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I want to focus on three broad areas that we are particularly concerned about. The first is the proposals for Ofqual. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) led with them in his scrutiny of the Bill and, in my view, they are and should be regarded as the most important aspect of the Bill. Secondly, I shall deal with the provisions that introduce central control of education by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the issue of bureaucracy, which is already a matter of concern to many who work in schools, including school leaders. Relevant here are the details of the new schools complaints procedures, the practicalities of the right to request time off for training, the powers of search—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath touched on them—and other requirements connected with physical constraint. Those are all important issues, which prompt serious concerns about the practicality of some of the proposals. I shall finish on a third concern about the
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Government’s mechanisms for delivering improvement, the powers of intervention that the Government are assuming for themselves and the way in which the Young People’s Learning Agency will interrelate with the academies programme and the oversight of education.

The Bill’s potentially most important proposals relate to Ofqual and the attempt to restore some confidence in standards of education. We are now coming to the end of a long period in which this Government have been in office and a large number of educational proposals have been made: 17 Bills, 60 to 70 Green Papers, and more than 1,700 regulations. It is clear from our debates over the last couple of hours that there is no agreement about what has been achieved in the sense of improved outcomes over all that time and through all the additional money invested.

The Government’s own statistics suggest that many of the most important measures of performance—GCSE results and key stage tests—have improved significantly since 1997. Indeed, in parts of the country, especially inner London, the improvement in results in some communities since 1997 is almost literally unbelievable. If that educational improvement is real, the Government, the teaching profession and local authorities in those areas deserve a great deal of praise, but there is an alternative picture—that painted by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, in which there is great uncertainty about just how much of that apparent improvement in results is real and how much is a consequence of inflation of standards and distortion in relation to teaching to the test.

Those concerns about the most basic elements of understanding of what has been achieved in education are echoed widely, not only by particular political parties but across political parties. We saw them in the excellent report on testing and assessment produced by the Select Committee in May 2008. If we, as a House and as a country, cannot even reach clear agreement on where we are in education and what is improving and what is not, all the other debates that we are having about education policy are difficult to hold in a sensible context.

Paragraph 170 of the Select Committee report highlights the paradox that

That provides an ambiguous conclusion about what is happening. The Select Committee, in criticising the Government in clear and blunt terms, goes on to say that

We welcome, of course, the modest attempt that the Government are making to put the assessment of educational standards on a more independent footing, but the question is whether the proposals in the Bill anything like match what will be necessary to restore confidence in standards. Our suggestion is that they do not.

A number of hon. Members have already mentioned the start that the new shadow Ofqual has made. It has not been entirely inspiring, with that organisation having
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persuaded one examination board to lower its standards and having already admitted in the board minutes confusion and uncertainty about how to maintain standards in an environment where the qualifications that underlie those standards are changing over time.

As has been mentioned, some major examination boards have put on the record their concerns about whether the proposals really meet a standard of independence that will give us confidence in the new Ofqual. Cambridge Assessment says in its representation to the Committee:

AQA has also made clear its concerns about the proposals:

Mr. Graham Stuart: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has just said, because it gives the lie to what the Secretary of State said to the House earlier, when he suggested that exam boards are not interested in the new regulator having teeth. That is precisely the opposite of the truth. They are committed to high standards because they have an interest in that currency. It is the Government who perhaps have an incentive to go in the opposite direction.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. The Secretary of State seemed to get the wrong end of the stick when he responded earlier. He appeared to be under the illusion that the exam boards were complaining that the new body would be too powerful and would hold them to account too effectively, but they have precisely the opposite concern—a concern that may be reinforced by the somewhat ambiguous responsibilities that the Bill gives Ofqual. Clause 125(4), for instance, gives it a duty to “promote public confidence” in qualifications. That leads us, in the context of some of what it has said recently—including the views that it expressed about the key stage testing fiasco—to question whether it will be an effective watchdog, or will see its role as that of a cheerleader.

The Select Committee has made recommendations which, in my opinion, could make a real difference to whether Ofqual discharges its responsibilities effectively. The Committee’s report makes absolutely clear its view that not only should Ofqual be a fully independent organisation, but it should have the power to carry out standardised sample testing for the purpose of monitoring particular cohorts of students so that, over time, we can see what is happening to educational standards without the results being distorted by “teaching to the test”, or by changes in the ease with which certain qualifications can be gained.

The Secretary of State chortled when I raised concerns over how Ofqual would discharge its responsibilities. In particular, he chortled at a sentence to which I referred and which, in fact, came from the Government’s response to the Select Committee report. It is worth putting on record precisely what the Government’s response was to the proposals on sample testing. They said, in July 2008:

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That is a very interesting observation. It raises questions—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath nodded when they were mentioned earlier—about the extent to which we can rely on existing qualifications for judgments about educational standards as a whole.

