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Secondary Education

Volume 546: debated on Thursday 21 June 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on reports that he plans to scrap GCSEs, end the secondary national curriculum and replace examination boards with single-subject bodies.

The coalition Government’s education reforms are designed to raise standards in all our schools and give every child the opportunity to acquire the rigorous qualifications that will enable them to succeed in further and higher education and the world of work. We have already taken steps to make the curriculum in primary schools more rigorous, with a new emphasis on getting every child to read fluently and widely for pleasure, higher standards in essential arithmetic and new, more demanding expectations of the level of scientific knowledge each child will master. Draft programmes of study for our primary curriculum are out for consultation and we look forward to engaging with parents and teachers on how to help every child achieve more. We inherited a situation in which far too many children left primary school unable to read, write or add up properly. That was a crime against social justice and we are determined to put it right.

We are also taking steps to inject greater rigour into secondary education. The introduction of the English baccalaureate measure has resulted in the numbers studying physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography and foreign languages all rising. At the same time, we have already made GCSEs more rigorous by tackling the re-sit culture, ending modules and restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar, but the evidence we have heard from parents, pupils, our best schools and our top universities shows that we need to consider going further.

Children are working harder than ever, but we have been told that the exam system is not working for them. Before Christmas The Daily Telegraph reported on the competition between exam boards to dumb down qualifications—[Laughter.] I do not regard falling standards in our schools as a laughing matter. Heads have told us that the current league table system incentivises weak schools to push students towards soft subjects and easier exams. Parents and students have told us that there are weaknesses with current GCSEs, which privilege bite-size learning over deep understanding and gobbets of knowledge over real learning. Academics have reported that headline improvements in exam results have not been matched by profound improvements in understanding, with researchers from King’s college London reporting today that teenagers’ maths skills have declined over the last 30 years.

We have been considering how to address these concerns and plan to issue a consultation paper shortly. We would like to see every student in this country able to take world-class qualifications, such as the rigorous and respected exams taken by Singapore’s students, for example. We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing down by ensuring that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are. We want a curriculum that prepares all students for success, at 16 and beyond, by broadening what is taught in our schools and then improving how it is assessed.

These are inevitably challenging ambitions that will require careful implementation. That is why we want the conversation on how we raise standards to be broad and inclusive. It is in all our interests that all our children do better than ever before. Although we want a broad conversation, we are also determined to reach a clear conclusion: a state school system in which every child is challenged to do much better, in which there are no excuses for failure and in which every child is introduced to the best that has been thought and written and given every opportunity to achieve their utmost.

My hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary has asked me to put on the record the reason for his absence today: he is attending a meeting in Edinburgh with two of his constituents and the Spanish consul-general about the murder of their son in Spain. He sends his apologies.

GCSEs may well need improving, but a two-tier exam system that divides children into winners and losers at 14 is not the answer. The Opposition believe in a modern education system that promotes high standards, rigorous exams and a broad curriculum that prepares young people for the world of work and to succeed in life, but it seems that Ministers are in favour of going back to the future. They have cut education spending by the largest amount since the 1950s. They believe that Victorian-style rote learning is the way to teach our children. They want to bring back a two-tier exam system, designed in the 1950s, that will separate children and close off opportunity.

We on the Opposition Benches believe in rigour and high standards for all, but we also believe in a broad curriculum that prepares young people for work, so we will set a series of tests to ensure that the changes meet both. First, Labour wants higher literacy and numeracy standards. The key is to raise teaching quality across the board. Is there any reason to expect these proposals to deliver that? At best, they are a distraction from the central challenges. Standards rose under Labour because we focused on literacy and numeracy. It was we who inherited a weak system for maths and English from the Tories. Only three in 10 pupils—that is 60%, because I know that the Secretary of State is not very good at maths—got a good GCSE in 1997, more than half—[Interruption.]

Order. Sir Tony, you are now officially a statesman, and a statesman should not yell across the Chamber. Calm yourself.

No point of order is required at this stage. I shall hear the hon. Gentleman on another occasion, with great anticipation.

