Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: Is the Minister saying that amendment No. 562—which, as I said, was originally drafted to replace ''excessive'' with ''unreasonable''—is unnecessary because the word ''excessive'', as used in this clause, equates to the word ''unreasonable''?

Mr. Lewis: Yes. I think that the objective is the same. We would argue that there is no need to substitute the word in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Amendment No. 561 would reduce flexibility and could lead to perverse results in terms of what the QCA may want to achieve. As drafted, it would enable the QCA to limit the qualification types in which a particular subject is available, but not the number of qualifications in that subject. I think that the hon.

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Gentleman would, on reflection, agree that such a change would not help us to achieve our goal of ensuring that there is not a proliferation of qualifications that are difficult to understand for candidates, teachers and employers.

Mr. Brady: Does the Minister not agree that what is important for the transparency of qualifications and the ability of parents, employers and others to understand their value, is the rigour of the qualification itself, rather than the precise content of the curriculum in that subject? I am slightly concerned that the drift of his argument appears to be that it would be worrying to have a GCSE in the history of ancient Rome parallel to one on Carthaginian studies. The subject matter is surely less important. There should be that variety and choice of subject matter. Is not the legitimate goal of the QCA to ensure that the standard of those qualifications is rigorous and transparent to those who need to know?

Mr. Lewis: I agree that that is central to the role of the QCA, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman would also agree that we do not want an unnecessary proliferation of qualifications, because that just leads to confusion. Yes, the primary responsibility of the QCA is to safeguard the rigour and standards of qualifications. That is absolutely central and it is particularly relevant, for example, in the context of the introduction of new GCSEs in vocational subjects, to be staged over two years, starting this September.

We believe, in the context of our 14 to 19 policy, that if we are to achieve parity of esteem for what has always been described as vocational education, it will be essential that the content of the qualifications—the rigour—is every bit as strong and respected as that of equivalent academic qualifications. We will work with the QCA to ensure that that is the case in the future. That will be a central part of what we are saying about wanting to give more young people more opportunities in what has been described as vocational education. I think that we would all agree that we have not in the past succeeded in making vocational education work in this country, and if it is now to work and be effective, the robustness, quality and credibility of the qualifications will be absolutely essential, so I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the QCA's general responsibilities in those areas.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister and pleased that he accepts that point. By way of illustration, could he give us an idea of the kind of overlap or duplication that he thinks would be unnecessary or unwelcome in terms of subject matter, so that we can see how Ministers might envisage these criteria being used to limit the number of different subjects being offered within a qualification?

Mr. Lewis: If the Bill is enacted, it will be the role of the QCA to make those judgments. One example would be if we had 10 virtually identical qualifications but they were badged or branded slightly differently, leading to unnecessary confusion and a lack of clarity about what each qualification actually meant. That would not be efficient or lead to the kind of credible, transparent system that we want to create. We want to give the QCA reasonable powers, as the body that is

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charged with those responsibilities, to make credible and reasonable decisions. I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about seeking to limit the QCA's capacity to take such decisions. That is one of the reasons that the QCA exists in the form that it does.

Mr. Brady: I am not concerned about trying to limit the QCA's role, I am concerned to know why the Minister is so keen to extend its role in this way, why he believes these criteria need to be available and in what circumstances they would be used. The example that he gave, that there may be 10 qualifications all differently branded but rather similar, seemed to suggest that he was referring to types of qualification, rather than subjects, and that his concern was that there could be a City and Guilds, a BTEC and perhaps something else, all in relatively similar subject areas. He has not actually given any indication of where he believes the subject areas covered by qualifications may be too close and would need to be altered in the way that the Bill provides.

Mr. Lewis: It is clearly possible that those circumstances will arise in future, so it makes sense to give the QCA the power to deal with them. I see no risk in giving the QCA the ability to take reasonable management decisions in that regard.

Mr. Turner: May I illustrate the point? The word ''branded'' was used, which will lead us astray if we are not careful. There are three examination boards, each of which offers a history syllabus. The brand is the name of the board, not the name of the syllabus. The badge is the name of the syllabus, which might be ''History, 20th Century''. All three boards may offer broadly the same syllabus but with different brands. I hope that the QCA will not try to prevent the offer of the same syllabus with different brands. It might try to prevent the offer of differently badged but similar syllabuses by the same board. Is that correct?

Mr. Lewis: Yes, that is the point. Many bodies do not issue generic qualifications; they issue individual qualifications. As he is probably aware, there are 98 awarding bodies largely offering vocational qualifications. That reinforces the point that it makes sense to give the QCA the power, where appropriate, to rationalise the situation sensibly and responsibly if it becomes confusing for students, employers and others for whom it is important to get the provisions right. That is all that we seek to do. We expect the QCA to exercise reasonable judgment, and overall it has a good track record.

