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5 May 2009 : Column 107

There are further criticisms in paragraph 171 about the difficulties of reaching a conclusive view on the issue of grade inflation and thus what we should conclude about what has happened to educational standards over the past 10 or 20 years.

That is of fundamental importance because the Government’s view, and their gloss on the statistics, is that there has been a staggering improvement in educational standards over the past 10 years, and perhaps even longer. In some parts of the country, the improvement in, for example, GCSE scores is quite breathtaking on paper. If it is true that there has been an improvement in standards of that magnitude, it is extremely important, and it has all sorts of implications for policy. However, if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is correct in saying that we cannot rely on those statistics, and if the Select Committee is right in its criticisms, we are in a difficult, and very different, position, which is presumably why, in paragraph 186, the Select Committee recommends that there should be a greater use of sample or cohort testing to establish what has truly happened to educational standards over time, and to make those judgments invariant to changes in the structure of qualifications, and thus to restore public confidence in standards.

We discussed in our debates in Committee, and previously, our great disappointment that the Government did not take up the Select Committee proposal and instead, in their response to the Select Committee report, made it clear that they rejected not only the use of sample testing to measure educational standards over time but, as they state in paragraph 50 of their response, that in their view,

When we look at the measures in clause 126 that deal with Ofqual’s objectives, we discover on careful reading that what at first appears to be an impressive list of objectives—the qualifications standards objective; the assessments standards objective; the public confidence objective; the awareness objective; and the efficiency objective—requires Ofqual to make judgments of levels of attainment in comparable regulated qualifications, and in comparable assessments, which is not in any way a guarantee that, as the nature of those assessments changes, we will have a reliable measure of what is really happening to standards.

Mr. Graham Stuart: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, but may I put it to him that we do not have to go to outside academics or international comparators to gain an insight into the way in which the Government have dealt with standards? We look to the man who was in charge of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which was responsible for protecting standards in recent years. He said in evidence to the Select Committee that

That is powerful evidence that the Government cannot be trusted on standards.

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Mr. Laws: It is indeed an important warning of the risk that arises from the manner in which the Government have established Ofqual, the degree of independence that Ofqual will, or will not, have, and in its tightly defined remit, which are designed effectively to stop it making the judgments about standards that it needs to make. Although the Minister herself, in giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee, suggested that it would be possible for Ofqual to use sample testing, she later qualified that by indicating that that could be used only in the context of the specific objectives in the Bill, which prevent such testing from being used to make judgments about educational standards and changes in those standards over time.

That is why we tabled a large number of amendments, both in Committee and on Report. Amendment 90 requires comparable international assessments to be made by Ofqual in a way that is similar to what new clause 3, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, would do. Amendments 72, 74 and 75 deal with the need to establish a proper educational standards objective in place of the long list of objectives that the Government have designated for Ofqual, none of which addresses the fundamental issue of standards, and judgments about standards over time. Amendment 71 seeks to address the soon-to-be-topical issue of the introduction of the modular GCSE, and the impact that it is likely to have on results. We heard some interesting evidence from the Minister and others in Committee about the effect that the introduction of modular GCSEs is likely to have. Many of us suspect that when they are introduced, there will be a rise in GCSE results, even though there will not be an improvement in underlying GCSE standards. We heard ambiguous evidence from the Minister about whether a rise in apparent standards as a consequence of changing to modular GCSEs should essentially be suppressed by ensuring that similar-ability cohorts of children end up with similar GCSE results, or whether in fact the modular GCSE will allow the results to rise in a fairly predictable way that, no doubt, will be used by the Government, if they are still in power, to claim that standards have risen.

Amendment 73 deals with the need for standardised sample testing, in relation not only to the existing Ofqual objectives, but to the wider standards objective that we believe there should be. Amendment 91 deals with the issue of coherence v. choice in qualifications, a subject that we touched on in Committee.

Another fundamental debate is hidden away in the amendments and new clauses before us. That is in relation to what was, when we were debating the Bill in Committee, the famous clause 138, which, under the reordering in the new Bill, becomes clause 139. This is the clause that gives the Secretary of State the ability to determine the minimum requirements in respect of skills, knowledge or understanding that someone must be able to demonstrate to gain a particular qualification or type of qualification.

