofqual or the exam boards were refusing to deliver what Ministers wanted. That is rather telling about an attitude to the examinations system, and perhaps the curriculum as well, and it is extremely top down. This is about what Ministers think is right for children throughout the country. They are qualifications that Ministers pick and it reflects back on our earlier debate about whether there should be a market in qualifications where the wishes of schools, parents and youngsters themselves should be influential in determining what qualifications are taken up, or whether this is a really top-down process where Ministers pick and choose qualifications and try to shunt the qualifications framework in a particular direction. When Ministers do that they are often extremely unsuccessful. Indeed, in the past 30 years, successive Governments have promoted vocational qualifications that have no traction, credibility or a value in the market.
I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentlemans argument, but I also have some sympathy for the Governments position, which is hard to have. What would happen if some school, some governing body or some qualification agency took it upon itself to have a one-year module in Barbara Cartland? Surely we would expect some form of intervention to stop that and to ensure that Barbara Cartland did not squeeze out William Shakespeare.
Under the system I am suggesting there would still be a national curriculum. It is under the system that his party is suggesting, albeit at some stage in the future, that that complete free-for-all would evolve. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton told us that he believes that the best schools should be able to opt out not only from qualifications prescribed by the Secretary of State, but from the national curriculum. Indeed, I think the Conservative party says that already in relation to academies. So that really is a question that is best addressed to his own Front Bench.
I fear that I have not yet persuaded the Minister, and I may have exhausted both the Committee and the argument. I will want to return to the wider issues at a later date, but I would like to press the amendment to a vote.
This amendment adds Ofquals functions under clause 131 (power to set general conditions) to the list of functions which Ofqual must exercise for the purposes of implementing a determination made under clause 138(1).
Amendment 456, in clause 138, page 78, line 25, leave out to which a determination under this section applies.
See Members explanatory statement for amendment 436.
Amendment 458, in clause 138, page 78, line 31, at end insert
( ) A determination made under subsection (1) may be amended or revoked by the Secretary of State; and subsection (4) applies to the amendment of a determination as it applies to the making of a determination.. (Sarah McCarthy-Fry.)