I was just testing their numeracy; the figure is, of course, 30%. We improved literacy and numeracy standards. More than half achieved five good grades at GCSE, including English and maths, in 2010. Secondly, the Government appear to be writing off a quarter of all young people at 14 with the return to the CSE. There is strong evidence that children’s performance—

Order. I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman is moving towards a conclusion—he certainly should be—and it might be useful if there was a question mark somewhere.

Of course, Mr Speaker.

How will these measures improve and promote social mobility? How will a return to 1950s qualifications help to prepare young people for a 21st century world of work? Is not this nothing more than a softening-up exercise to disguise a fall in attainment as Tory cuts, disruption and teachers leaving have an effect on pupils’ ability to learn? Parents, pupils and employers will be asking today what evidence there is to suggest that a return, back to the future, to the CSE and O-levels will actually work.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions and associate myself with his remarks about the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who I know is unavoidably detained on constituency business. I hope that the whole House will note that he is doing his first and most important job: representing those who elected him.

The hon. Gentleman asked a series of questions—[Interruption.] He asked a series of rhetorical questions. He invited us to consider that what the Government are reported to be putting forward would lead to a two-tier system. The sad truth is that we already have a two-tier system in education in this country. Some of our most impressive schools have already left the GCSE behind and opted for the IGCSE or other more rigorous examinations. It is also the case, sadly, that 40% of children do not achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in our system. He said that, under the proposals that are being reported, 25% of children would be left behind. The sad truth is that at least 40% of children have been left behind under the current system. There is no excuse not to act. [Interruption.] I note what the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) says from a sedentary position, but given the questions the hon. Member for Cardiff West asked, I think that trading percentages across the Dispatch Box is not an area in which Labour Members can consider themselves strong.

The hon. Gentleman also alleged that the proposals were an attempt to move backwards. Far from it. They are an attempt to ensure that our education system stands comparison with the world’s most rigorous, because although there have undoubtedly been improvements in our schools and by our teachers over the past 20 years, they have not been sufficient to ensure that we keep pace with other jurisdictions. As Singapore, Hong Kong, Alberta and New Zealand, have improved their education systems, we have fallen behind them in relative terms, and we need to ensure that our young people have qualifications that are every bit as rigorous and a curriculum that is every bit as stretching.

The sad truth is that, if we look at the objective measure of how we have done over the past 15 years, we find that on international league tables our schools fell in reading from 523 to 494 points, in maths from 529 to 492 and in science from 528 to 514. Every objective academic study of what has happened in our education system has drawn attention to the weakness of our qualifications. We aim to address that in order to ensure that the next generation get what they deserve—a world-class education and world-class qualifications.

Order. I do not intend to allow this to run beyond 11.30 am, because there is very substantial pressure on time. I am sure that Members will draw their own conclusions as to the importance in these circumstances of brevity.

I welcome improved rigour, stretch and achievement for our most able pupils, but the central problem facing this country is not about its most able pupils but about the lowest-performing and, all too often, the poorest. How will these changes and proposals improve the outcomes for the lowest deciles of achievement in our population? Socially and economically, we cannot afford the tail that we have inherited from the Labour party.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the principal problems with our education system is not only that it has fallen behind other nations, but that it is one of the most inequitable, stratified and segregated. The way in which we tackle that is not by dumbing down on qualifications, but by raising expectations at every level.

I appeal to the Secretary of State to stop rubbishing everything that happened before he came into office; BG—before Gove—is not a very attractive proposition. Will he tell the House why Margaret Thatcher introduced a common national curriculum and a common examination system in 1988?

I am at pains, I hope, never to rubbish everything that preceded this Government, but I want to tell the truth, and the truth is that, although there were improvements, many as a direct result of the right hon. Gentleman’s stewardship of the Department for Education, wrong turnings were taken, one of which, I am afraid, was to allow a race to the bottom in examinations, which serves no one’s interests.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent statement and, in particular, the idea of a single examination board. Does he agree that we have not had a free market in exams; we have had a state-sponsored race to the bottom? Sweden has a single exam board and has had no grade inflation for the past 20 years.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her point. Not only does the Swedish experience inform the case, but Mr Conor Ryan, a distinguished former special adviser to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and to the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said this morning:

“There are some…good ideas in what appears to be being considered”

by the Department for Education. He continues:

“It makes perfect sense to have a single exam board for each exam.”

