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Secondary Education (GCSEs)

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

I beg to move,

That this House notes the forthcoming consultation on the restructuring of the secondary education system; further notes the proposals reported in the press on Thursday 21 June of Government plans for replacing GCSEs with an O-Level and CSE system; believes that these proposals could, in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, ‘lead to a two tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrap heap’; and calls on the Government to ensure any proposal for changes to the secondary education system are subject to approval by the House.

In three years’ time, the education leaving age will rise to 18. That change represents a huge challenge to schools and colleges up and down the country. How can the education system adapt to the challenge? How can we enable all children and young people to achieve their full potential? How do we ensure that young people have the skills and knowledge to succeed in life, including in the world of work?

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State was advocating a return to Victorian-style rote learning in our primary schools. Now he wants to bring back a two-tier exam system, which his own party abolished more than 25 years ago. That is all from a Government who are making the biggest cuts to education spending since the 1950s. I am a great supporter of history, but I do not believe that we need a school system that is stuck in the past.

The Opposition believe in stretching the most able students. We believe in rigour, high standards and opportunity for all students in all subjects, academic and vocational.

I will give way shortly, but I want to develop my argument first.

The most important ingredients of success in education are the quality of leadership and the quality of teaching and learning; the Secretary of State is nodding his assent. It is vital that those ingredients are backed by a credible set of qualifications. We support reforming the structure of the examination system to deal with unhealthy competition between exam boards. If that means a single exam board, we will consider those plans in detail, and I understand that the Select Committee is due to make proposals to deal with that precise challenge shortly. Sensible, thought-through and evidence-based measures to increase rigour and tackle grade inflation will have the full support of the Opposition, but let us be clear about the fundamental difference between us and the Education Secretary: the proposal to divide pupils at 14 into winners and losers.

When the Deputy Prime Minister woke up in Rio last Thursday, he said about the Secretary of State’s proposals:

“I am not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrap heap. What you want is an exam system which is fit for the future”


“doesn’t turn the clock back to the past…so it works for the many and not just…the few.”

I agree with that sentiment. The question for Liberal Democrat colleagues is whether they have the courage to vote for our motion, which supports the words of their leader.

Labour made a real difference to our education system—there is no doubt about that. However, at the same time as grade inflation was on the rise we were dropping in the international league tables on maths, English and science. Should not the hon. Gentleman be apologising for the disservice he has done to our young people, or is he now championing mediocrity once again?

Well read, I suppose. I must correct my earlier remark when I referred to Liberal Democrat colleagues because I think there is only one Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber. [Hon. Members: “Two!”] Sorry, there are two. I was going to comment on the absence of the Liberal Democrat Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), but we have instead the Liberal Democrat Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne). I think the percentage would be just under 2%—that is my calculation.

Last week, the Daily Mail, in a leaked story, reported:

“None of the plans require an Act of Parliament.”

This week, according to the Government’s amendment on the Order Paper, the Government are calling for proposals that are approved by Parliament. May I welcome yet another U-turn by the Government to give Parliament a proper say, but may I suggest that as well as changing the process, the Secretary of State should change the substance of these leaked proposals? Today’s debate provides the House with an opportunity to reject a move to bring back a system that was created in the 1950s and abolished in the 1980s.

These proposals were leaked just as pupils were sitting their GCSEs. As nervous and stressed young people were queuing up to sit hugely important exams, the Secretary of State was saying that those exams were worthless. How insulting to young people who have studied and revised so hard. How insulting to parents who have helped their children through the stress of exams and how insulting to our brilliant teachers who have worked so hard to prepare their pupils. Why are these changes being made now and why are they being rushed? Is the Secretary of State concerned that his other policies will result in a fall in school standards? Is it that he needs to mask the reduction in standards by abolishing the main existing measure of secondary school results? Is that why the Government are so determined to do this?

In 2004, when the hon. Gentleman was criticised for putting a cake decoration qualification on a par with GCSE maths he called it “educational snobbery”. Does he stand by those comments? Does he still believe that cake decorating is equivalent to GCSE maths?

I have never believed that cake decoration is equivalent to GCSE maths, and I certainly think the hon. Gentleman should come up with better interventions than that.

These plans are nothing less than a cap on aspiration. When he introduced the GCSE in 1984, the then Conservative Secretary of State, the late Lord Joseph, said the new system would be

“a powerful instrument for raising standards of performance at every level of ability.”—[Official Report, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 304.]

Last week, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the distinguished Conservative Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, said that the Secretary of State is

“setting out a policy that appears to be more focused on the brighter kids…and not focusing on the central problem we have which is doing a better job for the children at the bottom.”

The Government amendment this afternoon claims that they want “high standards for all” to boost social mobility, but the proposals leaked to the Daily Mail admit that 25% of “less-able pupils”—about 150,000 a year, every year—would take

“simpler qualifications similar to old-style CSEs”.

Last week, Lord Baker, another Conservative former Education Secretary, said that the certificate of secondary education was

“a valueless bit of paper. It was not worth anything to the students or the employers.”

How will writing off a quarter of young people boost social mobility and standards for all?

Does my hon. Friend recognise the scenario in, I think, the first year in which the GCSE was introduced, where many working-class children in inner-city contexts were streamed off to the CSE and then went on to the failed youth training scheme? We do not want that scenario back in our inner cities. We need to ensure parity for all at 16.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and anticipates my next point. We know from analysis of the CSE that it was, in practice, a school-leaving certificate for the poor. In the decade after its abolition, the number of the poorest pupils staying on at school after 16 increased by a very significant 28%. The CSE and O-level system was designed more than half a century ago, when our society was completely different—there were far more unskilled jobs and typically children were split off into grammar schools and secondary moderns. A pupil at a comprehensive in 1971 was 25 times more likely to take CSEs than a grammar school pupil—perhaps not surprising. A pupil in a secondary modern school was 50 times more likely to take CSEs than a grammar school pupil.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the world’s skills are increasing and we need to compete? Can he explain why, under the Labour Government, in 2000 we were ahead of Germany in the maths league table, but by 2009 we were 12 places behind Germany? What did he do when he was in government to raise standards in vital subjects and compete with other countries?

First, how would this solution help? As the hon. Lady knows, there are different international comparisons and analyses. The study carried out by the programme for international student assessment, PISA, to which she refers, shows one thing, but the trends in international mathematics and science study, TIMSS, shows something quite different: English results in mathematics are much better in TIMSS than in the PISA study. I take the challenge she sets out very seriously—we do need to do more and I am in favour of more rigour. What I do not understand is why that cannot be done by reform of the GCSE system. We can make GCSEs more rigorous. We do not have to go back to dividing children into sheep and goats at 14.

The hon. Lady is an authority on these matters and I pay tribute to her hard work, especially on mathematics. The number of young people taking mathematics at A-level started to increase significantly under the Labour Government. We need to do more to accelerate that trend and to explore all the ways we might do that, but surely she welcomes the fact that the number taking A-level maths increased under the Labour Government?

In fact, there was a massive drop in the number of students taking maths in 2000, when Labour introduced modular exams; that had a massively damaging effect. That number is now beginning to recover, which is indeed good news, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the previous Government were responsible for the drop in the first place and the decline in standards relative to countries such as Germany? He still has not answered my question about how Germany managed to reform its system.

Let us learn from other countries’ systems. That is the point I was seeking to make. We recognised that there was an issue, which is why we addressed it and why, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, the number taking maths at A-level has started to increase, and not just since the change of Government in 2010; it predated that change of Government. When we debate these topics, it is important that we are balanced in our use of evidence. I am prepared to acknowledge the issue that she outlined as regards PISA, but I am sure she could acknowledge that we do a lot better in some of the other international research, including TIMSS.

The Financial Times has done an in-depth analysis of the proposed new CSE. It says that it

“will tend to be an exam for poorer children”.

It goes on to say:

“There will be a geographical effect, too, with some areas switching heavily to it. . . The CSE will be a northern qualification”.

This matters. The Secretary of State is in danger of putting a cap on aspiration for poorer children and for those living in the poorer regions of the country.

In last week’s urgent question the Secretary of State told the House that we already have a two-tier system, but he knows that at present pupils who sit the simpler foundation papers for GCSE can still get a C. Indeed, if their coursework is good enough, they can even get a B. With the CSE system, they will have a qualification on their CV which suggests to employers that teachers thought they had low ability. There is a real danger that they will simply stop striving for success.

The Labour Government started to narrow the gap in education between rich and poor. These proposals pose a real threat that the north-south divide will worsen and even fewer young people from the poorest families will stay on at school or go on to university. I am sure the Education Secretary has read the OECD’s research, which concluded that social mobility is lower in countries which

“group students into different curricula at early ages”.

Most scientific evidence now shows that teenagers’ brains can change late in life, even up to the age of 16. Professor Cathy Price of University college London found that teenagers’ IQs can jump by as much as 20 percentage points. She comments:

“We have to be careful not to write off poorer performers at an early stage when in fact their IQ may improve significantly given a few more years.”

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way and I apologise for dragging him back slightly, but before we go on to talk about what the solutions might be, it would helpful to have some clarity about where we start from. Does he believe that an A grade at GCSE when it was introduced was equivalent to an A grade at O-level, and that it is easier to get an A grade at GCSE today than it was back in 1988?

I absolutely acknowledge that there is grade inflation in the system—[Hon. Members: “Ah!]— and I have said that previously. The “Ah!”s are very welcome, but it is not something that I have not said before, and I have said today that we will support measures that root out grade inflation. We will support sensible reform of the examination boards because there is a good argument that a kind of competition to the bottom has contributed to grade inflation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that experience in teaching shows that it is very difficult to predict at the age of 14 exactly where a young person will be at the age of 16? Is not the problem with the Government’s proposal that there is no way of deciding at that age exactly what a child’s performance will be in two years’ time?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend has struck at the heart of the debate and at the heart of where the Opposition differ from the Secretary of State. We cannot write young people off at 14, for the reasons that she set out.

I shall make a little more progress, then I will take a couple more interventions. I know that there are a number of hon. Members who want to speak in the debate as well.

I am, as I have just said, open to sensible ways of improving the GCSE system. We know from businesses and employers’ organisations that they want an examination system that provides young people with the skills that reflect the needs of the modern economy. The recently published annual CBI education survey shows that businesses want our schools to focus on employability skills, presentation skills and practical skills, critical thinking and team working, as well as the crucial foundations of literacy and numeracy.

I was one of those who took O-levels. I know that I do not look old enough. I was just waiting for a Conservative Member to make that point.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the results. I took O-level English. I think I got an A in literature and a B in language. When I was doing O-levels I had no way of testing the skills that the CBI tells us matter—no course work, no speaking and listening component; rather the questions often required fairly basic skills, such as summary and reading comprehension. That is one reason why I say that speaking skills should be a priority for all our state schools, as they are in so many of our primary schools. The Education Secretary observed recently that it was “morally indefensible” that some professions are dominated by pupils from private schools. I simply cannot see how bringing back CSEs will address that indefensible position. It will make it even worse.

The hon. Gentleman described how he now accepts that there was grade inflation. When did that road to Damascus discovery take place? Was it in 1997 when he was first elected, 2005, 2010 or 2012?

Anyone listening to this debate is probably not very interested in the progress of my thinking on these matters. They are probably slightly more interested in the opportunity for Members on both sides of the House to hold the Secretary of State to account, which is the purpose of today’s debate. However, I repeat that I do acknowledge that there is an issue of grade inflation. In an interview in January 2012, the Secretary of State said:

“It is important to recognise that it is not just grade inflation that is responsible for improvements in our schools. I do believe that our schools have got better, incrementally in some case, quickly in others, over the course of the last 15 years.”

So in fact we can reach a consensus on this. There has been grade inflation, but there was also significant improvement in our schools during the last 15 years, for 13 of which, as I recall, the Labour party was in government.

I will complete my speech, because a number of colleagues on both sides of the House wish to take part in the debate and I am drawing to a close.

I worry that the Government are ignoring the central issues in the debate. The system does need reform and improvement. Labour made changes in government. For example, we made the main measure of performance at key stage 4 include English and maths, addressed social mobility from early childhood with Sure Start and free nursery places, and focused on literacy and numeracy in our primary schools. I am proud that under Labour we began to see a narrowing of the attainment gap between rich and poor children. That is not me saying that; it is according to analysis published by the Financial Times, conducted by Simon Burgess, professor of economics at Bristol university. He said that the Labour Government was

“turning the tide on social mobility”.

His analysis looked at core GCSE qualifications and the number crunchers stripped out the effects of grade inflation. The outcome was a sustained improvement in the results achieved by children from the poorest neighbourhoods. The cause of that social mobility was certainly not changes to the exam system—sometimes they are needed—rather it was investment, more and better teachers and greater freedom for schools to innovate.

I am drawing to a close.

