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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Thatcher, Richard Ward, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
‘or the governing body or proprietor of an Academy’.
Bore da, Mr Williams. For the sake of posterity, I record for Hansard that it is a beautiful sunny morning and, as ever, we are all slaving away indoors on the Bill. We have reached clause 20, on the requirement for schools to participate in international surveys.
This is a probing amendment about the Minister’s intentions on academies. The clause will give new powers to direct community, voluntary or foundation schools to participate in international surveys, and we will have the opportunity to talk about that proposal at length when we discuss the next amendment. But we seek absolute clarity on the Government’s intentions, given that the clause makes no reference to academies. For any survey to have the chance to give an accurate picture of educational performance in the country, a representative sample of academies must participate. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why he has not included academies in the clause, and how he will compel them to participate.
The amendment would extend that power to academies, and I fully understand its rationale. I reassure the hon. Member for Cardiff West that academies will participate in international education surveys through the mechanism
Mr Gibb: Unfortunately, they have to be academies that have such a requirement in their funding agreement. The hon. Gentleman hints at the fact that academies created under the previous Administration will not have that provision in their funding agreement. If he looks at the participation of academies in 2009, he will find a high rate of participation: of the nine academies drawn in the sample, eight participated. One did not, which is not good. However, although the proportion of community, voluntary and foundation schools that participated is slightly lower, the numbers are alarming in absolute terms: of the 168 drawn in the sample, only 146 participated in the scheme, which means that a large number of maintained schools did not participate. Although the proportions between participation rates for academies and for foundation, voluntary and community schools are broadly similar, the fact that all new academies will have such a requirement in the funding agreement will tackle that small problem with academies. The main issue we have to address in the clause is with maintained schools.
Kevin Brennan: That highlights a small problem—I accept it is small—with the Government’s approach. They want to capture all schools, including academies, but they are not able to do so, because they are not legislating to require all academies to participate. They are therefore accepting that that can be achieved only through the funding agreement, but existing academies will not have that requirement in their funding agreement and therefore will not have to participate. I do not want to prolong the discussion, but it would be sensible for the Minister to try to seek a solution if he wants all schools to participate in surveys. If it is so important, it should be all schools and it should be funded by the state. It should not be some schools. Even if it is a small number—a minority—a significant part of the state sector would not be participating.
‘538B Power to publish information following requirement to participate in international surveys
The Secretary of State shall have the power to publish information resulting from section 538A (Power to direct schools to participate in international surveys) provided that the UK Statistics Authority has approved any statement or report to be issued by the Secretary of State as providing statistically robust information about England school performance.’
The amendment requires a health check on the way in which the Secretary of State uses any data produced by compulsory participation in international surveys, which the Government have introduced in this clause. Why might that be required? Why would we need to ensure a health check on the Government’s—particularly this Secretary of State’s—use of such statistics? Frankly, because of his record of misusing and selectively quoting statistics. Let us look, for example, at how the Secretary of State made use of statistics in his speech on Second Reading. He quoted a set of statistics that he said showed:
That is a puerile and ridiculous assertion for a Secretary of State for Education to make, and obviously not true, although that did not stop him making such an assertion in the House. It was puerile and superficial. [ Interruption. ] I think I can say that. I am not accusing him of anything unparliamentary. He then quoted from the OECD survey programme for international student assessment, otherwise known as the PISA survey. He said:
It is totally misleading for anyone to quote out of context the UK’s raw rankings in figures between 2000 and 2009, when the number of countries taking the PISA tests dramatically expanded over that time.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I am very interested in this. I have heard the hon. Gentleman talk about it before. If I am in a race and I get the gold medal, and then a new engine enters the race and beats me, should I still get the gold medal?
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. It is a little like looking at the rankings in the English Premier League. I do not know what team the hon. Gentleman supports—I do not think that Bedford has a team in the Premier League. Times have changed since 1997, when not one Conservative represented a constituency with a football league club in it, but we have moved on from those halcyon days. If the Premier League in England, Serie A in Italy and the Bundesliga in Germany were combined, and instead of finishing in the top 10 of the premiership in one year, the very next year we finished lower down the table of the three championships combined, that does not suggest that the quality of our play had declined. It simply means that more teams are playing in the league, so it is utterly irrelevant. He can win his gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, but if he does not win at the Olympics, it does not mean he is any worse an athlete.
The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): I do not want to take us too far into this footballing metaphor, Mr Williams, because you would not want us to do that. Nevertheless, we are competing, not in a national competition, but in a world competition. We are in the world cup. Our students—the young people who come from our schools—are in
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not my point. No one is disagreeing that we seek to compete on international terms; I am simply pointing out how the Secretary of State, with smoke and mirrors, has tried to suggest that this definitively indicates a decline in the quality of education in this country, which it does not, for the reasons that I gave in a multi-sports metaphor on the Olympics, the Bundesliga, Serie A and the premiership.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The hon. Gentleman claims that what the Secretary of State said was untrue and that everything he has said has shown that that is not the case. What the hon. Gentleman has just said is not true. He has said that the Secretary of State said that absolute standards have fallen, but it was relative standards that fell. The whole point of having standings is to be able to compare with elsewhere. When we drop down to 24th on the PISA table—which was set up to give a picture of where we sit internationally—we should take that seriously. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman, who is committed to trying to make a difference to our children’s education, not least in a competitive world, would want to play such pernickety games to get Labour off the hook for not getting the results that we all devoutly wish they had.
