Education Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 141

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Education Committee

on Wednesday 21 March 2012

Members present:

Mr Graham Stuart (Chair)

Neil Carmichael

Alex Cunningham

Pat Glass

Damian Hinds

Charlotte Leslie

Ian Mearns


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Amanda Spielman, Chair, and Chief Regulator of Qualifications and Examinations, Ofqual, and Glenys Stacey, Chief Executive, Ofqual, gave evidence.

Q578 Chair: Good morning, and thank you very much for coming and giving evidence today to our inquiry into awarding bodies. May I begin by asking you to what extent the awarding bodies compete collude or collaborate in the different areas, and in which different areas do these behaviour patterns appear?

Glenys Stacey: Just briefly, Chairman, they compete for market share, most definitely, and they co-operate on standards and they share practice. There is a difference between the two, but there is also a link that you will understand.

Q579 Chair: Thank you very much. What is the most negative aspect of having multiple exam boards at the moment as opposed to having a single awarding body, or a single awarding body for each subject?

Glenys Stacey: Most negative aspect? My perception is that, historically, the sector has been under-regulated or not firmly regulated, and so I have regarded this as turning a ship. If you have four or five players, you have to get all of them to turn, and to turn together in the same direction. That at first sight appeared to be quite a challenge. In fact, I have found it easier than I first thought.

Q580 Chair: To what extent do you feel that Ofqual has to mitigate for the impact of the accountability system?

Glenys Stacey: When we talk about standards, the market and the effect of the market on standards, it is sometimes a temptation for commentators to think that standards are simply a matter for the market and market pressures, whereas when we look at it more closely, as I know you have been doing in recent months, there are other pressures-wider systems pressures. One of those is most definitely accountability mechanisms, and particularly the way that GCSE grades A to C are used to assess the performance of schools and indeed individual teachers. That is something that we very much wish to talk to Government about-about ways in which we can mitigate those pressures. It is not so much an issue between Ofqual and awarding bodies as between Ofqual, Government and those other players in the wider system.

Chair: I am delighted to hear that dialogue is taking place. We will continue to be interested in how a more balanced scorecard can be produced.

Q581 Damian Hinds: In the Chairman’s question about competing, colluding and co-operating, you said that the awarding bodies compete for market share. How?

Glenys Stacey: They compete on the totality of the offering, so, for example, the service levels that they provide and the support that they provide alongside the qualification-and that does include teaching aids and text books, something that you know we have a keen interest in. They will also compete in terms of the actual qualification itself, so, for example, the structure of the qualification and the knowledge content. If you take, say, a history GCSE, then in the current market model you can expect to see a number of different GCSE products that will cover different choices about the period of history one might be studying. They are able to get feedback from schools on what would be preferable, and indeed from others, and build a qualification to meet that.

An example of this is a conversation I had a while ago with Lord Baker, who phoned me about his view that we should have a GCSE history product that majored on the period of the Industrial Revolution, and that this would be a very helpful product, particularly for those who aspire to be apprentices or who are in apprenticeships. I know that he had a fruitful discussion with one of the awarding bodies about producing that product. There is an ability to react to those sorts of stimuli in the system at the moment. Competition occurs around that.

Q582 Damian Hinds: On the different axes of competition-price, operational performance, timeliness of delivery, right-first-time marking, support for the schools and, in the broader sense, for the pupils, in terms of textbooks and so on-which of those is to the fore in how the awarding bodies compete?

Glenys Stacey: I have not mentioned prices yet, and I would like to say something about that. The data and information that we have suggests that GCSEs are coming out at about £27 per GCSE, maybe around £30 for the modular GCSEs. Prices have stayed pretty stable over time, albeit allowing for inflation in recent years. I am aware that this is the list price, if you like. What we need to understand better, with schools and with further education colleges, is what deals are offered, in terms of three for the price of two and so on: what are the actual purchasing deals? I suspect that there is some competition there that is not immediately transparent. We would certainly like to know more about that.

There is definitely what you would expect in a market, namely some healthy marketing of qualifications, around the support provided for them and around the pleasure, joy and ease of teaching them. Again, you would expect that. I am very aware of those two issues in particular.

Q583 Damian Hinds: So, as things stand-and I realise that Ofqual is a relatively new regulator-you do not know the prevalence of off-invoice discounting?

Glenys Stacey: Not yet.

Q584 Damian Hinds: That is indeed interesting. Still on the terms of competition, I can totally understand why, from the point of view of wanting smoothly operating markets, you would want to see-when I say "you", I do not mean necessarily just mean Ofqual; I mean "one"-

Glenys Stacey: No, generally.

Damian Hinds: I can understand why you would want to see competition in terms of the operational delivery: it keeps people on their toes, it means that if people do a bad job with accuracy and so on, then they will be found out because they will lose share to somebody else. I can totally understand why we would want masses of competition in terms of textbooks and support materials to help children to realise their full potential. I cannot quite get my head around why we want competition in the setting of exams. Theoretically, you could split those two things: you can perfectly easily have four or five examining bodies doing the operational side of it, but one entity setting the exam, and the exam being the same for everybody. You mentioned the example of GCSE history and how you could have different syllabuses. Back in the old days, there were different syllabuses.

Glenys Stacey: Many more, yes.

Q585 Damian Hinds: What you described was my history O-level, doing from 1870 and so on at A-level, and then doing the Industrial Revolution and Agrarian Revolution before that. That was fairly standard fare. Presumably if it is right for one group of people, I cannot quite understand the argument that you hear quite a lot from different schools: "For my particular cohort of pupils and my particular set of staff, this is right." I can understand on an individual child basis it might be that one thing is better, more appropriate or more accessible than another. But other than just meaning it is easier or harder, how can it be right for one school but not right for the school next door?

Glenys Stacey: I have something to say about that, but Amanda may chip in with this as well. From my perspective, I can understand that if you are a teacher, you want to be enthused by the specification you are to teach. If we take English as an example: if you do not get enthusiastic about the texts you are to teach, you may wish to move to another provider whose texts you really enjoy so you can enthuse your students with those texts. That is an individual teacher choice. It may not actually relate to the strength or otherwise of the cohort, but of course if you happen to have spoken with the cohort before about the book, or you have been there, done that, you might want a change. So that happens.

It is also the case that, as teachers move through different schools, they will want to go with the product that they like and are familiar with and trust, so you get those sorts of changes as well. You asked why you cannot have assessment in one place. Of course, you can cut the model any which way, and you could do that; you could put assessment with one body. I am not sure that the benefits would outweigh the risks.

Q586 Damian Hinds: Sorry to interrupt: that was not what I was hanging out to dry. It was having the setting of the exams and the setting of the syllabus and the specification in one body. I can understand why you would want to have the actual marking as a competitive activity.

Amanda Spielman: I think what you are getting at here is the essence of the particular curriculum compromise in this country, as compared with others. Where the national curriculum exists, it should ensure that everything that it is considered should be common to what is studied by every pupil is embedded in GCSE specifications. In a sense you are suggesting extending the national curriculum model to have a single agreed model, perhaps through A-levels as well. That is a curriculum policy decision rather than an assessment decision.

Q587 Damian Hinds: Perhaps. English and history are of course the two most obvious subjects to talk about in this regard. You can have a choice of English literature texts within a single syllabus. I hate to keep harking back to when I was at school, but that was what always happened: there was some Shakespeare, and a novel, and some poetry, but you would have a choice between them. If we extend this argument into physics, chemistry or maths, how does it work?

Glenys Stacey: I suspect it is a similar argument, in that if you are looking at how you construct a science specification, there will be a balance to be struck between coursework and other work, between experiment and core knowledge. Individuals will want to choose there. I know that in science in particular, some science teachers very much went for the Salters’ scheme, for example, which was actually a very rich assessment, and an expensive one as well, incidentally, so there was a trade-off between the richness and diversity of the assessment and the cost of the product. The same arguments apply; they might just be most obvious in history and English.

Q588 Damian Hinds: Should the brand of stamp that says, "You have GCSE maths," mean something different depending on what school you went to?

Glenys Stacey: Where it is a national curriculum subject, it should mean first that a sufficient amount of the national curriculum was covered-in other words, that the syllabus, or the depth and breadth of study, that was required was sufficiently closely aligned to the national curriculum; secondly, that the assessment that occurred was sufficiently rigorous, so it was not narrowed, either through teaching or through the assessment itself, to cover a smaller sample than would be truly representative for study; and thirdly, that you have had a fair outcome and grade from that. Where it is not a national curriculum subject-and most of them are not-then it should mean the same, except that the actual programme of study or syllabus needs to be broadly equivalent in demand to that for a national curriculum subject. That is what the GCSE brand is really about.

Q589 Damian Hinds: Finally from me: were there to be a change in structure in the sector, either to a single examining body or to some sort of franchise or licensing system, with one per subject or one per key subject, what would be your advice to Government on how to enact that change to mitigate risk, and how long would such a transition take?

Glenys Stacey: Such a transition would likely require legislation, so we are talking about years. The experience of others in say, telephony or train regulation, or, indeed, in a much simpler way, in national assessment, would suggest that you have to make a very real and significant investment in getting the detail of the specification, the contract, and the bidding and tender processes right. Certainly, my advice would be to concentrate very hard on getting the legislation right, and getting the mechanics and technicalities of it right. It would be a significant and complex matter.

My second piece of advice would be to truly evaluate the risks and to recognise the trade-offs. For example, we know from the train regulator model-train franchising and train services-that you can expect to see erratic patterns of investment during the life of the contract. That is just one of the many things. Certainly, one might expect that pricing would be a dark art, or would be lacking in transparency, anyway, from what I can see when I get on the train in the morning. Looking very carefully at the pricing and recognising also that there is likely to be an increase in pricing would be something that I would advise.

My last consideration in advising about what to look out for on that is that, if you are going down that route, to put it simply, it is a one-way street. When you get towards the end of a franchise period, it is much harder to attract true competition and real bidders. So you will need to consider those matters, and also what else you can manage to reform, change, develop and deliver: what else you can do or not do for standards while you are going though that significant change.

Chair: We have limited time so I would ask that questions and answers be as short and sharp as possible.

Q590 Pat Glass: The Committee has heard some evidence that has been critical of Ofqual’s strategic role. SCORE in particular said that Ofqual is like a "crash scene investigator rather than an air traffic controller". You have said that you want your regulatory arrangements to be "stronger and more strategic" in future, so what will that look like for examination boards, and do you currently have the powers to deliver a stronger, strategic role for Ofqual?

