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Exam Reform

Volume 550: debated on Monday 17 September 2012

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of examinations in our schools.

The examination that the overwhelming majority of young people sit at 16—the GCSE—was designed with the best of intentions. It sought to broaden the numbers engaging in academic study and to prepare for an expansion of further and higher education. In the years since it was established, we have undoubtedly seen improvements in our education system. Those who are responsible—heads, teachers, parents, students, and reformers such as Kenneth Baker and Andrew Adonis—deserve our praise.

However, the GCSE was conceived and designed for a different age and a different world—a time before majority participation in higher education and a world where information technology was in its infancy. When the GCSE was first taught, the school leaving age was still 16, state-planned economies dominated half the globe and the internet was a work of science fiction. Now that we are raising the education participation age to 18, now that nations that were slow developers 20 years ago are outstripping us economically, and now that ways of learning have been so dramatically transformed in all our lifetimes, it is right that we reform our examination system. We know that the old model—the ’80s model—is no longer right for now. We know that record increases in performance at GCSE have not been matched by the same level of improvements in learning. While pass rates have soared, we have fallen down international league tables.

We know that employers and academics have become less confident in the worth of GCSE passes because they fear that students lack the skills for the modern workplace and the knowledge for advanced study. We know that children’s achievements are not properly recognised, with even the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), an Education Minister in the last Labour Government, admitting that there was grade inflation under that Government. We know, most recently and most tellingly, that changes made to GCSEs under the last Government—specifically, the introduction of modules and the expansion of coursework, or controlled assessment, in schools—further undermined the credibility of exams, leaving young people without the rigorous education that they deserved. Only last week, the OECD reported that in the years up until 2010, our education system had still not been reformed fast enough to keep pace with the best in the world.

Critical to reform is ending an examination system that has narrowed the curriculum, forced idealistic professionals to teach to the test and encouraged heads to offer children the softest possible options. We believe it is time for the race to the bottom to end. We believe it is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down, and we believe that it is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations. This Government have already taken steps to improve vocational qualifications. Following on from the Wolf review, we have ensured that there is proper assessment, more rigorous content and tighter quality controls on vocational courses. We are also reforming post-16 funding to improve the education of those taking vocational courses. Today marks the next stage in radical exam reform, to equip children for the 21st century and allow us to compete with the best-performing nations in education.

We want to ensure that modules—which encourage bite-size learning and spoon-feeding, teaching to the test and gaming of the system—go, once and for all. We want to remove controlled assessment and coursework from core subjects. These assessment methods have, in all too many cases, corrupted the fair testing of students. We want to ensure that children are tested transparently on what they—and they alone—can do at the end of years of deep learning. Where individual practical work needs to be assessed in specific subjects, we will be flexible. However, we cannot have a system where some students enjoy an in-built and unfair advantage over others because of exam design. We also want to end the current two-tier division of exams into foundation and higher tiers, which condemns thousands of students to courses that explicitly place a cap on aspiration.

Critically, we will end the competition between exam boards, which has led to a race to the bottom, with different boards offering easier courses or assistance to teachers, in a corrupt effort to massage up pass rates. We will invite exam boards to offer wholly new qualifications in the core subject areas of English, mathematics, the sciences, history, geography and languages. In each subject area, only one exam board will offer the new exams. The independent exams regulator will assess all the exams put forward by awarding bodies. The winner will be the board that offers the most ambitious course, benchmarked to the world’s best, informed by academic expertise and capable of both recognising exceptional performance and allowing the overwhelming majority of students to have their work recognised and graded fairly. We plan to call the new qualifications in core academic subjects English baccalaureate certificates, recognising that they are the academic foundation that is the secure basis on which further study, vocational learning or a satisfying apprenticeship can be built. Success in English, mathematics, the sciences, a humanities subject and a language will mean that the student has the full English baccalaureate.

Some will argue that more rigorous qualifications in those subjects will inevitably lead to more students failing, but we believe that such fatalism is indicative of a dated mindset—one that believes in a distribution of abilities so fixed that great teaching can do little to change them. We know that great teaching is changing lives even as we speak. We know that we have the best generation of teachers and head teachers that we have ever had. Their excellence—combined with the reforms and improvements to education that this coalition Government are making, through improved teacher training, greater freedoms for head teachers, and the growth of academies and free schools—will mean more students operating at a higher level. So, even as exams become more rigorous, more students will be equipped to clear that higher bar. Indeed, we are explicitly ambitious for all our children and we believe that, over time, we will catch up with the highest performing education nations and that a higher proportion of children will clear the bar than do so now.