Kevin Brennan: I am not playing pernickety games. I will come on to illustrate why the hon. Gentleman, despite his distinguished chairmanship of the Education Committee, is himself not giving the full picture in his intervention. In addition, the OECD, which is responsible for compiling the statistics, has said that comparing the UK’s results between 2000 and 2009 is not statistically valid. The OECD has said that—not me. With this clause, the Minister may be trying to overcome the problems with sampling in 2000. There was not a statistically valid sample from this country in 2000. The Secretary of State chose not to mention that in his comments on Second Reading, although perhaps I am being unfair to the Secretary of State, as the Chair of the Education Committee has said. If PISA is the only credible international evidence available to us, the Secretary of State had nothing else to call upon in making his arguments.
Obviously, being the Secretary of State, and wishing to give full picture, he would quote all the international evidence from all credible surveys in his comments on Second Reading. From that, we might presume that PISA is the only international evidence that is available. Except, of course, that is not true. As we know, from a snippet towards the end of the Secretary of State’s speech, there is another significant international study, which he made a quick passing reference to and then moved on, conveniently choosing to ignore its findings.
The other major international testing study, which was not cited, presents an entirely different picture for England than the PISA study. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which is better known as the TIMS study and which has been going longer than PISA, last reported in 2007. It showed that between
Mr Stuart: I have asked a question before in this Committee to which I did not know the answer, and barristers say people should not lead with their chin. Is the hon. Gentleman’s Serie A analogy the correct one? Are the countries that have been added truly world-leading or are they more northern premier? Which countries have been added to the list?
Kevin Brennan: I do not have the full list in front of me; I should have brought it with me—that is good point. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to traduce those countries without knowing which they are. I shall go on to cite some of the countries that this country has done better than in that measure of international performance.
As I have said, we might have thought that the Secretary of State, as the manager of our team in this sporting event, which the Government are so keen to talk about, would have wanted to brag about our performance in the, shall we say, Europa league, or champions league—whichever one it is. He is a bit like Alex Ferguson on the BBC as far as this matter is concerned, we do not hear him say anything at all.
Kevin Brennan: Exactly. As the hon. Gentleman says, we do not hear him say anything, because he chooses not to speak to the BBC. Similarly, the Secretary of State chooses not to speak about the TIMS survey.
The most recent round of TIMS brought more good news relating to the other tests. So that I am not accused of quoting selectively, in secondary maths, England was the joint third most improved of 20 countries over the 1995 to 2007 period, rising from 11th out of 20, to seventh out of 49 in the table. In science, the country was seventh most improved out of 16 in primary, its ranking moving from sixth out of 20 countries in 1995, to seventh out of 36 in 2007. It was the fifth most improved out of 19 in secondary, its ranking improving from seventh to fifth between those two years, even though the number of countries taking part had increased from 19 to 49.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): This is a very interesting discussion, but the important thing is that we are ensuring that schools and this country participate. We must take a serious and much harder look at the methodologies of such measures to ensure that we get it right—that is the progressive step. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to defend the record of his Government. Perhaps we can take his position as read and move on.
Kevin Brennan: I am speaking to my amendment, which aims to ensure that the Secretary of State is called to account by the independent UK Statistics Authority that was set up by the previous Government. It was set up for the very purpose of ensuring that Ministers—we, in government, in fact—and future Governments were called to account for the way in which they use statistics. I am simply helping the Committee by providing it with information, which the Secretary of State neglected to do on Second Reading. I hope such information is of interest to the Committee.
I take on board what the Chair of the Select Committee has said about my not having the full list of countries in the tests. Nevertheless, in the 2007 science tests, in primary, English pupils finished ahead of countries including the United States, Germany, Australia, and Sweden. We do not hear much about Sweden from the Secretary of State since it has dropped down the PISA tables after introducing free schools. In secondary, English pupils we were ahead of those countries plus Russia, Hong Kong and Norway. Why did the Secretary of State say, on Second Reading, that the PISA statistics were ungainsayable? I remind the hon. Gentleman that “ungainsayable” was the word used.
On Second Reading, towards the end of his remarks, the Secretary of State said that he could not find anything to celebrate in children’s achievements in our schools. Perhaps he did not want to find anything to celebrate; why else would he have ignored the findings of one of the studies that he is now legislating, in the clause, to compel our schools to participate in? In those remarks, in every other speech he has made, including to the world education forum earlier this year, and in the articles he has written on the subject he has chosen to completely ignore the evidence. That one-eyed selection of international evidence even formed the basis for the Government’s impact assessment for the Bill.
There is no mention of the alternative picture reflected by TIMSS, which is ironic, given that TIMSS is a closer test of pure curricular knowledge of the sort about which the Secretary of State often enthuses, in that it is more traditional in its approach and testing methods
Mr Stuart: The hon. Gentleman makes a clever case, and I understand, politically, why he wishes to do so. None the less, PISA is the preeminent international record. Any comparison tables will have some challenges, especially given the different nature of curricula in different countries, and if other countries join the assessment, statistically we are not comparing like with like. Nevertheless, PISA is the preeminent measure, and it suggests a worrying lack of progress by this country. Will the shadow Minister at least accept that?
Kevin Brennan: I do not accept that PISA is the preeminent measure; the TIMSS tests have equal status, and certainly that is why the Government are legislating for TIMSS as well as for PISA. PISA is, nevertheless, an important study. We know that if we put too heavy a weight on some of the measures, we ignore some important statistical facts—the hon. Member for North Cornwall made a point about that. Ofqual is doing work on that issue at the moment, and it cited the King’s college study in its recent report. Ofqual wrote to the TES last week, saying that King’s college had made those statements, but it did not deny what the college was saying.