Glenys Stacey: All regulators need to deal with crashes when they occur. They do occur and we have to deal with them, but I will put that to one side.

What you really want is a balance of activity, where the balance is much more on the strategic-being on the front foot. What that means for awarding bodies at the end of the market you are talking about is that we will monitor them closely and continuously; we will be crawling all over them; where we require them to change their behaviours, we will either persuade them or direct them; and we will fine them where we find errors where the awarding body is culpable in some way. It also means that, if necessary, we will direct them or even take them out of the market if we think that is in the interest of standards. I would imagine that, if you spoke to awarding bodies, as indeed you have, about the changes they have seen in our regulatory approach over the last 12 months, they would say that they have begun to sense the nature of that journey.

As to whether we have enough powers, we are shortly to be awash with them, thank you. The whistle-blowing power is to come in on Thursday. That will be very welcome.

Q591 Pat Glass: I know that you are consulting at the moment on your powers and how they should be used. When are we likely to see the results of that consultation?

Glenys Stacey: We have been working at the fastest possible pace to be in a position to implement and use our new powers. For fining, we are in the middle of a consultation as I understand it, but we expect to be in a position to be able to fine by the end of May.

Q592 Pat Glass: Do you feel you have sufficient assessment expertise on your board? That is one of the issues that have been raised with us.

Glenys Stacey: On the board? As my chairman has been busy recruiting board members, it might be best that she answers that question, if you don’t mind.

Amanda Spielman: We have, as you may know, been actively recruiting. We have just interviewed for five vacancies on our board. To answer your question directly, without a shadow of a doubt we need more assessment expertise in the oversight of Ofqual. The question for us is how we get it. We are interested in looking at how to bring it in at board level but we have also just started a standards advisory group, which we see as hugely important. There is a great deal of expertise in assessment in universities, in exam boards, in people who have recently retired from exam boards, like Mike Cresswell over there, who is advising you. We want to use this expertise. We have invited 16 people, every one of whom has said yes.

We want to expose the thinking about how to maintain and develop assessment standards and qualification standards, and get the right fit with the education system. We want to have active and regular discussions. We do not want a car crash model, but a shaping model. We think that getting that flow of well-exposed thinking through to our board will strengthen us.

Q593 Pat Glass: So you do not have sufficient expertise in assessment yet, but you are working on it.

Amanda Spielman: Absolutely, we are working on it.

Q594 Pat Glass: Finally, the Secretary of State has had a lot to say recently about the exam system and how he is going to make exams harder, etc. How much ministerial direction do you get, and how much independence do you have?

Chair: The Minister is just behind you.

Ian Mearns: As always.

Glenys Stacey: Chairman, I always know where the Minister is; there is no need to remind me, but thank you. The position is that Ofqual is an independent regulator but our work is of great interest to the Secretary of State and the Minister. Of course it is: assessments have a powerful impact on the education system. We have to consider and take into account ministerial views. Indeed, we have a duty to have regard to Government policy. I have received no direction whatsoever from the Secretary of State about our setting of standards, about GCSEs or A-levels, none at all.

Amanda Spielman: Ofqual’s role in the system is more complicated than that of many regulators because of the symbiotic relationship between curriculum and assessments. In this country, much of the upper secondary curriculum is embedded in assessments. There are aspects of the system that are completely Ofqual’s, where we are free to act as we see fit, and there are aspects where making changes to the assessment and qualification system actually implies major changes to curriculum. In those matters we have to talk to Government, to users of qualifications, to all the people with a legitimate interest, and build consensus as well as taking direct regulatory action. There are a number of dynamics.

Q595 Pat Glass: Do you have input to the curriculum review?

Glenys Stacey: Yes. We are working closely with the national curriculum team. We are interested in making sure that the products that come out of that-the programmes of study-are robust and transferable into a proper qualification and assessment. Whatever comes out of a national curriculum review process needs to be assessable. We have lessons to learn there and to pass on from the current national curriculum.

Q596 Ian Mearns: Do you welcome the idea of national subject committees as a way of increasing the involvement of universities and learned bodies in GCSEs and A-levels?

Glenys Stacey: I have had no personal experience of national subject committees unfortunately. I can very much see that they are one way in which you can get subject expertise, and hopefully consensus, in determining what the subject content should be for any standardised qualification, GCSE or A-level. It is by no means the only way. I hate to be a harbinger of doom all of the time, but I do know that one of the drawbacks of them would be that there would be a tendency for breadth rather than depth-everyone wants their bit put into the qualification and there is always a trade-off between depth and breadth. Interestingly, what we have found in our international A-level studies is that sometimes we strike that trade here, giving breadth rather than depth the leading role. So there is a slight risk of that, but we will work with any model that will enable a consensus to be built around a subject and subject content.

I will just add-and this touches on the point from your colleague earlier-that when you look at how these things are agreed in the system, we have quite an organic system. I am quite a systematic person but I recognise that. To get this right, we need to work at it with subject experts but also with teachers, schools, colleges, and further and higher education. There is a healthy brokering around that to get to the right trade-offs.

Q597 Ian Mearns: Going back to Pat’s previous question about crash scene investigators and air traffic controllers, would it not be a good model in terms of looking at the breadth and depth that you have talked about if Ofqual were to convene those committees and manage them?

Glenys Stacey: That depends on whether you want to keep Ofqual as a regulator or to extend its role. That is getting towards, although not quite, what our predecessors QDCA and QCA were doing. That is a discussion to be had.

Q598 Ian Mearns: I understand what you are saying. The problem is, if Ofqual does not do it, who should? That poses a question. That might be another car crash waiting to happen, if that is not put right.

Amanda Spielman: I think it is something that everybody in the system is aware of at the moment, and consideration is being given to it.

Q599 Ian Mearns: Would national subject committees provide a solution to Ofqual’s lack of in-house subject expertise? You have talked about the standards advisory group that you are establishing, so you have acknowledged that there is some tension there. Could there be a more transparent way for you to use experts in particular subjects?

Glenys Stacey: It might be worth explaining that we use subject expertise a lot at the moment. We choose not to invest heavily in subject expertise in our staff at Ofqual. We need expertise at Ofqual in the things that we do: expertise in regulation, assessment, comparability, grade management-in all of these things. For subject expertise, we prefer to buy it in. We do that because in that way we can get the best experts when we need them for the period we need them. We also get experts who are kept up to date; sitting in Coventry with your subject expertise is not necessarily going to pay dividends over time. We choose to broker that in a way that we think is in the best interests of qualifications and standards.

Q600 Ian Mearns: So you are buying in that extra capacity as and when.

Glenys Stacey: Absolutely. It is a purposeful decision to structure ourselves in that way.

Q601 Charlotte Leslie: We have heard from both an exam board chief executive and a senior DfE official about concerns about content standards. Does that suggest that you need to have a tighter accreditation system and/or a more transparent one?

Glenys Stacey: You will know that we at Ofqual have had the same concerns about GCSEs in particular. We have found issues in geography, history, maths and English language. Interestingly, we also had a good look at religious education and found that particular GCSE was fine; I am still pondering why that is, and what is different about that subject. We do have concerns about those GCSEs, and that has made us question how tightly the regulator needs to specify the requirements through criteria.

We have acted on that, firstly by meeting with chief executives of awarding bodies, who have been very responsive to our request to tighten matters in those qualifications and have taken the detailed feedback to do it. But we are also doing a robust piece of work with other experts on how we can best write qualification criteria to make sure we can make the requirement absolutely explicit. The current requirements are on our website. The enthusiast can find them.

Q602 Charlotte Leslie: SCORE told the Committee recently that you can accredit specifications without taking into account the accompanying assessment tools like question papers. Is that correct?

Glenys Stacey: The accreditation process is looking at the qualification as it is designed, and looking at example materials. It is not looking examination by examination. It is ahead of the game. A qualification will be accredited as it was, perhaps, in 2008, and will still be running now, but obviously the examination and the materials are different each year. That is the way it works.

The important thing is that accreditation is, in a way, our people at Ofqual trying almost to second-guess the experts in awarding bodies. The real game and the real control over standards should not, in the long term, be through an accreditation process. It should be by us placing requirements on awarding bodies that they must demonstrate they meet time after time in the close and continuous monitoring that I have spoken about, where-I have said it and I will use the term again-we are crawling all over these bodies, and the work to assess, much more than we do at the moment, the actual quality of the products coming out in a timely way and feeding that back. Accreditation at the moment is a process that has its worth, but it is part of the way things were done and we are in transition to fulfil our legislation and to regulate in a different and more robust way.

Q603 Charlotte Leslie: On a cultural level, "accessible" is a word that comes up a lot from examining boards. Is that a euphemism for "easy"? Is it right that we are in a situation where exam boards sell themselves and their syllabuses as proven to help improve grades? Is that a culture we need to move away from, and if so, how will we do it?

Glenys Stacey: We do need to move away from that. I have a couple of things to say on that. First of all, we had a standards debate back in the autumn-I think it was October-where we began to discuss some of the detailed issues with awarding bodies and experts around the way that questions are structured or scaffolded. We have some guidance around that produced by our predecessor body, and we want to have a look at that guidance. There is a balance to be struck: yes, we want fairness, but we do not want spoon-feeding. We need to make sure that the balance is struck so that proper judgments can be made about how questions are answered and students are not unduly led by the scaffolding of a question. We know that there is more work to be done there. Indeed, there is more work for us to do in producing guidance to awarding bodies on how that balance is to be struck.

Q604 Neil Carmichael: Before I head in the direction of grading standards, can I revert back to the issue of national subject committees? It is a really important issue in terms of the direction of Government policy. It seems to me that, if you are thinking of a subject from its start, in terms of pupils’ learning, towards the outcome, it would be useful to have more involvement in terms of the careers structure likely to lead from that subject, and also the relevance of the examination. We have heard quite a lot of evidence in recent sessions from the university sector, which is quite interested in that direction of travel. Do you think that is something that the Government should be considering?

Glenys Stacey: We are just completing a piece of national research with the higher education sector on its detailed views, by subject and by structure, about A-levels. We will be able to provide that to the Committee shortly. We would very much welcome the chance to talk that through with you, to get to the detail. That research is showing us that there is an appetite in higher education to have greater influence over the subject and content of A-levels, particularly in some subjects. We would welcome that. We would most certainly welcome any arrangement that would engage the right level of higher education at subject level.