We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification, but there will of course be some students who will find it difficult to sit the exams, just as there are some students who do not sit GCSEs at the moment. We will make special—indeed, enhanced—provision, for those students, with their schools being required to produce a detailed record of their achievement in each curriculum area. That will help them to make progress subsequently, and we anticipate that many of those students will go on to secure English baccalaureate certificates at the age of 17 or 18.

These reforms are radical, so we will consult widely. Their introduction will require careful preparation, so we propose the first teaching of the new certificates in English, maths and the sciences in September 2015, with other subjects following. To ensure that the benefits of this more rigorous approach to the English baccalaureate subjects are felt across the whole curriculum, we will ask Ofqual to consider how the new higher standards could be used as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications, beyond those subjects, to replace the entire suite of GCSEs.

The changes will also require us to consider afresh how we hold schools accountable, so we will consult widely on replacements for existing league tables, and we are determined to find even better ways of recognising those schools that add value and help the poorest. We also wish to recognise the best vocational, as well as academic, qualifications in a fair and rigorous fashion.

After years of drift, decline and dumbing down, we are at last reforming our examination system to compete with the world’s best. Just as we were left with a legacy of mismanagement, poor incentives and wasted talent in economic policy by the last Government—which this coalition is turning round—so we were left a dysfunctional legacy in our examination system. This coalition Government are now bringing modernisation, so that we can have truly rigorous exams, competitive with the best in the world, making opportunity more equal for every child. That is why I commend the reforms to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for sending me an advance copy of the statement. I appreciated having an hour to consider it, although considerably more advance notice was given to readers of The Mail on Sunday yesterday. It is deeply disappointing that, once again, the Secretary of State’s plans for GCSEs have been leaked to the press before being presented to Parliament. Head teachers to whom I have spoken to today are angry, and rightly so, that issues affecting the lives and opportunities of their pupils have been drawn up by Ministers in secret and then leaked to selected media outlets without proper parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with parents, teachers and pupils.

Last week, the Secretary of State appeared before the Education Select Committee. The Conservative Chairman of the Committee said that he was “flabbergasted” by the fact the Secretary of State was not aware of the ministerial code regarding leaks. So, let me ask the right hon. Gentleman: will he today condemn this further leak and reassure the House that he did not authorise it?

The plans that were leaked yesterday look somewhat different from those leaked in June. Can the Secretary of State explain those changes? Does he not really want to introduce plan A, which, according to The Daily Mail in June, would consist of O-levels and CSEs? Is that why he is delaying implementation until 2017? An unnamed source in The Mail on Sunday said that if

“pupils simply aren’t up to taking the new exam they may be forced to find a different option.”

Is that the reason for delaying the implementation of the new system until 2017? The only other plausible explanation is that the Secretary of State has already lost his first battle with his new Minister of State, the Minister for Schools. Is this a Trojan horse preparing the way for a two-tier system, or a cave-in to the Liberal Democrats?

Thousands of young people have been failed because the Secretary of State refuses to sort out the grading fiasco of this year’s GCSE English exams. Opposition Members have called for fairness. The right hon. Gentleman has tried to claim today that he will sort out the credibility of GCSEs in five years’ time, but why should anyone believe what he says today when he has failed so miserably to deal with the GCSE fiasco this year? I urge him to get a grip and to call an independent inquiry so that we can get to the bottom of this mess.

Labour is absolutely committed to rigour and raising standards, but this proposed new system does not reflect the needs of society and the modern economy. Moderate Conservatives, such as the former Education Secretary Lord Baker, have set out their views. Earlier today, Lord Baker said that the best system

“does involve coursework. It involves project work. It involves working in teams...We mustn’t lose that from the education system. Otherwise we’ll be denying a huge opportunity for many young people today”.

I agree with Lord Baker. Surely our system should value skills as well as knowledge. Does the Secretary of State really want to remove all coursework from these core subjects? Is he saying that rigorously assessed field work in geography will not count? Is he saying that an extended essay in English simply will not count? I think that approach is totally out of date, and it is typical of a Government who are totally out of touch with modern Britain.

Schools today do need to change. The education leaving age is rising to 18 and we need to face the challenges of the 21st century. I simply do not accept that we achieve that by returning to a system abolished as “out of date” in the 1980s. Instead, we need a system that promotes rigour and breadth, and prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy. Nearly a year and a half on from Professor Wolf’s report, not enough is being done for vocational education. What does this new system do to ensure that all young people are studying English and maths until they are 18? How does it help the 50% who do not go on to higher education? How does it help the bottom 20% who are most at risk of becoming not in education, employment or training?

