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Secondly, the amendments draw attention to the difference in our approach to this body. As I understand it, the Government compare the actions of Ofqual to making sure that the height of a specific hurdle remains consistent between comparable qualifications and assessments. We, however, want to take action to improve standards. To be more specific, we would prefer there to be an explicit duty in terms of standards, which would mean not only that the height of the hurdle would be regulated but that there would be a robust examination system that would reject anything that would allow standards to fall. The hurdle should not be lowered.

We want an examination system that is comparable to the best across the globe. That would mean that our learners were assessed by exams that would offer them the opportunity for a real rise in standards, not just a nice statistic that shows an increase in the number of passes in a devalued exam. This rigorous examination system would help more of our pupils who work so hard to leap over a hurdle that would put them on a par with the world's best.

We have therefore also tabled Amendment 236, which says that within eight months of being set up Ofqual must publish a report on whether standards of qualifications have been maintained over the past 15 years. This study must include A-levels and GCSEs. We feel that this is a necessary commitment. The Government have constantly told us that standards have risen, yet some of the world's best academics point out that an increase in the number of passes does not mean that standards have risen if the result is just that the exams themselves are easier and the pass mark is lower.

Does the Minister agree that, if part of Ofqual's remit is to reassure people that standards are being regulated, a report of this nature would be useful? We believe that it is necessary because, as the Minister will be only too aware, we are concerned that standards

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have in fact been falling. We are worried that we are failing learners who need the right opportunities, the best teaching and exams that will allow them to demonstrate their learning to their fullest potential.

In my honourable friend Michael Gove's Haberdashers' Aske's lecture, he drew attention to Duncan Lawson from Coventry, who showed that students entering university in 2001 with a B at maths A-level displayed a level of knowledge that 10 years before would have been shown by a student with an N grade or a fail. Professor John Marks, who has been leading a study of GCSE and O-level papers, found that,

He also discovered that,

These are appalling statistics. Does the Minister not see that it is important to create an examination system that not only regulates the standards of exams but helps to ensure that children are not failed by an examination system that no longer guarantees them academic excellence?

For 16 year-olds, the expected minimum standard is five good passes at GCSE, including maths and English. This year, fewer than half of schoolchildren managed to clear that hurdle. We must ensure that standards are maintained at a consistent height between comparable assessments. This is an important concern. We also need to ensure that our assessments are not devalued. We want an examination system that does not allow a progressive decline in standards but upholds them; we need to regulate our exams so that they are comparable to the best in the world.

We draw attention to the fact that in 2008 Ofqual, as one of its first intervening actions, forced AQA to lower the pass mark for its GCSE science paper to 20 per cent. AQA had refused to lower the mark because it considered that it would not be comparable with standards over time and would devalue the exam. Ofqual, however, demanded that AQA reduce the pass mark and thus the standard of this exam was lowered.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has tabled an amendment stating that Ofqual should be able to direct a specific body at a specific time regarding a specific qualification to set a particular standard. Noble Lords will all be aware that we would agree with the principle behind her provision, as long as Ofqual did not direct the body to lower standards. I very much look forward to the Minister's response and I hope that she can offer some reassurances.

On our Amendment 316, the Minister and the Committee will be aware that we have been calling for an independent regulator to monitor exam standards and ensure that they are maintained. When David Cameron was shadow Education Secretary, he stated:

"Reform of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is the one such positive step. It is not acceptable that the QCA, the guardian of our exams, is not independent of the Government".

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We believe that the structure and design of Ofqual should be such that the body has powers to ensure that it can uphold strong and appropriate grade boundaries and thus help to guarantee that our exams and our pass marks are comparable to the best across the globe. At the moment, unfortunately, our qualifications system is struggling in a competitive international market. Standards are failing and we must take action to fix this situation. I am sure that the Minister is just as concerned about this as we are.

This year, 40 per cent of children who left primary school failed to reach the accepted minimum standard for their age in reading, writing and mathematics. In the PISA studies on advanced economies and their educational performance, we dropped from fourth to 14th for science, seventh to 17th for literacy and eighth to 24th for mathematics. This is most dispiriting.

One of the significant concerns that Michael Gove identified in his speech was:

"What looks like a great performance in our state-run exams turns out to be below par when compared internationally".

He raised his concerns about grade inflation, where our students are suffering because, he said:

"The qualifications we offer are no longer so robust".

Our worry here is that, while our students and teachers are putting in enormous amounts of hard graft and effort to pass exams, they are being failed by an exam system that cannot give them the freedom to compete in an international market.

We have therefore asked Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, to review the system of assessment and qualifications in this country. The main aim behind this is to ensure that our exams are internationally competitive again. It is of the utmost importance to secure these standards to make sure that our children are afforded the same opportunities as those from other countries and are stretched to their full potential.

These amendments would add a further dimension to Ofqual. They would bring in an international benchmark to which exam standards should be fixed in order to ensure that they remain competitive. Amendment 226 would insert an international duty into Ofqual's objectives. Amendment 232 expands on this to define the international objective as that included in the comparative study that would be brought in by Amendment 316. I hope that the Minister will consider these amendments in a favourable light, addressing both the principle of international benchmarking and the logistics of the amendments.

4 pm

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 260, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, has already referred to it.

The amendment was put forward by AQA and contains the specific additional power needed for Ofqual to be able to intervene in the rare cases where it is necessary because an awarding body is setting, or intending to set, inconsistent standards. Rapid intervention may be necessary in such cases if Ofqual is to deliver its qualifications standards and public confidence

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objectives. In the case of the GCSE science examination which the noble Baroness cited, Ofqual intervened to lower the pass mark for the other boards. AQA, while it disputed that it had got the standards incorrect, recognised that each awarding body had used different data and analysis to support its process. It also recognised the broader picture and the importance of key issues relating to standards and how to interpret them; and that technical uncertainty was one reason why every year we have arguments about standards-a tradition that clearly is not in the best interests of young people, because it casts doubt on their achievements. Although in this case it may have seemed a curious process that Ofqual was using, AQA and the other awarding bodies recognise that Ofqual should have this power and be able to use it effectively.

We support the part of Ofqual's work that involves monitoring standards, funding research and sampling tests-as laid out in the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas-as well as conducting research that makes it possible to compare standards and performance in England with other OECD countries. However, we have concerns about the very short timescale that the noble Baroness has given-eight months to produce a survey of UK GCSE and A-level qualifications. There is a deal of work there.

Amendment 316 is interesting. I recall being involved some years ago in an EU-funded project called LangCred, which aimed to set benchmarks for language and skill proficiency across the EU. It identified nine skill sectors, including building, commerce, motor vehicle repair, hotel management, catering and tourism. We had a highly organised Dutch project manager and 12 countries began the work, with four years' worth of EU funding and the authority of the EU behind it. However, at the end only a limited database had been compiled-it was far from comprehensive and merely covered a few qualifications from some participating countries. It was set up in the UK as the first European economic interest group, and had the distinction of being the first EEIG to be wound up four years later.

There were interesting lessons to be learned from that project. One was that to try to establish internationally recognised benchmarks for qualifications sounds simple and highly desirable, but it consumes enormous time and resources and the end product is not necessarily recognised universally, even with EU backing. The suggestion that Ofqual in its early days might produce anything with that legitimacy is probably not feasible. However, that is not to say that it should not be in a position to commission and fund research and sampling, in order to produce statistics that will shore up our confidence in our qualifications system. Indeed, many studies of comparative qualifications-in particular, in academic and vocational areas-are useful and valued, but in this case we question whether that is the best use of Ofqual's resources and whether it will ultimately get the recognition that it deserves. However, broadly we are very much in favour of the way in which these amendments are going.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I happily support Amendment 225. In fact, I think that Ofqual simply could not do its job fully without engaging in forms of research, which would probably include sample

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testing. I assume that it would be in train to do this but let us be reassured that it has the power, the capacity and, where appropriate, the budget to do so.

I wholly agree with the spirit of Amendments 230 and 231. Whether they are necessary, I am not completely certain, but it would evidently do no harm to have this emphasised at some point in the Bill.

However, my reckoning on Amendment 236 is that we have just given the future Ofqual the good news, and it has been warmly welcomed on all sides of the Committee. The bad news is that we are handing it a ticking time bomb that will go off in eight months' time. This is important work which must be done, but saddling a new agency with many tasks to carry out in its first eight months will not help it and will not help it to focus where it should be focusing in its first year of delivery.

