Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 3

Level 3 qualification
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in clause 3, page 2, line 11, after ‘means,’, insert—
‘(a) the Cambridge Assessment Pre-U qualification in two subjects, and,
(b) ’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 72, in clause 3, page 2, leave out lines 23 and 24.
Mr. Gibb: Clause 3 defines what is meant by a level 3 qualification for the purpose of clause 1(c). It is defined as
“the level of attainment (in terms of breadth and depth) which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, is demonstrated by the General Certificate of Education at the advanced level in two subjects.”
Levels are a new, Government-created notion that is part of a forlorn attempt to pretend that different things are the same. Parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications is a laudable objective, but it will not be achieved by pretending that a vocational qualification in a particular activity is the same in terms of breadth and depth as a GCSE in Latin or physics. It is like comparing apples and pears. It would be perfectly possible to create a GCSE in plumbing that had the same breadth and depth as a GCSE in physics: it would be very academic and would involve Archimedes’ principle, the melting temperature of copper and the chemical and physical properties of various metals and their expansion rates. However, to create parity of esteem, there has to be parity of esteem in society between different types of jobs.
Having lived in Canada as a child, I was astonished, when we returned to Britain when I was nine, by the class consciousness in this country compared with Canada and the United States, where it barely exists. In those countries, esteem is determined by endeavour; to be blunt, it is determined by income and wealth. In the US, the owner of a large plumbing concern has a higher status than a small-town lawyer. In Britain, we are moving ever closer to that type of society, which I welcome, but we will not achieve that faster through a patronising pretence that it is just as difficult to pass one type of exam as another. If we really want parity of esteem and a more equal society, we will achieve that by ensuring that everyone is educated to the best of their ability. If we pretend that a particular qualification is something that it is not, it is the poorly advised and the less well resourced and those who attend weaker schools who will be led down a route that is not necessarily in their best interests.
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We have seen that with some of the newer A-levels, which Cambridge university does not recognise as an entry requirement, particularly if a candidate has more than one of those types of A-level. The Minister for Schools and Learners insists on claiming that there is no difference between those A-levels, and he may or may not be right, but Cambridge university takes a different view. At least it has been honest and has published on its website the list of those A-levels that, if a candidate takes more than one of them, it will not regard as sufficient for entry to the university.
Mr. Laws: I am listening with interest to the argument that the hon. Gentleman is developing. How does he think vocational qualifications could achieve parity of esteem with some of the more traditional subjects? Is it that they must have some kind of academic content, as I thought he was implying, or is he simply concerned that at the moment they do not have sufficient robustness and rigour?
Mr. Gibb: My view is that one cannot create parity of esteem between two qualifications simply based on the number of hours of study that they require. A qualification will gain status in society by the outcomes that it generates in later life. If a particular vocational qualification leads someone to acquire a high-paid job or enables them to establish a business that generates a high income, it will, of itself, become a qualification of high status and will have equal esteem with those qualifications of an academic nature that also lead to high-income or high-status jobs. That is how to create parity of esteem between two sets of qualification.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Is he saying that esteem only comes with high income?
Mr. Gibb: I am saying that largely, in the United States and Canada, which have far more equal societies than ours, that is the way in which status is determined. I am not saying that I want to go down a route where everything is determined by money, but we are more likely to create parity of esteem between qualifications if those qualifications lead to well paid, well established jobs, than by pretending that a qualification created by somebody in an office, because it requires 280 or 1,000 guided hours, will have the same status as a different qualification with 1,000 guided hours. That simply will not happen in reality. My concern is that in the weaker schools—I will provide evidence for my argument in a moment—some students will be advised to take qualifications that are not in their best interests, simply because they have been led to believe that these qualifications are identical in their outcomes because of the guided hours attached to them, and not because of the reality of the qualification and its results when those young people leave study and enter the workplace.