In the 1980s, when the GCSE was introduced, there was cross-party support and extensive consultation. If the right hon. Gentleman really wants a reform that will last, I suggest that he shelve these proposals and start a genuine consultation. Ahead of today’s announcements, what has he done to consult employers; what has he done to consult education experts; what has he done to consult head teachers?

Does the right hon. Gentleman envisage all these changes being implemented in all of what he has identified as the core subjects from 2017? Will he set out the cost implications of his proposed changes? He has just said, and I think I am right in quoting him, that some “will go on to secure English baccalaureate certificates at the age of 17 or 18.” Surely the new standard should be one that any well-educated 16-year-old can achieve. Opposition Members will not support changes that work only for some children. We need system-wide improvement and change that enjoys genuine support from the world of education and from employers. The truth is that these plans do not meet those challenges: they are out of date, out of touch and have been drawn up in secret. Above all, they have been launched amidst a fiasco surrounding GCSE English. The Secretary of State has come before us today with a plan for 2017, but the reality is that he has failed to produce a plan to sort out the fiasco of 2012.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Derby—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), yes. I am grateful for his questions.

The hon. Gentleman’s first point was about the secrecy with which these plans have been drawn up. He then went on to complain that they had been shared with the second-best selling tabloid and the second-best selling Sunday tabloid in our country, as a result of which millions have had an opportunity to comment on them. Which is it? It cannot be the case simultaneously that the plans were drawn up in secret, and that they stimulated a widespread debate.

It would have been helpful if the hon. Gentleman had engaged with what we had announced today rather than engaging with what he had hoped we would announce, for his own reasons. He asked us what we would do in order to deal with the students—the weakest 20%—who were currently unable to secure good GCSE passes. We had explicitly said that we expected more students to be able to secure good GCSE passes, and that for those who did not, we would provide enhanced support and an assessment giving an all-round view of how they had done, enabling them then to take examinations at the age of 17 or 18.

The hon. Gentleman asked us what we would do for students who wanted to take examinations in English and maths at 17 or 18. We had explicitly said that students who could not secure a good pass in those subjects at that age would be offered the new certificates so that they could make the progress that they wanted to make later. He asked us what we were doing to deal with the problems that we had inherited with GCSEs which were dysfunctional this year and which had caused students suffering. We are explicitly addressing the problems with modules and controlled assessment that were introduced by the previous Government, and making sure that as a result of those changes, students will never again face the difficulties that they face this year as a result of dysfunctional examination design.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the cost of these qualifications. Getting rid of modules, coursework and controlled assessment means that less time will be spent on sitting and resitting examinations, and more time can be spent on teaching and learning. Schools will save money, and they will be able to reinvest that money in high-quality teaching, high-quality learning, and the stretching of every child.

The hon. Gentleman was faced with his own test today. He was faced with an opportunity to embrace the reform that has been outlined on this side of the House, and he flunked that test by making clear that he would engage in blind and partisan opposition. He asked us to build cross-party support for these proposals, but the best minds in the Labour party have already endorsed them. Conor Ryan, former special adviser to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and to the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has said that there are good ideas in what the coalition Government are doing. He has said that it is right to end competition between exam boards—the hon. Gentleman did not address that issue. He, Conor Ryan has also said that it is right to have more rigour at the top, and the hon. Gentleman did not address that argument either. Conor Ryan has also said:

“More rigorous GCSEs, particularly for top achievers, do not have to place a cap on ambition for many other students.”

That is another argument that the hon. Gentleman failed to address.

There will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to resit this test. There will be an opportunity during our consultation for him to rethink his blind opposition to this progress. I hope that we can count on him to reflect on the decision that he made today, and decide that he will join this side of the House in delivering better, more rigorous and more inclusive qualifications.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. He will be unsurprised to know that I fully support his proposals. The current structure of our school exam system, in which exam boards compete with one another for a market share, has meant a year-on-year incremental reduction in the academic rigour of GCSEs, a narrowing of the breadth of the curriculum examined, and an increase in the predictability of the exams themselves.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to go one step further and address the issue of school textbooks, so that we can encourage publishers to move away from textbooks that are a step-by-step guide to passing a GCSE and towards textbooks that are rich in knowledge of the subject, encourage pupils to read beyond the confines of passing the exam, and provide greater scope for academically able children to flourish?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. Let me first take this opportunity to say that, during his two and a half years in the Department for Education, he did more than anyone else to ensure that rigour was injected back into our education system—[Interruption.] I shall ignore the graceless remarks from the Opposition Front Bench.

