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We would also build trust in an independent exam system by making the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority independent of Government, along the lines of the Bank of England. I hope that the Government will adopt a similar proposal. I take this opportunity again to urge them strongly to do so, and to do so quickly. Of all the crises that the Government could face, the prospect of another A-level crisis next year would be the worst, so measures that can be taken quickly to restore confidence in the examination system are absolutely vital. I hope that if they need to introduce legislation to do that, they will do so, because it is absolutely vital to remove all traces of politics from the exam system. Unless the suspicion that Ministers measure their virtue by the grades is removed, the exam boards, or the QCA, will always be looking over their shoulder at the Secretary of State to see what effect the results will have on the political standing of the Government of the day. Secretaries of State for Education used not to behave in that way, and we need to get back to that position.
We also think that there should be a radical change to the A-level system, which has done more harm than good. The amount of exam time, as opposed to teaching time, has been increased. The Tomlinson inquiry concluded that the Curriculum 2000 A-level reforms, which introduced AS-levels, were an Xaccident waiting to happen". We all want to broaden the post-16 curriculum, but the current AS-level system is demonstrably not the way to do it.
Finally, and most importantly, we would trust heads to make the right decisions about how to run their schools. We support the Secretary of State's aim of raising standards of leadership in our schools, and he is right to argue that without strong leadership our children will not get the education that they deserve. If he really means what he says about trusting heads, he must allow them to set standards of discipline in their schools. That is why the independent appeals panels should go.
We believe that home-school behaviour contracts are a good idea. The right hon. Gentleman had the honesty to point out that these will be an option for heads. Once again, he asked me to determine what heads should do, and once again I say to him that I would let heads decide. A head knows how best to run discipline in his school, not the Secretary of Statewhether that be the right hon. Gentleman, me or anyone else. The fundamental difference between us is that I trust heads, whereas he does not.
Experience shows us that these practical measures will deliver higher standards in our schools. Some schools already operate home-school contracts. I urge the Secretary of State to act on his words, and to grasp the agenda of real reform that we offer. He faces an
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I congratulate the new Secretary of State, with whom I worked when he was a Minister at the Home Office. I know that he will be a first-class Secretary of State, and I hope that he will listen carefully to what I have to say and will act on some of it. I welcome and agree with almost everything that he said. I admire his cheek in writing the speeches of the spokesmen for the two Opposition parties, which takes some doing.
Skelmersdale has three excellent comprehensive schools, which have made major advances in the past few years. This year, for the first time, all three schools obtained more than 30 per cent. A to C grades at GCSE. That sounds modest compared with many other schools, even those in much more fortunate areas in my constituency outside Skelmersdale. Those areas have for many years creamed off the children from the most aspiring families in Skelmersdale, so we already have a self-selection system. In the true context of Skelmersdale and its history, the percentages gained by Glenburn, Our Lady Queen of Peace and Lathom high schools are truly remarkable, and they will be improved upon next year. In their continued efforts to compete with schools in the leafier parts of Lancashire, those three schools are applying for sports college status, technology college status and engineering college status respectively.
If it is impossible for one school in the area to raise #50,000, it is even more impossible for three schools to do so. All the comprehensive schools in Skelmersdale are thereby disadvantaged. If it so happens that one of them secures specialist status, it will become more attractive, and it follows as night follows day that that will damage the other two schools in the town.
All three schools currently work well together. They are part of an excellence cluster that is doing wonderful things and has been tremendously successful. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris) for giving us the chance to develop that cluster. Those schools are destined by Government policy, which is styled as greater diversity for parents and pupils, for continuous struggle and disadvantage in a system that does not intend to be, but in practice is, divisive and discriminatory.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I, too, have two schools in my constituency that are struggling to raise #50,000, and there is no lack of commitment from parents or teachers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it makes dedicated and hard-working teachers feel that they are second best, and leads to low morale?
Mr. Pickthall: I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not detect that it has led to low morale in the schools to which I am referring, but the academic leadership of schools in challenging areas have been diverted into activities on which they should not have to spend more than minimal time.
Mr. McWalter: Has my hon. Friend considered the possibility of the three schools making a joint application, as is happening in my constituency? That avoids such divisiveness, and enables the specialist facilities to be available to all, but to be developed in each of the schools.
Mr. Pickthall: That is an interesting suggestion, which we have discussed. The problem is that one school wants sports-college status because of its outstanding sport record, while another is outstanding in technology. If such a scheme could be organised, however, and the three schools between them had to raise #50,000, it would make a significant difference.
Specialist status, of whatever kind, seems to be a matter of sheer chance. If a successful firm or two in the town can spare some cash a school will succeed in its bid, all other things being equal. Even in Lancashire, there are schools in which a single governor could put up the #50,000 without missing it.
When the schools and I protested to the Department, we were given a list of firms throughout the country that might help. When those firms were canvassed it turned out that none of them could help, because they were already giving help elsewhere. We came up with other ideas for finding the cash, but the Department vetoed all of them.