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House of Commons

Monday 26 January 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Testing and Assessment

1. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the educational testing and assessment regime. [250608]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Ofqual monitors standards of qualifications and assessments. It reported in July that standards are being maintained. As a result of the unacceptable problems with the delivery of last year’s national curriculum tests, we set up the Sutherland inquiry, and we expect to respond shortly to Lord Sutherland’s report. We have also established an expert group to advise on improvements to assessment arrangements, and we are trialling new ways of assessing key stage 2 pupils through the Making Good Progress pilots.

Mr. Holloway: Can the Minister tell us what effective contingency plans he has put in place for this coming summer?

Jim Knight: The procurement for this summer’s key stage 2 tests has gone well, as has been reported to the House, and it has now been awarded to Edexcel. The hon. Gentleman will know that Edexcel operated the standard assessment tests contract between 2005 and 2007, delivering double the number of SATs that it will have to deliver this summer. I am confident that we have everything in place to ensure that we have a successful round this summer.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does the Minister understand that a lot of Members of Parliament across the political spectrum have sympathy for the teachers and head teachers who think that the Ofsted regime is run by people who could never hold down a classroom and who have been promoted out of their positions? I am talking about all those people from the chief inspector downwards. They ought to be obliged to return to a teaching situation for a year, every two years, before they can make any reasonable and valid assessment of the qualities of their peers who are struggling in the profession. This needs to be looked at, because some of the assessments that are being made are grossly unfair.

Jim Knight: Naturally, I listen carefully to the concerns of head teachers and teachers. I also listen carefully to what the Select Committee says. Ofsted is a non-ministerial department, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is accountable through the Select Committee. I have every confidence in the work of the chief inspector and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just whispered to me, to suggest that she should go back into the classroom every two years would be like suggesting that Alex Ferguson should go back to playing football every couple of seasons.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): May I ask the Minister also to consider the means of assessment and, in particular, the use of course work for GCSEs and AS-levels? As a parent of teenagers, I know that many of them regard this form of assessment as laughable. It might be assessing the candidates, but it might also be assessing the work of their elder sibling, their parents or their friends—no
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one can be confident that it is assessing the work of the candidates themselves. Will the Minister accept that this experiment is failing, because it is not providing fair assessment, and look again at how best to obtain accurate results in these important exams for young people?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that they are important exams. Indeed, my son is currently doing his course work for his second year of A-levels. He is taking the work extremely seriously—I hope—and this is the subject of much discussion. Course work is important, and it is important that it is completed properly. It varies between different subjects, and we have reduced the amount of course work as a component of certain GCSEs. I am confident that we have now struck the right balance in each of the different subjects. For example, as someone who studied geography to degree level, I know that course work is a really important element in that subject, and it should remain so.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will realise that SATs for 11-year-olds are not conducted in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. What is the educational rationale for conducting them in England, when we know how disruptive they are for 11-year-olds? Would an alternative not be better? Will he accept the recommendations and findings of the expert group, including those that head teachers are now putting forward?

Jim Knight: Obviously we are looking forward to hearing what the expert group has to say to us. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question about the educational rationale, because it gives me an opportunity to say that it is about success and about what works. He will be aware that the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study—TIMMS—international evaluation of maths and science showed that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe in those subjects, in part thanks to the test regime.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I first wish the Minister’s son good luck in his A-levels? I was surprised to hear that he is sitting his A-levels, because the Minister does not look old enough to have a son in the second year of the sixth form.

The Minister mentioned the exam regulator Ofqual, which is supposed to ensure that test standards are robust. Does he support its decision to order an exam board to lower marks in the latest set of GCSEs, and to make the exams easier with a pass mark of just 20 per cent.?

Jim Knight: I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that particular debate. There are three examination boards, as I recall, in respect of GCSEs, and one of them had a different view from the other two. In order to carry out its function properly, Ofqual decided that it was necessary to have some consistency across the board. That was what informed its decision. It was not about dumbing down; Ofqual has been very robust about that.

