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15 Nov 2002 : Column 299—continued

Mr. Charles Clarke: I referred to some of those issues in my speech. I do not suggest that the issues do not have to be dealt with—of course they do. However, Mike Tomlinson is an independent figure, and we should read his report and draw our conclusions from it. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Mike Tomlinson is an independent figure and an appropriate person to carry out the investigation? Does he have any criticisms—and if so, will he state them in the House—of the methodology used by Mr. Tomlinson when reaching his conclusions?

Mr. Willis: I place absolutely no blame on Mike Tomlinson. I have complete faith in his integrity and have heard no one question it. It is the Government in whom I have no faith, because it was the Government who decided the terms of the inquiry. Mike Tomlinson could do only what he was asked to do by the then Secretary of State and her Ministers. Ultimately, the inquiry was flawed, as I shall explain.

The inquiry's terms of reference had more to do with saving the face of Ministers than with getting to the truth. It now emerges that chief executives of the boards had enormous power to control the outcome of the inquiry, even though they were the jointly accused in the dock. They were asked to provide historical evidence about unusually large movements of grade boundaries in the closing stages of the awarding process. In respect of OCR, that evidence ensured that, in almost all cases, the Tomlinson review looked only at changes of six marks or more. The inquiry was not given a breakdown by year or by subject on which to make its judgments—

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nor did it ask for that evidence. In fact, the way in which the inquiry was set up ensured that it did not have the power to demand such details.

I am told—the Secretary of State can disagree if he likes—that in the past, movements of more than two marks were unusual, and movements of five marks were exceptionally rare, yet the cut-off for the inquiry was six marks or more. Roger Porkess, a distinguished mathematician who is responsible for one of the largest mathematics A-level syllabuses, has done the work. He has shown—the evidence was given to Mike Tomlinson, despite what the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education said this morning—that movements of grade boundaries of five marks could have had a devastating effect, resulting in more than 20,000 wrong grades being given.

Roger Porkess offered his evidence to the inquiry, but we now know that Tomlinson did not have the power to summon evidence from anyone who was not a board employee. In the case of OCR, he took no evidence from those who set the original grade boundaries, the chief examiners, despite the fact that they could have supplied key evidence to his inquiry. I ask the Secretary of State why that was the case.

Even more surprising, at the end of the inquiry chief executives had the power to veto any change to grade boundaries, and some did exactly that. It is crucial that we know which chief executives vetoed changes and which subjects were affected. Indeed, could this be one of the reasons why so few changes materialised? This explains how Ron McLone—the chief executive of OCR, which was found to be the main board responsible—was able to tell the Select Committee with some pride last week that as a result of the Tomlinson review, changes had been made in only 18 out of 1,012 sets of results. Does that demonstrate the rightness of OCR's original decisions, or does it show the extent to which the review was prevented from correcting OCR's mistakes?

I hope that the Secretary of State will not do as he said earlier this morning, and do nothing. Instead, I hope that he will ask Mike Tomlinson to reopen his review of this year's A-level results to determine the answers to these questions. I hope that he will give him the time and the power to do the job properly. Mike Tomlinson must have the power to demand information from the boards and stop their ability to override and use their veto. Crucially, Ministers must cancel publication of performance tables based on this year's A-level results until the grades have been reviewed again. Finally, the Secretary of State must ensure that no scripts are destroyed until all the lessons have been learned from this year's debacle.

Next Friday, OCR will torch all the papers in its control. How can that be right when after next Friday anybody who, for instance, went to a judicial inquiry, or who wished to go through the courts, would only be able to say, XThere is no evidence, guv, it has all been burned"? Our plea to the Secretary of State is that he should start his term of office by putting right one of the great wrongs of this summer.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must tell the House that the debate has been going on for two and a half hours, and so far there have been only four speakers. Many Members wish to catch my eye. Unless speeches are considerably shorter, very many Members will be disappointed.