I want to underline my gratitude to my hon. Friend for doing such an exemplary job, from the introduction of the phonics test at the end of year 1 and the reform of key stage 2 tests to ensure that spelling, punctuation and grammar were properly marked, to the groundwork that he carried out in this examination reform. Future generations of teachers and pupils will be grateful to him. His comments on exam textbooks are very well made, and I believe that the reforms we are making to eliminate the race to the bottom will provide room for education publishers to do just what he hopes they do: to enhance the quality of textbooks.

I hope that the Secretary of State will stop maligning my former special adviser on these occasions. When I inherited the brief in 1997, my Conservative predecessor involved me in preparing the Dearing inquiry and in setting up the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which the Secretary of State has abolished. Is it not time to stop the chest banging and belligerence—the sheer, artificial anger about the past—and to agree to collaborate in the interests of parents, pupils, head teachers and teaching staff? That way, we can reach a consensus on a way forward for agreed improvement in rigour and on a qualification fit for the 21st century, rather than adopting the current approach, which is, “We know best, you know nothing; we’re going to do it.”

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, and I am sure the whole House will note with approval his conversion to a style of politics in which he abjures machismo and chest beating. It is entirely our intention to seek to work with everyone who wants to ensure that our examination system can be better. That is why we are having a consultation process over the next few years—to ensure that we can have an examination system that suits all students.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to his former special adviser, Mr Conor Ryan. Far from maligning Mr Ryan, I wish to embrace him, just as he has embraced these reforms in a spirit of bipartisan consensus and progressivism.

I welcome the consultation that the Secretary of State has said will take place on the proposals he has set out today. There is wide agreement on the issue of single exam boards, and I welcome the fact that he is looking at more rigorous examinations and reform of the performance tables, which schools have had issues with in recent years. I also welcome the fact that there will be some form of recognition and means of progress for those who are not yet ready to sit the test at the age of 16. He will know that Members on these Benches had concerns about any return to a two-tier system, so we particularly welcome that being ruled out in these proposals.

In the consultation on coursework and the abolition of controlled assessment, will the Secretary of State listen carefully to the responses, so that, if arguments are made in favour of it in certain circumstances and subjects, we can ensure that all students get the opportunity to demonstrate the best of their abilities?

We will listen to the profession, in order to make sure that these reforms are implemented effectively. It was implicit in the hon. Gentleman’s question that there are some subjects outside the current English baccalaureate—for example, art and design—for which, by definition, practical work would need to be recognised, hence the flexibility I said we would apply in my statement.

May I push the Secretary of State a little on the level and depth of the consultation he is suggesting? He will know that many people of good will on both sides of the House, and outside it in the education world, want reform and change, but they are willing to work with him to get change fit for the 21st century. Many competitor nations are moving to a system that looks at 14 to 19 in a very different way, and the crucial turning point in education for many of those economies is 14, not 16; 16 is becoming rather redundant. If the Secretary of State is genuine about consultation, many of us on the Opposition Benches will work with him, but not if he is too fixed and too belligerent about today’s announcement.

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for arguing that we should take a less belligerent tone, but I could not help feeling that those remarks would have been better addressed to his Front Benchers rather than ours. It is in that spirit that we will work with others to identify best practice internationally. [Interruption.] I think we have had another outbreak of belligerence from some of the more rumbustious elements on the Opposition Front Bench. Of course we are happy to work with the profession, hence the period of consultation on which we are now embarking, but we want to make sure that it is informed by evidence, and the evidence is that the highest-performing jurisdictions ensure that there is an academic core that students follow to the age of 16. There is growing concern in other countries that premature specialisation at the age of 14 actually condemns some students to a lower place in a two-tier system that perpetuates the social division that I know the hon. Gentleman and I want to end.

I know from my time in the classroom that there is no doubt that the exam system has been undermined, with young people forced on to courses for the benefit of the school. However, I say to my right hon. Friend that there is a place for coursework in examinations, particularly in history and geography, the subjects I used to teach. In addition, some pupils simply do not test well because they are not supported at home in the same way that more privileged children may be. What will my right hon. Friend do to support those young people, generally from poorer backgrounds, who struggle with exams?

I was talking this morning to the head teacher of Burlington Danes academy, Sally Coates—[Interruption.] She is embracing these reforms, as most enlightened head teachers are, and I suggest that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) have a word with her before it is too late and his position leaves him even more exposed in the educational world. The point she made to me is that, contrary to my hon. Friend’s suggestion, coursework and controlled assessment often work to the benefit of middle-class students, whose parents can better support them, and actually the form of examinations we are putting forward is better designed to support students from poorer backgrounds to show what they can do, rather than simply to show what their parents have achieved.