Q605 Neil Carmichael: That, of course, would also encourage a career pathway for teachers as well, wouldn’t it? It would also alleviate some of the pressures that you might have in terms of getting the right kind of experience in Ofqual for the task of checking the examination system itself.

Glenys Stacey: I do not know that subject committees would automatically result in that happening, but we very much welcome anything that actually encourages teachers and schools to recognise the value of assessment skills. If a teacher chooses to study and understand better the nature of qualifications and the nature of assessment, we welcome that and wish to promote it. I hope that headmasters who might be listening to this would hear that message: it is a credible, respectable, laudable thing for teachers to be encouraged and given space to develop that understanding.

Q606 Neil Carmichael: Absolutely. This whole Committee would endorse that. Hopefully that will be reflected in our report. I will turn now to grading standards. When you are monitoring the outcomes of A-level awards, what kind of action can you take if you think action is needed?

Glenys Stacey: We can direct awarding bodies to set their grade boundaries as we would wish.

Q607 Neil Carmichael: Can you direct an exam board to change standards, essentially?

Glenys Stacey: We can direct an exam board to change its grade boundary. If, for example, it was setting a specific percentage or points score as the grade boundary, we could direct it to move that. That is one element of standards.

Q608 Neil Carmichael: In terms of monitoring the outcomes of A-level awards, you need a fair degree of technical expertise. Presumably you are going to say that you have an abundance of that within Ofqual.

Glenys Stacey: Do you mean with regard to comparability?

Neil Carmichael: Yes.

Glenys Stacey: That is one of the things that Ofqual does. To try to get that in proportion, we have done over 50 comparability studies at GCSE and A-level and have published them. Our predecessors have written the definitive text on how to do it. This is something I think we can be proud of. We know the different ways of doing it, and the current approach that we adopt is regarded as very good practice. You will be interested to know that the co-authors of that definitive text were Paul Newton, Jo-Anne Baird and Peter Tymms. I think that we can lay some small claim to knowing what we are doing in that department.

Neil Carmichael: We all need some extra bedtime reading.

Glenys Stacey: This copy is yours, most definitely. I will leave it for you.

Q609 Neil Carmichael: Thank you. I will have to declare that, no doubt, on some sort of list. Moving on to what we describe sometimes as commercially significant subjects-maths, English and science-do you tend to focus your resources more on those areas? How would you prioritise the question of monitoring?

Glenys Stacey: When you are monitoring awarding bodies, you are allocating a resource according to risk. Clearly there is a big bag of risks around GCSEs and A-levels, so inevitably a good amount of our resource on monitoring and regulating is placed there. It is fair to say that we have about 180 awarding bodies, and the majority of qualifications are not in that area; they are vocational or other types of qualifications, and we have regard to them as well. On monitoring and comparability, we are only really focused on GCSEs and A-Levels. We make sure that we cover a fair spread, but recognise that the larger volume subjects, where you have a large cohort, have first place.

Q610 Neil Carmichael: If we are going to have different organisational models-a single board, a franchise system or whatever-how would those models impact on your regulating and grading of standards?

Glenys Stacey: Regulating grading standards? The franchise model would not impact it very much. We would still have to do comparability, particularly where there is a choice as to whether you take the subject or not, because we would want to see comparability between those GCSEs and A-levels that were franchised and those that were not. Even if every subject was franchised-and I doubt whether that is ever going to be the proposition-we would still wish to see comparability across subjects. In the single-provider model, as far as I can see, we would still be very interested in comparability. It depends on whether the single provider was providing every GCSE, although, again, it probably would not be. On the comparability studies, our obligations would be the same. I think that the actual task would be more difficult than it is at the moment.

Q611 Neil Carmichael: Finally, what about the JCQ? How far should it be involved in monitoring standards? Is there an overlap between it and Ofqual?

Glenys Stacey: There is a grey area between us and JCQ. Others have said that we should regulate JCQ. I do not agree with that. JCQ has its role representing a sector of the awarding bodies, and that is quite right and proper. It also undertakes some tasks that need to be undertaken, for example, the setting of timetables for exams, which is obviously a complex business. There are some areas where we have a joint interest, where we need to discuss our approach and also whether the prime responsibility is with JCQ or with us. A good example of that is the proper controls over requests for special consideration or extra time, where we have a joint interest but we are the regulator.

Q612 Damian Hinds: What does JCQ do that Ofqual could not do, as opposed to what Ofqual does not do today?

Glenys Stacey: You will understand that I do not know everything that JCQ does. It acts as a representative body for the top end or key qualifications providers. In the past, it has done media activities for those bodies. It does some of the number crunching as well. The discussions we need to have with JCQ are about whether things are in the right place. A new chief executive is about to start at JCQ, and I am looking forward to having those discussions.

Q613 Chair: Would it be better if we had one or more nationally set specifications for an examination and then allowed the awarding bodies to set questions on the basis of that specification or those specifications?

Glenys Stacey: The national curriculum does that to some extent, Chairman, in that it sets out what is required and then awarding bodies interpret that.

Q614 Chair: Is there an incentive for the awarding bodies to come up with a specification that, whether this is a perception or otherwise, makes it easier to pass? Certainly that is what some of the examiners we called in before Christmas seemed to be suggesting. If we took away the control of the specification from the awarding bodies while still keeping the benefit and resilience of their different systems, could that tackle the issue-perhaps of public perception and perhaps a genuine issue-around lowering of standards over time?

Glenys Stacey: I think you would lose a number of things, Chairman. One would be choice. You can take a view about choice, but it is a fundamental part of the system at the moment and is, as I understand it, generally well regarded by teachers. It would also inevitably contain innovation and reduce responsiveness-as I was talking about earlier, when I mentioned Lord Baker and the Industrial Revolution for history. You would contain responsiveness. I do not immediately see what the benefit is, but I am sure there would be some benefit.

On the question of whether competition is inevitably enabling or driving awarding bodies to produce easier qualifications, I think it is easy to conclude that is the case. Of course, markets respond to incentives. If there are no incentives to go in a different direction, then there is a danger of that. For example, when we looked at Edexcel’s geography specification at GCSE, we found that you could make easy routes through that qualification, but you could also make difficult routes. You could make it as demanding as you wished. It is not always as straightforward as we would want.

I think that in the current model, if it is kept, the answer is very much around incentivising standards. There are ways that we can do that. For example, awarding bodies currently need to get their qualifications accredited. If an awarding body can establish a pattern of accreditation, where the qualification is accredited first time, time after time, because it meets or exceeds the standard, then that ought to be rewarded, enabling the awarding body to take its product straight to market. That would be a very significant market advantage.

Equally, if the regulator can-and we will, now we have our new framework-really understand, monitor and crawl over awarding bodies, and is able to produce an annual report showing the strengths and weaknesses, the service levels and the standards, then you begin to be able to properly provide information on the differences and to inform choice. In a number of small ways, as has happened in legal services, one can incentivise and move the ship in a different direction. It simply has not been managed in that way in the past.

Q615 Chair: I am struggling to understand how you would create incentives for an awarding body to exceed the minimum standard.

Glenys Stacey: What you wish to do is to create incentives for awarding bodies to pitch at or above the minimum standards. The minimum standards are what we set. We set the standard we want. So you set the standard you want, and then the bodies need to pitch in time after time at or above that standard.

Q616 Chair: Why would they come in above?

Glenys Stacey: They may come in above-

Chair: In error? They would lose market share, wouldn’t they? If they say, "I have come in with a specification that is more difficult than the other awarding bodies. You are very angry already because you do not think that your students got the grades they deserved last year, and are already thinking of leaving me. I have now come up with a higher specification. Please stay with me," then the schools would be off like you would not believe, signing up for another awarding body, would they not?

Glenys Stacey: We are talking in simple terms here, Chairman, but in fact standards are not that easy to evaluate. It is not so simple as to say that the standard is lower than in another body’s qualification, because you are looking at different aspects of the qualification: you are looking at the content and the assessment, and making a judgment about the overall demand. As I have said-and I know it is tedious, but it is true-there are trade-offs in the design of the qualification. Ultimately, the question of standards is a professional judgment that we and others make.

There is every incentive for an awarding body to want to get to the point where it does not have to come to us for accreditation. It would be a massive market benefit for the awarding body. There is a real incentive in it getting an endorsement from the regulator on an annual basis that its products pass muster across the spectrum.

Q617 Chair: If I can move on to your international work, the wording in your amended standards objective requires you to judge comparable levels of attainment. So far, your international work has focused on content and question paper demand. How will you establish whether standards of attainment are comparable in this country and abroad?

Amanda Spielman: Looking at standards internationally is a complicated business, because the way curriculum and assessment interact is very different country by country. You can only look at it by looking at the whole curriculum and assessment picture. You are doing comparability at a quite different level from the annual exercises with GCSE and A- level papers. It is not around whether the boundary mark for a C grade in Germany is 29 and here it is 28. We have exercises that are quite different in nature. The international comparative work creates higher level findings, some of which need to flow back into curriculum policy discussions in this country, and some of which relate directly to assessment. We are just beginning to get the first instalment that we can feed back and triage so that the curriculum pieces flow off into curriculum discussion and the pieces around assessment and how assessment is structured are considered by our standards advisory group within Ofqual, and flow into awarding bodies.

Q618 Chair: Do you think you are set up to be able to do this? I know you are obliged by law now to do it, but wouldn’t it be better if the OECD did it and then you were informed by that, as that is what it is set up to do?

Glenys Stacey: The position we are in, Chairman, is that, as Amanda has indicated, we recognise there is no one universal education or assessment standard out there. There are many and it works at many different levels. In response to getting this welcome new objective, we have established a benchmarking team at Ofqual. There are 10 or 12 people in there. We have just completed our first piece on A-levels. It is about 350 pages. From the experts who have looked at it, I think that it is going to be very well regarded. Our standards advisory group are meeting on Friday afternoon to chew it over, and make sure that, from what we have researched, we have identified the right issues. Much of our international work is entirely dependent on the co-operation of other countries. It is the engagement that we have with those other countries that really matters.

Q619 Chair: That is why I was wondering whether the OECD would be better off doing it.

Amanda Spielman: Our work is very much informed by international studies that have already happened. The OECD PISA study is clearly a very important one. In setting up our A-level work-which goes several levels further, I think, than anything the OECD puts out-the selection of countries majors very heavily on the dozen or so countries that stand out as particularly high performing on all fronts in PISA and other OECD work. We are building on it and going deeper in our particular areas.

Q620 Chair: Will this work genuinely come back through into your work and into the way our qualifications are structured and set, or is it just that the current Secretary of State had a particular obsession with international comparison and there is therefore a team of 12 doing entirely purposeless work?

Glenys Stacey: On the contrary, Chairman, this is really valuable work-really valuable work.

Q621 Chair: It is?

Glenys Stacey: It absolutely is. To give you one example of that, we now have questions to raise about the content of our A-level mathematics syllabus. We have some very big questions to raise about assessment techniques across all of the subjects at A-level. One smaller example is the use of algebraic calculators. I suspect that there will be resistance to that, as it is rather alien in our culture and our country, but people tell us that people will be using them in their places of employment and it is commonly done in other jurisdictions. If you look across, then, yes, it is very complicated, but there are these nuggets that we can pick up. That is the great thing about being able to devote resource to benchmarking, not just internationally but nationally as well.

Chair: When we visited Singapore, one of the most impressive things was their openness: they were looking out and trying to bring in expertise from abroad, and they wanted to be open to the world’s best. I am sure that has to be the right way to go.

Q622 Damian Hinds: What is the transmission mechanism for that international benchmarking analysis to turn up in a classroom? I understand the thing about how the assessment processes work-multiple choice versus essays-is absolutely in your court. But how does the content of the syllabus of mathematics transmit from your work to what happens in the classroom?

Glenys Stacey: That is a very interesting question. We are simply the regulator and we do not control the whole system, but, like other regulators, we identify things that we do not control but would wish to influence for the greater good and for the purpose of standards. That is where we have conversations with those who have a greater responsibility for those matters. We start having conversations with universities, awarding bodies and Ministers about what we think we can glean by way of subject content that would make a material difference to the value of the qualification.

Q623 Ian Mearns: I understand that the Minister, who is sitting behind you, and also John Hayes, wrote to you at the end of last year, looking for assurances about the appropriateness of the level of fees being charged by exam boards. Are the fees charged by exam boards completely justified, and can they justify above-inflation increases for GCSEs, for example?

Glenys Stacey: Just looking at the crude facts, a GCSE at the moment is about £27 for the qualification. If it is modular, it is about £30. That includes marking, so the entire piece is a little short of £30. In 2002-03, schools spent £154 million on qualifications, and there were 1,459 different types of qualifications on the performance tables, so 1,500 for £150 million. In 2009-10 expenditure has doubled-it is £303 million-but there are 5,285 different types of qualifications on the performance table register. The cost drivers here are re-sits, late entrants-I believe there is an increasing tendency to enter candidates late, and awarding bodies charge for that-but also the cost in a number of vocational qualifications; that tends to be a real driver for the upward rise of costs in schools.

Whether those costs are currently justified is another question. I have to admit that my take in my first year has been that I have looked at the rate of inflation, I have looked at these core figures and I have looked at the real issues that we have to deal with on standards, and our focus has been very much on standards. The Minister is sitting behind me. I can recollect a conversation with him when I was first in post, where I discussed with him that our priorities would be in the standards arena in our first year.

Q624 Ian Mearns: Given the increase in terms of overall costs to the system from £154 million to £303 million in a relatively short space of time, that surely has to be an area of concern?

Glenys Stacey: It is interesting that, in A-levels, the cost has reduced. They cost less than they did three years ago. That is a technical issue around changes in the modularisation of those qualifications. As I say, the cost drivers are really what we need to focus on. A big one, as I understand it, is around the bag of vocational qualifications. Professor Alison Wolf’s report is helpful there. The Government have acted on that in making changes to the performance tables that will play through over time on the total cost of qualifications to schools and colleges.

Amanda Spielman: The other big driver has been the increase in the numbers of qualifications taken by the average pupil. The work we put out last winter suggested that, in general, cost by qualification was not a driver of the growth in cost.

Q625 Ian Mearns: Do you think that changing to a single board or franchise system would have an impact on costs and fees?

Glenys Stacey: If we look at single providers in other industries, BT, for example, was a single provider, and I did not notice my bills going down in that era. I do not see that there would be an incentive to reduce cost. One of the things that boards compete on now, which we discussed briefly earlier, is price: not only the list price but the deal.

Q626 Ian Mearns: Are you sure that exam boards would continue to offer minority interest qualifications that may be loss-making from their perspective?

Glenys Stacey: I do not see that we could guarantee that on a single-provider or franchise model. I suppose it would depend on the technical terms of the contract and the arrangement you are setting out. We know, and I am sure that you will have been told, about the cross-subsidisation of qualifications. Some qualifications, particularly at GCSE, that have relatively small but not insignificant intakes are definitely cross-subsidised by the bigger subjects-English, for example. It they were to be offered at their true cost, there would be a deep impact on schools.

Q627 Ian Mearns: Given your lack of certainty, do you think you need more teeth in that case?

Glenys Stacey: More teeth in what sense?

Ian Mearns: In terms of regulating cost and fees across the board and the availability of subjects for examination.

Glenys Stacey: I suspect we can and will do more when the time is right to understand better the cross-subsidisation economics. We simply know at the moment that they exist. We do not need more powers to do that. It is a question of prioritisation.

Q628 Damian Hinds: I would like to talk more about competition. I am not sure how much evidence there is of price competition. It would be interesting if we could find out the actual discounting and deal-making activity. From what we do know, it looks like a fairly price-stable market, where if you step out of line by putting your prices up you lose a bunch of share. There is not too much evidence of people cutting their prices in order to grab it.

Glenys Stacey: May I take the opportunity to write to the Committee with some examples that we are aware of as to how this actually works in practice? They will be anecdotal rather than a comprehensive evidence base, but they will be representative of how it works.

Q629 Damian Hinds: I may be about to invite you to make some anecdotal evidence observations in any case. We talked earlier about why schools might choose one exam board over another. Do we have any intelligence about how they actually do so?

Glenys Stacey: I have certainly asked that question, but as the Chairman has explained to me on past occasions, when a regulator asks a question, she does not always get the straight goods.

Chair: It is disgraceful.

Glenys Stacey: Amanda has much more experience than me of the sector and how it operates, so perhaps she could enlighten the Committee.

Amanda Spielman: Yes, I can, at two levels. First of all, there are data about entries by board, so we can see where trends exist and we are starting to work to make sure we understand likely explanations for the trends better. Secondly, we are working to get better feedback loops from schools and teachers. It is one of the things that has, in a sense, been a little bit neglected in the regulatory model in the past. There has been a lot of focus on feedback from universities. The early-warning system is schools and teachers and their behaviour in relation to qualifications, so we need to make sure that we use the information that is available, and, if we need to, capture more to get the signals.

Q630 Damian Hinds: You have embarked on that journey. This may be the invitation to provide anecdotes. The glaringly obvious example is the WJEC march to prominence in a small number of subjects. At the macro level there has not been that much movement in its share, but in GCSE English, short-course RE and A-level French, something is happening. What?

Glenys Stacey: I have two things to say about that. Firstly-and this is anecdotal-I recollect the English teacher in a very respectable independent girls’ school telling me that she had recently transferred to WJEC. When I asked why, she said it was because the levels of service were so impressive. There is a different model operating at WJEC in relation to the service offering around it.

Q631 Damian Hinds: Just to be clear, what is service in this case?

Glenys Stacey: It is responsiveness, particularly in relation to any concerns one might have about the nature of the assessment or the outcome. There is more to be picked at there.

Damian Hinds: No kidding.

Glenys Stacey: I am hoping that you are going to take a job with us soon, Damian, because you are always thinking as we are thinking. It will hopefully be a pleasure for you to hear that we are making some changes at Ofqual to build the capabilities that we need. We have spoken a great deal about standards and expertise here. Yes, all of that needs to happen, but there is also a requirement to establish a data-analysis hub. We have statisticians. We are bringing them into one place. A lot of data are provided to us by awarding bodies on switching, for example. We need to be on top of those data and interrogate them, and then talk with schools and understand, in a timely manner, what they are telling us. I am very aware of that.

Q632 Chair: Are the awarding bodies giving you all the data you want, when you want them?

Glenys Stacey: Yes. I had a meeting with awarding bodies chief executives just this week, on Monday afternoon-was that yesterday?

Chair: Two days ago.

Glenys Stacey: It is Wednesday, isn’t it? We were talking about data exchange. There is no doubt we impose a burden. We estimate the cost of that at the moment to be about £400,000. Much of that is to support requirements set by the National Archives or other places. We have agreed protocols for us in terms of asking for data-having an annual schedule, if you like-and also a protocol for requesting immediate data for those car crash moments. We do not have fundamental difficulties with the awarding bodies about that, but we are working to smooth out expectations. We have certainly made it plain, and they accept, that we can ask for data and they are required to provide them.

Q633 Ian Mearns: Exam board chiefs have called for a debate on the examiners’ role in training seminars and where lines should be drawn. Do you think you should have a role in facilitating this and where do you think the lines should be drawn?

Glenys Stacey: If you will just bear with me, I have some notes that I want to refer to, because they reflect discussions that we have been having in Ofqual and, indeed, with awarding bodies. The bottom line for me is that we want all teachers to have access to information about examinations to support effective teaching, and not just those who pay. There is a clear fairness issue there. It goes without saying, but I will say it: teachers should not be given inappropriate information. Information needs to be exchanged in ways that reduce that risk to a bare minimum. There should be some two-way exchanges, because there is a need for dialogue and feedback both ways-the system does benefit from it-but the risks need to be reduced to a minimum. That is the bottom line.

What we have been doing about that is to have a call for evidence, for which the period has just closed. We had 82 responses as at the end of last week, and we are now analysing them. We think we can make significant changes to the current arrangements to materially reduce the risk but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We will take and are taking the lead on this.

Q634 Ian Mearns: You have called for evidence, but you do not think there is a need for a debate about this issue.

Glenys Stacey: I do not, no. 82 people have responded. We want to talk further with teachers, because any change will have a material impact on them and we need to understand what is valuable and why. We also need to talk more with the awarding bodies, but as the regulator we do not see this as a matter of simple debate and consensus. We need to draw these lines.

Q635 Ian Mearns: Publishing and exams are closely aligned, at Pearson, for instance. How close is too close, and are you satisfied that Pearson has sufficient firewalls in place, as it has told us it does, to prevent any conflict of interest?

Glenys Stacey: You will, I hope, be aware-and the Minister is behind me-that I wrote to the Minister in November last year in relation to the issue of teaching aids and textbooks. We have a programme of work that will complete this year looking at the detail of that and where the lines are drawn. For the moment, awarding bodies are required to have conflict-of-interest procedures in place. They need to confirm with us by May 2012 that they have those-i.e. in a couple of months. As I have said, we will be crawling all over them. But there is more work for us to do to get to the detail of this and get back to you on it.

Q636 Ian Mearns: I am waiting to see what crawling all over them looks like, Glenys. We have heard allegations that Pearson has not been even-handed in its promotion of its own and other endorsed resources to schools, both in terms of branding and links to resources on its website. Have you a particular view on that?

Glenys Stacey: My view is that there are no particular rules at the moment in the market around how products are to be marketed. That is an area of deep interest to us and we are setting out, in our corporate plan, to lift that stone.

Q637 Ian Mearns: That clearly can benefit some pupils and disbenefit others.

Glenys Stacey: Yes, but in a market, one needs to be able to market. The real issue is the integrity and nature of the marketing.

Q638 Pat Glass: There have been deep suspicions about the way in which we have used trust in the system, and it has led to conflicts of interest. We have seen examples in this Committee of branding of a syllabus and a textbook. Do you believe that those who set examination papers should also be able to give training to teachers and write textbooks?

Glenys Stacey: It is a very pertinent question, and there will be different views about it. There are some real benefits in examiners being able to write textbooks. Many examiners currently teach students, and students benefit from that. We are very aware that there is a risk with that, and our data hub and the data-analysis work that we want to do will help us identify where we think that risk is materialising. We need to know the extent to which the risk materialises and judge that against the real benefits of students being taught by teachers who are sufficiently competent, enthusiastic and understanding.

Q639 Pat Glass: One of the biggest risks is to public confidence in the system. Surely that is too big a risk to take?

Amanda Spielman: It works both ways. Many pupils and parents draw confidence from the co-branding of the exam and the textbook. Parents see it as giving their child the best preparation for the qualifications they need. We truly believe that there are no easy answers. We are digging into this and have been talking to exam boards about the precise model they use.

You have pointed out the example of Pearson. There has always been some anxiety about the way the different parts of Pearson interact. We are taking that interrogation to a different level. We have to start with the needs of the education system, of pupils and their teachers, and work from that to what is the best settlement that works for the system, rather than starting from what separates all the pieces so that no possible contact can ever occur. We have to start with the needs of education.

Q640 Chair: Thank you both very much. After the allegations and furore before Christmas, I am glad that our Committee is coming towards the end of its inquiry several months later, because, as you say, I do not think there are any easy answers. It is important, on something as fundamental to our education system as this, that we take a considered, cool look at every issue before coming to a conclusion. Your evidence today has helped us in that regard, so thank you both very much.

Glenys Stacey: If you would like to hear from us about our international research or national research at A-level, or indeed to go through our draft corporate plan for the next three years with us, we would very much welcome the chance to speak with you about those things. I will leave the textbook.

Neil Carmichael: Marvellous.

Chair: Neil will read it this weekend and bring it back for the rest of us on Monday.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for Schools, Department for Education, gave evidence.

Q641 Chair: Good morning, Minister. Welcome to this meeting, on this historic day in Parliament, historic not just for the Budget but for your presence here talking about awarding bodies. My colleagues and I will probe you in detail about the awarding bodies and the structure of our examinations system. Can I start off by asking about the accountability system we have? Is there a danger, when we look at the awarding bodies, that we are failing to see the bigger picture, which is that we put too much weight on qualifications-GCSEs in particular-and that we need to recognise changes there, rather than thinking that we will find all the solutions in how we organise exams?

Mr Gibb: The primary purpose of GCSEs and A-levels is to accredit the hard work and the education achieved by the young people taking those examinations. That is the prime purpose. The secondary purpose-but an important purpose-is as an accountability measure for the schools where those qualifications are taken. Our view is that the best education jurisdictions around the world have very rigorous external accountability measures. It would be a mistake not to have such an accountability measure in our state education system.

Q642 Chair: Are you open to changing the accountability measures so that they provide a broader accountability for schools in particular?

Mr Gibb: We are definitely open to these issues. We have already made significant changes since we came into office. We have put significantly more data into the public domain, and there will be more to come. For example, there are now columns in the performances tables that show how well a school is equipping children of low ability based on their Key Stage 2 results and children of high ability based on their Key Stage 2 results-achieving level five or more. There are columns for children eligible for free school meals, showing how children from disadvantaged backgrounds fare in a particular school in their GCSE results. In the future, you could have columns that show the proportion of A and A* grades at GCSE, which addresses a concern that I know you have about the over focus on the C/D borderline in some schools.

We introduced the concept of the English Baccalaureate in order to try to provide a counterweight to the perverse incentive in the accountability measure to move towards what are termed softer subjects. Those subjects all have their value, but not if they are at the expense of some of the core academic subjects that are important for progression, the facilitating subjects, such as maths, English, science, modern languages and humanities. Those are important subjects, and there has been a decline in recent years in the take up of history, geography and, in particular, modern languages. The concept of the English Baccalaureate as an accountability measure has had a very real effect on the options that this year’s Year 10 have gone for.

Ian Mearns: Chairman, I cannot believe what I have just heard.

Chair: It was a slip, dear colleague, but you may want to press the Minister.

Mr Gibb: Sorry, it is a performance measure, not an accountability measure.

Chair: For the record, it is not an accountability measure, is it?

Mr Gibb: It is not an accountability measure.

Chair: I am delighted that is clear.

Q643 Chair: When we come to think about reforming the examinations system, what lessons can we learn from our experience of delivering national curriculum tests?

Mr Gibb: These are some of the issues that we are considering. You have been debating and questioning whether there should be one awarding body or whether we should have a franchise model with one awarding body being responsible for one particular qualification. There are arguments for and against that. One of the arguments against it-one of the concerns and risks that that would present-is the national curriculum problem that we faced as a country under the previous Administration in 2008, where the administration of the national curriculum tests went very wrong.

Q644 Chair: It takes us back to the earlier talk about air crash investigators and car crash investigators. When you have one system and one single awarding body, then the risk of having an air crash as opposed to a car crash is somewhat increased, and that is what we had with SATS: it was a major national disaster as opposed to a smaller local difficulty.

Alex Cunningham: You are more likely to be killed in a car crash than in a plane crash.

Mr Gibb: You can take these metaphors too far sometimes. The argument on the other side, as you were discussing earlier with Ofqual when you had Glenys Stacey and Amanda Spielman before you, is that there is systemic risk element to having awarding bodies competing for market share. That is fine if they are competing on price or service level. It is not fine if they are competing in a way that means that they advertise, for example, that you are more likely to get a particular grade if you use their exam. That would not be what we would want to see in competition between awarding bodies.

Q645 Damian Hinds: How do you think competition in this market works, both the good bits and the bad bits?

Mr Gibb: That is something that we are carefully examining and looking at. You could argue that in this country we have developed and inherited a system that rewards awarding organisations with an incentive to provide the most accessible, in Charlotte Leslie’s term, examination in order to increase market share. That is why we strengthened the powers of Ofqual and I am pleased that we have a separate Ofqual, as an independent regulator, separate from the QCA, as it used to be. Since we came into office we have increased the powers of Ofqual, giving it a power to fine awarding organisations. I am delighted with the people who we have running Ofqual. They take a very forensic approach to regulation, and that is the direction that we need to be going in: looking at the evidence, being forensic about the data, and then coming to a considered opinion about what is actually happening in the real world.

Q646 Damian Hinds: At the risk of déjà vu all over again, I would like to ask you the same question I asked Glenys Stacey. I can understand why we want competition in textbooks, support materials and blah, blah, blah. I can understand why we want competition in operations, partly to mitigate systemic risk. Why would we ever want to have competition in terms of setting the specification for the subject and setting the exam questions?

Mr Gibb: That is a good question, and one we are considering. We were very shocked by the errors in marking that happened in last summer. We were also concerned about the Daily Telegraph revelations over the seminars. We are not ruling anything out or in. This is a system that has evolved over time. There were all the various examination boards-JMB and so on-that stemmed from the university sector. There were far more than the three or four major awarding bodies that we have now in those years. That is why we are where we are.

The question is, do we want to go one step further and reduce the three or four down to one? That is an issue that you are debating and that is why this inquiry is very welcome. We will look very carefully at your conclusions, but we are considering all these options and discussing them within the Department at the moment.

Q647 Damian Hinds: In terms of choice, within a subject, what are the arguments for having multiple bodies setting exams as opposed to one body with some choice and flexibility in the syllabus?

Mr Gibb: As Glenys Stacey said, it is about encouraging innovation-being able to adapt to new demands from the sector and from schools. That is an argument. It is about making sure that there is an incentive to innovate in terms of modern assessment methods, looking around the world at best practice and so on, and also in terms of price.

Q648 Damian Hinds: Do you think those incentives to innovate are there now?

Mr Gibb: Yes, I think they are there and the bodies do innovate. The awarding bodies are discussing and developing new syllabuses all the time. There is, for example, concern about ICT in the country and there is a demand for a high-quality computer science GCSE, so there are those kinds of innovations.

Q649 Damian Hinds: Is that based on looking at what the best examining bodies in the world are doing and what our competitors in China, Singapore, Germany and America are doing, or is it some other pressure creating that change?

Mr Gibb: I don’t know. That particular change, with regard to computer science, is coming from within our country: the fact that the numbers taking ICT GCSE are in decline, and the industry is telling us that we need more people who are equipped with computer science skills and knowledge. That is where that pressure is coming from. How the awarding bodies then develop the specification is more of a mystery. I hope that they look at international evidence. It is certainly something that we look at, and Ofqual now has a duty to look at it.

Q650 Damian Hinds: You have raised an important aspect that is new to our discussions today, although this Committee keeps coming up against it: whenever we have employers, they always talk about their concerns, firstly, about qualifications and how some do not do what it says on the tin, and secondly about the employability skills that they are looking for in young people, as they are concerned that those are not fully reflected in what happens in schools. We always say to them, "So, what are you doing about it?" and they say, "Well, what can we do?" Is there enough of a link between what business wants and the economy needs, and what gets tested and, by extension, what gets taught? If not, how do we make it better?

