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Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the Minister for that very full response to the amendments. The hon. Member for Wakefield made a point about knowledge versus skills. Amendment 141 would not rule out criteria to assess skills, but the concern is that, over the past 10 years, the knowledge content of some of our qualifications—not all, but some—has been depleted or removed from the GCSE qualification. Ofqual agrees with us on that point, and that is why our concern is about the level of knowledge: we are not concerned about the level of skills being assessed but we are genuinely concerned, as are the public, about how much knowledge we ask our children to acquire. On many occasions, such knowledge is reduced, and that is very damaging.
Mary Creagh: I was curious about the hon. Gentleman’s use of the tanning salon as an example of something that was not equivalent to an A-level. I am sure that he is far too sensible to use a tanning salon, as are most Committee members, because of the known risks associated with skin cancer, but, given that there are such risks in a tanning salon, does he not think it appropriate that people who operate such salons have a high—a level 2 —qualification to advise their clients on the appropriate length of exposure to tanning rays and on the sunscreen factor that they should wear?
Mr. Gibb: I agree. If one goes into that industry, a qualification in self-tanning or in how to use a tanning booth is very important. The problem comes when we try to pretend that it is equivalent to a module in A-level maths. It diminishes and undermines the credibility of the vocational qualification, because everybody knows that they are not equivalent, hence the point made by Isabel Nisbet from Ofqual, who is also concerned about that. I cited Ofqual’s concern about such equivalence, and we must get away from trying to pretend that all things are the same in the pursuit of parity of esteem. Vocational qualifications, if they are high quality, of course have parity of esteem with academic qualifications, but if we pretend that they are the same as academic qualifications, we destroy the credibility of both.
Our concern is about knowledge, and I take on board the Minister’s points about amendment 233. It is already a requirement to publish any determination that the Secretary of State makes under the clause. The amendment’s purpose was to make it crystal clear that there would be transparency. However, given her assurances that there will be transparency, I am happy not to pursue either amendment to a vote.
Mr. Laws: I am also grateful to the Minister for a very detailed response, and for her usual patience in taking a large number of interventions.
I shall touch on our amendments—532, 533 and 5 —and then reflect on the wider issues raised by clause 138. The Minister said that she believes that, embedded in the Bill, is the content of amendment 5, preventing the Secretary of State from making a determination under subsection (1) on the grading or assessment of the qualifications. Perhaps it is just the time of day, but I need to reflect on that, to look carefully at her comments and see whether she is right that there is enough protection. If I feel that she has been slightly generous in her interpretation of how much protection the Bill affords, I may return to the issue.
Amendment 532 would include a provision on the power being used in exceptional circumstances. I was not convinced by the Minister’s arguments on that. We can point to many other parts of the Bill in which general directions or powers are granted that are far vaguer and more difficult to pin down than the words “exceptional circumstances”, which are, after all, used very carefully in the explanatory notes. However, I will press that amendment and divide the Committee later, because it is crucial to how these powers will be used.
2.30 pm
I should like to reflect a bit on some of the wider issues to do with the extent to which politicians should be able to interfere in the contents of examinations. In spite of the Minister’s suggestion that, in some way, there are already powers that allow interference by the back door through the QCA, she confirmed in her letter to the Committee that there is currently no explicit statutory power to determine such matters, which appears to bolster the back-door powers that there may already be. Regardless of whether those powers exist or not, there is an issue of principle about whether politicians should be able to interfere in the ways that the Minister anticipated in her evidence session, when she mentioned that Shakespeare should, in her view, be part of an English language GCSE as an obligation imposed by the Secretary of State. We heard a contrasting view from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, although I accept that he was explaining what would happen in a world with more choice in the education market.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Is it the view of the hon. Gentleman and his party that our school children should not study Shakespeare?
Mr. Laws: No. I will explain in one second how my view differs from the Minister’s—
Jim Knight: In one second? We will hold you to that.
Mr. Laws: In a few moments. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to stay in the Committee Room to hear me.
I was about to explain the three different positions on this matter. Clearly, I need to do so in more detail than I had initially anticipated. One extreme view, which is interesting, coming from the Conservative party—although I accept the proviso of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that this would happen when there was more of a market in education—is that in an ideal world there should be, even for maintained schools, no national curriculum that is as prescriptive as the one that the Government want, which would determine that Shakespeare must be in the English curriculum, for example. I think that he was also saying that in this world of greater choice and freedom in state-funded education, an obligation on the Secretary of State to insist that the examinations embedded Shakespeare, for example, would also not be needed. In his ideal world, he would no longer prescribe what the Minister seeks to prescribe, either in the national curriculum or in the qualifications that youngsters have to take.
Mr. Gibb: But we are living in a world, today, in which Ofsted says that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough. While that situation persists—I expect that it will persist for some time—there needs to be a considerable degree of prescription to ensure that, through the national curriculum and our exam system, schools are providing the kind of education that parents require.
Mr. Laws: Yes, I register that point, but even in the discussions in the Select Committee there is a wide range of views about how the national curriculum should develop. Conservative party policy nationally is that academy schools should be able to opt out of the national curriculum. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s perfect world would take a period of time to evolve, but he is saying, helpfully and in a principled way, that his vision is that the maintained sector—in future, when standards have risen and the choice is there—would be able to operate in the same way as the independent sector, so there would be no need for a prescriptive national curriculum and no need for such prescriptiveness in the examinations.
