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Schools Council

Volume 22: debated on Thursday 22 April 1982

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3.56 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the future of the Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have considered this matter in the light of Mrs. Trenaman's report, which we published in October, and the comments on it. We are grateful to her for her review. It has prompted us to give fresh thought to the two functions of the council and the best ways of performing them.

These functions concern the system of examinations at 16-plus and 18-plus, and the development of the school curriculum. We have concluded that a single body, constituted as an elaborate network of committees on the lines of the Schools Council, is not well placed to carry out both functions.

On examinations, radical changes are required. Greater attention needs to be given to the co-ordination and supervision of examinations at 16-plus and 18-plus. Ministers need independent, authoritative advice on how these examinations might best serve national aims for education. We shall soon need advice on the national criteria now being developed for the 16-plus examinations. The Schools Council is a large body constituted from the nominees of many interest groups. We need a small body comprising persons nominated by the Secretaries of State for their fitness for this particular important responsibility.

My right hon. Friend and I will accordingly discuss with the local authority associations the establishment of an Examinations Council, appointed and funded by the Secretaries of State. I am circulating in the Official Report a note setting out the proposed composition and functions of this council. Copies of the note are available in the Vote Office.

Curriculum development is a practical and professional activity which goes on continually throughout the education system. This activity needs to be reinforced by a national body with the limited task of identifying gaps, helping to fill them and assisting with the dissemination of curricular innovation. Such a body—a School Curriculum Development Council—needs to reflect the many interests concerned, particularly the teachers. Its constitution should promote the sensible ordering of priorities, and efficient operation.

My right hon. Friend and I will discuss with the local authority associations the establishment of such a body. We envisage that it would be appointed by the Secretaries of State after consultation, that it would be financed jointly by local and central Government, but on a more modest scale than the Schools Council, and that most of its members would be teachers. Details of its proposed composition and functions are also set out in the note circulated in the Official Report.

We will also discuss with the local authority associations interim financial support for completing the necessary existing work of the Schools Council. As the new bodies come into operation, we would bring to an end our financial support of the council. We hope that many of the expert staff of the council will be ready to join the new bodies.

My right hon. Friend and I are ready to discuss our proposals with the teachers organisations and the other bodies which nominate members to the council's committees. We hope that everyone will co-operate with the local authorities and ourselves in the new arrangements we propose. Our aim is to improve the quality of the examinations system and to promote the effective development of the school curriculum.

There is at least one respect in which we agree with the Secretary of State. We, too, wish to improve the quality of the examination system and to promote effective development of the school curriculum. The question is whether the proposals that the Secretary of State has brought before us today will achieve those objectives.

We echo the right hon. Gentleman's thanks to Mrs. Trenaman for the work that she undertook in her review of the Schools Council. It was an extremely valuable exercise. As the two Secretaries of State are supposed to be grateful for what Mrs. Trenaman has done, we record our amazement over the fact that they have rewarded her by rejecting entirely her two most salient recommendations—first, that the Schools Council should remain, and, secondly, that it should be slightly reduced in size and reorganised in its committee structure.

Is this rejection of Mrs. Trenaman's report, which enjoyed widespread support throughout the educational world, due to the fact that the Government did not get their way from Mrs. Trenaman, that they did not obtain endorsement of their hoped-for centralisation of the examination and curriculum system, and are now overruling her recommendations to get their own way?

How sincere is the view expressed by the Secretary of State that this matter has been considered afresh? Do not these proposals bear a close similarity to the submissions made by the Department of Education and Science to Mrs. Trenaman in secret? Is this the Government's effort to restore themselves to their original position, without the benefit of Mrs. Trenaman's advice?

Does the Secretary of State believe that even after consultation he can get the necessary comprehension, cooperation and participation for curriculum development examination reform from schools or teachers—whose efforts in those matters are essential—by handing down to them recommendations from centralised patronage bodies—most notably, and indeed notoriously, the Examinations Council—which he proposes should be financed and appointed by the Secretaries of State on their criteria and, apparently, no one else's? Is there not a danger that that body, like the School Curriculum Development Council, will be the creature of the Department, so transgressing some of the best and most cherished characteristics of our decentralised British education system?