Would parents be correct in drawing from the Secretary of State’s statement that he will ensure that the weakest students are helped so that they enter a single exam and that he will not tolerate a second-tier exam for those weaker students? Although parents will be relieved that students are not asked any more to complete coursework, does he not accept that some coursework does enable students to manage their time better and to improve their skills? Should that not be reflected in his new system?

The right hon. Gentleman makes two very important points. On the first, we are perfectly clear that we are moving towards a single-tier system and away from a split, two-tier system. One of the points that the Opposition Front-Bench team have refused to engage with or acknowledge is that we have a two-tier system now, with foundation and higher-tier examinations at GCSE which force students who enter the foundation tier to accept a cap on aspiration. It is a disgraceful situation, which was never addressed when they were in office.

On the second point, which the right hon. Gentleman rightly makes, about the importance of coursework and controlled assessment, I would say, as I said in response to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), that there are specific subjects outside the existing English baccalaureate, such as art and design or design and technology, in which students can demonstrate practical skills effectively through work that is not examined during a time-limited examination period. However, there are real problems with coursework and controlled assessment in core academic subjects.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today, but will he look at strengthening vocational qualifications, as they are so important to young people in my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the things that I am delighted by is that, under the leadership shown by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the number of apprenticeships has increased. In addition, thanks to the work put in place by the former skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), we have seen a growth in the number of university technical colleges and studio schools. The Wolf report, which has also been referred to, has set us on a path where we can ensure that high-quality vocational qualifications are offered to all students who believe that that is the right course for them.

Under the Secretary of State’s proposals, it seems that the experimental generation who will have gained qualifications in 2016 will have either two different qualifications or none. I am not clear—perhaps the Secretary of State could provide an answer—as to whether there will be an age cap on achieving the English baccalaureate. What happens to those who do not get that grade?

I see no age cap, and I stress that one of the things that has been very encouraging during the course of today is that a number of schools have suggested that they would like to pilot this qualification even earlier than the planned start date. I hope that we can build up a degree of consensus behind exactly what it is that we propose to introduce and that the schools that are enthusiastic about it are able to make sure that students who do not get a good pass at 16 have the chance to do so at 17 or 18.

May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and congratulate him on being a real education reformer? He will know that introducing an exam with higher standards that rejects grade inflation will mean more schools failing to meet the minimum standards. Does he agree that it is better to know the failures in our schools and put them right? Does he agree that it is better to know the details?

I do not believe that there is a necessary link between making sure that exams are more rigorous and more schools failing. My experience of all highly successful schools is that they use outside encouragement to do even better, and higher standards set from the centre as an opportunity to raise their performance, but I agree that greater clarity and honesty about how students and schools are performing is an absolute precondition for improving outcomes for everyone.

Does the Secretary of State understand that increasingly educated parents and investment in schools are the driving forces for increasing results at GCSE, and does he not realise that abolishing GCSEs will discredit the qualifications of everyone under the age of 50, and the likely qualifications of those taking GCSEs over the next five years, thus devaluing the currency of education in Britain and shooting a hole in the economy?

The currency was devalued by decisions taken by the Government the hon. Gentleman supported from the Back Benches. The currency was devalued by the introduction of modules and by the extension of controlled assessment. It is not just me taking that view; it is the view taken by business organisations and school teachers themselves. The things that contribute to improvement are Governments committed to raising the bar, head teachers liberated to do a superb job and two parties coming together to make sure that we modernise our examination system in a genuinely internationalist way. If the hon. Gentleman wants to be part of that process, we will welcome him; if he wants to carp from the sidelines, sadly, history will leave him behind.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just good for children but essential for our country that our exam results are internationally competitive? An example where we have badly fallen behind is in the EU: although we are 12% of the population of the EU, and back in the ’70s we represented 12% of the EU Commission, now we have fallen to around 4%. One of the key reasons is that we are not good enough at speaking bilingually to compete in that essential area.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the importance of language learning. Under the previous Government, the proportion of students who were studying modern languages at GCSE fell, but under this Government, it is at last beginning to rise. On Friday, I had the opportunity to congratulate the Lycée Charles de Gaulle on its bilingual extension, and 60 years of successful Anglo-French teaching. Later this year, I shall visit the first new bilingual primary free school, which is in Hove. The growth of language teaching as an integral part of an all-round academic education is central to what the coalition Government wish to achieve; it is an area where we diverge from the previous Government. Vive la différence.