This debate strikes at the heart of the approach taken by this Secretary of State, a Secretary of State who favours dogma over evidence and pet projects over changes that work for the many. These proposals will introduce a two-tier system, a massive step backwards, closing off opportunity for thousands of young people, and a cap on aspiration.

In Saturday’s edition of The Times, the Secretary of State’s former teacher, W. G. R. Bain, wrote:

“Although Michael Gove was once one of the brighter pupils in my form class, the top stream at selective Robert Gordon’s College, I am afraid that in the intervening years he has learnt little about hoi polloi”—

his phrase, not mine. He concluded that

“combative debating is his strength, not common sense”.

Frankly, I could not have put it better myself: no common sense, instead arrogance; no interest in the evidence, instead dogma; and no interest in the many, instead naked elitism. Those of us on the Opposition Benches believe in high standards for all. We have an opportunity today to consign the idea of a two-tier system to the scrap heap.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“notes the forthcoming consultation on the secondary school qualifications and curriculum framework; welcomes the opportunity to address the weaknesses of the system introduced by the previous Administration, which undermined confidence in standards, increased inequality and led to a reduction in the take-up of core subjects such as modern languages, history, geography and the sciences; and calls for proposals which are approved by Parliament and which are based on the principles of high standards for all, greater curriculum freedom, and a qualifications and curriculum framework which supports and stretches every child and which boosts social mobility.”

May I first congratulate the shadow Secretary of State on his kind words about Saturday’s edition of The Times, which will be welcomed in every part of the Gove household, particularly by Mrs Gove, whose column appears on that day? I am also grateful to him for paying such close attention to the words of Bill Bain—if only I had paid closer attention to his words when at Robert Gordon’s college—and I am sure that the alumni of the school will be grateful to him for his generous words.

We are all grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate this afternoon and congratulate him on doing so. As an experienced former Schools Minister, he brings passion and fluency to consideration of these issues. He has also brought a degree of intellectual honesty to the debate, which is welcome—I do not think that we have ever heard an acknowledgment from the Labour Front Bench that there was grade inflation under Labour. That was not the case with his immediate predecessor as shadow Secretary of State, and it was certainly not when the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) was Secretary of State. I think that it is important that we record this moment, because it seems the first occasion when there has been a genuine acknowledgment of one of the failures of Labour’s management of our curriculum and qualifications system.

In a moment we will discuss the future and how we might reform our examination system and our curricula, but before that I want to note how striking it was that in the hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I enjoyed and appreciated for its honesty and grace, he did not come forward with a single positive proposal for how to make our qualifications more rigorous. He acknowledged weaknesses, but at no point did he say that he would change things in any particular direction. There was no Labour policy or initiative and nothing progressive from that side of the House, merely criticism. Of course, he will have an opportunity in future debates to outline what he thinks on these questions but, at the moment, where thought and initiative should be there is still a vacuum, a hole in the air.

Before we look to the future, let us consider the past and Labour’s record. As the shadow Secretary of State rightly said, there are aspects of Labour’s record that I acknowledge are good and wish to build on. I am looking forward to building consensus across the House on the growth of the academies programme, for example, the growth of Teach First and the importance of improving teacher training. But there are other areas where I fear that a wrong turning was taken, one of which relates to the curriculum and qualifications. In particular, as our amendment to the motion points out, we saw a flight away from the rigorous subjects that employers and universities value. Under Labour, the proportion of students taking history at GCSE dropped to just 31%, the number taking science subjects dropped by 5%, the number taking geography dropped by 15%, and the number taking foreign languages dropped by 34%. That was despite the shadow Secretary of State saying in May 2004, when he was a Minister in the Department for Education:

“In the knowledge society of the 21st century, language competence and intercultural understanding are not optional extras, they are an essential part of being a citizen.”

That is presumably why in September 2004 he took modern foreign languages out of the national curriculum.

The reason why a drop and a deterioration in the numbers following those subjects matters is that they are critical to social mobility. Both parties in the coalition have made improving social mobility the long-term goal—the measure of the success—of the five years that we have in power, and we know that more students studying history, foreign languages, geography, physics, chemistry and biology means more students having a chance to do satisfying subjects at university and fulfilling jobs in the 21st-century workplace.

In a second.

It is for that reason that we introduced the English baccalaureate measure, in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party—both sides of the coalition determined to redress that decline. What has the result been? In two years, we have already seen the numbers taking languages up by 21%; taking history at GCSE up by 26%; taking geography up by 70%; and taking physics, biology and chemistry up by more than 70%. What we have seen as a result of that determined change to the way in which we set aspiration for our young people is improved social mobility—Liberals and Conservatives working together in order to achieve it.

I remember contributing to an Adjournment debate about the dropping of foreign languages, but how will the Secretary of State deal with a situation such as that in Birmingham, where in about half of our schools English is the second language? Will his proposals fit in with their first language and with English as their second, or will his crude measure of just any other foreign language actually not address the problem of learning the skill of a second language?

I have enormous respect for the hon. Lady, who makes a very important point about Birmingham. It is the youngest city in Britain, and its multicultural traditions are part of its strength, but it is important to recognise in Birmingham that, although there are some excellent schools, such as Perry Beeches and Arthur Terry, there are some underperforming schools.

The excellence of a school is not, however, related to the number of children who have English as an additional language; all research shows that such children are just as capable of succeeding as children from any background. What matters is the quality of the school, not the nature of the home background, and what matters for all children in the 21st century is developing the language skills that will enable them to take their place in university or in the modern workplace. That is why it was a disaster when language learning was dropped under the previous Government, and why it is so welcome that the coalition Government have seen it restored.

Some people will ask why, if performance in those core GCSEs that matter so much declined, the headline figures for GCSE performance improved under Labour? What was going on? What was filling that gap? The truth is that we had a growth in so-called equivalent exams, which were called vocational although most employers did not rate them, and which were called equivalent to one or more GCSEs when most employers and colleges did not believe that they were. They have been eloquently criticised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and by Professor Alison Wolf in her universally praised report on vocational qualifications. There was fantastic growth in low-level qualifications under Labour, most of which, she says, had

“little to no labour market value.”

In 2004, students were taking just 15,000 of those qualifications, and then the Minister for Schools changed the rules. The then Minister for Schools is now the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, and as a result of those changes a certificate in nail technology counted as two GCSEs, a diploma in horse care counted as four GCSEs and, by 2010, where previously 15,000 such qualifications had been pursued, 575,000 were being taken, crowding out real study, driving rigour to the margins and holding back social mobility.

Incentives were created by government which, as Alison Wolf points out,

“deliberately steered institutions and, therefore, their students away from qualifications that might stretch (and reward) young people and towards qualifications that can be passed easily.”

She says also that, of the current cohort of children between the ages of 16 and 19,

“at least 350,000 get little to no benefit”

from such qualifications.

I asked the head teacher of a really successful academy in my constituency what he thought about the issue, and he told me:

“We will have to limit success by choosing tiering well before students have hit their potential.”

Does the Secretary of State believe that that fantastic head teacher, who is taking his school from strength to strength, is an enemy of reform?

I absolutely do not. I am sure that that school, like many of the schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency, is doing a fantastic job, and I am grateful that she has been so enthusiastic in embracing the academies reform programme.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby acknowledged, the two-tier system that he talks about is not something that the coalition Government are planning to introduce, but something that the Labour Government presided over and we want to tackle. The problem is that we already have a two-tier GCSE system. As he acknowledged but then skated over, we have two types of GCSE—foundation and higher tier—in English, maths and science. We have a two-tier system of first-class and second-class qualifications. The higher tier allows anyone who takes a paper to get an A, B or C, and so on; the foundation paper is explicitly designed to limit student success. In ordinary circumstances, it is impossible for a student who enters for a foundation-tier paper to achieve a grade higher than C. It is impossible, in other words, for thousands of students to achieve the most basic grade that is respected by employers and will in many colleges allow them to progress to A-levels. The very act of entering a child for a foundation-tier paper at GCSE is a way of saying, “Don’t get above yourself—A-levels are not for you.” Even colleges that set a C grade as an entry requirement often demand a grade C from a higher-tier paper because they treat higher-tier and lower-tier GCSEs as separate qualifications.

A cap on aspiration was Labour’s policy for the 13 years it was in power, and this coalition Government are determined to remove that cap.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development world rankings, between 2000 and 2009 this country fell from seventh to 25th in reading and from eighth to 27th in mathematics. Without my right hon. Friend’s very welcome radicalism, we will find it increasingly difficult to compete successfully in the global economy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely correct that we need to have higher aspirations for all students. That is why, in our forthcoming consultation on how we can improve GCSEs and get world-class qualifications, we will suggest that we end the tiering of papers and ensure that this barrier—this cap on aspiration—is removed. That is genuine radicalism that embodies greater aspiration for all students. After 13 years of Labour when there was a cap on aspiration, under this coalition Government social mobility is at last advanced.

Given that practically all the studies show that the differences between children when they are first sent to school at the age of five are not changed by schools of any nature or under any exam system, why does the Secretary of State think that the introduction of his proposed reforms will change the life chances of the poorest children?

I think that their life chances can change. I usually agree with the right hon. Gentleman on almost every issue, but in this area I differ with him. I do not believe that birth or even the early years determine a child’s fate. I have seen children from very similar backgrounds, often from troubled and chaotic homes, go into primary schools and then on to secondary schools with very different qualities of teaching and, as a result, have their outcomes transformed. The right hon. Gentleman has been a fantastic advocate for the growth of the academies programme, including in his own constituency. His actions suggest to me that while he is, of course, as determined as I am to improve the early years, he recognises that we can intervene at every stage to help children and young people to succeed.

Of course we need to intervene at every stage as effectively as possible. While all of us, thank goodness, have seen examples of children escaping their circumstances such as those the right hon. Gentleman cites, the truth is that if we look at students as classes we do not free whole groups of pupils.

It is absolutely right that we make sure that we recognise that children are individuals and that teaching should, as far as possible, be personalised towards them. Children will not only have different abilities in different subjects but will mature at different stages.

That is one of the reasons why we wanted to ensure that we developed qualifications that are not only without the tiers that set a cap on aspiration but can be taken at different points in a child’s career. At the moment, far too many children fail to secure a GCSE pass in English and maths at the age of 16 and never manage to secure a meaningful qualification in maths or English thereafter. We want to learn from Singapore, where students at the age of 16, then 17, and then 18, secure those passes. We must not give up on children simply because they have not reached an appropriate level at the age of 16. That is why we are reforming post-16 education and why we are placing a requirement on students who have not secured those qualifications at the age of 16 to secure them at 17 or 18. The generation that had been written off under Labour is at last, under the coalition Government, receiving support.

The Secretary of State said that the Government will abolish tiering in GCSEs. Will he clarify whether that is because 20% to 25% of students will take not O-levels, but the new CSE?

The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, has misunderstood. We want to ensure that more and more of our children do better and better.

There are two poles in this debate, neither of which I am happy with. One pole holds that only a minority of about 20% or 25% will ever be able to pass academic qualifications—the A stream, the elite. The other view, which was incarnated in Labour education policy in the past, is that to ensure that a majority of children pass the qualifications, we need to make them less demanding. I reject both those views. I think that more children can succeed if we make our exams more demanding, because we have a higher degree of aspiration and ambition for all our children.

I understand why the right hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby and other Opposition Members find it so difficult to grasp this point. Sorry, he is an hon. Gentleman—there is no cap on his aspiration or ambition. They find it difficult because the only way in which they felt that they could succeed was to lower the bar. We believe that it is by raising the bar that we can deal with this issue.

No, thank you.

We not only have a two-tier system in the split between foundation and higher tier GCSEs, over which Labour presided—

Quite right. I did not come into Parliament to defend the status quo, unlike the small-c conservatives opposite. I am a radical who believes in liberating human potential. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) are disciples of Keith Joseph. I regard myself as being in a slightly more radical, reforming, modern and liberal tradition than the late Member for Leeds North East, bless his soul.

As a reformer, it offends me not only that is there a division incarnated in our state schools, but that independent schools are opting for the IGCSE because the GCSE is not rigorous enough and that, as a result, there is a two-tier system between state and independent schools. There is also a two-tier system between this nation and other nations because other countries have more testing examinations at the ages of 16, 17 and 18, whereas we have incarnated low aspirations in the way in which we judge our young people.

Un embarras de richesses, as they say in west Derby! I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray).

As my right hon. Friend may know, Acton high school is about to open a sixth form. The most important thing for the students who study there is that we give them the best possible start as they pursue their A-levels. Does he agree that more rigorous preparation, whether through an enhanced GCSE or an O-level, would help them to get through their A-levels and go on to university?

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. One problem with the current system is that GCSEs are not, in many cases, adequate preparation for A-levels, and A-levels are not adequate preparation for university, particularly when our students are compared with those from other jurisdictions. That is because, notwithstanding the incremental improvement in state education over the past 15 years, other countries have reformed their education systems faster than we have reformed ours. We have to match them and that means reform.

