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Volume 549: debated on Monday 3 September 2012

The coalition Government will shortly announce their proposals for the future of exams at 16; we hope to ensure that future examinations work in the interests of all young people. We need exams that will keep pace with the best in the world and meet the demands of children, teachers and employers.

Today is the start of the new school year. Thousands of 16-year-olds in my constituency and across the country have had their hopes dashed and their plans devastated by this summer’s grading fiasco. When will the Secretary of State accept that it is his responsibility to tackle this injustice, and call for a regrading?

I quite agree that it is appropriate that we should tackle the problem, which arises from the structure of the GCSE examination. That is why we are removing modules and reforming examinations. For years, under Labour, Ministers sat idly by as we endured grade inflation and dumbing down. At last the tide is turning.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the challenges in setting the grade boundaries in the new GCSE English qualification this year highlight the need to end modular exams, restrict controlled assessment, and end the lazy devaluation of the GCSE currency that has gone on for too long?

Over the past 10 days, there have been countless examples of people getting a D for work assessed this summer that would have got a C grade in January. Sally Coates, head of the excellent Burlington Danes academy, who spoke alongside the Secretary of State at last year’s Conservative party conference, said:

“It is blatantly unfair to move the goalposts, without warning, midway through the year”,

and described it as “rough justice.” Does the Secretary of State agree?

I agree that these examinations are unfit for purpose and need to change. I also agree with Labour Ministers, who, when they were in power, said:

“The objective of Ofqual is to ensure consistency between the modular GCSEs and their non-modular predecessors. How it does that will be up to Ofqual.”––[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2009; c. 597.]

So it should be. Ofqual is an independent regulator, accountable to Parliament. If Ministers were to interfere in Ofqual’s decisions, they would be meddling where they should not interfere. It is deeply irresponsible, cynical and opportunistic for the hon. Gentleman to make the case that he is making.

No wonder the Secretary of State did not want to answer my second question, because I have been looking at what he said when issues to do with exams and tests arose when he was the shadow Secretary of State. In 2008, he said that

“ministers must be held accountable when the regime fails.”

He went on to say that it was time to end what he described as

“This ‘it weren’t me, miss’ approach”.

Was he not right then, and wrong now? And what was the title of that article? “Minister, you failed the test”.

For 13 years, Ministers under Labour did fail the test. They failed to ensure that our examinations were modernised and reformed so as to be among the world’s best. This is a test that we are determined to meet. It is a great pity that the Labour party is not joining us in making sure that our state education system is one of the world’s best.

Would it assist my right hon. Friend in his admirable wish to reintroduce rigour to GCSEs if pupils who sat them were told the actual marks given, and not just the grades, which are subject to inflation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The greater the transparency in the grade setting and marking process, the better. That is one of the reasons Ofqual exists as an independent regulator, and one of the reasons it should continue to do that job, not Ministers.

If, when Mo Farah had run the 10,000 metre final in the Olympics, he had been told he had to run a further 10,000 metres before he could claim that he had won the gold medal, he would say that that was wrong, so why is it right to change the way GCSE exam results are marked halfway through the academic year, which is what happened this year?

What is right is to allow the independent regulator and exam boards to decide how these exams should be graded—not, as the Labour party seems to be suggesting, to have Ministers marking papers.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to take heed of the message I have received from businesses in my constituency? When it comes to looking at changing the GCSE’s structure, what young people need, and what is fair to them, is a sound GCSE system that allows employers to know that the people who they hire are able to do the job, and that therefore does not put undue pressure on people who would not be able to do the job.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely critical point. We need to make sure that standards are comparable over time. The process by which Ofqual ensures that standards are comparable over time was introduced under the last Labour Government. It is a process that Labour Members now disavow for opportunistic reasons, and in so doing they make it more difficult to ensure that our examination system can be reformed on a sound basis. It is a pity that a party that once led on education reform is now clambering on to any bandwagon that passes.