The GCSE fiasco this summer showed the danger of rushing in change, so will the Secretary of State not only hold serious consultation with business but serious piloting of the type of question that can be tackled by the least able and also stretch the most able? That is a real challenge.

I agree that it is important that we have the sort of questions in examinations that can simultaneously test the most able and ensure that all students feel that their hard work is recognised, but when the hon. Lady talks about examinations being introduced without sufficient consultation or thought, and refers to this year’s GCSE problems, I am afraid that was an examination designed by the Labour party, introduced by the Labour party and there are people—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) makes more noise chuntering from a sedentary position than he does strumming on his guitar, and I am bound to say that the noise is not as melodious.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the publication of grades rather than of actual examination marks makes examination results easier to massage and manipulate? Will he therefore consider the publication of actual marks in any future new examination results?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the things we want to encourage in the consultation is thoughtful reflection on how we can properly record the level of achievement that each student has secured. His point is a very valuable contribution to the debate.

As a new member of the Education Committee, I am particularly disturbed by some of the language the Secretary of State uses. Certainly in my constituency, the real-life chances of kids, particularly those previously in the bottom schools, were transformed with the introduction of city academies by Lord Adonis and the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I should like to hear the Secretary of State say good things about great sponsors such as the Harris Federation and the Church of England, because they seem to be missing from this picture.

I am a huge fan of the hon. Lady, one of the last surviving Blairites in the Labour party. I am tempted to say, looking at the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), that together they are perhaps the last breeding pair of Blairites on the Labour Back Benches. All I will say is that I never lose an opportunity to celebrate the work of the Church of England and Lord Harris, whose 70th birthday party I was delighted to attend on Saturday in order to raise a glass to everything he has achieved for young people in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and his words about academic rigour will be welcomed by many schools in my constituency, not least Bolingbroke academy, which opened today. Will he be looking to learn from exam systems from other parts of the world that are generally acknowledged to be very rigorous?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the problems with the debate in this country, as the Deputy Prime Minister points out in an excellent article in today’s Evening Standard, is that it has tended to be introspective and backward-looking. My hon. Friend is right that we need to look outward and forward to those countries that have the best-performing education systems.

May I press the Secretary of State further on the kids who leave school with nothing, the kids who are on the street corners, on methadone courses, drinking cans of beer, or going down the road of crime. We all have them in our constituencies; we have all seen them. What about those kids? Why are they being left on the shelf?

The hon. Gentleman’s passion does him credit, but it is thanks to some of the changes introduced by people such as Lord Adonis and carried on under this Government that we are addressing problems in constituencies such as his. It is as a result of the new academy that has opened in Blyth that children are at last enjoying a more rigorous education of the kind they deserve. It is a relentless focus, through academies, free schools and improved examinations, on improving education for the very poorest children that marks out this coalition Government, and the additional money that the pupil premium provides will ensure that those children who are poorest, and about whom the hon. Gentleman cares most, benefit the most.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and it will also be welcomed by Eaton Bank academy, which I had the privilege of opening on Friday. With reference to the teaching of languages, may I ask that the assessment of verbal skills during the examination process includes a genuinely spontaneous conversation with an independent external assessor so that those skills can be realistically assessed on the part of students?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One of the problems we have had with languages is not just the decline in the number of pupils taking them—the result of changes made by the previous Government—but insufficient rigour in the way speaking and translation have been assessed. We aim directly to address that.

One head teacher in my constituency contacted me to say that he went to bed in 2012 but woke up in 1956, and I know that manufacturing employers in my constituency are equally outraged by the Secretary of State’s proposals. Why did he not consult broadly with educationists and employers before coming forward with these proposals, and how will he ensure that young people end up with a qualification that is fit for the skills needs of the future?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point, but she invites us to consult. As I have pointed out, we are launching a consultation today, but we cannot launch a consultation on any proposals. Perhaps she is inviting us to launch a consultation on whether we should have a consultation on some ideas that someone else might think of before we can actually come forward with our own. It seems to me that she wants to have her consultation and eat it at the same time.

Is that not the point my right hon. Friend is making? First, this is a genuine consultation, which will take some time, and head teachers and others should submit their views in it. Secondly, this is not being rushed—the first of the exams under any new system will not be taken until 2017—so a little less synthetic anger and a little more constructive comment would probably do us all well.

As is so often the case, my hon. Friend hits several nails squarely on the head in quick succession. It is our intention to ensure that the consultation is long enough to take into account the views of head teachers, academics and others, and head teachers have already welcomed many of the steps we are taking and want to engage positively with the Government. I hope that the Opposition do likewise.