Of the Examinations Council and the School Curriculum Development Council, which will be the strongest? Will the examination system and the council's recommendations dominate the curriculum, as is currently the case, or will the examination system start to serve the full broad functions of a modern curriculum?

May we assume that the Secretary of State has had a change of heart and has ignored the advice of his Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), and come to the conclusion that the examination system should serve the wider cause of education in Britain? We have cause to doubt that that is his conviction, because his proposed structure for the Examinations Council does not involve joint partnership with local authorities and will be comprised of people who conform to his criterion of "fitness" for this important responsibility.

Where are the teachers on the Examinations Council? Who else will be on it? For what qualities will he be looking? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government's record of appointment and dismissal of people heading supposedly independent bodies is not good, as the recent memory of the dismissal of Mr. Glyn England from the Central Electricity Generating Board reminds us?

May I further ask the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] These are extremely important matters. The right hon. Gentleman's statement could change the direction of the British education system. The Government have not given us a day for a debate on education. Therefore, we must take full advantage of opportunities for questioning.

In paragraph 4 of the statement the right hon. Gentleman talks about the co-ordination and supervision of examinations at 16-plus and 18-plus. What has happened to the 17-plus examination? What is the right hon. Gentleman's attitude to other examinations in schools and further education such as City and Guilds, Royal Society of Arts and other examinations which are of considerable importance to the school system?

Do the radical changes to which the right hon. Gentleman refers in paragraph 4 mean that we shall go radically forward, or radically back in the Whiggish fashion that he has taught us over the years since he achieved eminence for his philosophical considerations?

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of an independent body. How independent can either of the bodies be when they are the product of patronage?

The Secretary of State spoke about national aims for education. What national aims will they be? Will it be the national aim of fossilisation of a selective system, which appears to be the system that he favours, or will they be modern comprehensive aims for education? Will the right hon. Gentleman define "national aims" in a considerably less vague way than his phrase "of proven worth"?

Paragraph 6 says that the School Curriculum Development Council's function will be to identify gaps, to help to fill gaps and to assist with the dissemination of curricula innovation. Will the Government make more money available to fill such gaps in the curriculum? Will there by a major departure from the situation described by the recent report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, which shows that as a result of Government cuts only five out of 96 English local education authorities satisfactorily provide for schoolchildren?

When the Secretary of State talks about consultation and expresses the hope that people will co-operate with the Government in achieving examination and curriculum development councils, how serious will such consultation be in the light of the fact that he has made the statement today without saying a word to the local authority associations? He will consult them, but that will make no difference whatever on the Examinations Council, on which they will not be represented, or on the School Curriculum Development Council, as they will never have the facilities or the resources to fulfil their functions and the gaps in the curriculum.

I do not think that I can answer all those questions. I shall answer the main ones as I see them.

The Government have no intention to centralise. By the decision of Parliament, it is my name that is on the examination certificates that go to children who pass the examinations. To a large extent, the Government have a responsibility for examination policy and for examinations. Therefore, I make no apology for the fact that my right hon. Friend and I seek authoritative advice on examination co-ordination and supervision. We are making no adverse comment on the individual experts among those employed by the Schools Council. We hope that many of them will move to the new body. We are in serious need of authoritative advice on examinations.

The hon. Gentleman asked who will be on the Examinations Council. We shall seek people of good standing who reflect the views of local education authorities, parents, employers, teachers and examination boards.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the curriculum development body. We see curriculum development primarily as an activity conducted by teachers. Therefore, we seek a membership that will consist mainly of teachers. The Schools Council has found how difficult it is to get its work disseminated throughout schools. That is an important job and we treat it so, although the council will primarily have the function of full supervision and of filling any gaps. As in Scotland, we imagine that the two separate bodies will co-operate with each other. I think that those are the answers to the main questions.