That is a very significant power. It allows a Secretary of State to prescribe, potentially in great detail, what should be in each and every regulated qualification. The example that the Minister gave during our Committee hearing was that particular authors might be considered to have a status that would justify a Minister insisting that they ought to be covered by, for example, a GCSE
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English qualification. The same approach could no doubt be sustained to justify the study of particular political theorists for a politics exam, or particular parts of history for a history exam.

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Under cross-questioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), the Minister initially said she was not sure whether this was a new power or a power that the Government already had. In her letter to my hon. Friend on 14 March, the Minister confirmed that at present there is no explicit statutory power to determine such matters. In other words, this is a new power being taken by the Secretary of State to prescribe in a potentially very detailed way what should be in particular qualifications.

That makes us extremely nervous. We agree that there is a role for a Government in a broad-brush national curriculum. We believe it is right that there should be a political view of the broad nature of subjects that should be taught in schools and what should represent the core curriculum. We cannot accept that it should be for a politically appointed Secretary of State to interfere and meddle in the subjects that young people have to study to achieve regulated qualifications.

In our amendment 80 we seek to include in the Bill what is in the explanatory notes, which the Government have so far resisted writing into the Bill: that these powers should be used only in exceptional circumstances. In some of our other amendments, 88 and 89, we seek to put in place other safeguards to prevent the power being used by the present Government or by a future Government in a way that most people in this country would regard as deeply objectionable.

Mr. Stuart: Was the hon. Gentleman disturbed, as I was, by the contents of the letter of 29 April to the Public Bill Committee in response to his questions in Committee? In that letter, Ministers say:

It is hard to follow what that means, but it has a rather creeping sense that the Government aim to force Ofqual to stick to their political agenda.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman underlines effectively the fact that although the Government initially indicated that Ofqual would be a wholly independent body, it is clear to us, both from the Bill and from the initial comments and judgments that have been made by Ofqual, that this is a body which is as yet far from being independent and may remain so for a considerable time.

The issue is of great concern to us. That is why, as well as supporting some of the amendments to which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred if they are pressed to a vote, unless the Minister tells us that she has reflected again on the matter, we shall seek leave to press amendment 80 to a Division.

Mr. Gummer: There seem to be two important aspects of the Bill which are addressed by the amendments and new clauses under discussion. The first gives me considerable cause for wonderment. I do not understand why it should be so unacceptable to the Government to want to see, in the context both of history and of our
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competitors, how good our qualification and examination system is. I should have thought that anybody running a business, a charity or any organisation would want to know whether the process by which they measured their success was, first, constant in the sense that it was comparable with previous measurements, and secondly, whether it was comparable with the measurements used by other people. It seems very peculiar to refuse to do either thing, and I do not understand why the Government find it so difficult, unless they are too afraid that they might have to say sorry. Is it another example of the Government fearing that an objective measurement might mean that they would have to admit that all their statements about standards having not fallen turned out to be untrue?

The Minister represents a normal, run-of-the-mill constituency, and I am sure that if she talked to people there she would find that a large number think that standards have fallen. There is no way of reassuring them, except through independent assessment. The Government have recognised that, so they have set up an organisation that, they claim, will be independent. However, they have then proceeded to give to that organisation a series of remits that limit to an unacceptable degree its ability to be independent. Both the Minister’s responses to previous, Committee debates, which I have had the pleasure of reading, and her letters show that she has no intention whatever of enabling the body to set up an independent measurement of the success or failure of a particular means of testing and assessment.

If we live in a society in which more and more employers say, “I take no notice of GCSE results and A-level results,” it is a society that properly should address that worry. As an employer, I find it difficult to see any continuity of standards in the conduct of those examinations, so I beg the Minister to take seriously the amendments. They are intended neither to criticise the Government, nor to upset the convenience of her Department; they are designed to ensure that people have confidence in the standards attained. She has admitted that people do not have such confidence, and one does not solve that problem unless one is prepared to enable people independently to measure our present system against what happens in the rest of Europe, with which, after all, we compete, and to see how far it has changed over the past 20 years. I should be perfectly happy to make it a 20-year period, so that it covered the life of another Government, too, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) would agree. It is not a matter of getting at this Government.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who speaks for the Liberals, raised an even more worrying point. If it is true that there is widespread concern about the standards of examination and the standards that young people are now expected to reach, there is even more widespread concern about Government interference in how the education system works. One cannot ignore that, and anybody with a constituency anywhere in the country knows perfectly well that people are worried. If the Department and the Minister want to do something about that concern, they must take seriously the amendments that the Liberal Democrats have put forward.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. May I encourage him to join us if there is a vote on the issue later?