The noble Baroness Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, said when she scrapped O-levels that she was doing so because they represented a cap on social mobility. Is today’s announcement a return to terminal norm-referenced exams and that cap on social mobility?

I welcome any changes to qualifications that will better prepare young people for the transition to A-levels, because the gulf between GCSEs and O-levels is too great. However, may I caution the Secretary of State to bear in mind that there is also a huge gulf between O-levels and A-levels, so any changes must take us forward and better prepare us for transition rather than just be a return to the past?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Exactly as he points out, one of the real problems with the GCSE course is that teachers say that it is poor preparation for A-levels. In some cases, GCSE English and maths is poor preparation for the workplace as well. I entirely agree with him, and I hope that over the course of the next few months we can work to ensure that that chasm is closed.

I welcome the reform plans as regards an end to endless resits and competition between examination boards, but I am not convinced of the year zero approach to coursework, nor that this might not lead to a two-tier system. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that this is not the way to develop public policy in this area? In Hong Kong, this kind of major reform took 10 years of open public debate. I fully understand that he wants to butter up the Rothermeres, but the examination system deserves better than a series of squalid leaks to The Mail on Sunday.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, particularly for the fact that in 30 seconds he said considerably more that was sensible and coherent than his Front Benchers managed in their allotted five minutes. I am also grateful to him for showing a degree of leadership in welcoming many of the changes that we have made. I take his point about coursework and controlled assessment. I said earlier that in some subjects outside the academic core, such as art and design and design and technology, we can see the need to assess practical endeavour. However, I remain to be convinced, given the terrible problems that we have seen with coursework and, this year, with controlled assessment, that it is right for academic subjects.

Employers in Calder Valley often complain to me that young people leaving school and being presented to them for jobs cannot read or write properly and have poor social skills. Can my right hon. Friend tell employers out there in the UK how the new reforms will change that and enable young people to be more job-ready?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is a consensus among business organisations, from the Federation of Small Businesses to the CBI to the Institute of Directors, that the current GCSE offer is inadequate and that we need reform. Particularly on literacy and numeracy, in our consultation paper issued today we make it clear that we would like GCSE English and mathematics to include sufficient rigour so that employers can be guaranteed that students are properly literate, properly numerate, and ready for the workplace.

Does the Secretary of State accept that a one-size-fits-all final exam is not the best way of assessing talent across the whole ability range in core subjects, and that it is no preparation for a world of work in which no employer would dream of appointing or evaluating staff on the basis of a single closed paper?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, but he seems to be inviting me to move towards a two-tier system because he believes that one size would not fit all. I reject the view implicit in his argument that the overwhelming majority of our students are not capable of doing what they do in other jurisdictions in showing at the age of 16 that they have mastered the core academic subjects and are ready for further study and the world of work.

May I press the Secretary of State on how the enhanced provision for the least academically gifted will be delivered in rural areas? He is aware that North Yorkshire is one of the most underfunded of local education authorities. What particular provision will be made to the schools in question?

I am aware that North Yorkshire has particular challenges, not only as a result of funding but because of the dispersed nature of the population. I hope that North Yorkshire, like other areas of the country, has benefited from the additional funding for the poorest students through the pupil premium. Although there is not an absolute correlation between poverty and low achievement, it has certainly been an entrenched feature of our system in the past. I hope that the additional resources and the other changes that may well be brought in will ensure that those students continue to do better under this coalition Government.

One of the most important aspects of my work as a teacher of GCSE English was the formal assessment of the speaking and listening skills exhibited by students—skills that are vital for young people as they go into the workplace. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the assessment of speaking and listening skills will be excluded from the English examination system post-2017?

I read with interest the work that was done looking at some of the weaknesses in the current English GCSE, and the controlled assessment of speaking and listening was one of the areas in which there were the greatest problems in ensuring effective marking by teachers assessing their own students. I agree that effective speaking and listening is essential to a broad curriculum, but when it comes to ensuring that speaking, listening and every other skill is assessed properly, we need to move away from the model of the past.

My right hon. Friend can expect some representations on the expression “baccalaureate”, which originally came from an English degree at age 21 and a university course, is now a European system for 18 or 19-year-olds and will in future be provided to 16-year-olds who qualify in the core subjects.

As well as the public examination and certification system, we ought to encourage people to pass standards and get grades in their academic and other school subjects in the same way as they can in music and sport, to allow those who are achieving things to have that recognised. They can then get add-on tuition and develop.

