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Mr. Gibb: If we look at any opinion poll over the past 20 years that lists the public issues of most concern, education is rarely out of the top three. There are genuine reasons for that concern: Ofsted reports, for example, that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough or that one in five 11-year-olds leave primary school still struggling with literacy.
At the same time, the curriculum has been watered down and the rigour and content of exams diminished. Much of that is driven by ideology, though not always that of the Minister and her colleagues. Often, it is driven by a child-centred John Dewey-type ideology, the dominant orthodoxy of those who have reached prominent positions in the educational establishment. The public are hugely anxious about such trends. I know of many left-of-centre journalists who, against their own principles, have taken their children out of the state sector because of such concerns. That is fine for those who can afford it, but for most people the state sector is the only option, hence people’s concerns in the opinion polls.
Elected politicians need to respond to those concerns, and need to be able to respond. We all received the letter from the Minister which, with the usual rigour and attention to detail that we have come to expect from those involved in the Committee, was dated 23 March 2009—I know it has been a long Committee, but not quite that long.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Is that how long the hon. Gentleman will keep us here?
Mr. Gibb: Perhaps.
Of course we want Ofqual to be an independent regulator. I have already set out my concerns about whether it will be independent of those who are responsible for the problems with today’s educational system and who seem determined to create more problems—those in the educational establishment who put ideology ahead of evidence of what works. We want Ofqual to be independent from ministerial interference on issues such as grade boundaries, which has always been the position of the QCA regulatory division, which would never countenance such interference. I do not believe that there ever has been such interference, either from this Government or previous Governments, but Ministers must have reserve powers to set minimum standards. In a democracy, when education is of such concern to the public, we cannot remove from Ministers every lever to effect change that would raise standards.
Mr. Laws: My understanding of the hon. Gentleman’s policy, which we were discussing earlier, is that the Conservative party is happy for good-quality state-funded schools to opt out of the national curriculum. How is that consistent with saying that there should be this degree of central direction?
Mr. Gibb: When schools opt out of a system, in a system that has plenty of surplus places and makes it easier for new schools to enter into the state sector—as set out in our policy Green Paper, “Raising the bar, closing the gap”—there would be genuine choice to allow parents to choose a school. The independent schools and independent sector are not subject to the national curriculum and, notwithstanding that, the reason that they still provide high-quality education—world class in the majority of independent schools—is because the market forces them to provide the high-quality education that parents want.
Our state education system has to date been a state-provided system that is not responsive to the needs of parents. It has no need to be. There are few surplus places and one has to go to one’s local school, or a school to which one is allocated—in theory one has a choice, but in practice most parents do not have a genuine choice of school. It is therefore important, under the current system, that schools provide a curriculum and exam system that respond to the needs of parents.
It is the role of the state to replicate the market through things such as the national curriculum. That does not mean that we want to regulate and provide detail down to the last dot and comma, but national politicians have a responsibility to ensure that public services that are directly provided by the state respond as closely as possible to the needs of parents. The only methodology through which parents can exercise such a power at present is our elected democratic process.
Mr. Laws: May I explore the hon. Gentleman’s argument further? Is he saying that he is happy for good quality state-funded schools not to have to teach Shakespeare, for example, which is an obligation under the national curriculum at present, and that such schools should not be obliged to offer qualifications that would include Shakespeare? Does he believe that such things should be left to the market and to preference?
Mr. Gibb: No, I do not take that view. The state has a very important role to play in providing examinations, and that is why we agree with the power under clause 138 for the Secretary of State to set minimum standards for assessments. If schools do not want to take up the examinations or assessments provided by the state, they will be able to turn to the marketplace. That is why the independent sector is not required to set GCSEs for schools.
We do not currently have a genuine marketplace within the state sector for school provision. If we get to a position where parents have a genuine choice—I mean a genuine choice, not a theoretical one—of schools, it would be possible to relax the system, because, given what we know from opinion polls about what parents want from schools, they would not choose a school that does not teach Shakespeare or does not provide exams.
Mr. Laws: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument about having a proper market and choice. He is saying that, even though he wants the Secretary of State to have the power outlined in clause 138 to set minimum standards—in underperforming schools perhaps, or at least until there is a market—he is willing for state-funded schools not to be obliged to teach particular authors, including Shakespeare, or to insist that students be examined on such authors through GCSEs and other qualifications.
Mr. Gibb: The hon. Gentleman talks about a theoretical position that I hope will be reached where parents have a genuine choice of schools for their children. In such circumstances, they should be able to choose. If they want a very progressive education for their children that does not require academic rigour and study, there is a case for allowing that under a system in which they can genuinely choose. We are not currently in such a position, so we need to ensure that our exam system is rigorous and has minimum standards. That is why we agree with the power that the clause gives to the Secretary of State to determine minimum requirements. The Bill does not determine maximum requirements, only minimum ones.
According to the explanatory notes, the Secretary of State’s power will be used only in exceptional circumstances and it
“does not allow the Secretary of State to make determinations relating to parts of the qualification such as grading or assessment. Such matters remain solely for Ofqual to determine.”
The notes go on to state:
“The Secretary of State intends to put in place a Memorandum of Understanding with Ofqual about the use of this power”.
