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16 Oct 2002 : Column 340—continued

Mr. Lansley: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the events of summer 2001, may I put it to him that he does the Secretary of State a slight injustice? The right hon. Lady is quoted on the BBC website as saying at the time

There was at least an expression of regret. However, is it not more significant that the right hon. Lady said at that time—I quote the BBC's report of her remarks—that she was

Having said that in July 2001, and considering it from the perspective of October 2002, it seems that the right hon. Lady took responsibility and is now trying to discharge it.

Mr. Willis: I apologise to the Secretary of State for not recognising that she did offer a mild apology at the end of 2001. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I believe that from the summer of 2001, when AS-levels went so badly wrong, there was paranoia—I use the word again—within the Department to ensure that grade inflation did not occur at the end of the year.

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It was obvious that when students took a clutch of AS modules, they had the opportunity to resit them if they did not get good enough marks, and therefore get higher marks. They also had the opportunity to drop the modules at which they were not successful. It was obvious also that if 50 per cent. of the marks were to go on AS-levels, we would then have massive grade inflation. That was not because standards were dropped but because the kids followed the system and did better. That was the crux of the issue, and that was the system. It was nothing to do with the QCA or the examination boards. It was entirely the Secretary of State's responsibility. What has happened is the result of her refusing to accept any responsibility and simply passing the blame to the QCA. I think that it is shameful to use Mike Tomlinson's report as the basis for doing that and fundamentally wrong.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: No. I want to finish the point.

This year, there was a quinquennial review of the QCA's work. In June, the report highlighted the confusion of the relationship between Ministers and the authority. That was a central element of the report. In spite of that—this is an example of the incestuous nature of the relationship between the Secretary of State's Department and the authority—it argued for the status quo as it combines the Xappearance" of independence while Xretaining the ear" of Ministers. We cannot have that sort of contradiction and expect to have transparency. Equally, we cannot have a Secretary of State who then distances herself from an organisation that said, following a quinquennial review that reported to her, that it should have an Xappearance" of independence while Xretaining the ear" of Ministers.

The review went further. It dismissed any possibility of clarifying the relationship. Instead we are promised Xa memorandum of understanding." If there is such a memorandum, we now know that it resulted in complete confusion. However, that is the proposal of the QCA in putting its house in order, together with the Secretary of State.

We know too that at the heart of the QCA since November 2000, the deputy chief executive and then the chief officer has been a serving senior civil servant seconded from the Department. She may not have been taking orders directly from the Secretary of State but surely she would have been able to convey the appropriate perceptions either to or from the right hon. Lady. I do not believe that a senior civil servant in the Department would be seconded elsewhere and would go to that new venue not knowing the policy of the Department and what it expected.

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman wrote to me about that last week, and I regret the fact that he has raised it in the House. It is totally inappropriate that civil servants should be attacked in that way, and one has just been attacked. I make it clear that it is a policy not only of my Department, but of the whole of Government, that senior civils are seconded both in and out of Government Departments. Officials in our Department are seconded not only to the QCA, but to Ofsted, the Teacher Training Agency, local authorities

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and many of our agencies. In that way they gain a better understanding of the needs of the education system. Equally, I have serving civil servants who are seconded from headship, from school advisership and from other Government agencies. I believe that every one of those civil servants carries loyalty to the organisation to which they are seconded and abides by the rules of that organisation. To imply that one of my senior civil servants was not able to do that, or may not have been able to do that, was shameful, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Willis: Methinks the Secretary of State protests too much. That is not what I said, and I do not think that hon. Members understood me to say that. What I am saying to the hon. Lady is that I do not believe that if I went from my headship, which I did on one occasion, and was seconded to another organisation—[Interruption.]—that is wishful thinking—I would not take with me the culture of that organisation. One naturally does that. That is not a slur on civil servants. It is an inevitable outcome of moving from one Department to another. While the Secretary of State is speaking of secondments, perhaps she would explain to the House why, when we cannot have the curriculum and staffing survey done, and when there are not enough senior civil servants to oversee contracts, 22 per cent. of the senior civil servants in the Department are seconded out of the Department. It is an amazing situation.

Mr. Andrew Turner : May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his comments about stacking up points? I remind him that the Secretary of State told me yesterday, when asked

that in some subjects the AS-level would be marginally easier than the A-level standard. That means that one can take six AS-levels, never taking a full A-level, and get the same number of UCAS points as if one had taken three A-levels and passed them at equivalent grades. If that is not devaluation, I do not know what is.

Mr. Willis: With due respect, that is an issue for the Secretary of State to answer. I know of no case where a student has stacked up six AS-levels in order to gain the qualification, but that is the logic of what the right hon. Lady said in reply to the hon. Gentleman's intervention yesterday, and it is up to her to respond.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, he spoke about the nature of the QCA and the fact that in the quinquennial review it was decided to leave it as it was, in order to retain the ear of the Secretary of State. If that is the case, does he not think it extremely odd that it did not come to the ears of the Secretary of State that all that pressure was being put on the exam boards?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman could say that; I could not possibly do so, but that is the obvious conclusion. That is where, in this whole episode, we are left hanging in the air. The Secretary of State may feel that she is off the hook, but most people will have concluded otherwise.

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The issue of standards was raised yesterday and the Secretary of State, who usually responds honestly and openly, did not do so on that occasion. It is important that she makes clear her policy on standards before Mike Tomlinson goes through the next part of his inquiry. He has to make recommendations for

Therefore it must be clear that where students achieve the standard set, they should be awarded the grade. The Secretary of State needs to make it clear in the House that it is the Government's policy that if a student achieves the necessary standard, they get the grade.

Estelle Morris: Of course.

Mr. Willis: That clearly was not what happened this year. If that was the case, we would not have looked at the work of 90,000 students and we would not have regraded nearly 2,000 students. If that is the case—I am glad that she said that it was—the Department for Education and Skills should not be put off by the annual wailings of Ruth Lea or successive Conservative Front Benchers, including the hon. Member for Ashford. On 13 August, even before this year's A-level results were published, he called for AS-levels to be scrapped and for an

He made that call before the results were even published, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for the 250,000 students who had taken their exams. Of course, we saw today the most deplorable example of the quiet man saying after all the anguish of the past two months that students now had certificates that were not worth the paper that they were written on.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): I applaud the Liberal Democrats' condemnation of Tory education policy, but I wish that they would pass it on to the Liberal Democrats on Cumbria county council, who are running the council in coalition with the Conservatives.

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