Would it not have been right for the Secretary of State to express a word of thanks to the many people who have served on the Schools Council and who have given their time and effort to it over the years? The structure of the two bodies may be welcome and satisfactory, but does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that it is worrying that the membership could be so much in his hands? He could surround himself by people of only one opinion. Does he propose to allow the Examinations Council to hear appeals against the decisions of examining boards? Is that not a new development which requires careful consideration?

I am sure that the whole House will have appreciated the work of the members of the Schools Council. However, I am not altogether convinced that it is a great retrogression that members of the Government should have some nominations to new bodies in place of nominations by, for instance, trade unions.

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the examinations body should, in our view, take appeals such as it gets already.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the original founding of the Schools Council was regarded as a milestone which showed the increasing intervention of successive Secretaries of State and Ministers in curriculum matters? Will he accept that it is no disrespect to the many public-spirited men and women who served upon it to say that it did not fulfil the hopes that were then held out for it?

Many of us are glad to see the changes and will be anxious to help them forward. Will my right hon. Friend assist us a little more about the make-up of the Examinations Council, which—as he will agree—has potentially vital work before it? Will he be open to suggestions—not nominations—for membership, so that the membership is as wide as possible and comprises the greatest expertise in its vital task of advising him in such an important area?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of the parts played by Lord Eccles and by our former colleague Lord Boyle in the initiation of the Schools Council. We shall welcome recommendations for membership.

Does the Secretary of State believe that the curriculum should follow the examinations system, or that the examinations system should follow the curriculum? If he wants the two new quangos to co-operate with each other, why create two instead of leaving the existing one?

In life, there is bound to be a link between examinations and curriculum.

The hon. Gentleman is as well aware as I am that curriculum policy has never been the province of the Schools Council, but is that of the local education authorities and the Government. He will be well aware that today's announcement does not in any way alter the responsibilities for curriculum policy.

The Schools Council was set up on the assumption that work on the examinations should be in the same hands as work on curriculum development, but that has been shown to be unnecessary, as witnessed by Scotland. In Scotland two separate bodies have the happy experience of collaborating. The Schools Council will readily accept that, however much it may have tried, it did not succeed in integrating the two different functions. That is one of the main reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I are separating the functions.

If my right hon. Friend insists on creating two quangos for the price of one, will he tell us how many additional ministerially appointed "quangoroos" will be required to run the two quangos and the additional cost to public funds?

I am glad to assure my hon. Friend that significantly fewer people will be employed in the two smaller bodies than in the large body. After the transition, during which some redundancy payments will have to be made, the cost to public funds will be significantly less.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us welcome the emphasis in the statement on 16 and 18-plus education? Where does the future of O-Levels, A-levels and CSE examinations lie in the order of his priorities for the work of the new Examinations Council? Many hon. Members will want to know whether he will ask the council to work speedily. Indeed, I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been pondering the matter. Also, what is the scale and nature of its consultations planned with the unions that are involved in education?

At the end of my statement I said that we should welcome opportunities to talk to the unions about the School Curriculum Development Council. We expect the Examinations Council greatly to help us to consider the national criteria, which we expect to see by the end of the year. I expect it to help the Secretary of State for Wales and myself to decide whether to move to a single system at 16-plus or to harmonise the two existing systems.

My right hon. Friend was right to pay tribute to the quality and work of those on the Schools Council. However, having been on the receiving end of its work for nearly 20 years, may I tell my right hon. Friend that it made practically no impact on schools or the teaching profession. Therefore, my right hon. Friend's decision is both right and justified.

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will appoint full-time teachers to the new bodies and not accept nominees from unions, as they are often just cardboard teachers and are not involved in the day-to-day running of schools?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. We shall seek people whose contributions will help the work of teachers in schools.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the nature, place and content of public examinations—on which there is certainly no national consensus—are the overriding factors that influence and order the curriculum, particularly in secondary schools? The hon. Gentleman can get confirmation of that from every staff room in the country.