That view weighs heavily with me.

Given that the Secretary of State is rightly concerned to ensure that no children fail, why is he so obsessed with schools? All the evidence points to the idea that perhaps at three years old, but certainly by the time they enter school, their life chances are determined. Might one invite him to be equally obsessive about the foundation years as he is about schools?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the point that he makes. Absolutely: we believe in intervening as early as possible, which is why we have extended the number of hours of pre-school learning that we offer, particularly to disadvantaged children. More can be done, however, and we are reforming the early years foundation stage. The Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who has responsibility for children and families, is doing fantastic work in that area, and I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman to do more.

The coalition Government have been determined to raise aspiration, and the Secretary of State has set out some ideas about the qualifications system. Does he agree, however, that we must not create a system that, for the 40% of students to whom he has just referred, creates a concrete ceiling that prevents them from moving beyond that 40%? I am very concerned that a two-tier system will do just that.

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a very valid point. One thing we need to do is ensure that more students are capable of taking more rigorous examinations. If we look at other jurisdictions that are performing better than us, such as Singapore, we find that 80% of students there take their O-level examinations, some at 15, some at 16 and some at 17. I see no reason why we cannot have a similarly rigorous situation here. He is also right that there should be no cap on aspiration, and one of our deepest problems is that some schools and some local authorities are insufficiently ambitious for their young people.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that there is a close link between educational achievement, opportunity and social mobility, so the question is not “Change or no change?” but “What kind of change?”

What is his reaction to the analysis published in the Financial Times of his proposed reforms, suggesting that the new CSE will be a poorer person’s qualification and a northern qualification? Would it not be a tragedy if any such reform reinforced the educational divides that exist, instead of providing a bridge out of them?

That is a typically acute point by the right hon. Gentleman; every time he speaks on education, I hear a voice of good sense. It is absolutely right to say that we need to tackle a culture low aspiration that has held students back in many northern cities and in places such as east Lancashire for far too long. Any reform of the examination system and curriculum needs to ensure that we do not place a cap on aspiration in those areas.

I have had a look at the Financial Times analysis and think that it suffers from one thing: it itself is a prisoner of the culture of low aspiration that we are tackling. I hope to work with the right hon. Gentleman and other fair-minded people to ensure that we do not fall into that trap.

We absolutely do, and one of our first reforms was to ensure that they would count in league tables in order to inject additional rigour.

Most parents want more rigour in their schools, and I think that, on reflection, many families will welcome the changes that are being suggested and consulted on. Will the Secretary of State make it clear to schools that introducing additional maths is a great way forward? It has happened in Northern Ireland and has been terrific for future science graduates.

Again, the hon. Lady talks good sense on education and is absolutely right. One strength of the Northern Ireland system is its emphasis on greater rigour and stretch in mathematics, and more and more students are achieving those qualifications. We have sought to pay mathematics graduates more to encourage them to consider teaching, and to create new centres of excellence, new 16-to-18 free schools in mathematics, but there is so much more to do, and I look forward to working with her on that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the weakness that has characterised the British education system for a century and a half has been a failure to produce enough people with technical and vocational qualifications, partly because of a presumption that they were for the less able and less academic? Can he reassure me that his reforms will tackle that weakness and ensure that technical and vocational qualifications that are of the utmost rigour and held in the highest esteem are available to all?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. One weakness in the implementation of the Education Act 1944 was that the third strand, technical schools, did not receive the investment that they should have done, and as a result a weakness in technical education, which this country has had since 1851, was reinforced.

The advent of university technical colleges, an idea pioneered by Kenneth Baker and Andrew Adonis, is going some way to dealing with the problem, and Alison Wolf’s report, which has injected additional rigour into vocational qualifications, also helps to meet that challenge, but we need to do more, including reforming the funding of further education colleges in order to strengthen vocational subjects.

I do wonder whether the Secretary of State ever visits schools and speaks to pupils and teachers. Children’s progress and achievement can currently be judged by the children themselves and by employers within a common framework. CSEs had little value in the past, so how can he assure me that they will have any value in the future? I cannot see how they can.

