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16 Oct 2002 : Column 347—continued

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the previous Conservative Government took a different route, which was to place trust in the professionals, and not to believe that everything can be done from Whitehall?

Mr. Foster: I am grateful for that intervention, because I have a long political memory of the 18 years when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power. Year after year, successive Tory Secretaries of State denigrated teachers and schools, and I longed for the time when we would have a Labour Government who would do what he says and trust the teachers.

Tony Cunningham: I was not going to intervene until I heard that comment from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I taught for 17 years, including during the period of Conservative government between 1984 and 1994, and there is a stark contrast between then and now. Then, we had raffles to get money to buy exercise books, but now huge resources have been provided. I have talked to many head teachers in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is excitement and a buzz about schools now? They want to do things and to change things. The situation has turned round completely.

Mr. Foster: I entirely agree.During all those Tory years, it was quite painful to listen to Members all the way down from Keith Joseph, for whom I had enormous respect in other contexts. From the Opposition Back Benches, I tried to convey to him that continually denigrating schools and teachers was not the way forward. That, however, was a lesson that the

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Conservatives could not learn. I do not recognise the picture painted by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner).

Tough decisions have been taken in an attempt to improve school performance. Many of us who had been involved in education knew that the head teacher was crucial—that without heads who inspired the confidence of staff, drove up standards and made everyone feel concerned about standards, schools were wasting their time. We all knew of heads who did not measure up to that; we all knew of teachers who should not be in the profession, and who were letting their colleagues down. No one before this Government, however, had the courage to deal with the problem. Carrying out that tough task and withstanding all the criticism that often came from their own side took enormous courage, and persistence and vision.

Driving up standards is not simple—there is no magic wand. Problems must be dealt from day to day in the classroom, and the teaching force must be galvanised. I accept some of the criticism of my party: I concede that our centralisation has now gone a bit too far. We must begin to trust teachers.

Chris Grayling: That is Conservative policy.

Mr. Foster: No, I have always believed that. I applaud what the Government have done in driving up standards and showing us the way, but now that all that courageous work has been done we have an opportunity to look to teachers to show us new and exciting ways of doing their job better. I hope—indeed, I believe—that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues will take that unique opportunity. We needed intervention to show that those whom we represent would not accept excuses for low standards in, for instance, inner-city schools. It was important to put that across, and it was not done without causing some pain and suffering to all involved. Now, however, we have a golden opportunity to allow teachers to show us what can be done—the delivery of standards in the hands of teachers, including head teachers; politicians cannot achieve it.

It is right for people to crawl over the minutiae of who said what to whom, when and with what motive, but it was regrettable that during yesterday's exchanges the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) seemed to be trying to get away with alleging that there had been political interference. Today, he backed off, and I am glad that he did so, because what he said yesterday did him no credit. I was going to urge the quiet man to have a quiet word with him; perhaps that has happened in the meantime.

I think that the Conservatives have failed two important tests. First, have they the economic competence to deliver the objectives that this Government have achieved? Since 1992, no one has believed that they have. In fact, many in the Conservative party do not believe it either.

Secondly, if the Conservatives had that economic competence, would they have the political will, or even the desire, to make the investments in education that the Labour party has made, or would they prefer some other course of political action? In my book, they fail both those tests.

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5.25 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I had not intended to get into the wider debate but simply wanted to concentrate on the A-levels fiasco and its effect in my constituency. However, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) was unfair to Edward Boyle and to Tony Crosland. As I recall, although it was a long time ago, Edward Boyle was the Secretary of State who introduced polytechnics, and Tony Crosland—who worked in the white heat of the technological revolution—did a great deal to improve technical education; certainly the Labour party always said so.

Looking back, some bad things were done by the Labour party, but there were some good things. The same is true of my party. During the 18 years of Conservative rule, the national curriculum and league tables were introduced, through which we discovered what needed to be done in our inner-city schools. City technology colleges brought hope to areas where there was none before. Specialist schools, on which the Government have built, are a Conservative idea. We should not be too churlish about one another.

Turning to the A-levels fiasco, the alarm bells were rung first at the Knights Templar school in my constituency. Articles in the media described the plight of students such as Laura Wheen, who obtained A grades in psychology A-level while receiving a U for her coursework, as did the whole class. That is extraordinary; that excellent class had received excellent AS results, and good grades were predicted for it. The teacher had read the coursework and was impressed by it, but the class received these extraordinary results.

The same was true in history. Louis Gearing, a gifted history student, needed a particular result to get into Oxford, but he did not get it because his coursework was marked down to U. It seems odd that a bright student, who received two As in other subjects and A grades in part of his history course in the exams, should suddenly get a U for his coursework. I am pleased that Louis Gearing has been regraded. His grade has gone up and he is now able to go to Oxford, although he has put it back until next year. I am glad that that was possible as a result of the regrading exercise, but some questions remain.

The set of Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations psychology results that was not reviewed—the grade boundaries have not been changed—seems very odd. How was it that, at the Knights Templar school, these excellent students were able to get A grades in some of the examinations in psychology, yet were all getting U, a fail, in their coursework? No one has explained that. It was not explained by Mike Tomlinson, and I would like an explanation from Ministers.How does an A-grade student suddenly become a failure when it comes to the coursework? That seems extraordinary. One might understand if it were the other way round. Someone might help a student with the coursework and the student might struggle through.

Mr. Willis: That is usually the criticism that is made of coursework.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman is right. How can it happen the other way round? It does not make sense.

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Labour Members might think that it was down to the teacher, who may have read the coursework and been over-optimistic. She may not have understood and it was all a terrible accident. However, I checked with other schools in my constituency, including Fearnhill in Letchworth, another good school. The head there, Lynne Monck, wrote to me to say:

this relates to the OCR again—

Now, two teachers are getting it wrong—looking at course work, seeing that it is really quite good, and being surprised when it is failed. As we have heard through the media, that is being repeated around the country.

I want to know from the Minister why OCR psychology A-level has not been subject to a review of the grading boundaries. How could this have happened? The Minister might want to consider the following point, which is also suspicious. When Fearnhill requested a re-marking of the results, they came back the same. It also asked for the scripts—the coursework papers—to be returned. [Interruption.] I should be grateful if the Minister would listen to this. Fearnhill was told that the papers could not be sent back, even though they should be available under the guidelines. The same is true of Knights Templar, which was told in August—when it originally raised the matter—that it would be sent photocopies of the scripts and coursework papers.

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