Why does the right hon. Gentleman continue to separate the two related functions? Does he not agree that much of the difficulty in the past 15 years has been due to the fact that successive Secretaries of State and Ministers from both parties have consistently and flagrantly failed to carry out section 4 of the Education Act 1944 in respect of the Central Advisory Council? Would it not be better if the right hon. Gentleman formed such a council to clear up the inevitable mess after his statement?

I note that the Select Committee has included the recommendation to re-establish a Central Advisory Council. That is one of the many recommendations to which the Government will address themselves. If the Schools Council had shown itself capable of integrating the work of those concerned with the curriculum with that of those concerned with examinations, we should not have had to seek authoratative advice on examinations. We feel that two separate bodies, each with its separate expertise, will give us more effectiveness and more cost-effectiveness than we have so far had.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, in which he referred to the necessary radical changes in examinations. He said that he would set up a new Examinations Council. To what extent will that new council be able to influence examination boards both about subjects and the standards that they set?

This is a delicate matter of influence between the weight of the judgments of those whom we appoint to the examinations body and the weight of the judgments of those who sit, with great devotion, on examination boards throughout the country.

Will the Secretary of State accept from me—an ex-elected member of some years' standing of the Schools Council—that it is made up not of cardboard members, but of people who have gone through a process of election to executives and who were then elected within those executives? They have all been practising teachers.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the general opinion is that he is in great need of advice from such a body on the examination system. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that an unelected, appointed body, which will owe patronage to whoever selects its members, will function in the way that a democratically elected body has functioned usefully for years for schools, children and the teaching profession?

Is it not a fact that for years the Conservative Party has waged a vendetta against the Schools Council, because it did not carry out what Conservative Members wanted and engaged in a democratisation of the education system, which they resented? Is that not why an appointed body is about to take over from the Schools Council?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Tory Ministers were responsible for setting up the Schools Council. I do not make judgments about the way in which people conducted themselves on the Schools Council. Mrs. Trenaman made some comments—which the hon. Gentleman may have forgotten—about the conduct of some of the members of the Schools Council.

It is irrelevant whether the Schools Council was founded by Tory Ministers. Does my right hon. Friend accept that many Conservative Members would have liked the Schools Council to be abolished lock, stock and barrel? Does he accept also that, if there are to be any remnants, it would be much better to retain only an examinations body, which my right hon. Friend has indicated is important, than to have in addition some nonsensical curriculum development body which has done nothing but damage education over the years?

I am glad that the House has heard the views that some people undoubtedly hold. We intend to bring to an end Government funding of the Schools Council and to bring into existence two bodies, which in aggregate will be smaller, with much more specific remits for specific purposes.

Will the Secretary of State tell us when he expects the two new bodies to start operating? As, if they are to be effective, they will have to be involved in a dialogue in which some people will express views critical of the Secretary of State, how does he expect to get people to serve on those bodies and to put forward critical views if they know that their appointment will be dependent upon his decision alone?

There are plenty of people who, mercifully, are willing to take public office, generally honorary, as this will be, for the public good and to make known to the Government of the day their views without fear or favour. As for timing, I hope that the examinations body will come into existence very soon and the curriculum development body, with the help of the local education authority associations, by about the turn of the year.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the more effective arrangements that he has announced are in line with the suggestions of the Select Committee? May we be assured that local education will be kept well abreast of curriculum research and will act early on suggestions from this body?

I intend to consult the local education authority associations about the setting up, composition and work of the curriculum development body. As for the former point, I note that the Select Committee voted only by a narrow majority against the abolition of the Schools Council.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his substitution of a body that has had its day, in the shape of the Schools Council, by two narrowly focused and, with any luck, effective bodies in the areas that he mentioned, will be widely welcomed by those who have been following these matters? Will he take steps to ensure that, through bureaucratic drift or any other such process, the bureaucratic nature of the two bodies does not exceed in total that which they replace? Can be also ensure that the influence of Her Majesty' s Inspectorate is very much to the fore in these two areas?

To all those points I can give my hon. Friend an affirmative assurance. There are many forces within the Government working to ensure that bureaucratic drift does not occur.

Following is the note: