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5 May 2009 : Column 102

Amendment 60, page 74, line 8, after ‘effectively’, insert ‘and in a timely manner’.

Government amendment 25.

Amendment 82, page 80, line 2, leave out Clause 139.

Amendment 80, page 80, line 3, after ‘may’, insert ‘in exceptional circumstances’.

Amendment 81, page 80, line 5, at end insert

‘provided that this minimum requirement does not relate to the grading or assessment of that qualification.’.

Amendment 88, page 80, line 5, at end insert

‘provided that such a determination does not include specifying detailed minimum requirements of the curriculum content of each such specified qualification.’.

Amendment 89, page 80, line 29, at end add—

‘(9) Ofqual must publish and lay before Parliament a response to any determination made by the Secretary of State under subsection (1) within 60 days of that determination being made.’.

Government amendments 26 to 28.

Amendment 90, in clause 163, page 90, line 32 , at end insert—

‘(c) the assessment of changes in educational standards and performance in England, including any comparative international assessment which Ofqual considers to be necessary.’.

Government amendment 29.

Amendment 91, in clause 170, page 93, line 23, leave out ‘coherence’ and insert ‘choice’.

Government amendments 30 to 37.

Mr. Gibb: The Opposition support the establishment of an independent regulator of qualifications and examinations. It was, after all, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) who, when he was shadow Education Secretary—as the position was then known, before the word “Education” was eliminated from the name of the Department—said:

By government, we mean the government machine— that is, all those elements of government charged with the responsibility of providing education, training teachers, determining the direction of education policy and the style of pedagogy; all those who determine whether, for example, primary education should be child centred; those who determine whether classes should be mixed ability or set by ability; the independent panels of advisers who advised the Government to remove translation from English into French from the secondary modern foreign languages curriculum; or those who advised that the primary curriculum should no longer teach the multiplication or addition of fractions. The exam regulator needs to be independent of all those groups and of anyone who has a vested interest in demonstrating that educational standards have improved.

Ofqual particularly needs to be independent of civil servants in the education world, both departmental and at local authority level. As Sir Michael Barber points out in his book “Instruction to Deliver”:

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It is keeping Ofqual independent from that lack of ambition that is so crucial, as well as keeping it independent of the producer angle.

That lack of ambition was exemplified by almost the very first act of the newly created Ofqual. In October last year, in response to reports that one of the exam boards, Edexcel, was awarding C grades in its new science GCSE to pupils achieving just 20 per cent., Ofqual was asked to adjudicate after the three exam boards failed to reach an agreement over grade boundaries. Instead of making the three boards rise to the standard of the most demanding, which was AQA, it ordered AQA to lower its grade boundaries to those of the other two—levelling down rather than levelling up. The director general of AQA, Dr. Mike Cresswell, said that he did so under protest and wrote:

Ofqual spectacularly failed, therefore, in its first test.

That all goes to the root of the contradictions that lie at the heart of this policy. On the one hand, the Government are saying that standards have been rigorously maintained over the years and between different exams. On the other hand, they say that an independent regulator needs to be created to boost public confidence. In a letter of September 2007, in which the DCSF set out the new model of regulation of qualifications, the Department states:

If things are so good and rosy, why do we need reform? The document goes on to say:

In other words, how dare the public have a debate about standards when the QCA has “provided reassurance”. The reforms are not about ensuring that standards are maintained, but about finding a better way to try to convince the public that standards are being maintained.

Kathleen Tattersall, the new chairman and chief regulator at Ofqual, said in her evidence to the Public Bill Committee:

What Ofqual should be concerned about is maintaining standards—something that its predecessor regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, singularly failed to do. That is why, in amendment 61, we propose adding a specific requirement to maintain standards to Ofqual’s list of objectives.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does it not strike my hon. Friend as odd that the chairman of Ofqual should talk about improving understanding of the issues? It seems to me that the public in general understand the issues; what they do not understand is why standards are not kept up. Is not “understanding the issues” code for “Let us explain to people why they should think differently from the way that they do.”?