I suggest that we need Ofqual to have precisely the powers that the Select Committee envisaged to carry out its own monitoring of educational standards without relying on qualifications which, particularly over recent years, have been persistently changed in a series of ways. No doubt they have often been changed with the best of intentions—to help youngsters to thrive in education, and to provide them with a testing and exam system which may in some cases be more meaningful—but in most cases the changes have had the effect of apparently improving standards; and that, alongside the Government’s targeting system for education results, has had a very strong effect in pushing schools and youngsters into qualifications that may often be considered likely to help to deliver those targets.

Although the Secretary of State indicated earlier that he would stand back from the whole debate about standards—that he would not make any grand claims, and that he would leave all this to Ofqual—we have also seen, in paragraph 50 of the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, the following very impartial assessment of the standards debate:

It seems that the Government, while pretending to be in favour of some sort of impartiality on standards, have already taken a clear position in the standards debate, arguing that much of the evidence cited earlier is apparently not accurate.

In scrutinising the Bill, we shall want to spend a fair amount of time examining the Ofqual proposals. We shall want to consider whether the existing rather weak proposals can be turned into something far stronger, and can produce the sort of education standards authority that we have discussed over the last couple of years—an authority that would be more independent of Government, would be able to discharge the types of functions to which many of the exam boards have referred, and would be empowered to make its own judgments about educational standards without relying only on the existing qualifications.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Why does the hon. Gentleman think the QCA’s regulatory function has not so far succeeded in maintaining the public’s confidence in the integrity of our exam system? Is it because there has been ministerial interference since the QCA was established, or is there another problem within the QCA itself? Also, how does the hon. Gentleman feel that the new Ofqual arrangements will differ from those under the QCA, in order to prevent people from having the same problems?

Mr. Laws: I believe that the problems so far have included not only the degree of independence, or perceived independence, but the expectations that there have been on those bodies and the powers they have had to carry out their functions. Even in the proposals the Government
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are bringing forward today, there is not really the expectation that Ofqual will be doing a serious job and will be given the resources and discretion to assess what is happening in terms of educational standards. It is in danger of looking as though the Government simply want the slightly more independent body of Ofqual to rubber-stamp the exam results each year, so that it is somebody who is apparently independent, rather than Government Ministers, who will have to appear on television in August to explain why the results have gone up. The Minister for Schools and Learners will then be able to stay away in whatever exotic destination he is holidaying in, instead of returning to answer questions on the airwaves.

That brings me to a second area of concern, which I think would be shared by almost anybody who is familiar with Labour policy on education and public services over the last decade or so. It relates to the extent of central control and the tendency to introduce additional burdens of bureaucracy, often unnecessarily. The Association of School and College Leaders says in its representations that it is particularly concerned about the extra powers the Bill gives to the Secretary of State. It says these powers increase the centralisation policy and have the potential to undermine the capacity of school and colleague leaders and governing bodies to make decisions appropriate to their local circumstances. I agree with that; in many areas, a lot of additional central control is being given to the Secretary of State, and we will return to that later when we discuss improvement powers in relation to schools. There is also a great deal of bureaucracy in some of the new proposals. Many of them are no doubt being introduced with the best of intentions, but there is a real danger that they will become a bureaucratic nightmare of considerable proportions.

I shall start with the new complaints procedures, which remove the Secretary of State’s power to get involved in messy and difficult appeals. It is one of the few areas where the Secretary of State is actually giving something up—and it is possibly the one power he would want to give up. That power will be handed over to a new appeal mechanism, which is essentially an ombudsman function. There is a major concern that that could lead to a proliferation of complaints, not all of them well grounded, and a need for schools to increase enormously the amount of monitoring and collecting of evidence that relate to cases that could emerge through this ombudsman process. The National Union of Teachers says in its representations that there is concern among teachers and head teachers that this provision is at best unnecessary and at worst may further complicate existing complaints structures. The ASCL says in its comments on the Bill that guidance about what constitutes a good complaints policy is the best way to deal with the relatively small number of cases where school complaints systems are not working well. It suggests that the proposed complaints service has the potential to be expensive and bureaucratic and that, as it will have an interest in justifying its own existence, it may be liable to increase, rather than diminish, whatever problems there may be. We will therefore want to look very closely at these proposals during the passage of the Bill.