Mr Gibb: That is a policy issue that rests with the Department and with Ministers. It is something that we are very concerned about. We are concerned that it is possible to get good grades at GCSE English and maths and still present problems to employers in terms of literacy and arithmetic and maths skills. To an extent, that is part of the curriculum: how the curriculum is drafted and then turned into a specification by the awarding bodies. It is also, to an extent, an assessment issue for Ofqual. It is a question of whether it is possible to pass those exams and yet not be fully conversant with the whole syllabus-to have major issues with part of the syllabus and yet to do sufficiently well on other parts to enable you to secure a good grade overall.

Q651 Damian Hinds: Finally from me: if we were to move to, say, a franchise system, does that require primary legislation and how much upheaval and time do you think is involved?

Mr Gibb: I think it would require primary legislation. If I am wrong, I will write and correct that for the record. That is not the concern, however: the concern would be the risks involved in moving to one body, as we discussed earlier. There is an issue about multiple reform: if you are reforming the curriculum, putting in changes to modularisation, and looking at those issues and an increased emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar at the same time as a major restructuring of the awarding organisations, that presents risks.

Notwithstanding all that, we are looking at all these issues, because there are concerns out there in the country: concerns that arose from what happened last summer; concerns arising from the work that Durham University and Peter Tymms, who was mentioned earlier, have been conducting over the years; and the concerns of universities and employers. These are all issues that policymakers have to take into account when addressing these issues.

Q652 Neil Carmichael: Can I just slip in a question about national subject committees? We have heard Ofqual’s answer this morning. To be fair, we have discussed this in relative detail in this Committee recently. It does seem to be a possibility that such structures could bring together several strands of education policy, such as career pathways for teachers, the issue of curriculum development and examination marking, and also the interface with universities and business. What are your views about the possibility of using national subject committees as an instrument?

Mr Gibb: We have said on record that we want there to be a closer link between the development of A-levels and universities and learned societies, learned bodies, where the knowledge and specialism rest. That is important. In terms of developing a national curriculum, you need experts to help draft that, but once you have a draft of a programme of study that is ready for publication, we need to have maximum consultation, not just with subject specialists but with all the people who will use that national curriculum: teachers, parents, industry, employers and universities. We need as wide a debate as possible when we come to discuss the development of the national curriculum. I would not want that just to lie with a group of experts in an ivory tower. It has to be as wide as possible. But certainly with regard to A-levels, we want there to a very close connection between universities and learned bodies.

Q653 Ian Mearns: Some GCSEs introduced by the last Government are being awarded for the first time this summer. Since you have come into power, the Government have announced further changes that will take effect from summer 2014. Further changes will probably take place after the implementation of the national curriculum review. Is there too much going on in terms of Government involvement in changes to the system?

Mr Gibb: We have a duty as a Government to address the concerns that the country has. There are issues: we are ending modularisation of GCSEs. We think GCSEs are too small a qualification to warrant modularisation and it results in young people not necessarily connecting all the elements of a subject together. Moving to an end-of-course exam for GCSEs is the right approach. We are introducing spelling, punctuation and grammar as 5% of the marks in subjects that require written work, such as history, religious studies and English literature, as well as English language, where it already exists. That takes effect in exams taken after September 2012. These are important reforms. When the review of the national curriculum is complete, that of course will also feed in to the GCSE.

Q654 Ian Mearns: When do you expect that to be, Minister?

Mr Gibb: We have said that we want the review ready-for schools to have it in September 2013, with a view to teaching it the following year, so that they have a year’s lead-in.

Q655 Ian Mearns: Neil has already asked you about the idea of the national subject committees. Who do you think should convene them?

Mr Gibb: The learned bodies and societies are an important part of our educational infrastructure in this country-the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, and so on. These are very important organisations and they are playing and will continue to play a very important role in the development of the national curriculum and also in the development of our A-levels.

Q656 Ian Mearns: There may be an element of laissez-faire there. Do you not think Ofqual should oversee the process, just to make sure that it is happening in a properly thought-out and structured way?

Mr Gibb: As you heard from Glenys Stacey, Ofqual is involved in the national curriculum review. We discuss these issues frequently with Ofqual, but what is in the national curriculum is ultimately a policy issue. Ofqual’s role is as a regulator, to ensure that standards are maintained over time and that they are comparable between qualifications. It also has the new objective of ensuring that they are in line with the best qualifications around the world.

Q657 Ian Mearns: In the way that you have portrayed it, is there not a danger that you might have competing national subject committees being established?

Mr Gibb: This notion of a national subject committee is a notion that you are discussing.

Q658 Ian Mearns: It is out there. We are discussing it because it is an idea that is out there.

Chair: It floated in.

Mr Gibb: As far as the national curriculum review is concerned, we did not start from the line of establishing a committee of the great and the good in maths or physics to deliberate and come up with a programme of study. We have taken a slightly different approach, of having an expert panel, which has looked at the international evidence. We have published its report, and the report of the gathering of the international evidence. We have published a review of the consultation responses: there were nearly 6,000 responses to our call for evidence. We are trying to make this a much more outward-facing approach to curriculum development than in the past, where a closed group of people in the QCA would come up with something.

Q659 Ian Mearns: Some of the best comparators that you look at on an international basis have Government-controlled single awarding bodies.

Mr Gibb: What, around the world?

Ian Mearns: Yes.

Mr Gibb: I agree, and we are unusual in this country in having a range of awarding organisations. None the less, being unusual does not make it wrong: there are downsides to the approach but there are also upsides to it, and that is what we are looking at.

Q660 Chair: Have you made an assessment of what would be required to change? You might decide that it would be better to have a single awarding body, but you might equally decide that getting from here to there means that the benefits you would get are offset by the cost of change. There is an excellent quote from Colin McCaig, who looked into the crises at the beginning of the last decade: "Change often has unexpected consequences, not least in education policy. Intentions do not always translate into the expected outcomes. Administrative change can produce unforeseen practical problems." That is a perfect description of most of what I have seen while sitting on this Committee for the past number of years. How mindful are you of the risks of change?

Mr Gibb: As a Conservative, I always think of Lord Palmerston: "Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?" But all the issues that have been mooted around this Committee today are things that we are thinking about and considering: both the risks and advantages of changing our system. All these things are uppermost in our minds, and are actively being considered at the moment.

Q661 Chair: Could you share with us, just to inform us at this final session, what your concerns would be and what issues need to be considered if we were to move from where we are now to, say, a single awarding body?

Mr Gibb: All the risks were, I thought, very well set out by Glenys Stacey. For example, if you have one awarding organisation and you come to the end of the franchise period or contract period and try to renegotiate, and there is really no alternative to that body to provide an alternative bid, you find yourselves, as a Government, over the barrel financially in terms of contract negotiations. You put in the risk of anything going wrong becoming a plane crash, rather than a car crash. I take the point of Mr Cunningham that fewer people die in air crashes than on the roads in our country and around the world, but I think that is a significant risk as well.

Q662 Ian Mearns: Would you rather be in a car crash or a plane crash?

Mr Gibb: Our desire is to be in no crashes at all. Air traffic control is the right approach.

Neil Carmichael: Absolutely.

Mr Gibb: There is the issue of innovation, and so on. On the other hand, we worry about the seminars that were held, the problems with marking last summer and the systemic incentives within the current system in terms of obtaining market share. We continue to consider those issues and will have more to say in due course.

Q663 Chair: If we move to a single awarding body, in truth that would need a vast investment on the part of whoever was conducting it. It would either be within Government-although I assume that would be less likely to be implemented by this Government than by the previous one-or, if it was not conducted by Government, then if you look across the landscape of major awarding bodies in this country, probably the only one that could scale up and deliver would be the only one run for profit, which is Pearson. Do you think that analysis is correct or not?

Mr Gibb: We are looking at all these issues. We have some very effective awarding bodies-OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC and so on. There are a lot of awarding bodies that do an excellent job, providing very high-quality qualifications to hundreds of thousands of candidates every year, and I think that they are all capable of providing whatever it is that they are being asked to provide.

Q664 Alex Cunningham: So you do not agree that we should just hand the whole thing over to the profit-making sector, then? We must have it across different organisations but perhaps structured in very different way.

Mr Gibb: I do not think it really matters what the structure behind the body is, provided that the bodies are properly incentivised to provide the kind of qualifications that we want. You could achieve Mr Stuart’s objective by splitting one specification among various awarding bodies to deliver it on the ground. There are a whole host of models, profit making and not for profit, and so on.

Q665 Alex Cunningham: That is what I meant by the structure: the way they deliver, not what they are being asked to deliver, whether it was for one subject or across different subjects.

Mr Gibb: Yes, you could do either, and we are looking at all these models. You could have a very tight specification provided from central Government and ask the different awarding bodies to deliver it and mark it and so on.

Q666 Alex Cunningham: When will we know what the future model is going to look like?

Chair: After our report and not before.

Mr Gibb: Or maybe before. We are actively talking about these things. It is a pity I cannot be a bit more forthcoming, but decisions are taken at different times and that decision has not been taken.

Q667 Chair: Just to return to the earlier point about subject committees and the like, you have said that you want to see greater involvement of HE and learned societies, but you have not really spelt out very well how you would envisage that happening. Of the proposals we have put to you, you have suggested that the subject committees are not necessarily the right approach. I am trying to understand what is. The Government have been saying this for quite some time, so you would think they might have formulated some idea of how it could be implemented.

Mr Gibb: We are quite advanced in terms of our thinking, but we will announce these things when they are fully thought through. We are also waiting for some bits of research: Ofqual, as you heard, is doing some research into A-levels, and we are also doing our own research into the problems that universities feel A-levels are presenting at the moment. Those pieces of research will be coming out very soon, and we want to get their results, in terms of what it is we are trying to address as the problem with A-levels. We are talking to universities and learned bodies about the future. There is a lot enthusiasm for the approach in the two sectors, and greater involvement of the universities and learned societies is the way ahead.

Q668 Chair: I am trying to square the general approach that you are setting out today with that of the Secretary of State. Before Christmas, he said that the whole system was discredited. That is very strong language. You are not sounding like a member of a team who thinks the whole thing is fundamentally discredited. You are sounding a little more cautious today. Is that fair?

Mr Gibb: There are problems with the perception of our qualifications. They are criticised heavily by employers and universities, and we have to address that as policymakers. But hundreds of thousands of young people take these qualifications every year who work very hard to take them, and teachers work very hard in preparing young people for GCSEs and A-levels. To achieve a good grade in either of those qualifications requires as much work today, if not more, than in Damian Hinds’ day, years and years ago, when he took his qualifications. So that is an important point to put on the record.