I do visit schools, and I am constantly inspired by the amazing job that so many brilliant teachers do. I am encouraged by the fact that more and more teachers are more and more enthusiastic about the changes that we are making, which will inject greater rigour into the system. One of the problems that we face, however, is that employers do not have faith in D and E passes at GCSE at the moment; they do not consider them an appropriate springboard for success at work. We need to work with employers and others to ensure that they have more faith in the qualifications that our young people achieve.

As somebody who sat GCSEs in their first year, 1988, and saw the watering down of standards at the time and the knock-on watering down of standards that followed for A-levels, I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said today. Building on the point that he has just made, does he accept that whereas 30 or 40 years ago somebody could go to an employer with five O-levels and that would mean something, today the fact that a person has 10 GCSEs is becoming increasingly meaningless to many employers, despite that person’s hard work?

My hon. Friend makes his point effectively and with typical pungency. Among employers there is a lack of confidence in many of the qualifications that exist at the moment. The people let down most by that are hard-working and intelligent students. I am convinced that we have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools and that students are working harder than ever. That is why we need to change the exam system—so that it works as hard as they do.

I know from personal experience, having prepared students for many different qualifications, of the inadequacy of O-levels and CSEs, compared with GCSEs, in setting and assessing standards. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House and those outside it that any changes to our examination system are strongly and rigorously evidence-based and not based on hunch and assumption, so that he does not make a wrong turning that damages the UK economy and young people’s lives?

The hon. Gentleman, who was an outstanding principal of an outstanding further education college, makes a very good point. I emphasise again that it is natural, when we seek to reform our examination system, that people will look backwards and think that we are moving back to a situation that we inherited. We are not; we are moving forward to ensure that our qualifications are more rigorous, stand comparison with the best in the world and take account of precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the need for evidence.

The multitude of examination boards is confusing for pupils, schools and, above all, universities. May I urge the Secretary of State to work closely with the Russell group, the leading group of universities, to make sure that we have an independent, rigorous examination board in which all universities can have confidence?

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point. In order to ensure that the new examinations and curriculum are properly rigorous, we need to listen to parents’ concerns, work with teachers and, above all, make sure that academics are engaged in the debate to ensure that the qualifications can become the world’s best.

The introduction of GCSEs was a progressive Thatcherite policy; I am worried about the Secretary of State, who is ditching his Thatcherite credentials. My main concern about the proposal is that it is going to be divisive and that pupils who do not achieve the opportunity to go on and do an O-level equivalent at 14 will be left behind. Can he assure us that that is not his objective?

Absolutely. I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman that in matters of ideology, I am a Blairite; I believe that what is right is what works. One of our problems at the moment is that the GCSE system is not working for all students. I absolutely agree that we need to ensure that our qualification system raises aspiration for all students, and ensures, as in Singapore, that 80%, and rising, of students can acquire the qualifications that enable them to go on to further and higher education.

It is well reported that the Yorkshire-based supermarket Morrisons found the standard of its school leavers so poor that it had to refer them for remedial job training. Does that not highlight the issues that we face? It beggars belief that we should not be looking at those issues.

Yorkshire is a generous county that adopts children from whatever background and turns them into men.

It is not just Morrisons; in 2009, Sir Terry Leahy said that standards among the students that he was recruiting to Tesco were “woefully low”. We have to listen to employers. They demand a greater level of technical, mathematical and literacy skills from all their students and we need to improve our education to ensure that whatever route children follow, they receive a 21st century education—and that means additional rigour to compete with the world’s best.

Can the Secretary of State explain how going backwards to a 1950s qualification will help young people prepare for a 21st century world of work?

The hon. Lady, whom I greatly respect, has fallen into the trap, perhaps taking her cue from those on her party’s Front Bench, of thinking that the measure is a move towards the 1950s. Let me take this opportunity, which she has kindly given me, to reassure her absolutely that we want not to look backwards but to look outwards. We want to ask ourselves why there are other countries that have stronger exam systems and also make opportunity more equal. Why do countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and New Zealand manage to have both a higher level of absolute attainment and a more equal society, including a more equal education system? That is what we want to achieve and I hope that we can count on the hon. Lady’s support in that mission.