Anyone here who is of the Catholic persuasion—I know that one or two Members are—will understand the concept of cardinal sins; unfortunately the Secretary of State does not understand the concept of cardinal and ordinal numbers, despite his desire to talk about tables. The point is not where we rank in the tables but what our performance is, and, as statisticians and people involved in comparisons will tell us, as will Ofqual when it reports, often the difference in movement in the tables is statistically much smaller than the ranking shifts suggest. A mature debate about that would reflect the fact that it is ironic that we are talking about testing in maths when people do not know the difference between an ordinal number and a cardinal one.
Mr Stuart: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is missing the point. I am reminded of an occasion when I went to Manila and met the cardinal archbishop, but I met Rosales rather than Cardinal Sin. Like him, I narrowly missed the key point.
Mr Hayes: I do not want to embarrass the hon. Gentleman, but he clearly has not got a sure grasp of pecking orders, as he has just shown. That might apply to his assessment of schools and their performance, too. His amendments would have a wide effect and they would certainly affect statistics on vocational education. Given that he is my predecessor in respect of the management of work and skills, perhaps he could say a word about the Lord Leitch report, which the previous Government commissioned, and what that said about our comparative performance on skills and what our schools do to feed those skills?
Kevin Brennan: I can see that the Minister is keen to keep his pecker up in terms of the pecking order in Committee. Of course, the Leitch report was an indictment of many years of failure to provide basic skills to people, particularly in literacy and numeracy. A vast remedial programme was put in place to try to improve that. There was some success—although more so in literacy than numeracy. That is a more difficult nut to crack because it is sometimes almost unfashionable—sorry, that is the wrong phrase. It is perhaps not acceptable socially for someone to admit that they cannot read, which creates particular problems in dealing with adult literacy. However, sometimes people happily say, “I’m no good at maths” and accept that that is the way it has to be, which is not the case. That is a serious point. My amendment would not do what the hon. Gentleman is saying; it would simply create a bit of a health test in relation to anything that comes out of the Secretary of State’s mouth about statistics.
Richard Fuller: The hon. Gentleman was talking about maths and English, but reasoning and rationality are important as well. I have done some research on that. He was making the point about PISA studies in his metaphor that it is as though we are adding football teams from Serie A, the Bundesliga and so on. I did some research about which countries have been added. Which of the following countries would appear, as he would say, in the Bundesliga or the premiership? [ Interruption. ] There are plenty of choices. For example, Azerbaijan was added. Is that important? The Kazakh Republic was added. Is that a country we ought to be falling down behind? Other countries are Serbia, Moldova, the Kyrgyz Republic, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. There are other countries if hon. Members wish to hear them. Those countries do not seem to relate to the premiership teams that he would say are a fair comparison.
Kevin Brennan: I think the hon. Gentleman referred to PISA rather than TIMSS. The point is that even if no countries had been added to the TIMSS table, this country still would have gone up. I am not claiming, as the Secretary of State does, that one international survey is the definitive answer. I am just saying that if such things are going to be quoted, the full picture should be given. The Secretary of State deliberately chose not to do that.
Richard Fuller: With respect, we are making these points because the hon. Gentleman said that the Secretary of State said something that was untrue. He then tried to use a metaphor to buttress that strong assertion. His metaphor and argument are falling down because the
Kevin Brennan: I do not think it is falling down at all, because if they had not been added to the table, we would have gone up anyway. That makes absolutely no difference to my argument. If we delve more deeply, we might find other examples. As I pointed out, in the TIMSS tables we are rising above a lot of countries that the Secretary of State sometimes quotes as being higher than us in other tables.
The point is that the PISA tables and the TIMSS tables use their own methodologies. As I mentioned, the TIMSS tables use more traditional methodologies, which the Secretary of State favours elsewhere. This country does well in respect of TIMSS. I am afraid it was the Secretary of State who did not give the full picture. I have accepted that PISA is an important international comparator. We will hear in a moment whether the Minister accepts that TIMSS is. If he does not, he should say in the clause that TIMSS is not statistically valid and therefore he will not compel our schools to participate in it. If he thinks it is rubbish, he should not be compelling our schools to participate in wasting their time.
Kevin Brennan: I am sure the Minister will do that for us in a moment. I am illustrating the Secretary of State’s approach and what he cited in evidence for the Bill. It was his job to give us the full picture.
Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): In 30 minutes, we have committed the mortal sin of combining politics, religion and football in one debate, and I also know where I stand in the pecking order in the Committee.
Stephen McPartland: Does the hon. Member for Cardiff West agree that we all want our children to have access to the best education system in the world? Every single one of the surveys he reported on has demonstrated that that is not currently the case, so we need reform.
Kevin Brennan: I have a higher opinion of the hon. Gentleman than the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who implied that he might be the Azerbaijan at the table—not that there is anything wrong with Azerbaijan, in case we get into trouble with the Foreign Office.
We can all share the need to improve our education system, but the debate about doing so should be based more rationally on the evidence available, rather than on the Secretary of State picking and choosing selectively,
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I probably know as much about education as anyone in the room, but I freely admit that I know nothing about the standards of children in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or Serbia. The point is that were I to quote any of that, I would first check the facts and the evidence, which my hon. Friend is saying that the Secretary of State has not done.
Returning to the Secretary of State’s contribution on Second Reading, and in illustration of just how confused he is on such things, he went on: “How can a country”—[ Interruption. ] Mr Williams, have a listen to what he said.