I call Mr. McWalter.

12 pm

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I shall speak from the perspective of a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee, and also a Member representing a Hertfordshire constituency. From that background, I have to say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I think that in many ways the system is a mess. Although I enjoyed his speech, I think that the focus on what the Opposition might say rather takes one's eye off the ball. The main job of the Government is to identify what is wrong, and seek to address it and put it right. From that perspective I found my right hon. Friend's speech slightly disappointing.

Before I make my main remarks I shall inform the House, and through the House others, of a matter that is only distantly related to education. Yesterday I visited a school in my constituency, and during the day I had given an interview on the firemen's dispute. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will be somewhat surprised when I say that I took an entirely Blairite approach to the dispute. That included saying that Andy Gilchrist was a latter-day Arthur Scargill. The House will be able to imagine my dismay last night at half-past nine when I found that my constituency office was on fire.

It was quite a serious fire. The green goddesses were called out with ancillary vehicles and police support. I am pleased to report that the fire was entirely an accident. It started on the floor of the shop beneath my constituency office. Some people were preparing for the shop to be occupied, and I believe that someone had dropped a cigarette end, or possibly put it out with his foot. It had gone through the floorboard, under which there was inflammable material. After some hours, the shop was full of smoke.

I mention this partly because the Fire Brigades Union, in the form of the local commander, Jim Smith, came along to offer support. I was pleased by the response of the interim fire services, but later I returned to the fire station, where members of the FBU were outside with their brazier. I said, XIt's all right, it wasn't malevolent, it was an accident." I think that they were worried that perhaps one of their enthusiasts had set the fire. We then had an interesting discussion about how FBU members might help with education. I said, XPerhaps we should get you into schools, not only to tell people to have fire alarms, but to talk, for instance, about the chemistry of combustible materials and the precise cutting equipment needed to cut through various modern metals in motor cars."

We had an enjoyable discussion about whether senior officers in the fire service might be able to contribute something to science education in schools. I will not say that they welcomed me with open arms, but at least there was a meeting of minds on some matters. To put the record straight, no police action was taken.

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When I said that science and technology in the education system were in a mess, I was not thinking of primary and secondary education, on which the Secretary of State focused, or further education, which was dealt with in the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), but of the university system itself. I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman about so-called Mickey Mouse degrees. As a member of the Science and Technology Committee, I have seen consistent evidence that if students are offered one course that involves a significant mathematics component and another involving very little mathematics indeed, they opt for the latter. There is also considerable evidence that students offered one course that entails considerable training in a foreign language and another that has no foreign language component at all opt for the latter. I was approached to give advice on a political economy degree that was to be structured in such a way that there would be no mathematical requirements for the undergraduates.

When I was studying, I tried to avoid mathematical logic—an integral part of my studies—particularly in courses that were assessed by examination. I ended up, however, after various wheezes, spending many years teaching it; there are several ways of skinning a cat. Formidable courses may be on offer, but if a market system is in operation and people can get a qualification by doing courses that are not formidable, most of them, myself included, tend to go for the less formidable ones. As a result, the number of people leaving university who are equipped to teach subjects such as physics, mathematics and chemistry in school is diminishing all the time. Courses with titles like XTourism studies (no foreign language requirement)" are much more popular than courses with titles like XTourism studies (two languages required)".

It is no good the Government saying that they want 50 per cent. of young people to enter university if what awaits them are courses that do not challenge them. Such courses do not provide the opportunity for personal growth that real education allows its participants. There is consistent evidence that the system is failing in that respect. As a result, physics and chemistry courses in secondary schools are increasingly bereft of the expertise of people who may otherwise have pursued extremely challenging studies. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to consider whether we really need a market system in education—students think only in terms of what most suits them—or whether we need greater Government input into which courses people should take for the greater benefit of our economy, our country and, indeed, themselves. People who meet and overcome difficult challenges feel better about themselves and are of greater use to the country.

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