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Let us have a comparison so that we can understand exactly what is happening. We would be happy to stand up and say that we had been proved wrong, but I suspect that we would be proved right in saying that GCSEs and A-levels have suffered. Is it right, in this day and age, that 90 per cent. of people taking GCSEs can
5 May 2009 : Column 113
pass? There is something fundamentally wrong with that. If someone gets more things wrong than right, they should be heading towards a fail, not a pass, and they should not get a certain number of marks simply for turning up. My right hon. Friend made a valid point: unless we have such a comparison, how can we tell how we are doing in comparison with the people against whom we are competing? There are other yardsticks of measurement to say how we are doing in that competitive sphere, in the sense of who is taking our jobs—who is coming to work in the UK.

People educated in the UK are finding it difficult to compete with those educated to the higher levels that we see abroad. That is why schools that choose to examine the current situation and are not happy with it are turning their backs on A-levels and GCSEs and looking towards the more independent, more respected and higher-standard international baccalaureate. I should declare an interest in that I was taught the international baccalaureate, and I believe that it is a superb system.

Jim Knight: Was that under a Tory Government?

Mr. Ellwood: It was under a Tory Government and a Labour Government; I am afraid that I had to witness both. I am trying to stress that the levels of education that one receives from the baccalaureate are very different from those that one gets from GCSEs.

O-levels have not disappeared from the world that we live in. Someone who goes to an international school in Singapore can still take O-levels—the same exam that many of us here in the Chamber took when we were at school. But if we get students doing GCSEs today to sit the O-levels in the same subjects, we will find that many of them cannot pass because of the difference between the two.

I echo the comments made by our Front-Bench team in pleading with the Government to be honest and give us an opportunity to judge and scrutinise the current situation. We are happy to be proved wrong, but I am convinced that we will be proved right. If we are, we owe it to education, our pupils today and the next generation, who will be competing in a very difficult world, to ensure that we have the right level of standards and that we do not have more and more grade inflation.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We have had another interesting debate. Many of the points were made in Committee, but I am none the less sure that hon. Members were sincere in their requests.

The provisions in the Bill to set up Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are central to our ambitious programme of education reform. They are part of ensuring that we deliver two things successfully. One is high-quality assessments and qualifications that enable all children and young people to gain the knowledge, understanding and skills that they need to play a full and active part in the economy and society. The other is adults who have, and can continue to develop, the skills that they need to succeed in the workplace.

Mr. Gibb: The Minister uses the term “high-quality assessments and qualifications”. Why does she use the word “assessment” and not “examination”?

5 May 2009 : Column 114

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: This is about qualifications, but within the QCDA it is also about the national assessments of the curriculum. I was talking broadly about Ofqual and the QCDA.

We are changing the qualifications landscape and reforming assessments—reforms that are more urgent and important than ever in the challenging economic circumstances that we face. At a time of qualification reform we need an anchor point, an expert body that people trust, as many hon. Members have said, and that gives us confidence in the standard of qualifications and assessments. That is what Ofqual will be—a credible, authoritative regulator of the system. Fundamental to that credibility is the independence that is enshrined in the Bill, which I shall explain.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Can the Minister tell me whether there will be observers appointed by the Department on the Ofqual board or in other parts of Ofqual?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: There is no provision in the Bill for Government observers to attend the Ofqual board. If the board itself decided that it wished to have such observers, that would be entirely up to the board, but nothing in the Bill requires that.

Mr. Stuart: Am I right that the Minister has just said that there is a possibility that there will be departmental observers on the board of this supposedly independent guarantor of standards? She seemed to suggest that there could be observers if the board so decided. Perhaps she could tell us who will appoint the members of the board.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It will be a decision of the board whether it wishes to have independent observers. It will be an independent body, and there is nothing in the Bill that will require it to have Government observers on the board.

I return to a point that many hon. Members have made. We want to get away from that all-too-familiar footage on television every summer when exam and test results come out—the nervous teenagers approaching the board, the whoops of delight, and then immediately the cut-away to the dumbing-down debate. That is not fair on our young people, and it is not fair on teachers.

Mr. Laws: Does the Minister really think that the Bill will do away with that debate?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Yes, that is the purpose of having an independent regulator, and I will come to why I believe that that is indeed the case.

Mr. Gummer: I am sorry, but the Minister really cannot say that without accepting that if that body cannot compare standards with those abroad and those that we have had before, everybody will continue to believe that standards have fallen. It does not matter how independent it is; it must compare those standards and prove people wrong, or people will go on believing that and we will go on having the nervous scenes that we have had on YouTube and so on.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will explain what I believe will happen. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent Ofqual from making those comparisons, but we are not requiring it to do things in that way.

5 May 2009 : Column 115

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: One more time.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister has been very generous, Madam—sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I am confusing genders. If there has been no grade inflation, why has it been necessary to introduce the A* grade, which I understand many universities are now obliging students to attain?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I find it very sad that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept the possibility that the abilities of our young people and the quality of teaching have enabled standards to rise.

I was pleased to hear that the setting up of a strong and independent regulator has received widespread support. Most hon. Members in the Chamber would agree that that is needed, but there are inevitably some differences of opinion about exactly what Ofqual’s role should be. Two themes in particular attracted debate in Committee, and they are again the subject of amendments today: first, what Ofqual’s role as a standards watchdog means—there seems to be some confusion about what is meant by the standards that Ofqual must maintain—and secondly, what “independence” means. Ofqual must be free to take the decisions that it needs to take to maintain standards. It will report to Parliament on how it does so. However, that does not mean that Ofqual should operate without reference to matters that are at the heart of Government education policy, such as the content of GCSEs or the purpose of national curriculum assessments.

Let me take standards of qualifications first. We spent a good deal of time on that in Committee, and quite rightly so. Protecting standards is the key driver for the establishment of Ofqual. It is essential that we have—I am drawing on the wording of the Bill now—qualifications and assessments that give a reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding, and that indicate a consistent level of attainment, including over time. That needs an expert, independent regulator with the powers to ensure that qualification standards are maintained and the credibility so that people trust it when it provides that assurance.

The Bill has a range of provisions that are all about delivering on that, including objectives for Ofqual in respect of safeguarding the standards of qualifications and assessments; a power for Ofqual to set conditions that are binding on awarding bodies, so that Ofqual can have all the leverage that it needs to safeguard standards, coupled with a strong set of enforcement powers if an awarding body steps out of line; strong powers to regulate assessments; a reporting line to Parliament, not Ministers; and separation from the organisation that develops the curriculum and delivers and develops related qualifications or tests, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

What we do not have, because there is no need for it, is anything in the Bill that tells Ofqual exactly what it should do to safeguard standards. The Bill makes it clear what Ofqual needs to achieve and how it will be held to account. The focus of the Bill is rightly on outcomes and accountability, not on process. Ofqual is not being told how to achieve its objectives. The starting
5 May 2009 : Column 116
point is that we need to trust Ofqual to get on with the job that it is given and leave it to choose the right tools for doing just that.

We would certainly expect Ofqual to publish evidence underpinning its conclusions on the maintenance of standards and—to pick up the point in new clause 2—to consider lessons from other countries. Ofqual will be accountable to Parliament for the way it pursues its objectives, but we will not prejudge the best way for it to gather or present its evidence on qualification standards, or what it should publish and when. That should be Ofqual’s call. Parliament, not least through the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, will look to Ofqual for the definitive word on the quality of qualifications in this country. That is what the Bill enables. The Bill gives Ofqual all the powers that it needs to monitor those standards and pronounce its judgments on what it finds without fear or favour.

That is why I do not support amendments 61 to 63, 71 and 74 and new clause 2, which relate to standards. I agree with what I take to be the underlying sentiment of some of those amendments—that standards of qualifications need to be as high as ever they were—but we do not need amendments to the Bill to deliver on that. The Bill already gives all the safeguards that we need.