“How can a country that is now 28th in the world for mathematics expect to be the home of the Microsofts, the Googles and the Facebooks of the future?”—[Official Report, 8 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 167.]
Had he checked, he would have found that the USA, the home of Microsoft, Google and Facebook, finished below the UK in the PISA maths tests. That country has a pretty mediocre record in the PISA statistical ranks.
We have seen, therefore, that we cannot trust the Secretary of State to be straight with the statistics. We need his statements to be checked by the neutral statistics watchdog that the Labour Government set up.
Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Interestingly, Microsoft, Google and Facebook are all information and communications technology companies, but ICT is not even included in the English bac. Why does the Secretary of State believe that those subjects are important if they are not included in the English bac?
Mr Gibb: This has been an interesting and entertaining debate, but it would be more illuminating to look at the facts and figures. First of all, the hon. Member for Cardiff West is confusing problems relating to the PISA surveys. He is confusing the 2000 survey with the 2003 survey, which we have not cited. In PISA 2000, England failed to reach minimum school participation rates, but because the pupil participation rate was met the OECD
It is interesting to note that Ministers at the time were very keen to cite the PISA 2000 survey results. I remember Schools Ministers and the then Secretary of State citing them and I will go on to quote the permanent secretary at the time, who was also keen to cite them.
In response to those issues, the previous Government commissioned the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute at the university of Southampton to investigate the school and pupil samples for England, in order to look more closely into possible bias in both the 2000 and 2003 samples for PISA. The institute’s subsequent report concluded that the impact of possible bias on the position of England and the UK in any ranking of OECD countries was very slight and estimated that it would only have shifted England’s position by about one place in 2000.
“For those doubters who constantly seek to run down (our education success), we now have the OECD/PISA study – the biggest ever international study of comparative performance of 15-year-olds in 32 countries – which shows UK fourth in science, seventh in literacy and eighth in maths. Only Finland and Canada are consistently ahead of the UK – and major countries like Germany, Italy and Spain are well behind”.
When we look at international surveys, it is important that we look at all of them and take them as a whole. The hon. Member for Cardiff West, the shadow Minister, failed to cite the progress in international reading literacy study, which is a reading and literacy survey, in which we dropped from third to 16th between 2001 and 2006. When the PISA survey, the PIRLS survey and the trends in international mathematics and science study survey are all taken together it is quite clear that there is a problem with us internationally. If we look at the 2009 PISA survey—
Kevin Brennan: The Minister just said that when the TIMSS survey is taken with the other surveys it is quite clear that there is a problem. Can he just explain what problem the TIMSS survey is revealing?
Mr Gibb: Yes, I will. In the TIMSS survey, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan are all above us in the maths survey for 14-year-olds, as indeed is Hungary, which was sixth. Indeed, those first five countries are not just above us; they are significantly above us and there is a gap between them and Hungary in sixth place. England is in seventh place. Taiwan scored 598, Korea scored 597 and Singapore scored 593. We then come down to Hungary, which scored 517, and England, which scored 513. That is the problem. In China, which is represented by Shanghai in the PISA 2009 survey, 15-year-olds are two years ahead of 15-year-olds in this country in maths. That is the problem that we are trying to confront.
Kevin Brennan: The Minister has not cited any of the countries that are below us in the TIMSS survey. Also, if Shanghai alone is chosen from China to illustrate the point, does he not accept that it gives a very skewed picture of the reality of the level of attainment in China? I do not dispute that we should not do all we can to improve our performance overall. I am just asking the Minister to tell the Committee why the Secretary of State made no mention of TIMSS in his speech on Second Reading.
Mr Gibb: We have limited time for those speeches. The hon. Gentleman did not cite PIRLS in his speech. Of course, one wants to present the case as well as one can, but looking at TIMSS properly and forensically, the same problems that the Secretary of State referred to on Second Reading are revealed there too. On the figures for children at age 14, between major competitor countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, and the countries below them. The hon. Gentleman asked me to cite countries that were below England. They include the Russian Federation, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Armenia, Scotland, which came 17th in that survey, Serbia, Italy and Malaysia. Clearly, there are a lot of countries below us in the TIMSS survey, but our concern is the gap. Even the most favourable survey that he wishes to cite reveals severe problems in the gap between this country and our major competitors.
The same applies in the TIMSS survey for children aged 10. Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Kazakhstan, which came fifth in that survey, and the Russian Federation all scored above England. The top four—Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan—scored significantly higher than this country. That is what we are trying to deal with.
Mark Hendrick: Just to be helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West, Shanghai has a population of 20 million people, and China has a population of 1.3 billion people. The population of Shanghai is comparable to most countries in the European Union, so it is quite reasonable to use Shanghai as a comparator.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that honest contribution. However, looking at the PISA survey, Shanghai, China is at the top. As the hon. Gentleman says, it has a population of about a third of the size of this country. Then comes Singapore, then Hong Kong, China, whose score is 555, Korea, Chinese Taipei with 543, Finland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands and Macau, China with 525. Here are the problems. We have not yet reached England in the PISA survey, and all those countries are our major competitors. We have to do better if we want our school leavers and graduates to be able to compete in a global jobs market with those countries.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): It is perfectly possible for all of us—we are all politicians, so we all do it—to look and quote selectively, but we are actually talking about children and teachers in schools who are working hard and improving the way they do things, and getting better over time. We do no one any good when politicians bandy things around between themselves as if those things really show the day-to-day
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady makes a good point. There is no question but that young people today are working extremely hard in schools, and there is a case to be made that they are working harder than ever—harder than we had to work at school. Teachers too are working hard to deliver a good education for children in their care.