Mr. Gibb: Yes, there is nothing that can be done. A qualification will fall or rise on the basis of the quality of the qualification and the quality of the syllabus that leads to that qualification. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has repeatedly said, we need to ensure that vocational qualifications are of very high quality, and that is what will determine the status of that qualification, whether it is in a new industry, a new science, or a more traditional subject area. That is always going to be the determinant of the status of a particular qualification—the quality of the qualification itself. No amount of pretence will determine otherwise in the real world that we live in.
In its briefing on the Bill, the Association of School and College Leaders said of level 2 diplomas being made the equivalent of seven GCSEs,
“this could create a perverse incentive for the sake of league table standing as well as Government policy, to pressure students into taking a diploma when they might be better advised to take another course.”
That is my concern about the rush to create parity of esteem between various qualifications when, in reality, that parity may not exist.
In her book “Diminished Returns”, which has been widely quoted by many Liberal Democrat and Conservative members of the Committee, Professor Alison Wolf gives a helpful analysis of the use of the terms level 1, 2 or 3 qualification. On page 12, she says:
“The assigning of qualifications to a level began with National Vocational Qualifications, the first major set of English qualifications created directly by Government. Launched in the late 1980s, NVQs promised a comprehensive set of vocational qualifications, encompassing the whole occupational range, and arranged in 5 levels. In 1989, the CBI proposed national education and training targets...Targets have been central to English education policy ever since, and their growing importance, and use of levels led inexorably to a full-blown “National Qualifications Framework” ”.
She goes on to say:
“No one outside the education sector and the relevant parts of the Treasury talks about a “level 2 (or 3, or 4) qualification”. When journalists have to explain the usage they generally refer to level 2 as “the equivalent of 5 good GCSEs”, or to level 3 as “meaning” the same as A-levels. This is deceptive. “Good” GCSEs (grades A* through to C) are indeed assigned to level 2 as are, for example, the NVQ2 in food processing and cooking offered by Education Development International, or the text processing certificate from OCR. But they are equivalent only in that circular sense. Employers and sixth form gate-keepers who are looking for good GCSEs in maths and English do not AQA level 2 certificate in enterprise and employability as something that will do perfectly well instead.”
That is a preface to the amendment, to caution ourselves about the use of those levels when trying to assert that things are equal when it is not necessarily so in the real worlds of work and of academia.
Amendment No. 9 would ensure that level 3 includes the new pre-U qualification. That qualification was developed by Cambridge Assessment in response to concerns expressed by the independent sector about the quality and rigor of the A-level, caused by curriculum changes and modularisation. The pre-U exam is not yet recognised by the QCA and thus once the qualification is up and running, we could face a situation in which a 17-year-old with a pre-U qualification but no A-levels is subject to the duties of the Bill when in fact he or she ought to be exempt under clause 1(c). Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell group of universities said of the pre-U qualification:
“We believe that the Cambridge Pre-U promises to be an acceptable preparation for university courses. We welcome the academic rigour of the new qualification’s linear approach and the retention of subject specialism”.
Cath Baldwin, head of recruitment and admissions at the London School of Economics said:
“The LSE would accept the Cambridge pre-U qualification as suitable for admission to its undergraduate courses. In particular, LSE would welcome the academic rigour of the new qualification’s linear approach”.
Graham Able, headmaster of Dulwich college said:
“I expect that more than 50 independent schools will offer the pre-U, mostly instead of current A-levels...I also expect that many state schools will wish to do so.”
However, because the pre-U, like the iGCSE, is not recognised by the QCA, it is not permitted for any state school to offer the pre-U to its students. That blatant unfairness must be removed. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it is his policy to have the QCA approve the exam in due course.
The headmaster of Eton says:
“We want the best courses that challenge our students and, if that means doing the pre-U instead of A-levels then we will do it”.
He said that they have
“real concerns about the future of A-levels,”
particularly in the sciences, which he worries may be further dumbed down.
Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend may be coming to this point, and if he is, I apologise, but the arguments against the academic diplomas have been made largely because of the competition that they will offer to A-levels. I think that those are good arguments. In the light of his earlier remarks, does he share my view that their other effect will be to dilute the integrity of vocational diplomas? Diplomas were meant to be high-quality vocational qualifications that would achieve the parity of esteem that he described, but now the waters have been muddied.
