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The Chairman: This time in accordance with precedent, I give my vote to the Ayes.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 125 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 126

General duties
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I beg to move amendment 554, in clause 126, page 72, line 3, at end insert—
‘(A1) The principal duty of Ofqual in performing its functions is to promote the interests of learners.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 558, in clause 126, page 72, line 10, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
‘(a) the need to ensure that there is a reasonable level of choice for learners, in terms of both the number of different types of regulated qualifications and the number of regulated qualifications of each type;’.
Amendment 413, in clause 126, page 72, line 10, leave out paragraph (a).
Amendment 66, in clause 126, page 72, line 11, at end insert
‘and maximizes choice for pupils and learning providers;’.
Amendment 519, in clause 126, page 72, line 16, at end insert—
‘( ) the reasonable additional requirements of persons in whose home a language is spoken which differs from that language in which the person is or will be taught.’.
Amendment 9, in clause 126, page 72, line 26, at end insert—
‘(i) the timing of the exam cycle, and the need to allow awarding bodies sufficient time to develop qualifications.’.
Amendment 220, in clause 126, page 72, line 26, at end insert—
‘(i) information provided by recognised awarding bodies.’.
Amendment 414, in clause 126, page 72, line 27, leave out subsection (3).
Amendment 67, in clause 126, page 72, line 32, leave out from ‘type’ to end of line 34.
Amendment 140, in clause 126, page 72, line 40, at end insert—
‘(d) persons whom, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, represent the interests of employers or institutions within the higher education sector.’.
Mr. Laws: We have had an interesting start to the day and a demonstration of why the Government’s truancy strategy needs to be rolled out to some of their Back Benchers, who need to be personally turned up on Thursday mornings by the teacher.
We come now to clause 126, which is important and deals with some of the general duties of the new Ofqual. I will speak to a number of amendments that I have tabled with my hon. Friends.
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Amendment 554 is in part inspired by a determination to ensure that Ofqual gives primary consideration to the needs of learners and to ensuring the availability of qualifications that serve their needs. In discharging its duties, Ofqual should not place a Government-driven concern to restrict the availability of qualifications above allowing qualifications—possibly quite a lot of qualifications—to come forward to serve the needs of individual learners.
Over the years, the market in qualifications has determined that there should be a fairly full range of qualifications, and many have proven to be of great value to learners. However, it is always a temptation for a Government to seek to rationalise the available qualifications, and sometimes to eliminate prudent qualifications that are valued by learners and institutions. We see that risk in relation to the development of the diploma, and there is a lot of concern among educational institutions about the possibility of students’ access to existing proven vocational qualifications being removed.
The Bill provides the Secretary of State with powers to change the kinds of qualifications available to learners and, specifically, to direct Skills Funding Agency funding to appropriate qualifications. We are concerned that that might open the door to political interference, and that concern is shared by many outside this place, including the awarding bodies. We are also concerned that future Secretaries of State might be tempted to select and promote the qualifications that they think are best, even though they might not put the needs of the learner first.
Amendment 66 is complementary to amendment 554, because it requires that Ofqual should maximise choice for pupils and learning providers. It would ensure, therefore, that Ofqual had regard to allowing a choice of regulated qualifications and that their availability should be driven by the needs of the learner, rather than by Government diktat. The clause says that Ofqual must have regard to
“the need to ensure that the number of regulated qualifications available...is appropriate”.
What the word “appropriate” means is unclear. It is also unclear what the role of choice is going to be in determining which qualifications are available. I hope that we will have clarification from the Minister on that point today.
Amendments 67 and 555 are complementary. They remove Ofqual’s responsibility to ensure that there is not an excessive number of regulated qualifications in any one area. Our concern, following my comments about amendments 554 and 66, is that the Government might seek unnecessarily to restrict the number of qualifications, and to pursue an obsession with the number available rather than putting the needs of learners first.