Michael Gove: Ofqual was not robust enough. As the Minister knows, it deliberately told one exam board to lower its marks. That exam board did so under protest and said that GCSEs would no longer be comparable
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with exams taken in the past. The Minister also knows that one of our leading headmasters has said that the new science GCSE has a

Another leading headmaster said that its content had been reduced so that it was no longer appropriate for intelligent students. One hundred and eighty-seven independent schools now do not take the Government’s GCSEs and they do not bother with the Government’s league tables; they prefer the international GCSE, which the Government’s own watchdog has acknowledged is “more demanding”. We now have a system that has been compared by one headmaster to that of South Africa, where richer students can take more prestigious exams and poorer students are denied the same opportunities. Will the Minister ensure that opportunity is made more equal and insist that state schools can offer the more robust IGSCEs?

Jim Knight: I remind the hon. Gentleman that Ofqual has been clear that it is confident that standards have been maintained across the GCSEs. I also remind him that the study and taking of GCSEs in science in single subjects has doubled in recent years. I further remind him—and hope he celebrates the fact—that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe at science, thanks to the education they receive in our maintained schools. As far as the IGCSE is concerned, the jury is still out. As I recall, the maths IGSCE, which is very popular among certain members of the independent sector, does not have a non-calculator paper, whereas I think it is important that we assess mental arithmetic and give people that sort of rigour, free of the calculator.


2. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to increase the number of apprenticeships for 16 and 17- year-olds. [250609]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): In 2007-08, a record 225,000 people started apprenticeships, and 107,000 of those were aged 16 to 18. Provisions in the forthcoming Children, Skills and Learning Bill will guarantee an apprenticeship place for all suitably qualified young people by 2013 and are key to delivering our ambition for one in five young people to be in an apprenticeship by the end of the next decade.

Anne Moffat: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which is in sharp contrast to what is happening in Scotland. Is she aware that third and fourth year time-served apprentices are being laid off in my East Lothian constituency and throughout Scotland, and are unable to complete their training. Does she agree that the Scottish Executive and the First Minister need to prioritise jobs, training and skills and follow the example of Northern Ireland, where apprentices are guaranteed to finish their training no matter what?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It is certainly a disappointment that the Scottish Executive are not taking the situation of young apprentices seriously. We have recently announced an additional £140 million, which will provide an additional 35,000 apprentice places this year, many of which we
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hope will be for 16 to 18-year-old apprenticeships. It is a pity about the proposed cuts by the Opposition parties, as if they were to be felt in the apprenticeships—

Mr. Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] When I tell the hon. Lady to stop, she must stop.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am slightly confused, so I want to ask the Minister a question that is genuinely about seeking knowledge. Should I be encouraging youngsters—and employers on their behalf—in towns like Bicester to stay on at school to do a diploma in engineering, or should I be encouraging them to leave school at 16 to try to find an apprenticeship? I am just a bit confused by the overlap between diplomas and apprenticeships in vocational qualifications.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: What we want to do is ensure that young people have the information, advice and guidance they need to know what options are available to them. Either of those two options is a route towards a higher-level degree. The route is either through an apprenticeship, which is occupation-specific, or through a diploma, which is wider and more sector-specific. It is important to give the right advice and guidance to young people to enable them to choose the correct route for them. Either route is acceptable to a university: we have already been told by Oxford and Cambridge this year that they will accept the advanced diploma in engineering as a qualification for their undergraduate courses.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I visited TEi engineering in Wakefield this summer. The company, through apprenticeship schemes, is training the next generation of welders to build the next generation of eco-power stations. May I invite my hon. Friend to visit TEi, where apprenticeships have trebled? What assessment has she made of proposals to increase the Department’s budget by just 1 per cent. this year, which would cut 100,000 apprenticeship places nationally?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Unlike other parties, we are certainly not proposing to restrict growth to just 1 per cent. this year and it would be a real shame if we were cutting 100,000 places for 16 to 18-year-olds, which we do not intend to do. We will increase the number of apprenticeships available. I have a number of visits going forward this year, and I always like to visit places where I can see quality apprenticeships for young people.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the Government intend to raise the education leaving age to 18 by 2015, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities have access in terms of apprenticeships and other opportunities to courses that will mean that the change of policy benefits rather than hurts them?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It is certainly my intention that we ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities are fully able to take advantage of all the pathways that we have on offer. The foundation learning tier that we are developing will enable people to get on to the first level and to get on to those pathways. I am also ensuring in my talks with employers who work in partnership with schools that they pay
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specific attention to how they will include children with special educational needs and disabilities in those programmes.

