Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Timms: The amendments tidy up the clause and will ensure that the legislation catches up with changes that have been made elsewhere. Amendment No. 309 refers to the Minister for the Civil Service rather than the Treasury.

Mr. Turner: Will the Minister explain amendment No. 308? If the amendment takes effect, line 29 of page 176 will read:

    ''Schedule 1 to that Act (Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors) is amended as follows.

    (2) In paragraph 1 (power of Chief Inspector to appoint staff with the approval of Treasury or National Assembly), for ''the Treasury'' there is substituted ''the Minister for the Civil Service or (in the case of the Chief Inspector for Wales) the National Assembly for Wales''.

The first two lines do not make any sense.

Mr. Timms: They make sense, although I was slightly lost by the hon. Gentleman opening all those brackets and quotation marks. I hope that if the hon. Gentleman looks again at that series of brackets, quotation marks and words, he will think that it makes sense. The intention behind amendment No. 308 is to enhance the readability of the text in the light of amendment No. 309. Nevertheless, I will reflect on the hon. Gentleman's concern, confident that I will be reassured when I do so.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 309, in page 176, line 32, at end insert—

    '(3) In paragraph 2(3) (arrangements for persons other than staff to assist Chief Inspector require agreement of Treasury or National Assembly), for ''the Treasury'' there is substituted ''the Minister for the Civil Service or (in the case of the Chief Inspector for Wales) the National Assembly for Wales''.'—[Mr. Timms.]

Schedule 17, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 183 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Column Number: 611

Schedule 18

Amendments of Part 5 of Education Act 1997

11.15 am

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 560, in page 176, line 36, leave out paragraph 1.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 561, in page 177, line 2, at end insert 'types of'.

No. 562, in page 177, line 4, leave out 'excessive' and insert 'reasonable'.

No. 563, in page 177, line 8, after 'approve', insert '(including terms of payment)'.

No. 564, in page 177, line 14, at end insert—

    ' ''(3B) Where the Authority shall exercise its powers later than at the time of accreditation, it shall give not less than 180 days notice of such changes to the producer of such qualification.''.'.

No. 565, in page 177, line 14, at end insert—

    ' ''(3C) Where the Authority shall exercise its powers later than at the time of accreditation the Authority shall bear the costs of any such changes, to the awarding body or educational institutions.''.'.

No. 566, in page 177, line 22, leave out subparagraph (ii).

Mr. Brady: In view of the topicality of these matters, it may be as well if I characterise these amendments as probing amendments, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford yesterday called for a wide-ranging inquiry into examination boards and their performance. It would be unwise to pre-empt the Government's acceptance of that request, given that there is considerable uncertainty on a number of fronts.

The amendment seeks to probe the Government's intentions in regard to the examination boards and the powers that will be given to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Amendment No. 560 questions the Government's thinking on competition in the provision of examinations. By removing subsection (1) it would remove the power to reduce the choice of examinations available. The fundamental question is whether the Government believe that the best way to guarantee standards is to have a single provider and a limited choice of examinations—a route that might risk the problems that arose in Scotland 18 months ago where the whole system was subject to difficulties—or to have diversity and leave it to schools to decide which examinations offer the best standards and the best opportunities.

There is some concern that, perversely, competition drives standards down because there is an incentive for people to seek easier exams to get better apparent performance by achieving better grades. I sat Joint Matriculation Board A-level general studies. I apologise to the Committee for raising the matter and I would not do so had I not achieved an A grade. But at that point the better universities in the country—the northern universities—accepted that the quality of that exam was such that it was equivalent to an A-level in other subjects. They did not normally accord that status to other general studies A-level syllabuses. There is at least a possibility that where it is known that there is sufficient rigour in an examination

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the competition process could operate in the normal way to raise standards rather than depress them.

Amendment No. 561 would replace the phrase

    ''the number of different accredited qualifications''

in proposed subsection (2A) of section 24 of the Education Act 1997 with

    ''the number of different types of accredited qualifications''.

Again, we are trying to ensure that choice remains available in the number and spectrum of qualifications on offer without allowing too much confusion in the system.

I accept that the danger with having too many types of examination or qualification is that those who depend on them to make decisions, such as the further or higher admissions authorities or employers, may become confused about the validity or worth of certain qualifications. However, including the words ''types of'' would aim at ensuring that, although the range of different types of qualification was limited, it remained possible to set a number of different accredited qualifications in similar subject areas to allow the proper diversity of curriculum and syllabus. I think that Ministers accept that that would be positive.

I do not know whether I am putting my hand up to a drafting error or pointing the finger at other people, but those who have been following our proceedings with particular attention will notice that amendment No. 562 would make more sense if it used the word ''unreasonable'' rather than ''reasonable''. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight picked that up immediately.

The amendment is designed to probe the Minister's definition of an ''excessive'' number of qualifications, because the new subsection refers to

    ''ensuring that the number of different accredited qualifications in similar subject areas or serving similar functions is not excessive''.

That is not defined and it is difficult to know what would constitute an excessive number. It would be better to ensure that the number was not unreasonable than to rely on the rather odd test of what was or was not excessive.

Amendment No. 563 deals with the powers regarding terms of payment for examinations. As I understand it, the Bill allows for the ability effectively to veto the terms of payment proposed by an examination board. Surely that is a matter for agreement between the board and its customers—unless Ministers envisage and possibly want to encourage the development of a monopoly provider. If so, one could see the logic of intervention powers on charges for particular examinations.

Amendment No. 564 raises a potential concern of examination boards, those sitting examinations and the educational institutions in which they sit them. It would introduce a requirement to give notice of at least 180 days if accreditation were to be removed from a qualification. The logic behind the amendment is that accreditation should not be removed during a period of study. At the very least, sufficient notice should be given, either so the examination board can take steps to rectify any problems or so that students and education institutions can take proper, reasonable

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steps to change the curriculum that they are studying or secure other appropriate examinations.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Column Number: 614

Adjourned accordingly till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Bailey, Mr.
Brady, Mr.
Coaker, Mr.
Francis, Dr.
Grayling, Chris
Heppell, Mr.
Kumar, Dr.
Laing, Mrs.
Laws, Mr.
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Miliband, Mr.
Timms, Mr.
Touhig, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr.

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