The changes that we are making through schedule 18 are designed to provide clarification and make changes to the powers of the QCA that are in line with the legislation's original intention. Amendment No. 563 proposes a significant change by removing the QCA's ability to make a charge for accreditation work. The QCA has not considered that and does not propose to do so now, but there may be circumstances in which it is necessary to reconsider the position. It is therefore important that the QCA retain that power.

On amendments Nos. 564 and 565, I appreciate the concern that the QCA might impose conditions post-

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accreditation unreasonably and that that might detrimentally affect the awarding bodies' cost base or economic viability. However, I believe that that concern is not well founded. As I said, we expect the QCA to carry out its functions reasonably and to take soundly based decisions. Indeed, as a statutory body, it must legally act reasonably. In doing so, we expect the QCA to take account of the costs of any conditions that are intended to support policy developments.

The QCA is also expected to consult the relevant awarding body before imposing any post-accreditation conditions. As a matter of administrative law, it is bound to do so. However, it would be highly undesirable to impose an arbitrary time bar for a condition that may result from the need to address a problem in the delivery of a qualification that is uncovered during post-accreditation monitoring. That is an example of where the power may be necessary. In those circumstances, urgent action may be required if the learner's best interests are to be served.

Equally, it would not be appropriate to require the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to pay systematically for the implementation of those changes. It is difficult to predict the conditions that the QCA may want to impose post-accreditation rather than waiting until the qualifications come forward for re-accreditation. I am sure that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West will agree that if the conditions work to remedy weaknesses in an awarding body, it would be inappropriate for the QCA to pick up the tab.

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Amendment No. 566 would remove the proposed change that would give the QCA the right of entry to premises to inspect and copy documents in connection with its power to limit an exam fee. The QCA already has a right of entry, but only in particular circumstances. The current legislation gives the QCA the right of entry only to ensure that standards in qualifications are being maintained. It was an oversight in the original legislation to provide the QCA with a power to limit an exam fee but not with the means of obtaining evidence to help it to take a well-founded decision, and paragraph 4 will remedy that. It is a power that would be used only as a last resort, but it is important.

Despite the recent difficulties, the QCA and the awarding bodies generally have a good working relationship, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which the power would be needed. However, the Committee must ask itself whether, as we are giving the QCA the power to enter to maintain qualification standards, it would be consistent not to give it the right to obtain the necessary evidence on exam fees. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to insist on the amendment.

Mr. Brady: I am considering what to do. I started by saying that the group of amendments was intended to probe the Government's thinking and intentions. I am glad that we tabled the amendments, because they have prompted a useful exchange. The Minister was

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good enough to say that he thought that the amendments were reasonable and that he had some sympathy with the apparent objectives. It is not altogether surprising therefore that his response was not entirely convincing.

We have established that there is some uncertainty in the intentions of this part of the Bill, and it is not clear how the powers may be used in future. We seem to have moved to and fro on the limitation of the number of qualifications that will be on offer, between one concerning the nature of the qualification or the brand or badge that it carries and one that applies to the subject matter or curriculum. That highlighted a weakness in the Government's thinking, and Ministers should reflect further on that, and attempt to give greater clarity to the bodies concerned.

In responding to amendment No. 561, the Minister was good enough to agree that the primary responsibility of the QCA is to safeguard the rigour of the qualifications. It is a necessary reserve power that he anticipated would not be used that often. He was helpful and concise on amendment No. 562 in confirming that the definition that applied to the word ''excessive'' should be the same as that applied to the word ''unreasonable''. That will help those who are affected by the legislation.

On amendment No. 563, the Minister said that these were reserve powers that were not likely to be used very often. When discussing amendments Nos. 564 and 565, he said that a notice period should not be required because there may be a need to act quickly. I accept that, but I hope that Ministers will consider whether guidance might be given that would encourage the maximum notice to be given if these powers are to be used.

On amendment No. 565 and the question of who should bear costs, the Minister said that if an awarding body was at fault, it was unreasonable to expect the QCA to cover the costs. However, accreditation might be removed for reasons other than the fault of the awarding body. The QCA may have changed its approach and revised its expectations of awarding bodies, and in certain circumstances it may be appropriate to expect the costs to be covered. I ask him to reflect on that. Helpfully, he said that the new power in paragraph 4(2) allowing rights of entry to establish whether fee levels are feasible was envisaged as a power of last resort.

Again, Ministers may be able to give greater certainty to the awarding bodies about the procedure that might be undergone before the QCA might have recourse to that power of last resort. Certainly it could legitimately expect that in ordinary circumstances it could supply information requested by the QCA and have it taken at face value. Ministers may be able to find a way to resolve that problem.

I am not entirely satisfied by the Minister's responses on these amendments, but in the light of his comments and our useful exchange, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 18 agreed to.

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