My right hon. Friend is right to concentrate on raising standards, and employers will welcome what he has said today, but can he confirm whether he plans to abolish the national curriculum for secondary schools?

We want to make sure that the national curriculum in secondary schools is properly aligned with qualifications. One of the problems is that, to my mind, there are many admirable aspects of the secondary curriculum that we inherited, but also some very weak aspects. One of the problems is that both what is admirable and what is weak in that curriculum is overshadowed by what people have to do to acquire qualifications. In that sense, our secondary school system is the wrong way around in that weak qualifications determine what is taught and the only things considered worth teaching are those that are assessed. I want to change that to make sure that our qualifications are rigorous and that much of what goes on in secondary schools that is not assessed is properly regarded as valuable.

The Secretary of State has sought to assure the House that he is not looking backwards, but he is being uncharacteristically coy about what he is actually proposing. Is it true that he is seeking to reintroduce something akin to the O-level? If so, how will he avoid the reintroduction of CSEs? The problem is not simply a cap on aspiration, but the stigmatisation of young people in their teens.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I have not said more at this stage because at the Department for Education we are considering how to deal with a very real problem. I have laid out what I believe are the problems with the examination system that we have inherited. I am clear that certain points need to be addressed, but I want to ensure that in the collective national conversation about how we address these problems we are clear that we need to end dumbing down and the race to the bottom. To do that, we need to ensure that we look to what happens in the world’s best jurisdictions and learn from our best academics, teachers and the increasing number of parents who recognise that we need to change our education system to keep pace with the world’s best nations.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the major advantages of a single exam board is that it will allow children in more difficult circumstances—looked-after children, those in military families or those whose parents separate or move for other reasons—to slot straight into the exam board and know exactly where they are going to be for their education?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the advantages of avoiding that race to the bottom in single subject areas is precisely the degree of certainty that she alludes to.

The hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) talked passionately about the use of the free market in education. In a free market, the weakest go to the wall. Does the Secretary of State support the view that children who need to be supported to aspire and achieve should simply go to the wall?

I do not. I think that the hon. Lady is misrepresenting what my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) said. Forgive me; she would never misrepresent, but she misconstrued my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend was calling for a single exam board in each subject and for steps to be taken to deal with one of the adverse aspects of poorly regulated competition. That is a critical thing that I hope we can agree on across the House. Sometimes, competition can raise standards, but poorly designed competition can sometimes lead to a race to the bottom. We need to recognise when competition is right and when it needs to be dealt with.

Secondary head teachers in Swindon, some of whom have been meeting me only today, will welcome reforms to the examination board system. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the terms of reference for setting up the new boards will explicitly refer to rigorous and high standards in future examinations?

Has the Secretary of State looked at what is done in the country that leads the education achievement tables, Finland, which is very different from what he is proposing?

I look very closely at what happens in Finland and other high-performing jurisdictions. Finland is in many respects an outlier, but one of the things that is common to it and to other high-performing jurisdictions is a great degree of rigour in the examinations that students take at the end of their studies. A recent report by Ofqual compares our A-levels with some of the qualifications and examinations that Finnish students sit in their final years at school, which are exceptionally rigorous. However, the most important thing about the Finnish education system is that it attracts and retains the very best people in teaching. That is why the changes that we have made to initial teacher training announced last week are so important.

The Secretary of State rightly paid tribute to the hard work being done by schools and pupils. Does he agree that it is a great shame that the Opposition have automatically assumed that these proposals are divisive and bad for schools and pupils, not recognising that they are a legitimate way of tackling the problems that employers and universities are telling the Department about?

That is a typically fair point. I want to seek consensus on the correct way forward, because that is in the interests of all our children. Looking at what has gone wrong in the past, mistakes were made by previous Conservative and Labour Governments, and I hope that we can work together to put them right. I believe that behind the inevitable political commentary by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) there was a recognition, as there certainly is among those on the Labour Back Benches, that we have suffered from a culture of low aspiration for too long and need to address that by raising standards for all.

Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we must move on. I am sure that there will be many opportunities to air these matters in the weeks and months ahead.