The Secretary of State wants more rigorous exams that more people pass. That is an aspiration that we would all share, but it is not immediately obvious how it is to be brought about. Today, 42% of children do not get five good GCSEs including English and maths. If we make the tests more difficult, it is not immediately obvious how more people will pass them. I welcome that he is aiming higher and that we will have more rigour, but we need more detail. He is very good at explaining what is wrong with what Labour did, and I agree with every word, but he is not so good at giving us the detail of precisely what this Government plan to do.

It is perfectly clear what we need to do to get more children to pass more exams: we must press ahead with the reforms that we have introduced to create more academies and free schools, to get better teachers in our schools, to have continuous professional development in which we invest in the very best people, to expand the Teach First programme, and to ensure that we have a relentless focus on raising the bar. Complacency on performance in our schools will lead us only to continue to be backmarkers. One point I would make to the Chair of the Education Committee and the House is that some schools manage to do every bit as well as schools in Singapore by getting 80% or more of their students to five good GCSEs or equivalents. We should ask ourselves why more schools are not doing as well as them. The whole point of the Government’s education reforms is to ensure that we raise standards for all.

The Chair of the Committee asked what the Government will do to change things. We have already taken some steps. We have banned modules and re-sits, and introduced the English baccalaureate to put a stress on rigorous subjects. It is not clear whether the Opposition agree with us. We have explicitly said that we believe there is a case for one exam board per subject in English, maths and science. The Opposition inched towards agreeing with us, and I hope we can reach a consensus.

One problem I have in attempting to tease out where the Opposition stand in order to build the consensus we all want is that whenever the Government put forward a case for reform, it is difficult to know where the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby stands.

The Secretary of State mentioned Alison Wolf. He wants to be the great radical, but he must recognise that he needs to widen the skills base. He must show the House that he is attempting a dual system rather than a two-tier system if he prays in aid Alison Wolf.

I would never accuse the hon. Lady of falling into the fatalist camp, but some do. The fatalist position—that we cannot improve—was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Chair of the Education Committee, but I believe Andrew Adonis, who said: “The fatalists who say”—[Interruption.] As Front Benchers say, “If the cap on aspiration fits, wear it.”

Andrew Adonis has said:

“The fatalists who say that countries with strong academic school traditions cannot create, in a short timescale, quality vocational education institutions and pathways with real prestige should take note. It is being done abroad and must be done here.”

It is being done here through the introduction of university technical colleges, and through the development of studio schools, which were introduced by the Government of Andrew Adonis and expanded massively by this one. It is also being done with a review of vocational qualifications, which will mean that apprenticeships are at last possessed of the rigour that all hon. Members might expect, but which did not happen under the previous Government. Thanks to the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, we have extended a requirement so that all apprenticeships will be for 12 rather than just six months. We have also extended the important work-related learning in apprenticeships. I acknowledge that there are improvements to be made, but the Holt and Richard reviews will ensure that we make them.

If those improvements are to be enduring and if we are to succeed, if the university technical colleges and studio schools are to succeed and take root, and if the changes we are making in the academies programme are to succeed, such as the welcome addition of the Liverpool college—an independent fee-paying school—to the state sector, which was welcomed graciously by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, we need, as Andrew Adonis pointed out today, a consensus in the House.

In calling this debate, the hon. Gentleman has asked Parliament to approve certain propositions. Let us try to approve certain propositions on where Labour stands on critical issues.

It is about the House. When the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby was interviewed just a couple of weeks ago, he was asked about academies. He said that one of the freedoms Labour extended to academies is freedom over the curriculum. He said we should extend that to all schools. He is therefore for the academies programme. In the same interview, however, he said: “We have now got 2,000 schools that are academies. I do not think that is desirable. I do not think that is a good system.” He was for our academies programme before he was against it.

Andrew Adonis was quoted as saying that free schools were Labour’s invention. When the hon. Gentleman was asked about free schools, he said: “Yes, free schools are being established, some of which will be excellent.” So he was asked, “Will you create any more?”, and he replied, “That we need to look at. We need to look at that.” It was then put to him that, in fact, before looking at the policy, he had voted against it.

Yes, in a minute.

The hon. Gentleman then said, “Our policy was to oppose free schools, and we voted against them.” So he was for it before he looked at it and before he was against it. Perhaps he might now illuminate the House on his position towards free schools—position 1, in favour; position 2, don’t know; or position 3, against?

If the Secretary of State wants to ask me questions, we can always swap places. I would be happy to swap places and answer his questions, but this is a debate where he has to defend his position. Lord Adonis, whom he mentioned, has been clear in the past few days about what he thinks of the Government’s latest proposals to bring back CSEs. Will the Secretary of State rule out bringing back a new version of the CSE?

I have explained exactly what we will do, which is to strengthen GCSEs and world-class qualifications. Nothing we want to do is a step backwards; everything we want to do is a step towards the high-class qualifications that other countries have. I have ruled out as clearly as I can any two-tier system. I have said that we want to move to one tier and a set of high-level qualifications. I can bring clarity to the Government’s position but not to the Opposition’s.

No, no.

We want to know whether, as we make changes to the curriculum, the hon. Gentleman will back us on modern foreign languages, for example.

The hon. Gentleman says yes, but his position on modern foreign languages has changed over time. As I pointed out, he said in July 2004:

“In the knowledge society of the 21st century language competence”

is “essential.” Then, in September 2004, he said, “We don’t want to go back to the old days when we tried to force feed languages to students.” Then, when he was asked in May 2011 what his real position had been on languages in 2004, he said: “I had mixed views.” Given this lack of consistency, can we be certain that his position now, in backing modern foreign languages, is a consistent one? And will he assent to our other proposals? Does he believe that we should get rid of modules at GCSE and end the re-sit culture? Yes or no? A simple nod will suffice. [Interruption.] No, he is not going to get into it. No consistency! He is uncertain. Is he for it, or against it? What about the English baccalaureate? All he needs to do is nod. Will he support the English baccalaureate? We know that the hon. Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) do.

I support the English baccalaureate. But my question is this: does the Secretary of State think the Daily Mail reported his intended reforms accurately and fully?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting the English baccalaureate. The frock-coated communist has become the grey-suited radical. One of the things that matters to me is whether the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby supports the English baccalaureate. Yes or no? [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] After my appearance at Leveson, it probably ill behoves me to pass commentary on the press in this country, other than to say that I support the right of a free and rigorous press to report and comment on things with their usually pungency.

Does the hon. Gentleman support our position on equivalents? Does he support stripping them out of the school system?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants everything to be black and white, but sometimes there is nuance in these debates. One of the equivalents I certainly do not support—this is the issue I tried to intervene on earlier—is changing some of the diplomas, including the engineering diploma. The excellent JCB academy, the first university technical college, has lobbied me strongly to say that it disagrees with how the Government have downgraded the engineering diploma. There is a real risk that vocational and practical subjects will be crowded out of our schools at a time when we need more young people getting good qualifications in engineering and other areas.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking about one of the more than 1,700 vocational qualifications. So he supports the engineering diploma being an equivalent. Does he support nail technology or horse husbandry or any of the others? Again, answer comes there none.

The hon. Gentleman says that there is nuance in his position. I say, rather than nuance, there is an absence of clarity, without which we cannot secure consensus. Does he believe that we should continue with foundation and higher-tier GCSEs? Yes or no? A simple nod would suffice. Again, answer comes there none, but we probably know what he thinks. When he was a Minister in the Department for Education and Skills in 2003, the “Excellence and Opportunity” White Paper said that:

“the GCSE has become a qualification at two levels: Level 2 (or grades A*–C) is viewed by the public as success, while Level 1 (or grades D–G) is seen as failure. For many young people achieving Level 1 is demotivating. Some young people prefer not to reveal that they have taken GCSEs than admit to a lower grade. This undermines motivation and discourages staying on”.

That was the view of the hon. Gentleman and his Department in 2003, but they took no action to deal with the problem. At last, 10 years later, the coalition Government are taking action to end the problem of failure, to ensure that we no longer have an examination system that is demotivating and to end a system that discourages staying on.

Does the Secretary of State accept that with the foundation and higher-tier system there was always the opportunity for pupils to transfer, and there was always a motivation to try to drive pupils to get better than a D by getting a C? How will the new system of separating a CSE and an O-level examination allow a pupil to be pushed so that they can attain the higher level—the O-level qualification—if they have already started on a CSE syllabus, which is significantly different?

I have to ask the hon. Lady where she has been for most of this debate. At no stage have we talked about separating children at the age of 14, and at no stage—

The Secretary of State is supposed to be a man of his convictions. Parents and pupils in my constituency want to know whether the Daily Mail report was accurate—yes or no?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking her question. I am a man of my convictions, and my convictions are that we need to improve our GCSE system. That is why we have outlined proposals that will ensure that we change the way in which children sit qualifications at the age of 16. In place of a two-tier system, with GCSEs split between foundation and higher-tier, we will have one qualification for all students. In place of competing exam boards where there is a race to the bottom instituted under the Labour Government, we will have exam boards that will be asked to compete to go to the top, and all those exam boards will be asked to produce qualifications that are more rigorous.

Instead of 60% of students being assumed to succeed and 40% being written off, we will set a benchmark whereby at least 80% and a rising proportion of students succeed over time. Instead of a flight away from rigorous subjects like history, geography and modern foreign languages, physics, chemistry and biology, we will ensure that those subjects are incentivised in league tables and accountability measures. We will ensure as a result of these changes that the drift towards mediocrity that the last Government’s qualification system incarnated is finally addressed.

I applaud the measures my right hon. Friend has taken more greatly to value spelling, punctuation and grammar. In that respect, does he share my concern about a school I came across recently whose policy was to correct no more than three spelling mistakes in any piece of work? Does he agree with me that that is a false kindness to children who might put in with a CV a covering letter with spelling mistakes, which is then put in the bin with the child’s potential being wasted?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One change we have already made to GCSEs—again, I do not know whether or not the Opposition back it—is to reintroduce marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar so that all students know that rigour is demanded at every point.

During the course of this debate—including the speeches from the Front Bench and subsequently—we have not heard a single constructive proposal from the Opposition on how to change exams. By contrast, the coalition Government have spelled out steps to ensure that more students take more rigorous subjects; steps to ensure that we deal with a race to the bottom and the wrong type of competition; steps to ensure that we remove a cap on aspiration; steps to ensure that we match the quality of the International GCSE and Singapore O-levels.

I shall not take any more interventions at this stage.

The reason for doing that is that we need to ensure that our curriculum and qualifications system moves on from being one that, as I mentioned earlier, has been trapped by two opposing and equally out-of-date views: either that only a minority can succeed, or that, for a majority to succeed, we have to lower the bar. I believe we can ensure that more children succeed by ensuring that the policies of the coalition Government are implemented with vigour and energy. That is why we need to press ahead with the academies programme, it is why we need to invest more in Teach First, and it is why we need the changes in education for children with special educational needs that are being introduced by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather).

For all those reasons, I commend the amendment to the House, and I look forward to the vote.

As all Members can see, many of them wish to take part in the debate. We will not be able to fit everyone in without a time limit, so all Back-Bench contributions will be limited to seven minutes. If interventions slow us down even further, it may be necessary to shorten that limit.

I think that we must give the Secretary of State’s speech eight out of 10 for style, but nought out of 10 for content. It was a very good speech which, I am afraid, did not deal with the issue in hand at all. The Secretary of State was asked on numerous occasions whether the Daily Mail had reported him correctly, and he was completely evasive. He was asked again and again how the abolition of GCSEs would raise the bar, and I have to say that his responses were divisive, evasive and at times even destructive.

What is so important about GCSEs is that they are examinations for all pupils of all abilities. They were introduced in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Baker in response to huge unhappiness, largely among parents. Those of us who were in the education system at that time will remember that it was middle-class parents whose children were sent to underfunded secondary moderns and forced down the route of CSEs who brought about the abolition of CSEs and the introduction of the GCSEs that we have now, which have brought together the best of what was in the CSEs and the old O-levels.

That approach was welcomed by the whole education community, but it seems likely that it will be abolished on the say-so of the Secretary of State, who has apparently not consulted anyone on his proposal. As far as I am aware, there has been no consultation with pupils, parents, teachers or the wider education community. The Secretary of State convened a two-year curriculum review group consisting of the great and the good to consider the issue of the curriculum, but appears subsequently to have completely ignored everything said by that group, choosing instead to develop an education policy that has no evidence base and is founded on personal prejudice.