However, I tie that, and the suggestion implicit within it, to Amendment 316, because it may well sit much more happily with a similar proposal to look for international benchmarks. I accept the remarks just made about the difficulty of doing this. It is difficult to produce international benchmarks that will have total confidence even in all parts of the OECD but it is important that we do so. We should test ourselves and our education system against the best in the world and, within that, we should look to see what consistency of standards there has been over the years.

Perhaps I might add, not completely facetiously, that if one wanted a quick and dirty test in the absence of Ofqual carrying out this survey in its first eight months, I could invite all noble Peers and Peeresses to identify which A-levels they sat and we could all get together to sit the current paper and see how we get on. There may or may not be evidence of a rise or fall in standards-who knows? Seriously, there is an important point here but surely not one that should be dealt with in the first eight months.

Lord Elton: It may be worth mentioning in passing that the volume of knowledge in most subjects is constantly increasing. I remember 25 or 30 years ago Lord James of Rusholme, when vice-chancellor of York University, saying that he had been back to Oxford and had looked at the first degree examination papers. Not only could many of the questions not have been answered in his day but about 20 per cent of them could not have been asked because the knowledge then was insufficient. There is a real problem here down the pipe, as it were, from the universities to the schools in the back-up of knowledge that must be acquired before students are admitted to university. The question is whether the volume of knowledge is allowed to increase with a resulting reduction in quality or whether we would not do better to reduce the volume of knowledge required and increase the time spent at university or the number of stages of degrees. It is a big question but one that will eventually have to be addressed.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I am not sure whether it is wise for me to say this but when I did my science degree at university, we looked at various biochemical pathways, and I was really shocked to discover young people looking at these at GCSE fairly recently. The transfer of knowledge from what I studied

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at university to those at GCSE level in, admittedly, not a short period of time is quite breathtaking and probably worthy of a debate all of its own.

This has been an extremely helpful and important debate. When I get into the detail of the amendments, I will develop the point that this is not necessarily a debate about whether the standards of the qualifications themselves have been maintained. The contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was in itself one of the greatest testimonies for why we need Ofqual. She put so clearly an analysis that I totally reject. However, the process of rejecting it leads to a debate which I believe undermines the achievements of young people, teachers and the education system around the country. It is unhelpful to trade statistics and to go into the issue in such a way. I reject her analysis, but I want to focus on Ofqual and the extremely important questions around the amendments.

I like the analogy of hurdles, but we sometimes confuse performance standards with the number of young people who get over the hurdles. The Government are committed to increasing the number of young people who get over the GCSE hurdles or the key stage 3 hurdles. In line with our Leitch strategy we want to ensure that we better equip ourselves for the future. When we talk about the height of the hurdle and the number of young people or adults who get over it, it is important to be clear that they are different things. In the Bill we have set Ofqual an objective to maintain the level of that hurdle, so it is a helpful analogy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, talked in detail about Amendments 230 and 231. These amendments would confuse the clear definition of standards in Clause 125 as they suggest that maintaining standards is something other than what is in the clause, though they do not say what. I know that she tabled these amendments to make some clear points, but they would risk Ofqual getting tied up in legal knots. I heard her concerns about Ofqual becoming some kind of PR agency and must reassure her that nothing is further from the point. We believe absolutely that confidence and understanding flow from Ofqual fulfilling its objectives around standards. It is not about a PR exercise but about doing a great job and maintaining those standards with rigour. It is not a flimsy commitment to PR.

On Amendment 316, Ofqual will need to have the freedom to decide how best to deliver its objectives to maintain standards, which is what we were debating just now. It must also have the freedom to be accountable for that. I have a number of concerns about the amendment, as it assumes that a single benchmark could be created to enable the maintenance of standards in GCSEs and A-levels. But maintaining standards, as the debate suggests, cannot be done that way. Different exams are taken in different subjects, offered by different awarding bodies in different years. They must be comparable. It is a complex job, which is why we need an expert regulator. Moreover, since a review a few years ago found the English exam system to be among the most tightly managed in the world, we could end up tying standards to a qualification system inferior to ours, which would be a mistake.