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Mr. Gummer: No doubt if the hon. Gentleman listens to what I have to say, he will be able to make an assessment of what I think about the matter. I must say that his amendments do not go far enough, however, because I do not see any occasion on which the advantage to the society in which we live of the Government being able to detail those arrangements is sufficiently great to overcome the disadvantage that I see. I have a very strong view that Governments should keep their fingers out of what is taught in the classroom—apart from the general principle of ensuring a broad approach that covers the range of history, geography and the like. This Government are the last to whom I would want to give such permission, because they have shown themselves to be incredibly concerned to control and to ensure that what happens in the country fits their particular attitude towards politically correct teaching and the like.

Jim Knight indicated dissent.

Mr. Gummer: It is all very well for the Minister to shake his head. He is one of the very few in this Government whom I would trust with anything; that compliment, of course, will do him no good in his party. Do not let him encourage me to be more complimentary, because that would be bad for his future—limited though it may be in a Government whose future is limited. I say to him that we have had too many examples, and too often, of the fact that the Government cannot manage variety, diversity and difference. They are determined to ensure that we all accept a particular view—their view—of almost everything.

The Government may have set up the inelegantly named Ofqual to reassure the public, but it would be much better if the public heard from the Government the statement that Ofqual can make its own decisions on what it wishes to investigate, compare and contrast; that its remit will be sufficiently wide for those decisions to be of the sort that these amendments seek; and that it is not a supporter of the pusillanimous and peculiar responses that its chairman gave in cross-examination. I do not like people who are supposed to be running a regulator, but cannot answer a question directly.

I would like the Minister to look at the answers from Ofgem and other regulators. They are direct: those regulators say exactly what they are intending to regulate and know precisely what they are trying to do. I do not think that the person about whom I am talking understands at all what she is trying to do—or perhaps she understands all too clearly, but does not want to tell us because it is not what the public want.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that I am pleased with his amendments, although I would like them to have gone further. That is because I think that freedom is better than direction; I would rather have a society in which we might be worried that some people teach rather peculiar things than one in which people are afraid lest the Under-Secretary should come down on them for teaching something that they think important.

We are at the very heart of the public’s concern about the Government. The Government cannot say that they are sorry, so they do not want to be measured lest they have to say that they are sorry. They cannot allow people to be various and different, so they have to have reserve powers. They will not say that they are reserve
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powers; they will not say in the body of the Bill that they will not use them except in extremis. They must have such powers to keep control, because they are a control-freak Government. Lastly, they are a Government who will not listen to the public. I am thinking not only of the Gurkhas, but of everybody in Britain to whom I ever talk on these subjects and who wants to know. If we are wrong and if it is not true that standards have fallen, the Government should be honest and prove it. If they cannot prove it, they should change things so that the situation changes and we can raise standards again.

Recently, I tried to buy something in a store. The person serving me did not want the extra money I offered so that the change could be simple, because she could not work out what the change should have been except by using the machine in front of her. When I told her that I would give her the one and thruppence, or whatever it was, she said— [Interruption.] I said “thruppence” because the Minister was asleep at that moment and I wanted to wake her up. In fact, it was 13p extra, so I gave her that money; she could not work out what the change was because it did not tally with what was on her machine.

8.45 pm

Standards have fallen, and the Minister should prove to me that I am wrong—merely stating it will not help. She should allow for an independent assessment. Above all, she should be comparing us with our neighbours, because they are the people with whom we compete. Why will she not do the sensible thing? Is it because she cannot say sorry? Is it because she is frightened of the results of an independent comparison? If not, then give it to us. Why does she continue to refuse to do what the public want her to do?

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to have caught your eye at the last minute, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had not intended to participate in this debate, but I have been prompted to do so by the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who made a powerful argument about the Government’s actions and intentions as regards education. The amount of money allocated to the education budget has doubled, but we have to ask whether we are getting value for money. My right hon. Friend has put his finger on the issue. Have there been any improvements to our education system that are worthy of the amount of money that has gone into it? [ Interruption. ] The Minister says yes, but when we speak to employers, teachers and parents and ask them their views about what has happened to A-levels or GCSEs, they will say, without any prompting, that there has been a degradation in standards, with grade inflation. The Minister shakes his head, but that is what people out there are saying. It therefore defies logic that this Government, so late in the day in their tenure and in this parliamentary season, still refuse to listen to what the public are asking for, employers are calling for, and we are suggesting here today.

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