None the less, as policymakers, we have to address the concerns that have been presented to us by universities and employers that young people are no longer leaving our school system as well prepared for the world of work as they should be, or as well prepared in some of the fundamental skills of writing and arithmetic and the fundamental knowledge that they need to start a course at university as they should be. We have to address those issues. Some of that may well be the way that GCSEs and A-levels are structured. If you have fewer open questions and less demand in the exams for long essays, there will be less incentive for schools to ensure that young people are practised in those skills.

Q669 Chair: I suppose, whether you would use the word "discredited" or not about the system, the question is that if there are problems in our current examination system-and there are a number that people come up with-are they primarily driven by the structure of the way we deliver it, or have they been driven by policy? Is it policy and change of policy that has led to alleged dumbing down and examinations that do not encourage the broadest possible learning?

Mr Gibb: I think it is a combination of both. The reason why we are reviewing the national curriculum is that we are concerned about what is in its recent iterations. We think that is has become overblown and is trying to micro-manage every minute of the school day. We want to slim it down to a core body of essential knowledge in the core academic subjects that young people need. If we were to do that, it may go some way to addressing these problems. But there are also problems in the structure of the examinations. There is competition, if you like, within those who are devising these assessments, between reliability and the ability of a candidate to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a more creative way. That is a tension that has led to some of the problems.

Q670 Neil Carmichael: Can I return to the national subject committees? You have quite rightly said how important it is to involve universities and indeed business, but of course not every school leaver goes to university, not every subject necessarily leads to a university outcome, and not every career requires a university degree. It seems to me that, nationally, the approach to a subject should be able to encompass the various different directions of travel that subject might lead to. That is why I am pressing this point: it is not just a university destination, is it? It has to be FE, for example, and so on. How would you incorporate the views of those organisations and of business?

Mr Gibb: Alison Wolf was very clear in her report that all young people need to achieve a certain degree of academic achievement by the time they are 16, regardless of where they then go on to. She is particularly concerned about maths and English, and that in this country too large a proportion are leaving compulsory education, and indeed leaving school at 18, still without having achieved a grade C in maths and English GCSE. That is very important. Wherever you are going-whether you are going into an apprenticeship or straight into work, or into FE or higher education-you need, as a young person, to have these skills well embedded. We need to do more to do that, and we are doing more to help young people who have not achieved those qualifications to achieve them after the age of 16.

Q671 Neil Carmichael: That is really my point. You need to be competent in maths and English whether or not you are going to university. If you look at the issues about employees, for example, in the hotel industry or in skilled labour, then, certainly in my constituency, I still hear about problems. A large firm-Hotel du Vin, I think-said that it can only recruit 40% of the employees it needs from Britain, because it could not find enough who were properly capable in maths and English, and in ordinary communication.

Chair: A brief answer from the Minister before we return to the awarding bodies.

Mr Gibb: I share your view. Terry Leahy, when he was chief executive of Tesco, made very similar points. Education is not about getting a raft of certificates. It is about leaving school as educated as you can be. If our certificate-awarding process is hampering that, we need to do something about the certificate-awarding process. There is some evidence that the structure we have at the moment is not delivering the kind of education that Terry Leahy wants for his employees, that FE wants for its students and that higher education wants for its undergraduates.

Q672 Charlotte Leslie: Going back to the idea of change, and "aren’t things bad enough already?" lots of people have come to us and said that a stronger Ofqual would be more effective than organisational reform of the system. Firstly, do you agree, and secondly, do you think there is merit in letting the strengthening of Ofqual bed down, to see what the new landscape looks like, before making any decisions about organisational reform?

Mr Gibb: It is a good question. We have strengthened Ofqual, because we agree with that element of your question. We need a strong regulator. There is no point in making a regulator’s task 10 times harder by having a system that provides all kinds of powerful incentives that Ofqual will find problematic and unable to regulate. It is better if you have a system that incentivises high standards in our education system, and then Ofqual could regulate that. I think that is the best approach.

Q673 Charlotte Leslie: In terms of Ofqual, do you think its focus should be on standards and comparability as opposed to economic regulation, as Alison Wolf said?

Mr Gibb: It needs to be both. When you have the state as the major purchaser of these qualifications, and when education is compulsory by law, there is an element of a captured market so far as the public are concerned. They have to buy these qualifications through their schools, and therefore there is an element of necessity in having a regulator on the economic side as well as a regulator for the standards. I think it can do both and has the expertise to regulate both sides of that.

Q674 Charlotte Leslie: I know that the Government have already strengthened Ofqual. What other areas do you think may need further strengthening? Do you think its assessment expertise is an area that could need further strengthening? Are there still areas in which you would like to give Ofqual more teeth?

Mr Gibb: We talk to Ofqual regularly. It would raise these issues with us if it felt that it did not have sufficient expertise and it felt it did not have the resources to provide that expertise. At the moment, it believes it can recruit people to the board. All elements of Whitehall have to perform within the financial constraints that the country is imposing at the moment on the public sector. But if there was a need, Ofqual would come to us and we would look at it very carefully.

Q675 Charlotte Leslie: In terms of teeth and providing challenge as opposed to reassurance, what kind of challenges has Ofqual presented to you so far?

Mr Gibb: It believes very much in an evidence-based approach, as we do, but that presents issues. When you look around the world at other qualifications, and say, "Let’s do a piece of work on A-levels," that is easy to ask, but very difficult to deliver. We tend to have three or four subjects at A-level, whereas in other countries pupils may be taking a wider range of subjects up to 18, and therefore the exams they take at 18 in a particular subject may look weaker than an English A-level in that particular subject, even though that country’s overall education system may be higher in the PISA table than ours.

There are all kinds of issues. It can become very complicated, as Glenys and Amanda hinted. You have to look not just at the actual qualification and whether the pass mark is 28 or 29, but also at the syllabus, the textbooks, the curriculum and so on in making these judgments. That is a challenge to us. We set this objective. It was very easy to write into law. It is a very easy question to ask Ofqual, but the results coming back can be very challenging.

Q676 Charlotte Leslie: Returning to my first question, given that there will, rightly, be challenges that the Government and others respond to, and there will be a change in landscape as Ofqual finds its feet with a stronger role, what do you think is the time balance? If you are going to change things in science, you do so one variable at a time, so that you can measure action and outcome, and have a much clearer relationship between each outcome and each action. Can you give us any further clarity on the timing of how structural reform to exams will take place against the context of a changing and strengthened Ofqual?

Mr Gibb: In terms of reforms to GCSE, we have made some immediate changes to spelling, punctuation and grammar, and some changes to modularisation. Ofqual itself has made some changes in terms of geography. That was an urgent concern for it following some revelations. It has also made some changes to history, maths and French, I think, in modern languages. That is to ensure that the exams are structured in a way that does not enable a candidate to focus on a very narrow part of the syllabus and still be able to get a good grade.

Ofqual is also doing a larger piece of work about the health of our qualification system. That will probably take until the end of 2013. There are also all the changes that will have to be implemented as a consequence of the changes to the national curriculum. There is a lot of change going on and it will take a considerable period of time to implement everything.

Q677 Charlotte Leslie: One final question, which is slightly unrelated. I know that Damian has done a lot of work on this. How do you see the role and accountability of JCQ in terms of all this? I know that Damian has done quite a lot of work on what powers it actually has and its accountability to the electorate and to Government. Do you have any views on that?

Mr Gibb: I do not have strong views on this. It is a matter really for Ofqual. JCQ has an important role in all the issues that Glenys Stacey set out in terms of timing and co-ordination. It also plays an important role in investigating malpractice: if there are accusations that there has been bad administration of an exam in a particular school or setting, it has a role in investigating that malpractice. It plays an important role, but I think that is a matter for Ofqual.

Q678 Chair: For the record, I think the four subjects were English, maths, history and geography, rather than French.

Mr Gibb: Thank you.

Q679 Pat Glass: We have been conducting this inquiry for some months now, and it feels a little like being the person who comes to the crossroads to ask directions, and is told, "Well, wherever you are going to, do not start from here." It appears that there is no perfect system: there are advantages and disadvantages with every system that we look at, and there are risks with all of them. What do you think? You have clearly been looking at this. I do not want you to give us the details of what you are going to come out with, but what do you think are the greatest risks that you want to avoid and the greatest advantages that you are looking for?

Mr Gibb: The biggest risk that we are trying to avoid is having a system that itself incentivises behaviour that is not what we want to see in our schools. That is not to say that I think there is grade inflation or a real dumbing down of the system in order to gain market share. All I am saying is that we have a system that appears to incentivise that and it seems an odd thing to have created. That is the risk that I personally would like to see addressed. It can be addressed in a number of ways, by further strengthening of the regulator, for example, or all kinds of different approaches. But it is something that I think needs to be addressed. It evolved due to history and so on.

In terms of the risks that might confront, there are the issues that I raised earlier: we do not want to put all our eggs in one basket. That is a very real risk.

Q680 Pat Glass: Do you think that the current system, where we have exam providers offering training and endorsing textbooks, is producing a dependency culture among teachers and narrowing the curriculum?

Mr Gibb: It is an issue, and Ofqual have had a call for evidence about it. That has now closed, and it will be reporting on it soon, which will be very interesting. When you see Mark Walport talking about the practice of awarding bodies endorsing textbooks directed at helping candidates to pass exams rather than to understand the subject in depth, which came out of his report the year before last, then that is a very real concern expressed by somebody who is very senior in the scientific world, and we have to address that concern. Textbooks should not be a step-by-step guide to getting a good grade in an exam. They should be all about the subject. If a candidate wants to go beyond the exam and read in depth, that should be available in the textbooks we give to young people in schools.

Q681 Pat Glass: Given that, do you think that the practice we have at the moment-we were shown, as I mentioned earlier, a textbook and a syllabus that looked exactly the same-is restricting inquisitive minds and restricting the curriculum? Can I ask the same question I asked earlier: do you believe that people who are setting exams should also be delivering training and writing textbooks?

Mr Gibb: That last question is something that Ofqual is looking into. To an extent we have to wait to see what it has to say. There is a case for an examiner being able to say what you should ensure as a minimum is being taught in your schools. What would be wrong is when the examiner starts to say how to get a good grade in a particular exam or what you should focus on or starts to give hints about what is in the exam. That would be very wrong.

Q682 Pat Glass: What about endorsed textbooks?