We notice that in clause 194, which describes some of these powers, the definition of a qualifying school includes

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but that academies are apparently not included. Can the Minister clarify now or later whether academies will be exempt from this complaints process and, if so, what complaints process will relate to them, and what is the justification for leaving them out of this process?

Another Government proposal is the right to request time off for training. That, of course, either sounds wonderful or probably already exists in many businesses. However, when we look at the Bill in detail, we will have to consider how this right and the appeal routes that will be given to employees will work in practice. The Bill lists a whole series of what are essentially opt-outs for employers—circumstances in which they would find it difficult to give this right to time off for training. Most of them require an enormous amount of discretion and judgment, and it will be interesting to learn how the Government envisage some of these proposals working in practice, and what the scope may be for an increase in bureaucracy and appeals, and, perhaps, in cases being brought where there has been a breakdown previously between employer and employee.

Also on the bureaucratic and centralising burdens in the Bill, there are some important proposals on powers to search, which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has touched on, and the important issue of reporting a physical constraint. We would want to make sure that policy on the latter strikes a sensible balance between the requirement to report incidents that are sufficiently serious while avoiding being so onerous that it creates impediments to sensible behaviour within schools. In relation to the powers to search, we and a number of the teaching organisations share some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman earlier that the way in which the Bill grants these powers leaves out certain powers to search for other items, which any head teacher or governing body would probably want to be able to exercise. Therefore, the issue is whether it is right to grant a more generalised power that allows for a greater degree of discretion, or whether the Bill should allow for some of the other areas that have already been identified by bodies outside this House.

Finally, I turn to school accountability and improvement. Under this Government, there has rightly been a great deal of concern about schools across the country that have not been performing to the level that is possible—that has been demonstrated to be possible in areas where there is a similar, and often particularly challenging, catchment. I commend the Government for not having been willing simply to assume that such schools, often in deprived areas, should automatically be sentenced to achieve poor results. I can also understand why the Government have not in the past been willing to allow mechanisms of accountability that should have been exercised through local authorities, because it is clear that in large parts of the country over a very long period of time some local authorities—quite often in Labour areas and where Labour has been in power for long periods—were simply not discharging those responsibilities effectively. Indeed, in many cases those local authorities had themselves got into a mindset where they had a set of low expectations for the young people in their area because of the types of household and levels of income that they came from.

Over the past 10 or so years, we have had an increasing range of Government policies designed to intervene and deliver improvements. They are well intentioned,
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but they have often been counter-productive, as were some of the announcements on the National Challenge programme, which dubbed schools “failing” even when in some cases they had been converted into academies, were improving rapidly and had very good value added. In some of those cases we know that the ability of those schools to improve was weakened because of their having been designated by the Prime Minister as failing schools: they lost pupils who were previously going to attend and they lost staff who were going to apply to work in them but who, when they read in the local newspapers that the schools were at risk of closure, decided not to apply there.

Our education system needs a more coherent mechanism for holding local authorities and schools to account, and then a proper means of intervention. At the moment, we just have a complex muddle between local and central responsibility. The Government say that they want local authorities to be the commissioners for education services, but they do not really believe in the ability of local education authorities to perform that role. We also have a vast range of different mechanisms to be used in a very arbitrary way to deliver school improvements.

The Bill repeats many of the errors that we have seen over the past 10 years. The Local Government Association, for example, notes how the Secretary of State will now take additional powers on school improvements, and can force notices of improvement to be issued, even when local authorities are being proactive and have other proposals for improving education in those areas. We know that the Government’s response to the expansion of the academies programme has not been to try to find some mechanism through which the academies can become locally accountable to the local authorities, which are supposed to be the commissioners. The response has been simply to acknowledge that Ministers cannot ultimately control an academy programme of 200, 300 or 400 schools and to set up another agency—a mini local authority—to do that job for the Government and local authorities. That confirms the view that the Government still do not trust local authorities to be effective commissioners and to deliver change.

The Liberal Democrats would like to see a proper role for local authorities in holding schools to account and a proper devolution of power, not only to schools—so that they can exercise some of the powers that have been decentralised to academies but not to other maintained schools—but to local authorities in their oversight of school standards, with appropriate scrutiny of their performance by Ofsted or an education standards authority. Such an authority should hold not only schools and pupils to account, but local authorities as commissioners of services. Instead, we have from the Government another set of arbitrary measures that will no doubt be replaced in the fullness of time by other arbitrary measures or changes made by whatever Government we have in the future.

The Bill is a hotch-potch of different measures, thrown into a long piece of legislation designed to give the impression that the Government still have some sort of agenda for education. However, it is sadly lacking the fundamental changes that could make a difference in addressing the major concerns about the education system that are actually shared by all parties.

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