Mr. Gibb: I agree. The announcement of three academic diplomas is a sign that the Government have decided to go ahead with the Tomlinson agenda, which under the previous Prime Minister they had not decided to do. It is a retrograde step, and if we adopt the Tomlinson agenda, it will do enormous damage to the education system. Not everyone shares that view, but I think that that agenda is about less external assessment and trying to pretend that things are not what they really are. It is a huge error, from which we as a country will suffer in the years to come.
A large number of universities have given written notice that they intend to accept the pre-U as an entry qualification, and I believe that more will follow as it is taken up by an increasing number of independent schools. If the gap between the independent and state sectors is not to widen further—for example, the independent sector now secures more than 60 per cent. of all A grades in science A-levels—it is vital that the Government allow the state sector to use the pre-U qualification. It is important that it is recognised as a level 3 qualification for the purpose of clause 3.
Amendment No. 72 would remove subsection (5), which gives the Secretary of State the power by regulation to amend subsection (2) and
“substitute a different qualification for the qualification for the time being referred to.”
The explanatory notes to the Bill say:
“In Clause 3, level 3 is defined as the level of attainment which is demonstrated by two A levels. The clause enables regulations to set out the qualifications that will count for this purpose. It is intended that these will include the Progression Diploma and the Advanced Diploma once these are available.”
The concern is that the provision gives the Secretary of State a huge amount of power to alter primary legislation. Clause 142 makes the power an affirmative resolution power, which, given that it amends primary legislation, is right. However, it is not right for secondary legislation to amend primary legislation.
The memorandum of delegated powers, which was published with the Bill, appears to contradict the explanatory note that I just quoted. It says:
“Clause 3(5) allows the subsection to be amended by order. This power is needed in order to allow the level of achievement a young person must obtain to be altered at a future data in response to any development in the qualifications system which would mean that the clause no longer had its intended effect. It is not anticipated that any amendments will be made in the foreseeable future.”
That flies in the face of the explanatory notes, which say that the power will be used for the introduction of the new diplomas, so it would be helpful if the Minister explained that apparent contradiction.
The memorandum of delegated powers goes on to say in an understated way:
“It is recognised that an amendment to subsection (2) could result in altering to some extent the nature and effect of the basic duty to participate. Therefore it is proposed that this power is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”
It would be possible therefore for the Secretary of State by regulation to redefine a level 3 qualification, and for example, change it to a degree. Since the various levels are fictional notions with no recognised reality in the real world, it would be very easy for the Secretary of State simply to require every 16 or 17-year-old without a degree to remain in education or training, or to lower the threshold. For those reasons, and in accordance with the general principle that secondary legislation should not amend primary legislation, subsection (5) should be removed.
6.30 pm
I can remember long ago asking in a physics class, the day before our O-level geography exam, for permission not to have physics homework that evening because we had to revise for the exam, at which point the physics master described geography, somewhat unfavourably, as a coloured pencil subject. I apologise to any geographers present, but even within the GCSE and A-level world there is a difference in credibility of the pathways, in relation to income and profession, that different qualifications can lead to. I do not object to the aspiration of having some kind of ambition of parity and comparability between different qualifications, but agree with the hon. Gentleman that that should be on that basis of real quality rather than simple rebadging.
Mr. Gibb: I cite the problem with the targets of five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C. We have seen the weaker schools in this country move away from the tougher subjects to the softer options, and that shift was evident before the introduction of the requirement to publish English and maths results in the league tables. One school that I have in mind achieved an 84 per cent. success rate for five or more GCSEs, but when the English and maths results were included in its results, that figure plummeted to 16 per cent. That trend concerns me about the whole notion of pretending that everything is equal when clearly it is not.
Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman is right to be nervous and to want to ensure that any apparent improvement in standards is based upon engaging young people in subjects that they might find more relevant and interesting but that are still challenging, rather than simply attempting to water down standards. His comments highlight the volatile and potentially dangerous situation that we are in at present, where we risk ending up with quite a dispersion of different qualifications, with some “top” schools within the state and independent sector adopting the type of qualifications he mentioned, many people in the middle sticking with GCSEs and A-levels, and diplomas coming in without us being sure how successful they will be. Obviously, they will have their own GCSE equivalents, which might create incentives for different institutions to encourage their youngsters into those courses, regardless of their merit.
Mr. Laws: I agree that those are two important measures. However, we all need to be aware that, in seeking to encourage and allow for qualifications with that type of credibility, we do not move too far from a system that youngsters from all backgrounds can access. I have some concerns that the direction in which we are moving could unintentionally result in an multi-tier, multi-status system, which could impede social mobility.
Before speaking to the amendments directly—I hope that I am not trying your patience, Mr. Bayley—I should say that I am slightly more positive about the Tomlinson agenda than the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. In fairness to Mr. Tomlinson, a number of his criticisms of the existing vocational curriculum qualifications offer are borne out by most people’s experiences, particularly those about the lack of stretch for youngsters at the top end of the ability range, the lack of serious vocational offer, and youngsters’ ability to go on beyond the age of 16 without having proper literacy and numeracy skills. I would like to see the existing GCSE and A-level framework folded into the diploma structure that Mike Tomlinson suggested.
On the amendments, if I am not mistaken, towards the end of his comments the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton expressed support or encouragement for amendment No. 72, which would delete clause 3(5) and thus the Secretary of State’s discretion to substitute a different qualification for those in subsection (2) and to drop the reference to
“the General Certificate of Education at the advanced level in two subjects.”
The amendment is a probing amendment, designed to discover the Government’s short-term intentions regarding the possibility of substituting qualifications now mentioned in subsection (2). We want to prompt a debate not only about the potential to substitute not only the reference to
“the General Certificate of Education at the advanced level”
for some sort of direct equivalent, but about the potential for the Government to introduce an entirely different qualification—perhaps one not even being discussed in the present public debate.
What is the intention behind subsection (5)? Does the Minister envisage, for example, that in the near future the reference to
“the General Certificate of Education at the advanced level”
might be removed completely? Once the diplomas have been introduced and the GCSE equivalents have been announced, encouraging people to switch to diplomas, do the Government really intend to get rid of the GCSEs and A-levels entirely and simply switch to the diplomas, as mentioned in the explanatory notes?
Finally, on amendment No. 9, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton raised a valid concern about ensuring that other qualifications that are broadly equivalent to those set out in clause 3 are also allowed for, so that those who take them do not find themselves disadvantaged under the compulsion measures.
Jim Knight: For the sake of expediency, I shall not comment on the broader preamble about parity of esteem, which we will have an opportunity to debate later, but speak directly to the amendments.
Level 3 needs to be defined in the Bill because we have said that a young person who has achieved a level 3 qualification already before the age of 18 should not be required to participate. It makes sense, and is good law making, to define level 3 with reference to a familiar qualification—in this case, to A-levels, which are established qualifications at that level. However, it also makes sense to be able to amend that description if it becomes necessary. Hon. Members will have in mind the fact that we have publicly said that there will be a review of post-16 qualification in 2013. I do not rule anything in or out, and I certainly do not want to prejudge that review, but we want to leave it open so that if it were decided that the A-level should not be continued—no such decision has been made—we would not want to have to make primary legislation to do so. The clause is drafted to allow the description to be amended by order. That will be subject to the affirmative procedure and so to full parliamentary scrutiny. That is what subsection (5) means, stating:
“The Secretary of State may by order amend subsection (2)”.
Using the affirmative procedure is common practice when allowing for future changes.
The description in the clause does not include a range of other level 3 qualifications that would be worthwhile ways of participating. For example, it does not mention diplomas at the advanced level, which we believe will be central to ensuring that all young people have valuable and engaging programmes to follow but which are not yet established and therefore not good to use in law. Instead, we shall specify such qualifications in regulations. We should not list all the qualifications in the Bill, particularly if they do not yet exist, which is why subsection (1) states:
“In this Part, ‘level 3 qualification’ means a prescribed external qualification, or an external qualification of a prescribed description, at level 3.”
We will be able to make regulations by the negative procedure, to which the explanatory notes refer. I hope that that explains the difference between the explanatory notes and the delegated powers document.
Similarly, we could regulate to apply the provision to the pre-U, which is in the process of being accredited or otherwise by the QCA. It is worth saying in passing that, if the 17-year-old in the scenario that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton painted had taken the pre-U, he would not be subject to the duty; as long as the pre-U was accredited as level 3, he would be exempt, regardless of whether we approved it for funding in maintained schools. It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands that if the pre-U is accredited by the QCA, my Department will then have to decide whether it should be approved for funding in maintained schools and colleges under section 96 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000. I cannot comment further in advance of being asked to make any such decision if the QCA accredits the qualification. Assuming that it will be a level 3 qualification, if it is accredited it will be able to be prescribed under clause 3 by regulation, so there is no need to specify it explicitly. I therefore hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation, and I am moderately reassured. I think that he was seeking to undertake that subsection (5), which relates to subsection (2), could not be used to alter materially the level of qualification required so that it would become far higher and more challenging.
Jim Knight: I want to give that assurance. The clause is headed “Level 3 qualification”, and the situation would change only if the best descriptor of a level 3 qualification moved on from being an A-level to being something else.
Mr. Laws: I suspected that that was the case. I have no doubt that the Minister is not secretly planning to alter the provision to insist that people get degree-level qualifications before leaving. Having received that clear indication, I shall not press my amendment.
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Mr. Gibb: I, too, am moderately reassured by the Minister’s response, particularly in relation to the amendments. However, I am disappointed that he could not give a little more information about the future of the pre-U, which is an important exam that is gaining wider currency in the independent sector. It is important that the pre-U is allowed to be taught and examined in the state sector as well. We understand from the press that a decision is imminent from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. A little hint about that might have been useful and helpful.
This was intended as a probing amendment to try to extract some information on that from the Minister and, given that it has failed, I see no reason to press it any further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in clause 3, page 2, line 20, at end insert
‘, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State.’.
The amendment is intended to determine how much unfettered power clause 3(3) is giving to the QCA by adding those words to subsection (3), which currently states:
“A qualification, or description of qualification, prescribed under subsection (1) may be prescribed by reference to an assessment made by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority of the level of attainment demonstrated by a qualification; and for that purpose regulations under subsection (1) may confer a function (which may include the exercise of a discretion) on the Authority.”
People are increasingly unhappy about politicians, but I still believe strongly in democracy. Ultimately, the Secretary of State needs to be the official who takes important decisions about education policy, because it is he who is accountable to Parliament and to the Government in whom he serves, who will be judged by the electorate.
I should like the Minister to explain in a little more detail the powers contained in subsection (3), so that we Opposition Members can be reassured that we are not handing over too much power to a non-departmental body accountable to a Select Committee, but not to Parliament via the Secretary of State.
Jim Knight: The amendment is unnecessary. Regulations under the clause will be drafted by my Department and approved by the Secretary of State before being laid before Parliament in any case. The Committee will know from our consideration of the last group of amendments that the reference to a level 3 qualification in clause 1 is crucial to describing the group of young people who are subject to the duty to participate.
Accepting the amendment would mean that regulations could only confer functions on the QCA if the Secretary of State approved. That is an unnecessary addition as the Department will be drafting the regulations in any case. So the intention behind the amendment is already implicit in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is reassured that the QCA cannot do anything in respect of clause 3(3) without its being approved by the Secretary of State, who would have to approve the order to make an amendment. I hope that, on that basis, he will ask leave to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Gibb: I am reassured and on the basis of the Minister's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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