So what is the evidence behind the Secretary of State’s review? We have heard a lot from him about our cascading down the OECD PISA scales for English, maths and science. I am sorry, but no matter how many times he says that, it is simply not true. In the three years leading up to 2007 many more countries entered their data in the PISA tables, so the outcomes in 2007 did not measure like with like. When the Secretary of State talks of cascading down the scales, what he is really talking about are a couple of percentage points in a table that would now include many more countries than it did at the time when it was last drawn up. That is not measuring like with like. If the Secretary of State were a teacher instead of a journalist looking for the best negative headline, he would understand that.

The Secretary of State used Singapore for his evidence base. The Education Committee visited Singapore last year just to see what was happening there. It must be said that there are many good things in the Singapore system, but what he failed to tell us was that in Singapore education is not free, and is not compulsory for children beyond the age of 11. When PISA measures the outcomes of 16-year-olds in England against those of 16-year-olds in Singapore, it is measuring the outcomes of all 16-year-olds in England against those of some 16-year-olds in Singapore. Again, like is not being measured with like.

In Singapore the curriculum is restricted to English, maths and science, and there is no creativity whatsoever. Here we have a broad, advanced curriculum. Again, like is not being measured with like. The Secretary of State failed to tell us that in Singapore seven out of eight children have up to three hours of additional tuition every day paid for by the parents, over and above the tuition that is received in schools. So again, like is not being measured with like. He also failed to tell us that the Singapore system is one of the most centralist education systems in the world, where the Minister for education dictates what is taught, how it is taught and when it is taught. It goes so far that head teachers do not even apply for places in schools; they are allocated a school and they are moved on every three years—and they have no say whatever about which school they move on to.

In using Singapore to provide evidence for his plans, the Secretary of State is comparing our state-funded, diverse, teacher-led, innovative, autonomous system with a broad and balanced curriculum that caters for all children up to the age of 16 and beyond with an almost Soviet-style centralised system where education is not free, compulsion ends at 11 years of age and there is a highly restrictive curriculum. That is not measuring like with like.

The Secretary of State also looked for his evidence base to polls telling him that parents want to see a return to O-levels. He may well cite the recent YouGov poll that shows that 60% of those who are old enough to have sat the old O-level want to see a return to a two-tier system. However, that is what we would expect from any poll that asked questions of people over 40; they hanker back to what they know. The YouGov poll also shows, however, that 40% of those who sat O-levels do not want to see a return to a two-tier system, and that 65% of those who took GCSEs do not want to see a return to a two-tier system either.

I accept that the system we have is not perfect, but I do not believe that the answer is to return to qualifications that were designed a lifetime ago for a world that no longer exists in which children without qualifications were able to find jobs in low-skill industries—in factories, mines, shipbuilding, steel-making and agriculture. That world no longer exists. Today’s young people need skills that were not previously taught: resilience and reasoning skills, negotiation skills, team-working, speaking skills, interpersonal skills. Those are the skills that employers are telling the Education Committee that they need. They are taught in private schools; we should be making time for them in our state schools.

In designing our state education system, we should say, “If it’s not good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for your child.” That should be our guiding principle in designing an education system, rather than, “Outcomes for some at the expense of others.”

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and to rebut allegations of fatalism thrown at me by the Secretary of State. I hope I am no more of a fatalist than he is. I have observed in many of our debates that able politicians, on both sides of the House, are brilliant at describing and critiquing the inheritance from the Labour party and at painting a picture of the kind of country we would like to be, but our job in this House is to address the third aspect and examine the route map to get from position A—not very good—to position B, or nirvana and where we want to be. Too often in our education debates in this Chamber, we spend an awful lot of time on aspects one and two, and not a lot on the third aspect.

Following the Secretary of State’s speech, I am a little clearer about what his plans are. I think he has said—I hope he will intervene on me if I am incorrect—that the Daily Mail was mistaken, and that there is not going to be a return to a two-tier system. He did not, for whatever reason, try to spell this out, but it sounded as if he was talking about a more rigorous GCSE. It is progress that the Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), acknowledges that there was grade inflation during his party’s time in office, and the Secretary of State makes powerful points about equivalences. The Government have certainly had my support in tackling that and in tightening up in various ways, such as by removing entirely the vocational qualifications that Alison Wolf identified as offering no real labour value to people.

So what is the vision? If we were just talking about a more rigorous GCSE with a removal of the perverse incentives to dumb down over time—it has now been acknowledged that that was the case, even by Labour—I think there would almost be cross-House consensus. There is a recognition by Labour that it did not get everything right, even if Labour Members cannot quite bring themselves to say that yet; it is fair enough for the Secretary of State to tease the shadow Secretary of State for his failure to do so. It seems that the Labour party is beginning to recognise that a lot of the Secretary of State’s moves towards rigour have been correct. However, if we are to have a beefed-up GCSE, and if we are not moving towards a system that is more two-tier than what we have now, I would like to see more detail. I know that a consultation paper is coming, but it seems disappointing that we did not get more detail from the Secretary of State today.

I am very grateful to the Chairman of the Education Committee for giving me the opportunity to ask the question that I was hoping to ask of the Secretary of State. Given that both sides now seem to accept that there has been a problem of grade inflation, could we pay a little bit of attention to the marks that underlie the grades? One of the problems that I felt many years ago with the introduction of grades for O-levels, rather than marks, was that it did not matter if somebody got 70%, 80% or 90%: anybody who reached a certain level—70%, I think—still got the same top grade. This was the beginning of an inflationary process. Would not the stating of actual marks—

Fortunately, my hon. Friend takes me to the issue I wanted to address next, which is the administration of examinations. Unfortunately, however, I am unable to comment on that now. The Education Committee has conducted a long inquiry into precisely that issue, looking at the trade-offs between a single board, competition between boards, franchising by subject and various other ways of cutting it. We have concluded our report, but because of the examination season—whoever leaked this story to the press last week was obviously less sensitive than us to the fact that children were taking exams—we decided to delay the publication of our report until 3 July. So, I am afraid that, until then, I cannot engage in that issue. However, we have looked at it in depth, and I hope I am not in contempt of Parliament if I say that the Committee came up with a unanimous recommendation and report. I hope that those on both sides of the House will wait until at least 3 July before allowing any of their opinions to solidify further.

If the Secretary of State is talking about a more rigorous GCSE system—whether it is given a new name or not—which is effectively a single examination system, as we have now, that would rather destroy the entire premise of my speech, leaving me short for words.

Time for a coffee and to let others speak.

However, over the last two years the Government have made a series of announcements looking to put greater rigour into the system. They announced the ending of modularisation of GCSEs, tackling the culture of re-sits, ending equivalences and promoting the English baccalaureate, which, of course, rewards those students who achieve good GCSEs in English, maths, two sciences, a language and either history or geography. However, at the end of that process, if the leak is to be believed—I am in a state of confusion now—they suddenly announced the scrapping of GCSEs altogether. That does not seem terribly coherent.

Just last June the Secretary of State said the following about GCSEs:

“So next year the floor will rise to 40 per cent and my aspiration is that by 2015 we will be able to raise it to 50 per cent. There is no reason—if we work together—that by the end of this parliament every young person in the country can’t be educated in a school where at least half of students reach this basic academic standard.”

He went on to say:

“A GCSE floor standard is about providing a basic minimum expectation to young people that their school will equip them for further education and employment.”

That was the direction of travel then; suddenly, a year later—if we are to believe the Daily Mail—that has been scrapped. On the other hand, if I understood correctly what the Secretary of State said today, that was an entirely false idea and there is no plan to do such a thing at all.

I think we are all trying to decipher what the Secretary of State said. Is it the hon. Gentleman’s understanding that the Secretary of State said that he would expect 80% of pupils to sit this new single-paper GCSE, and if so, what does he think ought to happen to the other 20%?

As I have said, I think that increased rigour throughout the system is necessary and important. I think that the accountability system for schools needs to be changed so that it does not have perverse outcomes, such as putting people on courses that lead nowhere but allow the institution to meet its benchmark—we on the Committee have been critics of that for some time. Perhaps the announcement, or the leak, suggests a change in view by the Secretary of State on that front.

If we look across the system, where we need more rigour and we need to ensure that we end the perverse incentives, we find that the biggest problem we face in a global knowledge economy, where the first rung of the ladder keeps rising up, is what we do about people who are not getting those basic skills and that basic education. The Government have two priorities for education: raising standards for all; and closing the gap. Those are right, but when setting priorities it is terribly important to show what the top priority is. I am yet to understand how the changes specifically will help the least able, but then again I am unclear as to what exactly the proposal is—even if I have not quite fallen to the level of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who of course got so confused about percentages last week.

That is a lot better than I did, so I will leave it there.

Ofqual now has a statutory duty to ensure two things, one of which is that we maintain standards over time. We shall see whether it does its job right; it is relatively newly empowered and we need to give it the chance to see whether it can reverse this grade inflation and keep us up there with our international competition. Has it said that there needs to be a restructuring of the examination system, not necessarily the administration of it, but the whole quality of it and the possible tiering of it? I would like to hear from the Secretary of State about that.

I have only a minute left, so I shall finish by repeating that the central problem is what we do about the young people, all too many of whom are now not in education, employment or training—NEET—and are being left behind. A more rigorous system is great, but the only way to raise standards ultimately—this is the only thing that matters in education—is through quality of teaching. We need to ensure consistent, high-quality teaching and an excellent institution for everyone, everywhere. At the moment, there are all sorts of incentives in the accountability system to focus on borderline pupils at the expense of those at the bottom, and within the system for people to move from a school that is very challenging to one in the leafier suburbs—a much more congenial place for many people to teach in. We need to look at re-gearing our whole system in a way that the Labour Government failed to do, despite efforts in that direction, to ensure that we provide opportunity for all, because both socially and economically we cannot afford to have so many children left behind, unable to get on the first rung of the economic ladder and thus be full members of our society. If any proposals from the Secretary of State are driven by that central insight, he can certainly look forward to my support.

In 2006, New College school in my constituency was the worst secondary school in England for truancy, the worst in the value-added league tables, and fifth from bottom overall for GCSE results. Just one in 10 pupils taking GCSEs at the school scored five grade Cs or better, while the truancy rate was running at more than 10 times the national average. I was therefore very proud when last Friday New College was named by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust as being in the top 10% of improving schools in the country. The number of children getting five A to C grades at GCSE including in English and maths has gone up by 450%, and the number getting five A to C grades overall has gone up by a staggering 700%.

Jane Brown, the head teacher at New College, says that three key things have helped it to achieve those phenomenal results, and that the first and foremost is having the right teachers—moving on those who were not up to scratch and replacing them with the very best. The second thing is the focus and financial support from the national challenge programme, which has enabled New College to get external support, including from the ex-head of education at Nottingham, and pay for additional resources, such as tutors to give intense one-on-one support in English and maths. The third thing is not allowing the school to get blown off track by different Government initiatives, and instead focusing consistently and relentlessly on what really matters to help children learn, aspire and achieve. The teachers, support staff, volunteers and students at New College deserve huge congratulations on their hard work, commitment and success. Although they are rightly proud of their achievements, they are not complacent, and they are determined to make even greater improvements in the future.

I have spoken to Jane and to some of the other heads at secondary schools in Leicester West about the Secretary of State’s plans—or, at least, reported plans—to change GCSEs. They think—and I agree—that a single exam board could be a positive step to help tackle unhelpful competition between exam boards and stop some heads thinking, “Which exam will get the best results for my school?” rather than, “How can we give our students the best education for life?” Achieving A grades in GCSEs should be really demanding, and with a single syllabus there is no reason that cannot be achieved. That is something we should be considering.

Jane and the other heads do not support a return to a two-tier system where children are told at age 14 what they can and cannot achieve. Telling some children before they have had a chance fully to develop that they are not good enough to do O-levels will not boost their self-esteem, but crush it. Telling them they can manage only CSEs, which will inevitably be a less valued qualification, will not raise their achievement, but cap it. We should not be putting a ceiling on children’s aspirations; we should be blasting those ceilings away.

This proposal is a terribly backwards step from a Secretary of State who does not seem to understand what it takes to help children from chronically deprived backgrounds to aspire and achieve. Jane Brown, who has proved through her hard work and effort what can and must be done to turn schools around, says labelling children as failures so early would be disastrous. Instead of helping schools such as New College, which have created a “yes you can, yes you will” culture for all the students all the way through to the end of year 11, the Government’s proposals will return us to the days when some children ended up believing that they could not aspire and achieve and that they were failures, particularly if they came from very disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why I urge the Government, in the strongest possible terms, to rethink their plans. If the Secretary of State would like to visit New College and see what it really takes to turn around a school that was in a terrible state some years ago, so that it is now doing really well for the people I was elected to represent, I am sure that he would be welcomed.

Young people are working harder in our schools than ever before, guided by probably the best ever generation of teachers. Certainly, lessons are planned and progress tracked in a way that it never was when most of us were at school. Young people are also examined more, at considerable cost to our schools—the average cost of exams to maintained secondary schools was £44,000 in 2003 and £96,000 by 2010. Those pupils and teachers are being let down by a system that has allowed the erosion of confidence in their qualifications.