Amendment 519 seeks to clarify the Government’s thinking on how young people who have English as a second language will be dealt with. What support will be available to them for examinations, compared with children with special educational needs? The Bill is already clear about how youngsters with learning needs will be dealt with. There is a reference in the clause to young people with other needs, including English as a second language, but we are seeking to address a lack of clarification on how youngsters who have English as a second language will be dealt with. We want to ensure that the Bill is consistent on Ofqual’s consideration of the needs of pupils for whom English is an additional language.
The Minister will be aware that guidance on key stage tests is already issued to staff on how pupils who have English as a second language can be supported. Specifically, it states:
“Language staff may support pupils who are learning English as an additional language. The instructions and questions may be translated, and pupils may respond in a language other than English.”
Within those guidelines, it is important that no additional interpretation of, for example, the mathematics that are being assessed in a task is provided during the process of translation. It would therefore be helpful to find out how the Minister anticipates those needs being protected by Ofqual, and what role she expects Ofqual to play in supporting students who have English as a second language.
Amendment 9 was tabled following discussions between the Liberal Democrats and one of the external boards, Cambridge Assessment. It would allow exam boards time to create new qualifications and ensure that
“the timing of the exam cycle, and the need to allow awarding bodies sufficient time to develop qualifications”
would be taken into account by Ofqual in pursuing its duties. In particular, it would add a new factor to subsection(2) to which Ofqual would have to have regard.
The context for this proposal is that many of the examination boards felt that the amount of time given to develop, for example, the new diplomas, was restricted. There is always a difference between the political cycle, in which there is a great pressure to make new announcements and to demonstrate that new qualifications and changes to Government policy are being introduced, and the cycle of schools, colleges and awarding bodies. In the latter, if teaching is to be done sensibly and if qualifications are to be developed sensibly, proper time must be given for that work, and thought must be given to how the timing of the exam cycle will require additional time for development work.
Finally, amendment 220 would add a requirement for Ofqual to have regard to
“information provided by the recognised awarding bodies”
to subsection (2). The amendment was inspired by discussions with AQA. Its view and ours is that it is important for Ofqual to have regard to the expertise and practical knowledge of the awarding bodies. In some cases, that knowledge and expertise has been developed over more than a century. Arguably, the credibility and experience in many of the bodies is greater than that within the Department, and certainly within a new body of this type. We hope that the Minister will indicate either that she is willing to accept the amendment, or that it will be clearly understood that Ofqual will have a responsibility to take into account such information provided by awarding bodies.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): We have just had a Division that was all about competence and the fact that the Government have tabled more than 200 amendments to their own Bill. It was about Labour Back Benchers not bothering to turn up—even now, I can see that only four Labour Back Benchers have turned up to support Government Ministers. It was also about Ministers not being alert to the procedures of the Committee, which we saw in earlier sittings, when they failed to vote the right way on one of their own clauses.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman looks behind him, he will see one Conservative Member, which is only 25 per cent. of Conservative Back Benchers.
Mr. Gibb: I will not delay the Committee by responding at length to that, except to say that we have two Back Benchers in this Committee, one of whom is here. The other Conservative members of the Committee are Front Benchers. We have also agreed not to have one Back Bencher here for compassionate reasons on the part of a Member on the Government side of the Committee.
Amendment 413 would remove paragraph (a) from subsection (2), which states that
“Ofqual must have regard to...the need to ensure that the number of regulated qualifications available for award or authentication is appropriate”.
Why does that have to be in the Bill? Surely the role of Ofqual is to safeguard standards in the qualifications that it accredits, and not to limit the number of qualifications. Which qualifications prove popular with employers and universities should be up to them and to students. If we want a genuine market in qualifications, we need to let that market flourish and innovate.
The tardiness of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in accrediting the international GCSE has enabled the QCA to continue with changes to the GCSE exam, which were not demanded or desirable, but which have been allowed to go ahead as there has been no more rigorous competitor exam to which schools that value rigour can turn. Amendment 414 similarly removes subsection (3) from the clause. That subsection defines the appropriate number of qualifications for the purpose of subsection (2)(a) as providing a reasonable choice, but does not allow the number to become excessive. It should not be the role of Ofqual to have a view about the number of qualifications, and that provision should therefore be removed from the Bill.