This has been an honest debate. We have cited all the available surveys and we seen the figures presented to us, and the problem that we have to examine is why it is that despite the effort, the net effect of all the surveys is that we are declining in international rankings. That is a serious concern, and we have to start to look at what is in the curriculum and in our exam system, and what it is about the system that is being forced on teachers that leads to children of the same age group in places such as Shanghai, China being two years ahead of us in maths, compared with 15-year-olds in this country.
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is a well-educated man. He knows that we cannot put the statistics all together in that way, shuffle them all and take an average. He knows that statistically that is utterly invalid, and that the King’s college report cited by Ofqual in its recent report said that
“is not that meaningful, partly because the absolute differences in scores between countries are not that great and partly because the constituent group of comparators changes from study to study and from year to year. Overall, and over time, England’s performance is not that worrisome.”
Mr Gibb: I never said that is what we should do; I said we should take a balanced look at all the surveys. I find things to worry about in the TIMSS survey, and I worry about the absolute figures. The hon. Gentleman’s quote stated that the absolute figures did not differ that much. In the TIMSS survey they do not differ much in England, where there is a clustering around the figure 513. However, there is an enormous gap between the first five in that survey, and the next batch down that includes Hungary, England, Russia, the USA, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. That goes from Hungary’s score of 517 to between 570 and 598 for the top five countries. That concern is reflected again in the PISA survey, where Shanghai, China, has a mean score of 600, compared with England’s mean score of 493. That constitutes two years of study and achievement, and we are trying to address that concern.
That is the point. Standards in our education system may have been maintained or even improved slightly, but compared with our international competitors we are declining. Even taking into account the fact that more countries have joined the PISA survey, we are still in decline over that period.
Mr Stuart: It is not fair to say that this matter has not been talked about in context, although all politicians tend to be a little selective in their arguments. The real context of our education performance is the massive increase in expenditure in our education system that took place over the first decade of the 21st century, and the fact that the gap between rich and poor has widened. I know that the whole House and all members of the Committee are committed to creating a fairer society in which opportunity and outcome are not determined by where a person is born. This debate is in the context of the widening gap between rich and poor, and massive investment, but yet there is stagnation. It is right for Ministers in the new Government to implement reforms, and to feel a certain level of indignation at our failure to do more until now.
Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Problems highlighted by the PISA survey included the wide gap between the top and bottom in our education system, the growing tale of underachievement and the huge gap in equality in our system. We come 55th out of 57 countries in terms of equality of system, and we have the biggest attainment gap between the maintained sector and the independent sector of most OECD countries. When those issues are taken together, the international surveys reveal a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. That is what the Secretary of State is seeking to do.
The amendment would require the UK Statistics Authority to approve, before it is published, any statement or report from the Secretary of State resulting from England’s participation in international surveys. The UK Statistics Authority’s main function is to provide international scrutiny of all UK statistics. It already has the power to monitor and comment on any statistics produced by the Secretary of State, but it is not within the remit of the authority to approve statements and reports before they are issued. The amendment would place a new function on the authority.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern to ensure that statements published by the Department make robust use of data and statistics. I assure the Committee that the Department works closely with data suppliers to promote data standards and robust system development. Thorough guidance is provided to ensure consistent interpretation and data quality indicators, and areas of improvement are fed back to data suppliers to enhance the quality of future collections. Specialist statisticians support the Department in using the data effectively. It is not a requirement for any other statements or reports issued by the Secretary of State or the Department of Education to be pre-approved and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that it is not necessary in this case and that he will withdraw his amendment.
Kevin Brennan: We have had an interesting debate and we have helped to put on the record some of the things that the Secretary of State did not wish to be on the record in the course of the Bill. I understand the Minister’s point about the UK Statistics Authority, but I hope that this has served as a useful shot across the bows of the Secretary of State.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does my hon. Friend believe that his amendment might have stood more chance of success if it had referred to an entity called the office for statistical responsibility, or some such thing that might be more to the taste of the coalition? While the Minister has assured us that the use by the Secretary of State of statistics that come from the survey will be statistically sound, has anybody sought to address the issue of who will decide the sampling and on what basis the sampling will be decided for the use of this power by the Secretary of State to direct schools to participate in surveys?
Kevin Brennan: On the second point, as I understand it, schools are requested by the organisations that compile these—the OECD in the case of PISA, for example—and until now it has not been a compulsion for them, so they decide the sample and are responsible for ensuring that it is statistically valid. The clause simply means that they cannot turn down participation in a survey. In that sense I do not necessarily share his concerns, but even though he is a member of another party, we should have involved him in helping us to draft our amendment; it might have been more effective had we used the term “office for statistical responsibility”. That might have tickled the Minister’s fancy and he might have felt able to accept it.
Mr Stuart: The shadow Minister mentioned earlier that the Secretary of State, on Second Reading, said that there was nothing to celebrate in the performance of children in our schools. I was shocked by that and thought that, if he had said that, it was regrettable, so I looked up the Second Reading and I may have the wrong reference, but in response to an intervention by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr. Blunkett), he says:
He regretted that there was not more to celebrate; he did not say that there was nothing to celebrate. I know that the shadow Minister is a man who will want to make sure that he got it right for the record.
Kevin Brennan: It is not rubbish, as the PPS says from a sedentary position with his usual loquacious eloquence. “Rubbish” he shouted out. It is not rubbish because that is the whole point. He said that he had nothing else
“The only way in which we can hope to compete effectively is not just by educating a minority to a high level, but by utilising the innate talent of every child, and that is what the measures in this Education Bill will do”.—[Official Report, 8 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 167.]