There is massive pressure on schools, as we all know, from the five-plus C-plus measurement in league tables. Although it is true, as many right hon. and hon. Members have said, that there have been real improvements in educational attainment, it is also true that ever since those league table ladders were created, ingenious schools have found ever more ingenious ways of getting up them, aided and abetted by public policy and the exams industry, with things such as double awards, short courses, half GCSEs, new subjects and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, equivalents, which make a 19 percentage point difference in the league tables. If equivalents are included, 75% of children get five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, but that goes down to 56% if those equivalents are taken out.

Like economic growth, improvements in grade have both a real part and an inflationary part. The real growth comes from better teaching, better teachers and more engaged parents, and I think we have see ample evidence of those things.

In that case, would the hon. Gentleman listen to a maths teacher from my constituency and the 11th most improved school in the country from 2012, who says:

“The current GCSE system allows every pupil to achieve beyond their potential and is fully recognised by employers regardless of tier”?

I am always happy to hear from distinguished maths teachers, but I am not quite sure how the hon. Lady’s intervention relates to or contradicts what I just said. I was saying that there have clearly been real improvements, but I do not think there is anyone left, including that distinguished maths teacher, who doubts that on top of those real improvements there has been significant grade inflation, as acknowledged by the shadow Secretary of State.

There are four key elements to the grade inflation. First, there has been the gradual easing of what we used to call the syllabus—now called the specification—on the part of the exam board. Secondly, at the school end, there has been teaching to the test. Thirdly, there have been all sorts of elements in the design of examinations, including modularity or what is now called unitising, early takes, re-sits, the use of calculators and so on. Fourthly—this sounds a bit dull and technical but it is very important—there is the statistical tolerance in the results. Every year, there is rightly a normalisation to say what results, for example, a key stage 4 cohort should get relative to what they achieved at key stage 2, with perhaps a 1% tolerance either way on a finding—but of course the tolerance only ever goes up. That is the most pure form of grade inflation.

The hon. Gentleman is making these points about how people work within the rules to maximise the effect, but even when I was at school there were children who were thought to be marginal when it came to getting an O-level and were dissuaded because it was thought that they would skew the results and do the school down. Let us not pretend that this is something new.

The hon. Gentleman is very youthful looking but I am not sure the league tables were in place when he was at school, so I find that point slightly confusing.

Does it matter that there has been grade inflation? I think we have all heard from higher education institutions, employers in our constituencies and members of the public that it does matter. One witness who gave evidence to the Education Committee’s exams inquiry said they did not believe that employers expect to be able to compare exam results over time, but I have news for him: that is exactly what employers, higher education institutions and parents expect to be able to do, and quite justifiably so. However, the system does not support them in doing that. Although there have been many factors at play with grade inflation, there are three root causes among which there is interplay: the pressure on schools to deliver the results; the competitive land grab for volume market share on behalf of the competing exam boards; and a too malleable system that attempts to put everything on a single scale when everything does not necessarily fit together.

I think we have moved on a good way in this debate. Over the past few days, the phrase we have heard most often on this subject has been about not wanting to return to a two-tier system, but increasingly there is a recognition that there are two tiers now, with 40% of youngsters being left behind. One could even argue that there is a third tier, with the young people who are put on to other qualifications that are of so little value to them in later life. Even in the purer sense, within a single-subject GCSE there are the two tiers of the foundation level and the higher level. Although this has been talked about much today, it is in many ways the best kept secret in education. I keep finding, when I talk to the parents of 14 and 15-year-old pupils, that they are not aware of that distinction. In many ways O-levels and CSEs never went away—they were just rebranded, but into one thing.

Let us take the example of GCSE maths. If someone is entered for GCSE maths at foundation level, that decision will be taken when they are in year 10 and the highest grade they can then achieve is a grade C. That sounds very much like getting a CSE grade 1 in the 1980s. And it is not just maths. Other subjects that are tiered include biology, physics, chemistry, general science, classical civilisation, Latin, English literature, English language, geography and modern foreign languages— almost every one of the core academic subjects that most of us did at school, with the single exception of history.

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how having O-levels and CSEs would make that two-tier system better?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Lady, who is an erstwhile colleague of ours on the Select Committee, but I am not proposing a return to anything from the past. What we must do is build an exam and qualification system that is fit for the future and reflects the new reality in which the participation age is 18, not 16. We must make sure that all young people can reach their potential at 15 to 16 and that if they have not done so by that point, particularly in key subjects such as English and maths, they go on to do so at 16 to 18 and beyond.

I am sorry, but I am running very short of time.

There is a bunch of complications in this two-tier system—for example, it applies to some subjects but not others, and there are even subjects for which students can enter one paper at foundation level and still score a grade B or A. There might be good reasons for all that, but one thing this system is not is clear. I understand the argument that all must have prizes, and in some ways that seems like a good thing, but it does young people no favours to kid them that the worth of the qualifications they are taking is greater than it really is. Instead, we must strive so that all merit prizes. We should aspire to the vast majority of children getting those key subjects aged 15 and 16, but as I said in reply to the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), there must be the facility to return to them at age 16 to 18. One of the key points in the Wolf report was the lack of post-16 focus in our country compared with others on English and maths in particular—subjects that command a huge premium in the workplace.

I am sorry, but I cannot.

For our country, we need world-class exams to win in the fiercely competitive new global economy. For our young people, we need worthwhile qualifications with the right breadth, depth and usefulness that will serve them well in their work and in their life.

The Secretary of State ducked and dived round the Daily Mail’s ring like a bantamweight, but that did not disguise the fact that he has still not this afternoon come out and denied the newspaper’s central thesis of a return to CSEs. The reality of a return to a form of CSEs and a form of selection is a return to educational apartheid. The Secretary of State, like many others, including me, went through a selective system and did well out of it; we went there and got the T-shirt, but I will never forget the shiver that went down my spine as I did my 11-plus and nor will many others. The truth is that that system failed too many of our young people, and 20 years as an Open university tutor taught me that the backs of many of the people who had a second chance with the Open university were scarred by that experience.

When the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), talks about a cap on aspiration, he is absolutely right. In 2010, the Secretary of State said that Dickens and other authors should be studied in English lessons to improve young people’s grasp of the English language. As this is the year of Dickens, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”:

“Oh God. to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”

It is the hungry brothers and hungry sisters in the dust we need to be concerned with.

The Secretary of State ducked elegantly around the subject, but I know how important GCSEs have been in my Blackpool constituency—an area with low skills and historically modest academic achievements. They give students the ability to bridge the academic and vocational divide and to develop skills in creative, leisure and tourism activities that are vital to keep people in the local economy, and the flexibility of mind that comes from coursework as well as exams. What use to them would CSEs be? What use, for example, would CSEs be in special schools? That is another aspect the Secretary of State should take into account.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State rightly referred to the comments by Chris Cook in the Financial Times and I shall not expand on them, except to say that Mr Cook made the important point:

“Take a look at the belt from Liverpool to Hull—the CSE towns of tomorrow.”

Blackpool will be one of those towns and I have no wish to see it go into the Secretary of State’s pot.

The Secretary of State says he is a man of convictions, and I agree. He is guilty as charged, and the charges should include the following: scrapping vocational diplomas in the system regardless of the lack of concrete plans to involve business in the curriculum; introducing an English baccalaureate that gave no space to vocational education; creating havoc in the careers system by taking £200 million out of face-to-face communication; failing to have any policies on the sort of life skills and communication skills that were discussed earlier; and not listening to his colleagues in other Departments, not least the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, on vocational issues. The Secretary of State spoke about world skills. Would the WorldSkills people who won gold medals for Britain last October benefit under his two-tier system? Absolutely not.

Like Robert Louis Stevenson, the Secretary of State was born in Edinburgh. Perhaps that explains why, from time to time, he appears to resemble one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous characters, Jekyll and Hyde. One day he can craft an eloquent paean to vocational aspiration, but the next day he talks about micro-management, which is not what we want to hear. Young people and schools are not train sets to be broken up every few years and re-arranged in a different pattern.

Both the Secretary of State and his Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) sit on the Front Bench like relics from the past. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, they have forgotten nothing and they have learned nothing. They have forgotten nothing about the failures of the past, but they have learned nothing, as is clear from the way they wish to turn back the clock.

The Secretary of State spoke of being a radical and spoke in the tone of a mad Maoist. I do not know if it is possible to be a mad Maoist Bourbon, but he is making a passable attempt at it. I do not know whether it is a leadership manoeuvre or the latest quaffing of the potion from R. L. Stevenson that turns him periodically into Mr Hyde. I do not know and, frankly, I do not care. What I care about passionately, as all Members of the House should, is that the life chances of hundreds of thousands of our young people should not be jeopardised by his “Mad Monk” half-hours.

If the Secretary of State wants to look at reforming GCSEs, at the balance between coursework and examinations, and how we make GCSEs work properly, we can help him with that. He could do worse than turn, for example, to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who has done a great deal of work in this area.

We should be building bridges in education, not burning them. We should be offering young people, as we offer others, every opportunity to show that they can deploy a variety of skills, not putting them into blocks on the line or forcing them into second-class status. I yield to no one in pursuing academic excellence, seeing the strengths of traditional education, stretching young people and not soft-landing them, but we want an education system that combines the best of traditional strengths with an understanding of how we need to relate to a modern world of green skills and a low carbon economy.

We should be raising young people up, not putting them down. If we do not do so, not only will they and their families be harmed, but our economy and our ability to compete will be maimed and morphed into a grotesque Hogwart’s parody of education, for which this Secretary of State would bear a solemn responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman is welcome to the Chamber. We look forward to interjections from him.

What was presumably billed, as Opposition day debates are, as a good knockabout seems to have collapsed into consensus. I am left feeling that I agree with much of what has been said from both sides of the House about the way forward in terms of rigour and a genuine consultation and re-examination of the examination system. I am left disagreeing only with the Daily Mail, a situation in which I often find myself, so it is reassuring territory for me.

If we are to consider the key points of the debate, we should look at what was floated in that esteemed publication as a bid to end the GCSE and restore the O-level and a qualification equivalent to the CSE. It is a little like those debates about selection, in which one hears a lot about grammar schools but not so much about secondary moderns. That is not to say that there are not excellent schools out there which are now no doubt called comprehensives or academies, but which once upon a time were known as secondary moderns. They are doing good work in areas where selection still exists, but that it not a position that my party would seek to push forward.

I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box talking about a thorough examination of the GCSE, what it is, what it offers, how testing it is of young people, and its ability to stretch young people at all levels of ability, so that we celebrate the fact that not everyone will get an A*, and for those who were at one time predicted to get an F in some subject but who manage to get a D, that is a real success for them.

We are raising the participation age by looking to use the extra years up to 17 and 18 to deliver a basic and rigorous standard. The most successful state school in the country, which I think is Lawrence Sheriff school in Rugby, uses a three-year course for its GCSEs and gets a tremendously high level of success. Perhaps it would be helpful to find out more about how education can be structured so that children can keep on learning until they get to that very high standard.

The Chairman of the Select Committee said that he had to rewrite his speech. He has clearly been doing that and has made an additional contribution to the debate. I welcome his intervention.

The debate is about how we can ensure that all young people are stretched by the system—that they are driven forward, that they are inspired and that they can aspire to reach the very best. That is what teachers, head teachers and their parents want for them. It is clear that there has been grade inflation, a topic that has been covered by several right hon. and hon. Members. People are perhaps being given the impression that there is an endless arc upon which we will see results improve. We had a brief discussion about the Deputy Prime Minister’s progress at the Rio summit and the issues there of exponential growth without due consideration being given to sustainability. Perhaps what we are talking about in this debate is sustainability in the examination system.

When the Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box last week to respond to an urgent question from the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), we had a slightly more Daily Mail-influenced discussion across the House, as the news was hot off the press. The Secretary of State at that point was clearly responding to the leak, from wherever it came, and was not able to present a more thorough position, as he has done today. He ruled out the idea of returning to the 1950s with the O-level and the CSE, and instead proposed re-examining the GCSE and moving forward. I welcome that.

The proposal relating to examination boards seems to be moving forward to consultation. I can see the strengths of a system in which a board concentrates on a particular subject area. There are those of us who might be surprised not to see the Secretary of State looking at a more market-based solution. The proposal could be said to be a little centrally directed, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) pointed out, young people are increasingly moving with their families to other parts of the country. If they join a school or college part-way through a course where the syllabus is different from their previous course, that presents problems. There have been one or two examples where the head teacher of an academy, who is responsible for admissions, has said that they are not able to take a young person on a course offered at their institution because the syllabus is different. Perhaps progress could be made in that respect.

These issues would need close examination to ensure that a range of courses was available so that all young people are inspired by what is on offer. There must be no sad homogenisation, and teachers must have the scope to ensure that they cover a broad curriculum.

We have an opportunity to look closely at the issue of rigour. I am delighted that we are not moving towards a wholesale change of the system, which could prove to be a distraction. As a Government the coalition has rightly moved to lift burdens on teachers and to remove unnecessary bureaucracy. Teachers want from us the support to use the skills that they have acquired. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to point out that we have a fantastic generation of teachers out there inspiring and working with young people. They do not want another upheaval and change; they want the confidence to know that the examinations to which they are submitting their students will be correct, robust and a fair assessment of those young people’s attainment, and, in some senses, of the attainment of the school or college in supporting those young people to the best of their potential.

I am delighted to say that the motion hangs on the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, unlike the shadow Minister, who sadly is not hanging on the words that I am offering to the Chamber. He clearly was hanging on the words of the Deputy Prime Minister last week, and it is good to see that the Opposition take such close account of what he has to say, as they did earlier this afternoon. The motion talks about a Government proposal to do certain things, which, as has become clear, the Government are not proposing to do. Therefore, it would be entirely the wrong thing to support a motion based on such a false premise. On the other hand, we have an amendment, around which I hope the House can coalesce, which talks about rigour and the need to ensure that there is a broad-based curriculum focused on the key areas of study and encouraging all young people to aspire to the best of their potential, and tackling social mobility, as the coalition agreement and the Government have set out to do, to ensure that all young people, no matter where they start out, are given every opportunity to achieve the very best for them and for their communities.

In contrast to the Chair of the Select Committee, because I have a more cynical frame of mind, I will work on the assumption that the Daily Mail report of 21 June was correct and that the briefing came from someone close to the Secretary of State’s office, from a special adviser or perhaps the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) at last earning his crust. I will also work on the assumption that today’s debate is part of testing the response to that. If at any point the Secretary of State wishes to stand up and say to the House, “No, Mr. Tim Shipman of the Daily Mail as ever got it totally wrong and we have no plans in this direction,” I will happily yield the floor. But I also warn the Secretary of State that he is going down a dangerous road, because if, as we have heard this afternoon, he has no plans in this direction, there is little more dangerous than the Daily Mail spurned. But for the moment I will work on the assumption that it is correct.

If my hon. Friend is incorrect and the Secretary of State has performed some kind of humiliating climbdown today, does he think that the Secretary of State will have to apologise to all those who came on the media to back him, including Toby Young and all his other friends in the right-wing press?

It was amazing how they were all ready, almost whipped in, but perhaps the Secretary of State will have another visit to the High Court and his friend Judge Leveson to explain all this.

The Secretary of State will know that I have no problem with some of his policies. I am happy to support the English baccalaureate, much greater rigour in standards, and the ending of endless repeat examinations and an end to semi-vocational, grade-inflating GCSE-equivalent exams. However, I share with my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State serious reservations about the downgrading of the engineering diploma, at a time when we are interested in rebalancing the British economy. I am in favour of schools being allowed to conduct internal streaming, of academy schools in the right circumstances, of apprenticeships when done properly. As an historian, I am also in favour of pupils learning dates and poems, because that provides the structure and the architecture that allows for greater learning and understanding. I am in favour of the Wolf report and what it means for skills training.

A large part of the agenda I can concur with, but this bizarre decision to think about abolishing GCSEs and reintroduce O-levels and CSEs strikes me as deeply misguided. How would this help children in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent? I want students in my city to take GCSEs in relevant subjects, to be taught well and to aspire. I do not think that at the age of 14 they should be hived off into CSEs; for their aspirations to be put into a straitjacket. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, we know the problems about standards, but no Government Member has been able to stand up and say, “Yes, the solution to this problem is, as reported in the Daily Mail, the O-level/CSE divide.” Until we hear that, this is, as the Chair also said, a slightly bizarre debate. But I will continue working on the dangerous assumption of Daily Mail correctitude.

Looking at the Financial Times research, 25% of children in my constituency would be put into the straitjacket of CSEs. That is not the soft bigotry of low expectations, but the hard bigotry of low expectations in action. It demonstrates a total poverty of ambition.

An interesting outcome of this debate was texting my office to ask how many people—I realise that as Chair of the Select Committee I should know this—take these foundation GCSEs. The answer I got back is that that information is not collected by the Department for Education or by the exam boards. Go figure.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is why I found the discussion about employers knowing the difference between a C at GCSE at different levels attained wholly fallacious. If the big problem of educational attainment is the long tail of under-achievement, the measures to combat that need to be there for all. There is no evidence to suggest that dividing at 14 will help that. We had an interesting contribution today on some of the neurological evidence of the potential for growth from 14 to 16. What we do have evidence for is how overwhelming it will be for the poor and those from socio-economically challenged backgrounds who will be condemned to the new CSEs. That is why the 1980s Conservative Government abandoned this policy. In 1985, Sir Keith Joseph, who became Lord Joseph, unveiled evidence that there is a

“strong association between low achievement and the poverty-related factors of poor housing, single-parent families and a low proportion of children in higher socio-economic groups”.

This policy of division was too divisive even for Sir Keith.

We also hear that with the new O-levels there will be no national curriculum—although a back-door one because of a single qualification authority. This strikes me as a rather strange route to developing the kind of curriculum we want, drawing on a wide knowledge base. It also flies in the face of the Secretary of State’s ambitions to create a national narrative of British history, to teach in all our schools a single notion of British history that imbues notions of citizenship which develops a—rather Whiggish in my view—conception of the British past that all will share. They will not all share that if there is no national curriculum. The greater the division between schools, the greater the division in the teaching of history. Any ambition to teach a cohesive notion of citizenship through the teaching of history is totally undone by the elimination of a cohesive national curriculum.

Internal reforms of the GCSE would be welcome. Clampdown on grade inflation and the proposals vis-à-vis the examinations board are to be welcomed. An end to generalised humanities GCSEs—the merging of history and geography—are to be welcomed. We can learn from the international GCSE, the I-bac. But all that can be achieved within the current system. That is the tragedy of what the Secretary of State is up to.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the baccalaureate and international GCSEs. If those are acceptable, and it seems that they are, and they are the examinations for able pupils, which they are, what would happen to the other GCSEs that would be occupied by the less able?

The point about the GCSE is that it is a general certificate of secondary education. The point about the CSE is that it had stigma attached to it. At GCSE one can have an A and an A*. There is still the GCSE and a structure. The briefing to the Daily Mail is that there is an ambition to return to a more divisive system. The tragedy is that there is so much work to be done: the quality of teacher training; ending the scandal of an ever-expanding key stage 4, which means pupils are finishing history or geography in year 8; ending the relentless examination culture that sees AS exams in the January of the lower sixth—we need to get rid of that; embedding a new strategy for the teaching of foreign languages; driving up numeracy and literacy. These are the real challenges confronting schooling. In the face of these challenges, this political strategy seems a massive misallocation of the Secretary of State’s time and resources and those of civil servants in his Department. The Government are already reviewing the primary and secondary school curricula, so why also begin this tub-thumping policy that is not based on empirical evidence?

This is no way to make policy: revealing these kinds of ideas in the Daily Mail, a newspaper usually opposed to deep thinking, learning and cohesive policy development, and at a time when young people are taking their exams. All we can hope is that it is a rather cack-handed example of kite-flying by a Secretary of State who is slightly puffed up at the moment and that the kite will soon be shot down and normal service resumed.

This has been a confectionary debate featuring a number of individual sweets, not least the polo mint that constitutes the motion. I have studied it in great detail and found nothing that takes forward this country’s education debate. In the words of one coalition colleague, it is an “opportunistic wheeze.” Having studied the motion and found nothing of substance, we should then go back to the words of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who so enlightened the House when he outlined the Opposition’s education policy last Thursday:

“We on the Opposition side of the House believe in a modern education system that promotes high standards, rigorous exams”.—[Official Report, 21 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 1026.]

He had earlier sought an apology, but of course thus far we have had no apology for his claim that three in 10 pupils equalled 60% of them. When one studies the specific proposals he put forward last Thursday, one has to ask oneself, “Is this not lighter than air?” It is the Aero policy we are now studying—

No. I can assure hon. Members that it is the hon. Gentleman’s proposals that are lighter than air; I have studied them and found that there is not much in them.

We then move on to the Celebrations moment. While I was in hospital last year, when something took place that was of good order I would be provided with a large box of Celebrations. There was such a time earlier today: the shadow Secretary of State, like St Paul on the road to Damascus, stood forth and admitted for the first time that there had been grade inflation under Labour. However, despite repeated questioning by me and others, he refused to state when he first discovered this grade inflation. Was it 1997, 2005, 2010, 2012, or was it yesterday? He failed to divulge when that magical event took place. That is a crucial point, because the discovery of grade inflation is utterly important to an assessment of how this policy is going forward.

Despite throwing money at the problem, the previous Government did not see the results. As other Members have outlined, maths, literacy and science all declined, whatever type of test was taken. Academies do work, and I applaud the expansion of that programme. Let us take as an exemplar the words of Andrew Adonis, the former Schools Minister, who said there should be “strong independent governance” that was “free of local authority red tape”, with exemplary leadership and “brilliant teachers” who were specially chosen. That is the way forward.

In Northumberland, part of which I represent, schools saw little of the financial benefit that the previous Government bestowed on individual local authorities. The situation has changed, I am pleased to say, with the rebuild announcement for Prudhoe community high school, and I look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State when he visits Northumberland shortly. I will also be showing him the amazing Queen Elizabeth high school in Hexham, another school that was denied any sort of funding or rebuild under the previous Government.

However, I have two reservations that I want to raise with the Minister. First, we should be wary of change for change’s sake. Every teacher in Northumberland I spoke with before the last election explained with growing depression how every year there was a different syllabus, a different amendment or a different set of textbooks, all costing huge amounts of money, in circumstances in which some consistency was clearly needed so that they could get on with what they wanted to do, which was to teach.

Secondly, I wish to echo some of the comments that have been made on vocational education. I am not a fan of nail technology being a GCSE. However, I represent a constituency in rural Northumberland where we value vocational education very highly. I suggest that the lesson the Minister should take forward is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is absolutely vital that we hang on to the engineering and alternative qualifications. I totally understand and applaud the desire to reduce the number of vocational qualifications, but there is a danger of being excessive in that policy, and in rural areas in particular that will affect the quality of education provided.

Given the time limit and the number of Members who wish to speak, I will bring my remarks to a close. I suggest that in these circumstances there is a great deal of scope. I support what the Government are doing and think that the motion has absolutely no merit whatsoever.

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the self-restraint he has shown. I am now reducing the time limit to five minutes.

Young people are our future, yet the value some people place on them and their achievements is extremely low. I feel that many members of the current Government must be trying to secure some kind of medal, in this Olympic year, for driving the value of our young people and their achievements to a record low. Time and again they send young people negative messages, undervalue their hard work in sitting their examinations and then, when they do well, put the boot in again by suggesting that their certificates are hardly worth the paper they are printed on.

The Secretary of State wants to drive up standards—we all do—but the actions he now proposes will effectively write off a large number of young people who need the greatest support and lower their expectations for a happy and productive life. Does he really believe that that is the way forward, or are his latest pronouncements about something else? Is he using our children and their education to create a debate in the Tory section of the Government, where attitudes are very different from those of their coalition partners? Is he just playing controversial games with our children’s future, as the newspapers suggest, as he aims to take over from a weak Prime Minister who is struggling to harness his partners and achieve the right-wing agenda he thought he would be pursuing after the general election?

The former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, axed the two-tier O-level/CSE system. She, like the president of the Liberal Democrats, recognised that it was divisive and dumped millions of young people into a second division from which they could not escape. I never thought that I could agree with such people on anything, but on this I cannot help agreeing with them both. I never thought that a son of Thatcher—perhaps a grandson—could be the one to turn against her in such a way.

The Secretary of State has said:

“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.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 1025.]

However, I, along with the vast majority of educational professionals, can see the opposite happening. Rather than reducing educational inequality, the reforms that those in the Tory part of the coalition propose will do the opposite. Under the new proposals, around three quarters of pupils could sit tough tests modelled on the old O-level while the remaining pupils take more straightforward qualifications modelled on traditional CSEs in subjects such as maths, English and science. But separating 75% of pupils from the other 25% will do nothing but divide children into winners and losers at the incredibly young age of 14, capping aspiration and putting up a barrier to social mobility.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), I am a member of the Education Committee and visited Singapore earlier this year. Some children there go into the elite education programme at age 12 while the others are shoved down the technical route. We visited both types of schools and found that the facilities were very good. However, I was extremely saddened to hear young people talk of themselves as the elite. They are encouraged to talk themselves up, which is good, but what about the young people who are not the elite? If the Education Secretary wants to replicate Singapore’s system here, what would that contribute to equality of opportunity?

This is not just a moral argument against segregating pupils; it is also an argument based on strong evidence. Relegating 14-year-olds to a lesser qualification brands them as underachievers and could drain both students and schools of any incentive to push for higher performance. If we move on to the CSE track a child who would otherwise be aiming for a C at GCSE, we may find that they are very likely to stop trying and not to value the qualification that they finally achieve. One third of children who score in the bottom 25% at 11 years old break out of that group by 16, but if they are placed in a second-class category at an early age they risk being written off. Quite simply, schools cannot predict with 100% accuracy the future of their pupils, and many will struggle to place children correctly.

Once again, the north-east of England will bear the brunt of the Government’s changes, as research shows that the CSE will be most prevalent in northern towns. That the Secretary of State is intent on limiting the ambitions and opportunities for people in my constituency and many others throughout our region is shameful.

While in office, Labour managed to narrow the educational gap between the rich and the poor, not through dumbing down, as Government Members like to believe, but through more investment in schools and teachers and through giving schools more freedom to innovate. Even the Secretary of State recognises that we have the best cohort of teachers ever, but that did not happen by accident. It was investment in their training, and excellent support in the classroom, that helped them to raise their game and to support our children as never before. That is what makes a real difference to our children’s education, not imposing outdated ideas that have already been shown to fail.

This has been an historic debate, because for the first time the Front-Bench spokesmen on both sides of the House have acknowledged clearly and unequivocally a truth that has been obvious for a long time: our exam system, over a number of years, has been dumbed down. I give great credit to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for saying that clearly and unequivocally in response to my question.

I was in the first year group to sit GCSE exams. My class did one O-level in January and eight or nine GCSEs in June. In the O-level, three of the class of 27 got an A grade; in every GCSE subject, a majority got A grades; and in some, almost every member of the class did. It was clear when GCSEs were introduced that it was easier to get top grades in them than in O-levels, and research by the university of Durham and feedback from employers and parents shows that there has been a further deterioration since then.

The Secretary of State has already done a lot to try to address the problem in respect of the English baccalaureate, ending the modular system, re-sits, an emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar and by getting rid of some equivalents, but further measures are needed. It is good that there seems to be consensus on a single exam board and on ending the race to the bottom, so I shall focus on the main issue in the debate, the fear of a two-tier system, and say clearly and unequivocally that I do not want to go back to a CSE system.

I will not take interventions, for reasons of time.

I do not want to go back to a CSE system, but we need the radical reform of our GCSEs in order to bring back a degree of academic rigour. The Education Committee Chairman made a very important point to the Secretary of the State about how raising the threshold will raise the number of people who succeed. I believe passionately, as a parent and from my experience of visiting schools, that paradoxically if we raise the threshold we will find that young people respond to it. That is the experience of schools that have switched to the IGCSE exam.

In the briefing pack for this debate, I saw some research from King’s college, London, showing the decline in maths over the past 30 years, with many 14-year-olds not understanding concepts such as algebra and ratios. I am not satisfied that my nine-year-old is stretched at his primary school, so I work with him on his maths at home, and he has already grasped those topics. I do not think that he is especially bright or clever, but I passionately believe that our young people are full of talent, and if they are pushed and stretched they will respond.

We also need to acknowledge that at 16 years old the right outcome for all our young people is not necessarily to sit a full suite of academic qualifications. For years and years this country has lacked a proper, respected vocational alternative, but if we secure such an alternative, we should not deride it as part of a two-tier system in which people doing vocational qualifications are somehow failures or second best.

I am not talking about going back to CSEs, which were second-rate academic qualifications; I am talking about a system in which most children should be capable of getting robust academic qualifications and, through that, pushed to achieve their maximum. But we should recognise that it is not the right outcome for all young people, so there should be a proper vocational alternative, and we should not regard the young people who go down that route as failures or as second best in any way. I believe that absolutely passionately.

I shall end my speech—I know others want to speak—with one final point. Changing our exam system is not in and of itself a solution to the problems that the Education Committee Chairman has identified, but it is part of the mix, alongside the other things that the Government are doing: getting the basics right in primary school so that everybody learns to read and can access the curriculum that follows; emphasising discipline so that young people can actually learn in the classroom; giving teachers the freedom to innovate within their schools; giving parents a proper and effective choice through the free school model; and, finally, setting a floor and saying to schools that do not live up to the minimum standards that we have a right to expect, “That’s not good enough. We’re going to bring in an academy to replace you.”

That package of measures, together with a robust exam system, is what we need to give this country what it needs—the best equipped young people in the world. That is the only way to get the companies that will give us the jobs we want to locate themselves here, so we need to have the courage to bite the bullet and say openly, as both Front Benchers have for the first time today, that we have dumbed down our system over a number of years—not just under the previous Labour Government; it has been going on for a long time—and that that process needs to be reversed. We need to bring back rigour, to provide a proper vocational alternative and to stop the sterile argument about a two-tier system.

Having a good look at our examination system is a valid thing to do. Indeed, the Chair of the Education Committee has reminded us that next Tuesday it will publish its report into the matter, and I know from my time serving on the Committee that it will have fully interrogated the issues and will produce a robust report to drive forward policy.

Such a principled, considered approach contrasts with the Secretary of State’s way of doing business—by hunch, lunch and leak. Indeed, after sitting through 40 minutes of his speech today, I was still no clearer at the end about his proposals. It was a content vacuum, I am afraid, but things need addressing. Are there plans to scrap the national curriculum at 14 years old, and would that allow schools and colleges greater flexibility to offer a more skills-based curriculum to those young people who prefer a more practical, vocational approach? Will the millions of pounds—a sum that has doubled in the past 10 years—being spent on examinations be reduced?

At the heart of the Secretary of State’s leak to the Daily Mail, there seemed to be a half-baked idea about some back to the future, imaginary utopia, enshrined in a return to O-levels and CSEs. I fear that that has far more to do with clever politicking than with intelligent policy making, however, and that the Secretary of State is keen to deliver soundbites for the Tory tabloids rather than sound policies for the young people of today and UK plc.

It is all a bit like a Monty Python sketch in which someone says, “Exams were much harder in my day. I had to recite poems and parse sentences.” The reply would be, “Recite poems and parse sentences? You were lucky. I had to recite the complete works of Shakespeare and then write an essay on a day in the life of a pound note.” Seriously, however, people like to believe that things were harder in the past, although the evidence is far from clear, and the Secretary of State is tapping into a populist instinct: nostalgia politics.

One of the few things I know a bit about is preparing young people for exams. I have prepared them for a range of exams: CEEs, CSEs, O-levels, A-levels, S-levels, AS-levels, BTECs. You name it, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have prepared young people for it, but in terms of setting and assessing standards, the worst exam that I ever prepared people for was O-level English, which was a total lottery, so if the Secretary of State thinks that going back to something like that will improve standards, he really is on another planet: planet dogma, or planet not in this place.

When Sir Keith Joseph was introducing the changes, he made very clearly the case for their necessity, stating that

“the system we propose will be tougher but clearer and fairer…it will be more intelligible to users…better than O-levels…and better than CSE…it will stretch the able more; and…stretch the average more.”—[Official Report, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 306.]

I believe, from my professional experience, that that is what the GCSE has done. That does not mean it is perfect, or that it does not need improving, but any idea about going back to the 1950s, and to exam systems that may or may not have been appropriate for that time, is unfortunate.

It is worth noting, however, that the debate about an exam at 16 years old is actually rather odd and anachronistic, because, with the raising of the participation age, the qualification that young people leave with at 18 years old is what really matters. Focusing so much attention on what happens at 16 misses the point, because with rising participation levels, the main thing is the skills, attributes and experiences that young people leave school with at 18 to allow them, one hopes, into a world of work.

One of the big problems regarding aspiration for young people is the fact that young people’s unemployment is at a record high on this Government’s watch. That has a genuine impact on aspiration in classrooms. I am afraid that despite the skills, expertise and professionalism of those great teachers, led by great head teachers, up and down the land, that remains the context in which they are working. As people providing policy and governance, one of our gifts should be to produce a mechanism to enable young people to move into employment and ensure that they have the proper skills, attributes and aptitudes to do well in it.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) that this has been a historic debate. There has been a tendency for people in this country to live in a fantasy land. We think that as long as we allow grades to go up and tell ourselves it is okay, it is okay, but in an era of globalisation it is not enough to tell ourselves that everything is okay; it really has to be so. We have been doing this in relation to grade inflation and what we have been telling our young people. We have been saying, “Do this nice course—it’s all going to be fine and no one is going to tell you that you’ve done badly”, but reality has to hit them at some point, and that happens when they go out into the world of work and find that the cosy story they have been told behind their school gates does not match up to the reality outside. What the Secretary of State has said is therefore massively important. I am extremely pleased that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has acknowledged that grade inflation has been taking place.

I would like the House to acknowledge that we have seen the creation of a two-tier system by stealth. Any two-tier system is bad, and this one has IGCSEs and the international baccalaureate for the well-off and the sharp-elbowed, with the less sharp-elbowed left with GCSEs, or their equivalents, that will not get them a job at the end of the day. That is absolutely appalling. No one can defend the status quo, and anyone who tries to do so has a much lower opinion of the country’s children than I do. I want to concentrate on a premise that underlies a lot of the debate about this two-tier system. Of course, every child must have the opportunity, and must be pushed, to do the best they can at core academic subjects; I am a great supporter of the E-bac in that respect. However, to suggest that unless a child does those core subjects they are thrown on to the scrap heap, as Labour Members have repeatedly done, betrays an extraordinary attitude towards so-called vocational education.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central. If we did not have people who did not find grammar and algebra books the most interesting thing in the world, we would not be standing in a building that is so intricately and beautifully built, with incredible craftsmanship. I object to the term “vocational”, which has arisen in the past decade or so, because it is a euphemism that betrays a slight embarrassment about the kinds of skills that have made our cities and our country great, and a reluctance actually to name practical, manual and technical skills, crafts and tradesmanship. In future, I should like the term “vocational” to be abolished and replaced with something far more honest. In terms of equivalence, we have been doing nothing for tradesmanship, craftsmanship and so-called vocational trades and everything for academic qualifications. Nail technology is not studied to get a job, because there are not enough nail technology jobs to go round for all the hundreds of thousands of people who are doing these courses. It has been all about the exam results, not the jobs.

There has been an overwhelming need to get real, and the Secretary of State’s bravery in tackling the underlying problems in our GCSE system is a welcome attempt to do so. I hoped for a moment that Labour Members had got real, but it seems that they may not have done.

I am certainly not against change. As a former teacher, examiner and Ofsted inspector, I spent a lifetime trying to raise standards of teaching and learning and to develop programmes of study that better prepared pupils for the modern world so that, for example, in foreign languages we moved on from talking about boys falling out of cherry trees to teaching children realistic phrases that they could use in business and leisure situations.

Did I detect the Secretary of State retreating from the position attributed to him in the press last week? Did he really say that he was not going for a CSE/O-level divide? I am not sure. I remember, though, that back in 1981, well before the GCSE was rolled out nationwide, I was piloting the 16-plus. That is because we believed very much in piloting things to see how they worked out and what the problems were. We were trying to put together two very different examinations, with a D grade being attributed to pupils of average ability. That is how we got to the system whereby the A to C grade was seen as the superior way of designating some children, with D to G grades for the rest, and with the foundation and higher papers. I make no apology for that; it is the history of how it came about. It is extremely difficult to set questions that will stretch a very able pupil but not prove to be complete gobbledegook, and a complete deterrent, to the very least able, and that was the point of having different papers. The key thing was that right up until March or April, pupils could move between the examinations that they were going to take in June. That was very important because it gave everyone an incentive to keep working the whole time and not to think, “Oh well, they’re only CSEs, so I don’t need to work so hard.”

I have serious worries about the introduction of a dual system. For example, in small subject areas such as music or a second foreign language, children of a larger range of ability are often taught in the same class. Will they now have to be taught two different syllabuses, or programmes of study, because one class will include the more able and the less able, with some going in for a CSE and some going in for an O-level? In smaller schools, that will affect not only small subjects but mainstream subjects. It may be very difficult to accommodate everybody. The teacher might have to run about trying to cope with two programmes of study at once, or perhaps some pupils will be discouraged from taking the subject having been told that they can do it only if they are capable of doing the O-level-type examination.

Dual entry could arise, because a child who might fail the more difficult O-level-equivalent exam would therefore do the CSE as well. A lot of money is already spent on examination fees, and dual entry is extremely expensive. As well as creating additional costs, it would place a lot of extra pressure on children and staff. There is a danger that children will suddenly not be given a chance to do the more difficult exam and be withdrawn because they might mess up the results. There would be the sheer disruption of introducing two completely new examination systems when there are many simpler and more effective ways of raising standards.

I do not understand the Secretary of State saying that people in this country do not re-sit English and maths, because they certainly do. When we go to any institution for 16 to 18-year-olds, we will find people making sure that they give every pupil the chance to get the A to C grades in English and maths that are so essential to their going on to their future careers or university courses. On international comparisons, it is not at the top end of the ability range that we do so badly in this country, but at the middle and lower ends. Creating segregated systems will do nothing to improve the morale of the middle-ability and less able pupil; in fact, it will do precisely the opposite.

As regards examination boards, the Secretary of State alleged that there had been some shopping around to find the system that provided the highest grades for the least effort. It is true that there has been some choosing of different programmes of study, perhaps because some are more inspiring or user-friendly to the pupil. I am not against having more than one examination board, but will the Secretary of State please confirm that we are not going to have separate examination boards for different subjects, which would be an examination officer’s nightmare? I also plead with him to allow some space for innovation. Having different examination boards has allowed us to innovate without a 100% roll-out.

We have had a fascinating debate, with contributions from 13 hon. Members: my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). It has been an interesting, although not entirely illuminating, debate.

The Opposition have no disagreement with the case that there is a need to reform the GCSE. As the House knows, the GCSE was first sat by pupils 25 years ago. I was teaching at the time. The idea that the world has not changed sufficiently since then for the GCSE to require reform is as ludicrous as the idea that the world is sufficiently similar to how it was 50 years ago that we have to return to O-levels and CSEs. The raising of the education and training leaving age to 18 raises the fundamental question of what public examinations we need at 16 and what they are for. That is a legitimate debate. One hon. Member asked whether we need to spend the huge amount of money that we spend on examinations at the age of 16. We have to ensure that GCSEs are fit for purpose, but we do not need to go back to the future.

In the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, we do not need to recreate

“a two tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrap heap”.

The more observant hon. Members will have noticed that we included those words in our motion. However, the Government amendment, which is signed, among others, by the Deputy Prime Minister, would expunge those words from the motion. That is a novel approach. It might well be the first time that a senior Cabinet Minister has tabled an amendment to delete his own words.

There would be a problem if the Deputy Prime Minister had said something in the amendment that disagreed with what he said before. The amendment has a different emphasis, but there is no contradiction between the two.

In that case, the Deputy Prime Minister could have left his own words in the amendment that he signed, but he chose to delete them. I am tempted to say, in the words of the late, great Amy Winehouse, “What kind of Lib-Demery is this?” Let us allow for a moment the notion that the Deputy Prime Minister meant what he said about a two-tier system, despite trying to delete his own words from the motion.

The Government amendment appears to contradict the leaks from the Secretary of State’s advisers last week that he would not need parliamentary approval or Lib Dem support for his proposal to bring back CSEs and O-levels. We have it from the Financial Times that Downing street now insists that the Secretary of State cannot go ahead without approval with the proposals that he leaked to the Daily Mail last week. The Financial Times article goes on to say that

“the idea of a lower qualification for less academic children”

is “dead in the water.” Perhaps when he responds, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) will confirm whether that idea is dead in the water. If it is, why are the Secretary of State’s advisers at this moment spinning to the press lobby in the House of Commons that a lower qualification known as an N-level will be introduced—something that he did not announce to the House?

The Minister needs to come clean when he winds up. Is the two-tier plan that was leaked to the Daily Mail by the Secretary of State’s closest advisers dead in the water or not? Is it full steam ahead for the Secretary of State, or is this a humiliating climbdown? The Secretary of State was asked on three occasions—or as he would say, thrice—whether the Daily Mail report was wrong, and thrice he demurred and did not tell us. If he is making a humiliating climbdown, he must apologise to all his friends who came out in support of the proposals in the media.

The manner and timing of the leak to the Daily Mail were a disgrace, at a time when students up and down the country, who have been working hard for months on end, were sitting their GCSEs. What a contrast that is to the way in which the GCSE was introduced all those years ago. A debate was kicked off in 1976 by Jim Callaghan, the former Labour Prime Minister. It was developed by Shirley Williams, although she has gone off the tracks a little since then. Come to think of it, we have not heard much from her on this subject. It would be interesting to know what she thinks. The idea was picked up by Keith Joseph—that well known lily-livered, liberal, loony lefty—and implemented by Mrs Thatcher’s Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, following thorough debate and consideration. It was welcomed across the House.

In contrast, we now have a proposal to rip up the GCSE, with accompanying disparaging rhetoric, cooked up by a cabal, no doubt using private e-mail accounts, with no reference to the Department’s officials or to other Departments, and kept secret even from one of the Secretary of State’s Education Ministers. What a ludicrous way to run a Department that is, and how symptomatic of the Secretary of State’s seething lack of trust in his own Minister and officials.

At least we can assume that the Secretary of State would be kinder to and have more faith in those on his own side. Not so, because we now find out that not even the Prime Minister knew the details of what he was about to leak to the Daily Mail. A Downing street spokesman told the Financial Times:

“It looks as if we’re being bounced into something we weren’t prepared for.”

What about the Education Committee, which is chaired ably by the Secretary of State’s Conservative colleague, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, who as always made a thoughtful contribution today? Let us be clear that the Chair of the Select Committee is no fan of Labour education policy. We have had many discussions about it and, to save him any embarrassment, I confirm that he is no fan of Labour education policy. Nevertheless, we respect his long-standing commitment to raising the standards for those at the bottom. As the Secretary of State well knows, the Committee is at this moment undertaking a review of qualifications and examinations that seeks to address some of these questions. What contempt the Secretary of State has shown for the Education Committee by publicising his plans in the press without any consideration of the Committee’s work. I took a sharp intake of breath when the Secretary of State said to the Chair of the Select Committee, “If the cap on aspiration fits, wear it.” That was uncalled for and was off the mark with regard to the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to helping those at the lower end. However, I know that he needs no help from me.

I met the CBI earlier today. Like us, it thinks that the GCSE needs to be looked at again. Like us, it thinks that a much wider debate is needed than the headline-grabbing call for a return to O-levels and CSEs that we have had from the Secretary of State. GCSEs are not, despite the impression that the Secretary of State tried to give last week, a worthless piece of paper, but that is exactly how Kenneth Baker described CSEs, which the Secretary of State last week seemed so keen to bring back. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe pointed out, many O-levels were not rigorous qualifications, but required little more than a Gradgrindian regurgitation of facts. Factual knowledge is not enough in a world in which, as the CBI told me today, more data will be created this year than have been created in the previous 5,000 years. Rote learning is insufficient in a world that needs citizens who can process intelligently a mass of information and data in their daily lives. We need breadth and balance in the curriculum.

The GCSE was brought in not as a single examination paper, as some Government colleagues seem to think, but as a single examinations system that would give everybody the chance to succeed if they reached the required standard. That is a principle worth preserving. Reform, yes; back to the future, no.

This has been a good debate, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) pointed out, we need a reality check. The overarching objective of the Government’s education policy is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and those from poorer backgrounds, which is wider in this country than in many of our competitor nations. The gap means that 49% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a grade C or better in GCSE maths last year compared with 74% of all non-free school meal pupils; that 67% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level in reading when they left primary school last year compared with 82% of non-free school meal pupils; and that just 8% of pupils eligible for free school meals were entered for the English baccalaureate combination of core academic GCSEs compared with 22% overall.

That attainment gap is morally unacceptable and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) said, economically damaging to this country. It has all the hallmarks of the two-tier education system that hon. Members say they wish to eliminate.

I will not give way because of the time.

Under the previous Government and that two-tier system, a sizeable proportion of young people were persuaded to take qualifications that scored highly in performance tables, but that turned out to have less credibility with employers than the young people had been led to believe, as so aptly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West. That is why, on the recommendation of Alison Wolf, we have looked again at all vocational qualifications taught in schools to ensure that only those highly valued by employers count in performance tables. That will raise both the value and the esteem of the vocational qualifications taught in our schools, which is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell).

Last year, the OECD produced its seminal report, “How do some students overcome their socio-economic background?” It states that, in Britain, only a quarter of deprived children were able to overcome their background in terms of academic achievement, compared with more than 70% in Shanghai and Hong Kong, which places Britain 39th out of 65 OECD countries.

Addressing those inequalities lies at the heart of every radical education reform implemented, announced or mooted by the Government since May 2010, which includes: the academies and free school programmes, which bring professional autonomy and diversity to our school system and raise standards in some of the most deprived parts of the country; the focus on phonics in reading and the phonic check—we last week checked the basic reading skills of every 6-year-old in the country—which mean that no child slips through the net with their reading problems unidentified; ending the re-sit culture and modularisation in GCSEs; restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar; the pupil premium, which provides significant extra school funding for pupils who are eligible for free school meals; allowing good schools to expand; raising the floor standard of underperforming primary and secondary schools; giving more power to teachers to tackle unruly behaviour; reviewing the national curriculum; publishing draft primary school programmes of study in English, maths and science; and putting greater emphasis on reading, scientific knowledge, languages, arithmetic and the essentials of grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Those are the important reforms, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the evidence shows that we must go further. A few weeks ago, a CBI survey showed that nearly half of all employers were unhappy with the basic literacy skills of school and college leavers—35% expressed concern over maths. This week, King’s College London reported that teenagers’ maths skills have declined over the past 30 years.

The Government are clear that we need fundamental reform. We want a broad, inclusive conversation to consider how we address the concerns of employers, parents, pupils and schools. We must learn our lessons not from the past, but from the best—from countries such as Singapore, where students are required to have a proper knowledge of syntax and grammar, an understanding of the scientific laws that govern our world, and an understanding of maths, which allow them to progress down both technical and academic routes. None of that is beyond the children of this country, but we too often lack the most basic aspiration on their behalf.

In Singapore, the exams designed for 16-year-olds are rigorous, academic, stretching and comprehensive. They are taken by the vast majority of the population. Those exams—O-levels drawn up by examiners in this country— set a level of aspiration for every child that helps to ensure that Singapore remains a world leader in education. We want to ensure that children in this country have exactly the same opportunities as their peers in Singapore and other high-performing nations; that our pupils are as comprehensively equipped to compete in a world of international commerce; that every single child has the opportunity to succeed to their full potential.

The Government’s reforms are designed to achieve a fundamental change in expectation and academic achievement. We should expect all schools to have the academic attainment of Mossbourne academy. We want our qualifications to be world class, with the expectation that all will study for them, and that the great majority will achieve them, if not by aged 16, then by 17, 18 or 19.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) made a revealing speech. I am not aware of any Education Minister from the previous Labour Government who would accept the existence of grade inflation in GCSEs. His acceptance of that and his change of view are welcome—they help to bring honesty and candour to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), in seeking to defend himself from accusations of fatalism, spoke of establishing a route map from point A to point B—good luck with that—and sought more detail on the Government’s proposals before the publication of our consultation document, while refusing to give the Government a glimpse of the Education Committee’s forthcoming report on qualifications, which is due out next week.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for the single exam board proposal and wholeheartedly congratulate New College school on its transformation, and on the “yes you can, yes you will” ethos.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) raised concerns about grade inflation, early entry for GCSE, re-sits and modularisation, and rightly pointed out that today we have a clear, two-tier GCSE system, which he called a rebranded CSE and GCE system. He revised the phrase made famous by Melanie Phillips—“All must have prizes”—by saying that all must merit prizes.

I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) for rigour. He is right to be reassured about genuine consultation. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) falsely accused my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) of earning his crust, but I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the English baccalaureate and for children acquiring knowledge in history and learning poems by heart. I take on board the caution of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) against change for change’s sake.

The Government are accused of wanting to create a two-tier education system, but this country already has one, which we believe is letting down too many children and young people. Professor Wolf said in her important review of vocational education that English and maths are fundamental to young people’s employment and education prospects, yet less than half of all students have good GCSEs in English and maths at the end of key stage 4. There are two tiers: those with English and maths, and those without. There are two tiers in the current structure of GCSEs—a foundation tier and a higher tier—including in English, maths and science. The highest achievable grade in ordinary circumstances in the lower tier is C. We have two tiers in the grading system, with 19% of pupils achieving grades E, F and G in GCSE Maths, and 11% of pupils achieving those grades in English.

We need to ensure that our exams are on a par with those in the highest performing countries in the world, and that our schools are delivering the kind of education that equips and prepares all pupils to take and excel in those exams. That is what the Government mean by closing the attainment gap. I urge the House to reject the cynical motion tabled by the Opposition and to support the radical education reform agenda being delivered by this Government to ensure rigour and high expectations for all young people in this country.

Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)),

That the original words stand part of the Question.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.

The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).


That this House notes the forthcoming consultation on the secondary school qualifications and curriculum framework; welcomes the opportunity to address the weaknesses of the system introduced by the previous Administration, which undermined confidence in standards, increased inequality and led to a reduction in the take-up of core subjects such as modern languages, history, geography and the sciences; and calls for proposals which are approved by Parliament and which are based on the principles of high standards for all, greater curriculum freedom, and a qualifications and curriculum framework which supports and stretches every child and which boosts social mobility.