Secondary Schools (Bury)

3. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): What plans he has to rebuild and refurbish secondary schools in Bury. [250610]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I start by commending all those schools around the country that are this week engaged in activities to commemorate Holocaust memorial day, which is tomorrow. I encourage all Members to sign the condolences book, which is on offer in the House.

On the subject of Building Schools for the Future, in the coming month we will publish updated plans for all areas, including the 70 that are coming into the programme for the first time. I can confirm that that will include Bury.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for visiting Bury the other week, when he listened so carefully to the case made by the local authority. I thank him in particular for his visit to my old primary school, the excellent East Ward primary. Can he see anything that would put at risk the plans put forward by the local authority in Bury for the rebuilding and refurbishment of its secondary school estate?

Ed Balls: I commend the plans, which Bury has submitted, and also commend Broad Oak college and East Ward primary for the innovative proposal that they have put in as part of those plans. I also congratulate Broad Oak college on its acceptance into the trust programme and on the large jump in results in the last year, which has taken it above our 30 per cent. threshold. As we discussed when I visited the school, there is nothing in our plans that would mean those schools not going ahead, because we are not committed to a £4.5 billion cut to the Building Schools for the Future programme, which would mean hundreds of schools not going ahead. I can reassure my hon. Friend that Labour Members will not be taking forward cuts on that scale.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): But does the Secretary of State not accept that in Bury and elsewhere there are many concerns about the Chancellor’s plans to bring forward capital expenditure? Just weeks after his announcement in the pre-Budget report in November, the Learning and Skills Council put on hold future college capital building, and we now learn that many schools are affected by the hold-ups in private finance initiative transactions. Will he assure us that he will get together with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that the money that was promised to be brought forward in colleges and schools does actually materialise?

Ed Balls: I would encourage local authorities around the country to work with us to bring forward those capital projects in the school building system. That is a vital thing to do to support the economy at this time. On PFI, the evidence, which was set out last week by the Minister for Schools and Learners, is that we have a number of PFI providers coming forward to support
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the market at what is a difficult time. In the case of the FE sector, there is no freeze on capital projects; in fact, there has actually been an increase in the number of projects that have been coming through. It is important that they are assessed properly, but there has not been a freeze. This party will not be cutting schools building or FE capital building. We will be expanding them, and I only wish we had cross-party support on that.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that following the Select Committee’s meeting last week, some people in Bury may have been temporarily rather worried about the future of their school building programme. What he has said today has provided some reassurance, but is it not the case that many of the projects involving both further education and schools are aimed at regeneration, and that to stop them now would have an enormous effect on the regeneration of our towns and cities?

Ed Balls: That is exactly why it is important for us not to stop the plans but to accelerate them, and that is what we are doing with Building Schools for the Future, with FE capital and with the primary capital programme. It is vital that we provide those programmes, and that we support the PFI market at this time. I hope that the prospect of a loan of £300 million from the European Investment Bank will also be welcomed.

Because the FE schemes are important, they must be assessed properly by the Learning and Skills Council, and the proper finance needs to be in place. However, along with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, we are committed to doing all that we can to proceed with those projects so that we can continue to support our economies and, as my hon. Friend suggests, support regeneration.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s detailed reply to the question from the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), but will he give a clear answer to this question? Despite warnings from the construction industry last week that the Government’s plans to refurbish schools through Building Schools for the Future had ground to a halt, and although just two new PFI schemes have been agreed in the past six months, is he sure—and can he give us a guarantee—that not a single one of the 115 PFI school projects that are due to be delivered next year, including those in Bury, will be delayed any further?

Ed Balls: The fact is that we are ahead of schedule with Building Schools for the Future. We have already reached the 50th school, which is ahead of the objective that we set. As I said, a £300 million EIB loan is being discussed, and six new lenders are coming forward. The real threat to school building in our country comes not from our plans to expand school building, but from the £4.5 billion cut proposed by the Conservative party. Conservative Members do not like talking about that, but it is the reality on the ground for schools and governing bodies around the country.


4. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): What his Department’s budget for apprenticeships for 14 to 16-year-olds is for 2009-10. [250611]

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