Kevin Brennan: I say “Hear, hear” as well to the innate talent of the children in this country. What the Secretary of State did not do was celebrate their achievements. He seemed to suggest that with all this innate talent, none of them was achieving anything, because he failed to quote the TIMS survey. He was trying to say that because we are 28th in the PISA table for maths there would never be any Microsofts, Googles or Facebooks in this country. But the USA did worse than us in the PISA table so that does not work logically. The Secretary of State cannot get away with it. Given the Minister’s remarks and the desire to make progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Dan Rogerson: We have had a wide-ranging debate and I am grateful to you, Mr Williams, for the opportunity to say a little more about the clause. If the Government had not put it in the heart of the Bill we probably would not be debating the importance of these international standards, whichever ones we use. Clearly there needs to be close statistical analysis of all these things but the important thing is that we also reflect our real success in this country with inclusive education. We try to ensure that we bring forward all children and develop the talents of all children, whereas in some other countries they focus on certain pupils and push them forward. I accept that we need to look at these measures but we should ensure that when we evaluate all these things our successes with inclusion are reflected.
Kevin Brennan: May I put on record our support for his point about the need to be careful to ensure that test results are not skewed in any way by the fact that we try to be inclusive in making provision for those with special needs to participate in exams? It is a pertinent point that he makes.
Dan Rogerson: I am delighted to have given way to the hon. Gentleman. I know that this is something that the Secretary of State and the Minister and all colleagues in the Department take very seriously. I thought that it would be useful to outline that point and make absolutely clear our tradition of developing all those talents, which the Minister mentioned earlier and the Secretary of State referred to on Second Reading, and that those successes—I am sure in future they will be even greater—should be reflected.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution to this clause stand part debate. One of the overriding objectives of our education policy is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier backgrounds and those from poorer backgrounds. That drives everything we are doing in education, whether it is the English bac or the pupil premium where we are increasing the funding for schools for children from poorer families—£430 per pupil this year, rising to £2.5 billion by 2014. This is a significant contribution to closing that attainment gap. We are also introducing measures in league tables that will evaluate the performance of schools in helping children from challenging backgrounds or with special needs. All these issues are vital and an important Government objective.
My hon. Friend will have seen the recent Green Paper “Support and Aspiration” published by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). Therein lies the kernel of some very effective policies to help children with special educational needs.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): In fact, of course, the most important thing is that every single child should be measured for their progress wherever possible. We should not just rely on academic qualifications. The most important thing is that those with special needs, those who are on that borderline of D to C, and those who are bright—every single child, whatever their capacity—should be pushed to their full potential.
Mr Gibb: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The floor standard figures published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State already include, for the first time, a progress measure. That measure is not simply the raw attainment of 35% achieving five or more GCSEs A* to C, including English and Maths; they must be above average in terms of progress as well, and that is the right approach to assessing the performance of our schools.
Mr Gibb: The clause gives effect to schedule 6, which provides for the position of chief regulator of qualifications and examinations to be held by the chief executive of Ofqual, rather than the chair. Under the provisions, the post of chief regulator will continue to be appointed by Her Majesty by Order in Council, and the chair will be appointed by the Secretary of State. Given that we will have a debate on schedule 6, I move that the clause stand part of the Bill.
‘, subject to confirmation by the House of Commons Education Select Committee,’.
‘, following consultation with the House of Commons Education Select Committee,’.
Mr Wright: Good morning, Mr Williams, on what is a beautiful spring morning. The amendments are probing amendments, which we have tabled in order to get an idea of the Minister’s thinking. Amendment 107 seeks to check that the appointment of the chief regulator will still continue to be subject to the scrutiny of the Select Committee as it is today. It is not clear, as currently set out in the Bill, whether that will be the case. It would therefore be useful if the Minister could put that on the record for the avoidance of doubt.
Mr Stuart: I may not have been able to follow the legislative language, but it seems to me that amendment 107 relates to the chair. Of course, the role of chief regulator in Ofqual is moving from the chair to the chief executive. We could debate whether both posts should be subject to hearings of the Select Committee, but the chief regulator would certainly seem to be the key post. If the role moves from chair to chief executive, surely it is the chief executive who the Select Committee should confirm.
Mr Wright: I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for clarifying that. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, correct to say that the chief regulator’s role is moving from the chair of Ofqual to the chief executive, and I share his view that both appointments should be subject to pre-appointment hearings with the Select Committee. To reiterate, it would be useful to get the Minister’s thinking about that on the record.
Mr Stuart: Just to clarify, I am certain that the chief regulator should be subject to hearings with the Select Committee, possibly strengthened to confirmation. As to whether the chair should also be subject to that, I think that the number of posts subject to Select Committee hearings should be kept to the bare minimum.
Mr Wright: Perhaps this is where we slightly disagree. I think that we will come to this issue when we discuss amendment 110, but it would be useful to hear the Minister’s thoughts about the reasoning behind the role of the chief regulator being moved from the position of chair to chief executive. I am not entirely certain why that is the case. I do not want to pre-empt the discussion that we will have on amendment 110, but I am not entirely certain what the changes would add to how to help to maintain standards, enhance perception that standards have been maintained, which is an important point, and help the governance of Ofqual. I hope, with your permission Mr Williams, that we can discuss that later on.