Amendment 140 seeks to amend the definition of the people that Ofqual must have regard to if they supply information to Ofqual. At the moment, only information provided by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and Ofsted is specifically mentioned. There should be a specific reference to representatives of employers or higher education institutions. Employers, universities and colleges are the principal users of qualifications, and their concerns should be paramount in assessing the rigour or standards of the qualifications. Although there is reference to having regard to the reasonable demands or requirements of employers and higher education in clause 126(2)(d) and (e), there is no requirement for Ofqual to have regard to the information that those bodies supply to Ofqual. Given the access that the bodies will have to important information about standards emanating from the success of the holders of those qualifications at university and college or in industry, not to include such a duty is a major omission from the Bill.
Finally, amendment 558 would alter the general duties of Ofqual. At present, clause 126(2)(a) requires Ofqual to have regard to the need to ensure that the number of regulated qualifications is appropriate. Amendment 558 would replace that duty with
“the need to ensure that there is a reasonable level of choice for learners”.
We agree that Ofqual should look into the number of qualifications available in a given area, but it seems better to construct the legislation with a view to preserving a reasonable degree of choice for students. If the duty were phrased in that way, it would offer reassurance to those who fear that Ofqual’s duty in this area could lead to a loss of diversity in the market for qualifications. It would also offer greater protection to innovation than the current wording. In its briefing to the Committee, Edexcel stated that it wanted Ofqual’s creation to lead to a
“qualification system that promotes diversity and choice”.
We agree with that and believe that the amendment, with its specific focus on the student, or learner, would help to ensure that.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: All the amendments that have been tabled today relate to Ofqual’s general duties, as set out in clause 126. Those duties cover a range of considerations, including the following, which are relevant to these amendments. Ofqual is required to have regard to the reasonable requirements of employers and higher education institutions, the reasonable requirements of relevant learners, and information provided to them by “other relevant persons” as the Secretary of State may direct. In this instance, “relevant persons” means those with knowledge of, or expertise in, the needs of employers, by which we mean sector skills councils, the employer-led bodies which are responsible for assessing and determining the skills requirements of their sector of the economy. Because of their constitution we cannot name them in the Bill. Ofqual is also required to try and ensure that the number of regulated qualifications gives learners a reasonable level of choice without being unnecessary duplication—not too many qualifications in similar subjects or serving similar functions.
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Institutional change and simplification of the adult qualifications market was one of the key recommendations of the Leitch report on skills. Now more than ever adults must have easy access to the economically valuable skills and qualifications demanded by employers. Ofqual’s duty to avoid unnecessary duplication of qualifications will help to simplify the qualifications market in support of that imperative.
I shall start with amendment 554, which would alter Ofqual’s general duties to make it have regard principally to the interests of learners. Learners are hugely important to what Ofqual is doing, but so are employers and higher education institutions, which will be key audiences for many of the qualifications that Ofqual regulates. As a regulator, it will be part of Ofqual’s role to balance competing interests. In general, I would not expect big conflicts between those interests. However, if Ofqual faced such a conflict, it would need to be able to consider which to prioritise on the facts of the case—it should not be forced by the legislation to prioritise learners, even if there were good reasons for doing otherwise.
Amendments 413, 414, 558, 66 and 67 are all aimed at removing Ofqual’s duty to tackle unnecessary duplication of qualifications. I am worried that the amendments would allow a free-for-all of all regulated qualifications, but that is not what learners or employers need. Fundamental to the success of a qualification is that its purpose is understood by those who need to use it. An employer faced with applicants for a job who, between them, had qualifications in plumbing, applied plumbing, practical plumbing, creative plumbing and commercial plumbing would be bewildered. The employer would not know what each qualification meant or how they related to each other.
We need qualifications that are easily understood. Equally, we want to encourage a market in qualifications, promoting choice, responsiveness, innovation and value. We want different bodies to be offering that—plumbing qualifications that are clearly understood and meet the needs of those who employ plumbers, for example. Learners need a real choice between quality qualifications, not a spurious choice between qualifications with a confusing range of labels hiding the fact that they are pretty much the same thing.