Mr. Gibb: Of course, in that world schools would be teaching Shakespeare and a rigorous academic curriculum, including the three separate sciences and good maths and literacy. That is the ultimate aim of all Committee members, is it not?
Mr. Laws: I suspect that that is probably so and I would be surprised if the schools were not doing that, but the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants schools to be free to do so or not to do so. They might decide that Chaucer is very important and select examinations in which other key authors who are named in the national curriculum are specified, such as Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Bronte, H. G. Wells or Wordsworth. There is no obligation to cover any of those authors in qualifications at the moment. The hon. Gentleman thinks that schools would do that, but acknowledges that parental choice would also be influential. Parents might want a school that does not teach some of those subjects. It is a logical consequence of his policy that some schools might not cover Shakespeare in their curriculum and might chose qualifications that do not cover him.
On the other hand, the Minister wants not only to prescribe through the national curriculum, but has made it clear that she wants the Secretary of State to have the power to direct that particular authors should be covered in qualifications. That is an extraordinary degree of direction. The Minister has cited Shakespeare as if it is obvious that he should always be covered in English examinations. By picking out Shakespeare, she has left out a long list of authors who presumably she does not believe need to be covered in English examinations. [Interruption.] She is pooh-poohing that from a sedentary position, but her implicit position is that Shakespeare should have special status, whereas Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Hardy, Keats, Wordsworth, Wells—I could read out lots of other names if you want me to, Mrs. Humble—do not have the same status. The Minister is quite happy to jettison them all and leave them to the devices of the national curriculum and schools.
Mr. Gibb: Far be it from me to come to the Minister’s defence, but is it not the case that the former Secretary of State intervened because there was a danger that Shakespeare would be removed and would not be taught in schools? There was no evidence that those other authors were not being taught. He intervened to tackle the specific problem that Shakespeare would not be taught in some schools because it was difficult, whereas those other authors probably would have been taught.
Mr. Laws: Really? Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that all those schools that were not teaching Shakespeare were teaching Chaucer, Blake and Dickens? I very much doubt it.
In any case, the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Secretary of State would determine such things if his reforms were accepted. Under his model, the market would decide through parental preference. He will have to accept that some parents might prefer not to have some authors on the list.
The issue of authors and English examinations seems relatively simple in comparison to history. So far, we have not tempted the Minister to indicate which parts of British or foreign history she thinks should be obligatory for the GCSE. I will give way happily if she wishes to pick any out. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that she will not pick out the bits of history that should be covered in the GCSE examination. The Secretary of State will have that power under the clause. He could decide tomorrow morning that particular parts of British history should be included in the history examination. He could specify that the history of the labour movement should be covered in the examination. We could have that degree of political control.
As the Minister asked for it earlier, my view is that it is reasonable to have a minimum curriculum that sets out the key expectations, but that it is unreasonable and unnecessary to embed that curriculum in the examinations system. It is not necessary for Ministers to micro-manage the curriculum to that extraordinary degree. Anyone who is interested in this matter can look at the long list of authors in the national curriculum who are regarded as an acceptable part of the English literary heritage. Goodness knows whether Ministers have approved that list or been involved in who is included or who is taken out. There is also a list of contemporary writers. Goodness knows which Ministers were involved in selecting Jennifer Donnelly, John Fowles and Susan Hill to be part of that approved list.
In her comments on the structure of examinations, she mentioned that she might want these powers where Ofqual or the exam boards were refusing to deliver what Ministers wanted. That is rather telling about an attitude to the examinations system, and perhaps the curriculum as well, and it is extremely top down. This is about what Ministers think is right for children throughout the country. They are qualifications that Ministers pick and it reflects back on our earlier debate about whether there should be a market in qualifications where the wishes of schools, parents and youngsters themselves should be influential in determining what qualifications are taken up, or whether this is a really top-down process where Ministers pick and choose qualifications and try to shunt the qualifications framework in a particular direction. When Ministers do that they are often extremely unsuccessful. Indeed, in the past 30 years, successive Governments have promoted vocational qualifications that have no traction, credibility or a value in the market.
Mr. Walker: I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I also have some sympathy for the Government’s position, which is hard to have. What would happen if some school, some governing body or some qualification agency took it upon itself to have a one-year module in Barbara Cartland? Surely we would expect some form of intervention to stop that and to ensure that Barbara Cartland did not squeeze out William Shakespeare.
Mr. Laws: Under the system I am suggesting there would still be a national curriculum. It is under the system that his party is suggesting, albeit at some stage in the future, that that complete free-for-all would evolve. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton told us that he believes that the best schools should be able to opt out not only from qualifications prescribed by the Secretary of State, but from the national curriculum. Indeed, I think the Conservative party says that already in relation to academies. So that really is a question that is best addressed to his own Front Bench.
I fear that I have not yet persuaded the Minister, and I may have exhausted both the Committee and the argument. I will want to return to the wider issues at a later date, but I would like to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 10.
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