Amendment 108 seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State can sack the chair of Ofqual only following consultation with the Education Committee. I understand from reading reports of the Committee stage of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 that there was a great deal of debate about the governance of Ofqual, and whether its chair could be removed if he or she was unfit for office. I was not a member of the Committee, but the Minister of State was, so he has the slight advantage of having rehearsed these arguments. We are concerned that giving the Secretary of State the ability to sack the chair of Ofqual could provide the Government with too much power, allowing it undue influence over Ofqual. The Bill provides temptations for the Government to distort the system to suit political ends, and this probing amendment would help to clarify the Government’s position.
“As Ofqual will be regulating the Department of Education in its administration of National Curriculum assessments, we are concerned about a conflict of interests while the Secretary of State has the power to remove the chair.”
I ask the Minister to set out the rationale behind the decision to allow the Secretary of State that power. The Bill does not define clearly enough the grounds on which the Secretary of State can sack the chair of Ofqual. New paragraph 3A(5) of schedule 9 to the 2009 Act, contained in schedule 6 to the Bill, states:
The Committee that considered the 2009 Act subjected these provisions to considerable deliberation and scrutiny, and it would be useful to record the Minister’s thoughts on ensuring that Ofqual’s independence is retained if not enhanced, and how these provisions will help to improve standards in our qualifications system.
Mr Stuart: As I noted in interventions, transferring the role of chief regulator from the chair to the chief executive is important. It is essential for Ofqual to be clear that it reports to Parliament through the Select Committee. That process of accountability will help to bolster the independence of Ofqual, and will reassure the public that the role of Ministers in determining how Ofqual behaves is mediated by Parliament. That is an important principle.
The Select Committee has not discussed whether it wishes to have confirmation hearings with the chair of Ofqual, which is the current situation, and with the chief executive. However, the Secretary of State has written to me saying that he is happy for the Select Committee to hold hearings for both. That is welcome, and the manner in which the offer was made was well received, but the Committee has not yet decided whether it wishes to cover both posts.
I mention in passing that although the Select Committee can hold a hearing with the candidate that the Secretary of State of wishes to appoint, it does necessarily have to do so. My view—it is a personal view, and not necessarily that of the Committee—is that we should focus only on the key appointments. If we had to deal with too many appointments and decided not to hold hearings for them all, the perception among the public might be that we were failing in our duty properly to scrutinise appointments. That, however, is for future debate.
Like the shadow Minister, I am interested to probe the Minister’s thoughts on why this transfer is taking place. Perhaps he will give us a little more idea of how he sees the role of the chair of Ofqual, especially in relation to the chief regulator, and of how that relationship will work. Perhaps he will spell out the role of the chair and the board in removing the chief regulator. Perhaps he can also tell us the Government’s view on the ongoing issue of whether they are prepared to allow the key departmental Select Committee to have a right of veto over certain key posts, although, as I say, I would not want too many to be covered. The Treasury and the Chancellor have conceded that in the case of the Monetary Policy Committee, and I see no reason in principle why it should not occur with other key posts. That would further cement Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the Government and ensure that it played a role in relation to what are supposed to be independent bodies. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Mr Gibb: It is vital that appointments to the position of chair of Ofqual are, and are seen to be, credible and independent. We need an individual who can lead the board of an assertive and effective regulator. That is why appointments to the position are made entirely on merit, with independent scrutiny of the process by the
The Government are also strong believers in the benefits of the pre-appointment hearing system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness mentioned, which is another key safeguard of Ofqual’s independence. That is why we have specifically asked that, in future, the Select Committee scrutinise appointments not only to the position of chair, as it does now, but to the new combined post of chief executive and chief regulator. We will, therefore, increase the number of Ofqual appointments, subject to scrutiny and the Select Committee’s agreement.
Our commitment to pre-appointment scrutiny is reflected in our proposals for the appointment of the first chief executive/chief regulator. Glenys Stacey has already been appointed as Ofqual’s chief executive. Members will understand that, under the existing legislation, that is a civil service post and is, therefore, not eligible for pre-appointment scrutiny. Even though it is our intention, other things being equal, that Glenys Stacey will transfer and become the new chief regulator, we have offered the Select Committee an opportunity to scrutinise that transition, and my hon. Friend referred to the letter from the Secretary of State. That offer has been taken up, and by ensuring that the chair and the chief executive are subject to pre-appointment scrutiny, we will increase the democratic accountability of appointments to Ofqual. That will, I hope, provide assurance that there will be ample opportunity for Select Committee involvement in such appointments.
The amendment would, however, go further and introduce a requirement for the Select Committee to confirm appointments to the position of chair, effectively giving the Committee a veto over the appointment process. That would muddy the waters over accountability. Ultimately, responsibility for making appointments must remain with Ministers. That ensures that Ministers are personally answerable and accountable to Parliament and the public for the men and women they appoint. The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee are currently looking at pre-appointment scrutiny across Government, and we must pre-empt the outcome of that review. However, we have no plans to introduce a Select Committee veto on appointments.
Mr Gibb: Those issues will be addressed by this cross-Government scrutiny. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable for education standards, and it is important that they have the ability to appoint people. Of course, the Select Committee will make its views clear. Under the previous Administration, the Children’s Commissioner was appointed despite the Select Committee’s views, and that decision was taken by a Minister. In some circumstances, such decisions are, as Sir Humphrey would say, very brave, but Ministers are ultimately accountable to Parliament, and they must take such decisions. With regard to the MPC, we are talking about an exceptional arrangement. It is a reflection of
On amendment 108, for Ofqual to be an effective and independent regulator, as I said earlier, its leadership must be free to take difficult decisions without fear of inappropriate interference. That is why we are not making any changes to the limited grounds for removal of the chair set by Parliament in schedule 9 to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.