Awarding bodies have had some success in voluntarily rationalising the qualifications titles on offer, but the regulator has a responsibility too. The amendments, by removing the requirement on Ofqual to have regard to that balance between choice and proliferation, would damage the effectiveness of the qualifications system for employers and, therefore, hinder our ability to meet the skills challenges we face as a nation.
I was asked what was meant by “appropriate” in subsection 126(3), and that would be something for Ofqual to consider and consult on. Too few qualifications and there would not be enough choice, too many and we have the confusion about which many employers and institutions are complaining. Ofqual will need to come to a judgment on the balance, although I expect them to consult on what that balance is.
Amendment 519 would require Ofqual to have regard to the reasonable additional requirements of persons with English as an additional language. Subsection 126(9) specifically—rightly—says that learners with English as an additional language should not automatically be taken to have a learning disability. The amendment is not necessary, because the Bill specifies in subsection (2)(b) that Ofqual should have the regard to
“the...reasonable requirements of relevant learners”—
that means all relevant learners, regardless of what language they speak at home.
If we were to single out a group of learners for mention over and above that, we would have to be confident that that could be justified—that there were good reasons, given Ofqual’s functions and objectives, to require it to have regard to that group. That test is clearly passed in relation to learners with learning disabilities. They form a large group who can present some particular issues for the qualifications and assessments systems, and we need to make sure that Ofqual is focused on meeting their needs.
However, I can see no reason to single out the needs of learners with English as an additional language, any more than, say, the needs of learners from Traveller communities, the needs of young offenders or the needs of learners who are in care. Each group may present its own challenges for Ofqual, and it will have to consider how to meet those challenges as part of its duty to have regard to the needs of all learners. By prioritising one group, we de-prioritise others and I worry that that is a bit dangerous. Unless the case is compelling, and I am not convinced that it is, we should not prioritise that group.
Amendment 9 would require Ofqual to have regard to the timing of the exam cycle and the time that awarding bodies need to develop qualifications. We do not need to write that into legislation. Throughout part 7 there are requirements on Ofqual to consult on the decisions it takes and to consider the needs of learners and potential learners. There can be no question but that it will be a listening regulator. There are many people it will need to listen to and issues it will need to bear in mind as it works out how best to do its job. Having regard to the exam cycle and how long it takes to develop the qualifications it regulates is just one of the issues that it will have to take on board and I do not think there is a reason to single it out. Making sure that awarding bodies have the time they need to prepare high-quality qualifications and that schools, colleges and the like can adequately prepare to teach for those qualifications will all be part of Ofqual performing its functions effectively—and performing its functions effectively is a duty on it under subsection (7).
Amendment 220 would require Ofqual to have regard to information provided by recognised awarding bodies. Ofqual will, of course, consult awarding bodies regularly, as I said earlier, but if the legislation required Ofqual to have regard to information provided by recognised awarding bodies this would skew the relationship between Ofqual and the bodies it is there to regulate. Of course Ofqual needs to be a fully, visibly independent regulator. As part of that, Ofqual will have to consult awarding bodies but it also needs to be detached enough from the awarding bodies to regulate them objectively, fairly and, where necessary, robustly. In any case—and this is not just true of amendment 220 but of amendment 9—we should restrict Ofqual’s general duties to the reasons for which Ofqual is regulating and what it must bear in mind in going about its functions, rather than the specific things it must do when regulating. It would undermine the independence and effectiveness of the regulator if the legislation is too prescriptive about how it should do its job rather than what it should be aiming to achieve. Amendment 140 would require Ofqual to have regard to information provided by employers and higher education institutions. We do not think that necessary. As I explained earlier, Ofqual is already under an obligation to be tuned into the needs of employers, directly and through sector skills councils, and to the needs of higher education.
To sum up, in the light of the explanations I have given, I hope the hon. Members will consider withdrawing their amendments.
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