Those issues were reiterated in the Under-Secretary’s letter of 14 March 2009 to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, to which the hon. Member for Yeovil also referred. The fourth paragraph of that letter states that the effect of clause 138 is in practice to limit the role of Ministers by setting out what Ministers can determine—the skills, knowledge or understanding which someone must demonstrate in order to obtain a specified qualification. It says that Ministers will not be able to decide, for example, on grading, structures, assessment methods or how standards will be maintained, and that they may express a view on these things from their policy perspective, but the final decisions will be for Ofqual.
We agree with that, but I understand the reasons behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendments, particularly amendment 5, and his general concerns, especially given that the Government are more concerned about the message than genuine reform and higher standards——nothing delivers a better message than exam results rising year on year. Although we do not support amendment 5, because I do not believe that Ministers have ever sought to interfere with grade boundaries, absolute transparency will be necessary when Ministers use the power in clause 138.
2 pm
“Would you like a GCSE in science? Don't worry, you may not need to know much science actually to get one. Last Monday, Graham Stuart, the Tory MP for Beverley and Holderness, read out to the Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families a question from a recent GCSE science paper: “A nuclear power station is to be built. (1) It will provide more employment in the area. But (2) any release of radioactive material would be very dangerous. Which of these two statements argues in favour of siting the nuclear power station in the area?”
Mr Stuart then asked if “the department is really sure that we are providing pupils with a rigorous scientific understanding?” But he was answered by Jim Knight MP, the schools minister, with “Yes. I am absolutely happy that we are, and we have set up Ofqual to provide more public reassurance.””
If we have set up Ofqual to provide that assurance, let it do so, by setting out clearly the actual knowledge required when setting pass marks and grade boundaries.
The same point applies to equivalencies. A merit in an International Therapy Examination Council diploma in tanning treatments is worth 45 points—the same as a grade A in one A-level module. Speaking at a recent seminar in London, Isabel Nisbet said that she has begun to wonder whether it really stands up against A level maths and that it seems to raise doubts about accrediting self-tanning courses as level 3 qualifications. She also said that her aide said that she chose it as an example of the tough judgments that the watchdog should make. Amendment 141 would help Ofqual to make those tough judgments and choices.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I have listened to both hon. Gentlemen with interest. Clause 138 has become something of a clause cĂ(c)lèbre, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, and I want to set out the Government’s position in light of that media interest.
I can state categorically and unashamedly that ministerial interest in the school curriculum is not only legitimate, but necessary. That position has been established since the launch of the national curriculum two decades ago. This is not a sinister new development, as some have suggested. Ministers need to be democratically accountable for the curriculum. They need to be able to stand at the Dispatch Box and explain, for example, how the curriculum is ensuring that the next generation of young adults entering the work force will have the skills that employers are looking for; how they are preparing young people to play a full part in society when they grow up; how they are developing the maths, science and foreign language skills required for future economic prosperity, and how they are passing on to the next generation the knowledge and understanding that we consider to be the rightful inheritance and entitlement of every child—our history, culture and knowledge of the world. That is a significant responsibility, and Ministers must approach it wisely. They must listen to a range of advice from the QCDA and elsewhere. They must allow teachers the space to exercise professional judgment within the requirements of the curriculum, and they must not change it too rapidly. For a Government to abandon their responsibility for the curriculum would be extraordinary.
Qualifications are closely related to the curriculum. They are an assessment of a learner’s attainments, reflecting what the learner has been taught. Qualifications can help drive and focus teaching, which is why they are so important when making educational policy. As with the curriculum, it would be extraordinary for a Government to give up any say in what qualifications should be available.
Mr. Laws: The Minister says that if, for example, she were to accept the deletion of clause 138, the Government would have to give up their powers in that respect. Under what legislation can Ministers determine the content and structure of exams?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The Secretary of State has wide-ranging powers of control under existing legislation. He has the power to give directions to the QCA on how it should exercise its functions, including its function of setting criteria for the accreditation of qualifications.
Mr. Laws: The Minister did not say that the Secretary of State has the power at the moment to determine the content or structure of exams. I presume that that is why the letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that it is a new power.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: There is a power to direct the QCA under the Education Act 1997, and the QCA is currently accountable to Ministers. That is why we say that it is not a new power.
Mr. Laws: The power to direct is in relation to what?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: As I explained, the power to direct the QCA on how it exercises its functions includes its function for setting criteria for the accreditation of qualifications.
Mary Creagh: I am listening with interest, but does the Minister share my concerns about amendment 141? It considers qualifications solely in respect of the knowledge that a person has. When I was redesigning the master of business administration course at Cranfield school of management with my colleagues, we considered knowledge, skills and ability, but is not the true test of knowledge how it is translated into action and how it is used in the workplace as well, of course, as its value in and of itself?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the my hon. Friend for her intervention. I shall come to that point later.
Mr. Laws: I grateful to the Minister for giving way; she has been most patient. I am not convinced by her earlier answer. Surely she is not going back on the statement that she made in her letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. She clearly said that there is currently no explicit statutory power to determine “such matters.”
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I refer the hon. Gentleman to section 26(1) of the Education Act 1997, which states:
“In carrying out their functions...the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority shall—(a) comply with any directions given by the Secretary of State; and (b) act in accordance with any plans approved by him”.
Those are wide-ranging powers indeed.
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