The Select Committee has an important role to play in holding Ofqual and its chair to account for their performance through its normal scrutiny process, but the grounds on which the chair can be removed by the Secretary of State are limited by legislation, and we do not believe that a requirement to consult the Select Committee before doing so would provide the additional benefits intended by the amendment. To remind the Committee what those grounds are, schedule 9 says that the chief regulator may be removed from office only on the grounds of
I believe that the amendment would make things worse by calling into question Ministers’ accountability for the removal of the chair in the limited circumstances in which it is appropriate to do so. Removal of a chair is not an option that any Secretary of State would take lightly, but as with appointments, it is important that ultimate responsibility for removal of chairs remains with Ministers so that they are personally answerable and accountable for their decisions. Our provisions would ensure that without interfering with the current appropriately high bar for removal.
Mr Stuart: The Minister said on the issue of veto—I do not agree with him—that it is important that Ministers have the right to drive decisions through. None the less, hearings are held. Amendment 108 mentions consultation with the Select Committee. In no way would it bar the Secretary of State from carrying out his duties under schedule 9, and the Minister overstates his case to say so. He might not wish to concede this, but the amendment would not inhibit the Secretary of State’s ability to take decisions and be held accountable for them.
Mr Gibb: Well, we can always agree to differ on the matter. The Secretary of State will want to consult. I would not rule out his wanting to consult my hon. Friend, as he and I do on all kinds of issue. Clause 107 discusses confirmation of veto, and my hon. Friend is right that consultation is involved. Even so, I ask the
Mr Wright: May I tempt the Minister to speculate on the circumstances in which the Secretary of State would exercise the power? Also, before I sit down, I reiterate the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee. Amendment 108 was carefully worded not to provide a power of veto but to ensure some degree of consultation between the Secretary of State and the Select Committee if there was a question of incompetence or unfitness for office.
Mr Gibb: I will not be tempted down that avenue. Ministers in the previous Administration succumbed to that temptation when they introduced schedule 9 to the ASCL Act 2009. The wording of the provision is sufficiently clear that the chair must be absent from Ofqual’s meetings for a continuous period of more than six months. That is clear and specific, and we need not speculate why a chair might be absent for so long.
Mr Stuart: I do not want to play tag with the Minister, but if he does not want to speculate on the precise circumstances, will he at least explain what unfitness means? Is this a mental health related matter, or could a strongly ideological Secretary of State arrive and decide that this person is so differing in view to themselves that they are simply unfit for office? I have felt that many holders of public office were unfit for office but it was not because they had a mental health problem or any other problem, it was because I did not agree with them on many issues.
Mr Gibb: The best way forward is for me to write to my hon. Friend and copy in other members of the Committee so that we can define this term precisely. So far as this debate is concerned, the wording of the paragraph is clear, especially in relation to absence from meetings for six months. On subparagraph (5)(a), I will certainly write to the Committee.
Mark Durkan: The schedule is one of the few provisions that has both a direct and indirect effect on Northern Ireland. I certainly resisted the temptation to table any amendments that referred to a consultation with Assembly Ministers or Assembly Committees. Does the Minister not accept that the amendment which provides for consultation with the House of Commons Select Committee, which has a UK representative responsibility in the way in which it operates, gives assurance to devolved interests that if there are issues of concern, they can be ventilated and duly considered at an appropriate level via the Select Committee? In the past, we have found that communication between Assembly Committees and House of Commons Select Committees has ventilated issues that do not normally get dealt with through ministerial engagement.
Mr Gibb: I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. If he feels that the current group of Ministers are not doing that, I hope that he will come to see us and put that right. The issue is about dismissal. Amendment 108 is about the removal of the Chair of Ofqual. Given the clear wording of the schedule, which will be clarified further by the letter that I intend to send to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, those issues do not require vast consultation. It is a sensitive matter to do with the removal of somebody from an office because of inability or unfitness to carry out that office, or because of absence for six months. Such a matter goes beyond policy and should not be subject to those levels of consultation.
Mr Wright: I thank the Minister for his comments. His offer to write to the Chairman of the Select Committee and the rest of our Committee is very helpful. On the deliberations at Committee stage of the ASCL Act 2009, considerable time was spent on working out—I accept that this wording has been transferred directly from the Act—what inability or unfitness to carry out the duties of the office means.
Given that I am now in Opposition, I share the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee—it is amazing how one changes when the shoe is on the other foot—that the wording seems to imply that it is about some sort of medical complaint. Certainly absence of more than six months would seem to indicate that as well. None the less, the Minister’s offer to write is very helpful.
In respect of the broader point regarding this group of amendments, it was news to me that the Cabinet Office are considering reviewing the whole possibility of pre-appointment hearings. I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance on that. He went so far in his comments, but I hope that he will go slightly further and say that he would resist any suggestions or recommendations that could spring from the Cabinet Office that would restrict heavily the idea that the Ofqual chair and the chief executive are subject to any pre-appointment hearings.
Mr Stuart: The shadow Minister talks about how flexible his principles are. His hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West, the former president of the Oxford Union, will know the old saying, “These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.”
Mr Stuart: A flexible friend. Has Her Majesty’s Opposition changed its view on confirmation hearings and giving Select Committees a right of veto, as has been conceded over the Office for Budget Responsibility if not the Monetary Policy Committee?
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