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Mr. Gibb: My right hon. Friend has summarised brilliantly the argument that I was trying to make. It is a huge concern, because as he hints, a huge amount of independent academic research carried out in recent years points to the decline in exam standards over time. To take just one example, Peter Tymms at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at the university of Durham has shown that a student who got an E in A-level maths in 1998 would have been awarded a B in 2004. Professor Peter Williams, appointed by this Government, said in The Observer newspaper:

That and other evidence has been available for several years now, but what concerns us is the attitude to such evidence expressed by Ofqual’s chief regulator in her evidence to the Public Bill Committee. When asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker),

she replied:

Why is the matter one that Ofqual has “not particularly explored”? When my hon. Friend asked whether Ofqual would explore the issue in future, he received another odd answer from the chief regulator:

Why have the QCA and Ofqual not been looking at the evidence, including that of Peter Williams and the Durham evidence? What did the chief regulator mean when she said:

What did she mean by “if”? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) suggests, of course it is an issue of public concern. We read about it in the newspapers the whole time.

When challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), the chief regulator’s response was:

or indeed the one raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal.

The anxiety that that answer provoked was compounded by minutes of Ofqual board meetings that were leaked to a Sunday newspaper. It was clear from those minutes that Ofqual was not sure whether there was any
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methodology that it could use to compare standards between a non-modular GCSE exam and a modular exam that was being introduced by the QCA. According to the newspaper, the chief regulator said that Ofqual and the exam boards

That makes one wonder whether Ofqual is the right body for the job, particularly as there are academics, such as Professor Tymms, who could say precisely how to make such a comparison, using a sample of cognitive ability tests. That is similar to the comparison proposed in the second part of the Liberal Democrat amendment 71. Our proposal, set out in new clause 2, is to benchmark comparative qualifications in other countries. New clause 2 says:

Of course, the Secretary of State could extend the study to places such as Singapore and Japan.

8.15 pm

That measure reflects a policy announcement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in a speech at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s school, in which he said:

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I wonder whether he has considered the concerns that business has about grade inflation. It is now setting its own exams. Where that is not happening, schools in my area—and the area of the Minister for Schools and Learners, who represents the same county as I do—are turning their backs on GCSEs and offering another alternative, the international baccalaureate.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I shall come to in a moment. He is right: people across the board are concerned about some of the public exams on offer. McDonald’s, Flybe and other major international companies are taking measures, and we support those measures, but it is interesting that they feel that they have to do so to get the quality that they seek from qualifications.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I did not intend to intervene in this debate, because the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), is leading for the Government on it, but the qualifications that the employers listed are involved in are not in any way supposed to be competing with the academic qualifications that the hon. Gentleman talks about. It is just not reasonable to compare the two at all.

Mr. Gibb: I understand that point, but there is a concern in the private sector—a feeling that it should not rely on the Government to provide the kind of
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qualifications that it might wish to use, and that it is time that it got on with its own qualifications. I could also have cited academic qualifications that are comparable with GCSEs and A-levels. I will come to those in a minute.

Amendment 63 would require Ofqual to publish a report on standards in A-levels and GCSEs over the past 20 years. It is important, if we are to be able to maintain standards over the next 20 years, that we have a proper, honest understanding about what has happened to our public exams over the past 20 years. Amendments 61 and 62 would amend the objectives of Ofqual to ensure that it maintained standards. That phrase is not in the standards objective as drafted, and that is a serious omission. Finally, amendment 60 would ensure that Ofqual conducted its work in a timely manner. It is a frequent complaint of exam boards that delays at regulator level leave them insufficient time to develop their exams.

As my hon. Friends have said, public confidence in the integrity of our public exam system is at an all-time low. Those in the independent sector are flocking to the more rigorous exams, such as the international GCSE, the Pre-U, which was developed to deal with concerns about the A-level, and of course the international baccalaureate. The way to deal with that lack of confidence is not public relations and repeated assurances, but concrete work to ensure that standards do not decline. The new clauses and amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and by me will go a long way to helping Ofqual to provide the rigour that is sought by the public.

Mr. Laws: The Bill contains much that is unwanted, unnecessary or both, but the clauses, new clauses and amendments that we are debating should be the most important and beneficial part of it. Unfortunately, we share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) regarding the nature of the Ofqual that the Government have chosen to establish.

Anyone interested in education ought to seek an objective understanding of what has happened to standards over a period of time. Indeed, it is difficult to have a meaningful debate about education and education policies without having an understanding of and agreement about what has happened to educational standards. We have heard from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about the disagreements about what Government statistics mean and about what has happened to standards over the past 10 or 20 years, and those concerns are echoed in the report on testing and assessment by the Children, Schools and Families Committee which was published last year and which received all-party support. I refer the Minister to paragraph 162, in which the Committee concludes that

a damning criticism if ever there was one of the existing testing regime.

In paragraph 166, the Committee concludes:

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