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4.15 pm

Finally, there would be a substantial price tag attached to such a study. To do it properly could cost a six-figure sum. We need Ofqual to decide whether that is the best way to maintain standards and to be publicly accountable for its decisions.

Much the same could be said of Amendment 236. Again, it would risk being an unwelcome and expensive distraction and could blur Ofqual's accountability to meet its objectives. Ofqual can set any conditions on an awarding body only if they serve its objectives. We come back to the Bill's structure, which is clearly set out. Given its qualification standard objective, I would expect Ofqual to set conditions specifically relating to the maintenance of standards. Those conditions will need to be framed to allow Ofqual to direct an awarding body under Clause 145 if there is a risk to the consistency of standards.

I believe that we agree that Ofqual needs to be able to make a direction on standards, but-let me provide absolute reassurance to the Committee-the amendment is unnecessary. What it proposes can be done under the existing wide power to set conditions. Indeed, the amendment would risk cutting the width of what is otherwise a wide power.

On Amendment 225, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred to discussions prior to Committee. We agree that Ofqual may want to look at higher education data to supplement its other work on standards. It has power to do so. The HESA has confirmed that it will be willing to explore working with Ofqual to provide higher education data to enable Ofqual to carry out its statutory duties. Ofqual already has a power to conduct research under Clause 162. Several noble Lords have mentioned how essential that is. I hope that they will be reassured that Ofqual will be able to decide the research that it wants to fulfil its objectives as clearly set out in the Bill.

It can use whatever tools it likes to serve its objectives. It could do sample testing, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, suggested. It could get a cohort of Peers together and get us to sit down to do our A-levels again-I cannot think of anything more terrifying, at the moment; actually, maybe I could. If it wanted to do some sample testing to enable reliable qualification standards comparisons to be made, it could.

To conclude, we need a Bill that gives Ofqual power to ensure that standards are maintained. I reassure the Committee that the Bill delivers that, and I therefore very much hope that noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendments.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, on my amendment, I am grateful, completely satisfied and thank the Minister and her team very much for the effort that they took during the holidays to get us to this position. I am delighted that those on my Front Bench are so thoroughly in favour of the independence of Ofqual. Voting for the independence of bodies such as Ofqual is a hard thing to do in government, but it should be relatively easy to do in opposition.

I hope that my noble friend will pursue something along the lines of Amendments 230 and 231. It is important to have that clearly set out as an Ofqual

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objective for the public appreciation of what Ofqual is and where it stands, if nothing else. The importance of that was illustrated by the story my noble friend told of the instruction Ofqual gave to an exam board to reduce the pass mark in an examination. Knowing a little of that story, I suspect it took the right decision, but there should have been someone on the board who would have told it what the public reaction would be and how it ought to be managed. Something the Secretary of State might bear in mind when he is choosing the board is that the members should not all be inward-facing; there should be some outward-facing members too.

The Minister was wrong when she criticised my noble friend for criticising the 20 per cent pass mark. If I employed a plumber and he said, "Yes, I'm a qualified plumber. I got 20 per cent in my exams", I would not be happy. If 20 per cent is the pass mark in an exam, it is the wrong examination for the question that is being asked. If we want to know whether our young people have a competence in, say, mathematics, we ought to set an exam that requires at least a 50 per cent pass mark. That is where the exam ought to settle. If you are down to a 20 per cent pass mark, you do not know what bit of the 100 per cent the pupil in question has learnt. You are so far off the purpose of the qualification that a pass mark down there does not belong. Just in theoretical terms, my noble friend's criticism of pass marks having got down to that level has a great deal to it. However, I am delighted that the Minister supports independence, and I shall hold her to it when we come to Clause 138. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Schedule 9 agreed.

Clause 125 : Objectives

Amendment 226 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendment 227

Moved by Baroness Walmsley

227: Clause 125, page 76, line 9, at end insert-

"( ) the timeliness objective"

Baroness Walmsley:I shall speak also to Amendments 232A, 237 and 254. Before I do so, I shall comment on what has just been said. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made a good point when he suggested that there should be somebody on the Ofqual board who understands public opinion and knows how to deal with it. There is nothing wrong with PR companies-I used to work for one-and they are experts in understanding how the public will respond to the message an organisation puts out.

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