Mr Gibb: I have referred to Mark Walport. Other people have said similar things. It is an issue that I have a concern about. I would like to see young people reading textbooks in schools that go beyond simply what you need to get an A* in a GCSE.

Q683 Chair: On specifications, you said that your biggest concern is to get rid of the incentive to lower quality. Going back to Damian’s earlier question about how exactly awarding bodies compete, an obvious area would be to look at the specification, and to take away bodies’ ability to specify what is going to be in the exam and to engineer the lowest possible level while exceeding the regulator’s minimum standard. What do you think?

Mr Gibb: That is an option. We will wait to see what your Committee has to say about that. It is certainly an option. You could make the GCSE subject criteria far tighter than they are as another way of delivering that. You can make the national curriculum tighter in terms of subject content. There are a whole host of ways you can address that. Certainly the proposal that you have suggested is something that requires serious consideration.

Q684 Neil Carmichael: The Government have said they are concerned about the numbers of students getting higher grades-grade inflation. What do you think are the principle causes of that?

Mr Gibb: In terms of grade inflation, I am relying on the work of Professor Tymms at Durham University. He says that between 1996 and 2007 the grades of candidates of similar ability have increased by two-thirds of a grade. In A-levels, it is two grades. In some subjects like maths, it is a whole grade at GCSE. That evidence needs to be considered. What was your particular point again?

Q685 Neil Carmichael: I was wondering what you thought the causes of grade inflation were.

Mr Gibb: Some of it may not be grade inflation. Candidates are working very hard. Part of that two-thirds, or two grades at A-level, is, I am sure, because candidates are working harder. They may be being taught better. We cannot say that this is all grade inflation. We have a criterion-based grading system, and I am sure that an element of that will be because our young people are delivering a better outcome in their exams. But we cannot be sure that all of it is that, and we have to some research into that to make sure there is no inherent inflation in the system.

Q686 Neil Carmichael: In the context of the debate that we have been having-we have referred to the events just before Christmas with the Daily Telegraph revelations and so on-is there a danger that any reform of the exam system might end up being interpreted or promoted as a response to the standards problem, rather than what children are actually learning in a classroom and how they are being equipped for their careers?

Mr Gibb: It is all those things, isn’t it? It is a response to what has been happening and it is a response to assuring employers and universities that their concerns are being addressed. That is part of it. In terms of our general sense of direction, we want to look less to the past and more to what is happening in other countries. However good our education system is, it is now recognised internationally that education is the key to economic growth and to getting people out of poverty. We are slipping down the international league tables because other countries are moving faster, and we need to make sure that we keep up. That is why we are putting so much emphasis on international comparisons, and less, perhaps, on the past.

Q687 Neil Carmichael: I think that is absolutely right. International comparisons must be our guide, because, as we all know, there are examples of outstanding delivery elsewhere, which we need to replicate. The Secretary of State has said that the Government are going to make exams tougher. He has also told the Committee that every child should expect that they should leave school with at least a pass at grade C in English and mathematics, so tougher exams, but a higher benchmark. That is not necessarily compatible. How are you going to work through that?

Mr Gibb: We do not just want all young people to have a certificate with a C on it for the sake of having a certificate. We want them to have the underlying knowledge and skills that would give rise to a high quality GCSE in English and maths. It will mean that we want to do more to help those young people who have not managed to get a C in those two subjects by the time they leave compulsory education, and there is a whole range of policies in place post-16 in order to help young people achieve that. It may not necessarily be in a GCSE, if that is not appropriate for those young people. We also need to make sure that a C in those two subjects at GCSE delivers the kinds of skills that Terry Leahy wants for his employees, and that the FE sector wants for its students. These are challenging objectives for the education sector.

Neil Carmichael: Absolutely.

Mr Gibb: There is no short cut. We cannot just pretend that people are achieving these things by manipulating the GCSE. That is not what it is about. It is about the underlying education that those certificates are meant to validate.

Q688 Neil Carmichael: They are really just a signal of what has happened. What has happened in the classroom is actually the important thing. That is what is going to lead children to develop their careers in a much more surefooted way.

Mr Gibb: Exactly.

Q689 Neil Carmichael: Ofqual’s international comparisons of A-levels with other systems found that, as we heard just before, A-levels stood up, "pretty well". Given what we have just been saying about slipping down the ladder in overall international comparisons, were you surprised by that?

Mr Gibb: That was the work conducted by Dennis Opposs, a senior civil servant within Ofqual. He made the point that comparing A-levels with similar qualifications around the world is very challenging. But there are also things that we can learn from those international comparisons, about multiple-choice questions, the use of extended essays, and so on. Those are the elements of that work that we can learn from.

Q690 Neil Carmichael: Presumably the Department is really focusing on those very questions now.

Mr Gibb: Yes, in conjunction with Ofqual, because ultimately assessment issues are for Ofqual. Our A-levels do stand up well in comparisons with other countries, but an element of that is that we do three or four subjects as opposed to six, seven or eight in other countries. You have to take that into account when you are comparing qualifications between one country and another.

Q691 Neil Carmichael: If A-levels are standing up as well as they are, why is it that we still have this overall theme of skills shortages, problems with recruitment and so forth? The difficulty for businesses and for most professions is recruiting people with the right skills. So if we are saying that A-levels are standing up quite well in international comparisons, are we saying that A-levels are doing well in terms of the way in which they are structured and marked, while avoiding the much more fundamental question of whether A- levels are the right thing?

Mr Gibb: That is the question. If the evidence is that the assessment process is not out of kilter, then, if universities are still complaining that somebody with an A-level in the subject that they intend to study at university requires a remedial year or remedial lessons in order to bring them up to the standard that the university wants, and a standard that they are finding in the undergraduates from other countries, we do have to address that issue. That may well be an issue about content, syllabus and specification rather than an issue about how the exam is assessed.

Q692 Neil Carmichael: The danger that has been occurring to me throughout this inquiry-and as Pat has pointed out, it has been a long one-is that we are talking about a relatively narrow part of qualifications: how they are graded, marked and all the rest. Fundamentally, we have to have a proper debate about the qualifications themselves: their suitability and appropriateness to the kind of world of education we expect our young people to be part of and, above all, the careers we expect them to have.

Mr Gibb: Yes. This is an important issue for pre-16, which is why Alison Wolf set out some criteria for the types of vocational qualifications that could and should be taught in schools. As a result of those criteria-which are things like the size of the qualification, the element of external assessment, and whether a qualification leads to progression-96% of the vocational qualifications that were available in schools will no longer count towards performance league tables. That does not mean to say that some of those are not valuable for particular students with particular needs, but it does mean that they will not count towards the performance tables. Schools should be entering young people in the qualifications that are in the interests of the child, which is why we have removed the equivalencies of four, five, six or seven GCSEs for one qualification. They are all now worth one GCSE in order to do that. Post-16 it is a different world. The market is much more powerful in terms of incentivising young people into the right qualifications that will lead them to employment.

Q693 Alex Cunningham: The Government talk about improvements and changes to drive up performance. They talk about dealing with the issue of grade inflation and introducing the 5% for spelling and grammar across several examinations. Where do you expect us to be in terms of grades over the coming years? What is going to happen to our position internationally? Are you prepared to give us a prediction? Are we going to see continually increased grades but ones that will be more valuable? Will we see an improvement in our international league position?

Mr Gibb: It is a very good question. These things take some time: not only do we have to raise standards in our own education system, we also have to work out what is happening internationally. They are not sitting around, around the world, thinking, "Well, we will just sit back for a while and wait for England to catch up." They may well be pushing further ahead. I know that a lot of jurisdictions keep these issues under continual review, and are looking around the world the whole time to match the best.

A lot of these changes will take time. It goes right back to the reforms that we are implementing in primary schools in terms of getting children reading early, getting that right, with the phonic check and so on, and the curriculum review, the changes to the exams and the whole move towards academies in this country. All those reforms are designed to improve education standards in this country. The Secretary of State said recently that he thought it would take 10 years before we see major changes in terms of our international standing. In the meantime, I hope that we will see some evidence of improvement along the way.

Q694 Pat Glass: On that particular issue, Minister, as a Committee we recently visited Singapore. What we have tried to do is look at some of the jurisdictions around the world with the highest qualifications standards. However, we have found that, even with those with the highest standards, there are trade-offs. When we went to Singapore, we saw a very limited curriculum. Children did English, maths and science and practically nothing else. In places like Finland we see very high standards but very high levels of NEETs. There does appear to be a trade-off with these things. We looked at the EBacc; you may not agree with me, but that does appear to bring some limiting of the curriculum. How far are the Government prepared to go in limiting the curriculum to drive up standards in English, maths and science?

Mr Gibb: I think you are right that we have to take the international evidence and understand its context in how we apply it to this country. None the less, we can learn a lot. We can learn a huge amount from looking around the world. I am glad you went to Singapore.

In terms of narrowing the curriculum, I do not believe that the EBacc has done that. I think it has broadened the curriculum. It has ensured that more young people are taking a language or a modern language. The decline in 15 and 16-year-olds taking a modern language, which has happened since 2004, is regrettable. That is a sign of a curriculum narrowing, frankly, and now I think we are going to see it broadening.

Q695 Pat Glass: On that very issue of modern languages, there has been an increase in young people taking modern languages, but when we were in Singapore they were very clear in showing us that the education system there is to deliver jobs, and therefore they looked at what was needed in the world economy and the global market. You said earlier that we need an education system that underpins growth and takes people out of poverty. If that is the case, why are the Government not directing that in modern languages we need to be teaching Portuguese, Spanish and Mandarin, rather than French, German or even Greek and Latin?

Mr Gibb: Baroness Coussins’ committee, which I went to last year, made the point to me that the language in most demand from employers is German. If you think why that might be, it is because the third largest economy in the world is a few hundred miles away from us. The second language most demanded by employers is French. These are still important languages for the British economy. Those other languages you talk about are also important.

Q696 Pat Glass: They are growing in importance.

Mr Gibb: Of course. Countries like Brazil are increasingly important economically. There is an argument that being proficient in one language enables you to learn another language later or at the same time more easily. I do not think that we should resile from the importance of German, French and Spanish in our schools. They are still very important languages.

Chair: Minister, two weeks in a row you have come here and have answered our questions courteously and with some skill. Thank you very much indeed for attending again this morning. We can now look forward to PMQs and the Budget.

Mr Gibb: Thank you very much. See you next week.

Prepared 2nd July 2012