Given the time, I shall deal with Ofqual’s independence, on which our message is clear. To be an effective regulator, Ofqual must be fully independent. The acid test is whether Ofqual has the powers that it needs to meet its objectives, the freedom to exercise those powers and the responsibility to report to Parliament and the public on its performance against those objectives. The Bill meets that test in every respect. It has to; there would be no point in establishing Ofqual without making it fully and clearly independent. Being independent, Ofqual might sometimes say things that will be uncomfortable for the Government and others, as we found when it reported on science GCSEs a few weeks ago. Home truths—

9 pm

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 23 February).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 186, Noes 278.
Division No. 111]
[9 pm


Afriyie, Adam
Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Alexander, Danny
Amess, Mr. David
Ancram, rh Mr. Michael
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Baldry, Tony
Baron, Mr. John
Barrett, John
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Bone, Mr. Peter
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Bottomley, Peter
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brake, Tom
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Brokenshire, James
Brooke, Annette
Browning, Angela
Burt, Lorely
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Clappison, Mr. James
Clark, Greg
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Davis, rh David

Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Dorrell, rh Mr. Stephen
Dorries, Nadine
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Evennett, Mr. David
Fabricant, Michael
Field, Mr. Mark
Foster, Mr. Don
Francois, Mr. Mark
Fraser, Christopher
Gale, Mr. Roger
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
George, Andrew
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Gidley, Sandra
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gove, Michael
Gray, Mr. James
Green, Damian
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hague, rh Mr. William
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hammond, Stephen
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harvey, Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heath, Mr. David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hemming, John
Herbert, Nick
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Horam, Mr. John
Horwood, Martin
Howard, rh Mr. Michael
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Hunter, Mark
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jones, Mr. David
Kawczynski, Daniel
Key, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Lamb, Norman
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Laws, Mr. David
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Loughton, Tim
Luff, Peter
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Main, Anne
Malins, Mr. Humfrey
Maples, Mr. John
Mates, rh Mr. Michael
Maude, rh Mr. Francis
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mercer, Patrick
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Milton, Anne
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Moore, Mr. Michael
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Mulholland, Greg
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Neill, Robert
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Ottaway, Richard
Paice, Mr. James
Penning, Mike
Penrose, John
Pickles, Mr. Eric
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Rennie, Willie
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Rogerson, Dan
Rosindell, Andrew
Rowen, Paul
Ruffley, Mr. David
Russell, Bob
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Scott, Mr. Lee
Selous, Andrew
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Sir Robert
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob
Spring, Mr. Richard
Stanley, rh Sir John
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Swinson, Jo
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Teather, Sarah
Thurso, John
Timpson, Mr. Edward
Tredinnick, David
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Viggers, Sir Peter
Walker, Mr. Charles
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Walter, Mr. Robert
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Webb, Steve
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willott, Jenny
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Yeo, Mr. Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Ayes:

Jeremy Wright and
James Duddridge

Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Mr. David
Anderson, Janet
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, Mr. Ian
Austin, John
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Balls, rh Ed
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Battle, rh John
Beckett, rh Margaret
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr. Joe
Berry, Roger
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Brennan, Kevin
Brown, Lyn
Brown, Mr. Russell
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burnham, rh Andy
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Byrne, rh Mr. Liam
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clelland, Mr. David
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Connarty, Michael
Cook, Frank
Cooper, Rosie
Cooper, rh Yvette
Cousins, Jim
Crausby, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Ennis, Jeff
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flint, rh Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goodman, Helen
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr. Tom
Havard, Mr. Dai
Healey, rh John
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Heyes, David
Hill, rh Keith
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hoey, Kate
Hope, Phil

Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, rh Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jackson, Glenda
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Alan
Keen, Ann
Kelly, rh Ruth
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kennedy, rh Jane
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Knight, rh Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lammy, rh Mr. David
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Linton, Martin
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
Mackinlay, Andrew
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCafferty, Chris
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFadden, rh Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, rh Mrs. Anne
McKechin, Ann
McKenna, Rosemary
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Meacher, rh Mr. Michael
Meale, Mr. Alan
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, Mr. Austin
Moffatt, Laura
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Moran, Margaret
Morden, Jessica
Morgan, Julie
Mudie, Mr. George
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, rh Mr. Jim
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Olner, Mr. Bill
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pope, Mr. Greg
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, rh James
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Roy, Mr. Frank
Roy, Lindsay
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Christine
Salter, Martin
Seabeck, Alison
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Alan
Singh, Mr. Marsha
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, John
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Taylor, David
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mr. Mark
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Twigg, Derek
Ussher, Kitty
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Joan
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave

Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Wilson, Phil
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wright, Mr. Anthony
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Tellers for the Noes:

Helen Jones and
Chris Mole
Question accordingly negatived.
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