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16 Oct 2002 : Column 337—continued

Estelle Morris: I will give way once more to the hon. Gentleman because the matter concerns his constituency, but I will not give way again after that.

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way to me a second time. We all share the aspiration of sorting out this matter, but may I just explain to her the problem that her intervention caused? By issuing to the media a statement that she had overruled the appeals panel, the Secretary of State raised expectations in the school that the problem had been solved, and 24 hours later those expectations were dashed when the school realised that she did not have the power to overrule. That is the problem that she caused locally.

Estelle Morris: If the hon. Gentleman reads the statement and listens carefully to the comments made that evening by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), he will find that I made it quite clear that I had no powers. I knew that I had no powers and I had been through the matter that afternoon. Sometimes, however, one can just stand up and be counted, and that afternoon I stood up to be counted. I do not care two hoots that criticism followed; it was right for the Secretary of State to stand up and be counted and to use what influence I had. It was right for the Secretary of State to ring Surrey county council and say, XYou know that we have no powers, but can we do anything to help? Could you move as quickly as possible to remedy the situation?"

I shall say no more about that because I am happy to be judged on my record, on my intervention and on my words, not only by teachers but by parents who want good standards of education and well disciplined schools.

I have taken far longer than I should have done—

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): What about A-levels?

Estelle Morris: I will talk about A-levels. Everybody who has got a grade this year should feel proud, and it is worth the paper that it is written on. It was absolutely

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deplorable, indeed shameful, of the Leader of the Opposition to say that the results are not worth the paper they are written on. I say once more that I have every confidence in yesterday's report by Mike Tomlinson. In addition, I know that all the organisations that brought the complaints to his attention have confidence in the report. I acted swiftly. I made sure that the inquiry was independent. I acted on every one of the recommendations, and I will act on the recommendations that come back from the second part of the inquiry.

Several hon. Members rose—

Estelle Morris: I have been generous in giving way.

I want others to have the opportunity to address this subject. Everybody—at least those on the Labour Benches—looks forward to even more amazing policy announcements in the couple of hours ahead.

4.40 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It would be easy to use this opportunity merely to throw insults at the Government for their handling of education policy without recognising as a starting point the huge problems that they inherited in 1997. I certainly want to go on record as saying that the Liberal Democrats recognise that there have been some improvements since 1997. The catalogue of improvements that the Secretary of State read out at the beginning of her speech was not due simply to Government policy. It was very much due to the hard work of our teachers, lecturers and everyone in the education world. The Government sometimes accept too much credit for what goes right and totally ignore things when they go wrong.

Although there was much with which I could agree in the opening speech of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), the accusations had a hollow ring when one examined the alternatives presented by the Conservatives in Bournemouth and, indeed, today. In a half-hour speech, there was not a single positive proposal to resolve the issues that have been raised.

Phil Hope: I have been watching the hon. Gentleman discussing the issue of A-levels on various news programmes. While he is putting on record the views of Liberal Democrats, will he dissociate his party from the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, who described A-levels as not worth the paper that they were written on? Will he join us as we go to prize-giving evenings at schools to award the certificates to young people in congratulating them on their fantastic hard work?

Mr. Willis: I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for considering that very soon the Liberal Democrats will be the official Opposition. When we are, we shall not be repeating the outrageous slur made by the quiet man earlier today.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willis: I would like to make a little progress.

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What lies behind this debate is a deep-seated jealousy over the fact that the Labour Government are delivering Conservative policies. That is the truth of it. I ask Labour Members whether even a Thatcher Government would have dared propose such right-wing policies as creating a free market for higher education, breaking up the comprehensive system, introducing performance pay, stripping the last vestiges of power from local education authorities and handing them to private companies, privatising schools, privatising the Criminal Records Bureau and micro-managing our education service from Sanctuary house through a target-led agenda? That is a Thatcherite agenda that Thatcher herself could not introduce, and that is why the Tories are jealous. Labour Members are delivering the Tories' policies.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): While the hon. Gentleman is in the business of accusing the Government of being Thatcherite, perhaps he might explain why the Liberal Democrats seem to have gone rather socialist. Is it not a fact that the Liberal Democrats were reported in The Times Educational Supplement of 20 September as planning to do away with the curriculum for infant schools and to revert for those up to the age of seven to an educational policy dependent on learning through play? Is that not a reversion to the 1960s socialist policies that did so much damage to the education of our children?

Mr. Willis: It is worth coming into the Chamber just to hear the hon. Gentleman's intelligent and articulate interventions. I will send him the whole document, because it is crucial reading material on a serious issue. I strongly believe that we are moving away from quality early-years education by putting youngsters into formal education settings far too early. I make no apology for that view—it is something that I fervently believe. The hon. Gentleman should look at the experience in countries such as Denmark, Sweden or Holland, which have highly advanced early education services. He made a derisory comment about learning through play, but the fact is that all children learn though play. Had he spent a little more time playing as a child, he might have learned a little more.

The key accusation that the Liberal Democrats would lay at the Government's door is not one of inactivity, but one of paranoia. The Government need to control everything, to manage everything, to trust no one, to seek blind affirmation and to treat criticism with contempt—and, as we have seen today, above all never to accept responsibility when things go wrong. Imagine the outcry if local education authorities, not Capita, had failed to vet 7,000 teachers in time for the start of term. What would have happened—would the LEAs have got a #400 million contract extended? What if the further education sector, not Capita, had made a hash of individual learning accounts resulting in a multi-million pound fraud? Would the sector have received yet more lucrative contracts from the Government? Of course not; yet, in effect, that is what has happened with Capita. Both disasters could have been avoided if the Department for Education and Skills had prepared the

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contracts' specifications correctly and the Secretary of State had effectively monitored their delivery, but they did not, and that is a significant failure.

The current fiasco surrounding A-levels is yet another example of the Secretary of State behaving like Pontius Pilate when things go disastrously wrong. There were warnings as early as October 1998 that the new system of post-16 exams was deeply flawed. A 1998 internal report to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that was sent to Ministers warned that unless the problems were sorted out, they would lead to massive grade inflation or grade fixing. Undeterred, the Government went ahead against all advice. There was chaos in the first year, with modules failing to appear, course materials failing to arrive in schools, and no markers to mark the modules. Our students were treated as little more than guinea pigs in a glorified experiment.

True to form, the Secretary of State stepped in in 2001—not to apologise or to accept that the situation was the result of her policy, but to take action to cut the number of modules. She said,

But they were the Secretary of State's reforms. What was left when the right hon. Lady had cut the number of modules students could take was a system simply for stacking up A-level points. That was the net result. It has thrown the lives of thousands of our students and their teachers and lecturers into confusion, and undermined confidence in the A-level system.

Let me make it clear to the Secretary of State and the House that the Liberal Democrats fully supported the introduction of AS-levels and A2s. We believed that it was right to broaden the curriculum at that time. Furthermore, we have not accused and will not accuse the Secretary of State or her Ministers of direct interference in the marking or grading process. Rather, we accuse her and her Department of creating a climate in which it was perceived that what was required was the avoidance of any accusation of grade inflation.

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