As a last point, may I say that my right hon. Friend ought to look at the sub-editors of his article in the Evening Standard? The first four times he used the word “both”—meaning the coalition, presumably—were unnecessary, and the fifth time, the word “We” would have substituted for the first four words of the sentence.

My hon. Friend has just completed an eloquent application for the post of chief examiner at whichever exam board is successful in securing the franchise. I will ensure in future that any article that is penned by both the Deputy Prime Minister and I—or should that be me?—passes through my hon. Friend’s blue pencil before it appears in the Evening Standard. I take his point about sport and music, which both need to be better recognised in modern schools.

I do not think any hon. Member is arguing against the need for improvements in the GCSE system. However, it must be a mistake to move back to rote learning at the expense of problem-solving and the encouragement of the applied skills that are needed in the workplace and generally in life, which benefit both children and the economy in a competitive world. From what the Secretary of State has said, it seems that we face a system that will be to the benefit of the few who are good at exams but at the expense of the many who excel in other ways.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points. He says that no one in the House will oppose improvement to GCSEs, but I am afraid the Opposition Front-Bench team have done precisely that. They have made no constructive proposals of their own; they have merely defended a discredited status quo and sought to create partisan dividing lines.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about rote learning, I would say that it is encouraged in the current system by the modular approach and the way in which examinations are currently designed—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Well designed examinations ensure that people have not just the knowledge but the skill and deep understanding to show that they have been well taught. The best head teachers have argued for that view, and I am happy to embrace it.

The statement by the Secretary of State is excellent news for pupils in England. The way in which GCSEs have been discredited over the past decade or more has been completely unacceptable. Pupils in my constituency and across Wales, however, will still be subject to the same failed model of GCSEs. Will he do everything possible to encourage his counterpart in Wales to engage in the process and bring about either the same model as in England or one as close to it as possible, and to stop scoring party political points?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making his point. As someone married to a Welsh girl, it grieves me that the Welsh education system went backwards under Labour, and it grieves me even more that every objective assessment of what has happened under Labour in Wales shows that education has improved more quickly and effectively in England than in Wales. I hope that the Education and Skills Minister in Wales will embrace the progressive reforms that the coalition Government have put forward. He now has an opportunity to show that he is ready to operate in a constructive fashion.

I looked at everything that had been written by the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses, and in so doing, I could see the widespread view among business that we needed to reform GCSEs. I look forward to hearing from individual businesses about their views of specific aspects of the reform. However, among businesses, there was a universal view that examinations had been discredited and dumbed down under the previous Government and that, at last, the nettle was being grasped.

I welcome the statement. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that students in the next five years also obtain qualifications that are well regarded by prospective employers?

One thing that the coalition Government have done is allow schools that are concerned about the quality of GCSEs, particularly the modular nature of some GCSEs, to teach the IGCSE. I visited a state school in Hertfordshire on Friday, where a mathematics teacher told me that she hoped that we would adopt a system that was more similar to the IGCSE, because that would help inject greater rigour into the process. I was able to reassure her that we were learning from best international practice and that I would encourage all schools to consider how the IGCSE might be an appropriate preparation for the changes that we hope to introduce.

I would like rigorously to test the Secretary of State’s statement. To assist me, will he provide the evidence base for the policy that he has announced to assure me that it will benefit young people and this country’s economy?

Yes, I would be happy to share with the hon. Lady the work that has been done by the university of Durham, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Ofqual, Ofsted and King’s College London, all of which have pointed out the way in which the current model of GCSE examination needs to change. I would also be happy to share with her best practice in every successful education jurisdiction, which stresses a broad curriculum of the kind that the English baccalaureate aspires to provide.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, to reassure everyone of the rigour of the new exam, no pupil should be regarded as having passed it unless they achieve a mark of at least 50%?

I take my hon. Friend’s point. When I was re-reading Mike Tomlinson’s report into what went wrong with A-levels under the last Labour Government, I noted that he made the point that it is very difficult for the public to understand how exam boards convert raw marks into particular scores and then particular grades. It is an opaque process that impedes understanding. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made the point that greater granular detail about attainment can help us all understand how marks are awarded. The simplicity that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) wants is not always available to us, but we should aspire to it.

Employers in places such as Birmingham tell me that new industries, particularly social media and the computer programming and gaming industry, often look for aptitude in such skills as programming and coding. They say that none of the current examination systems reflects that sort of aptitude. Will the Secretary of State’s reforms to the examination system take those areas into account, accommodate new skills and provide a test for them?

The hon. Lady is right. In January, in response to the Livingstone-Hope review, I announced that we would disapply the current ICT curriculum, which did not provide the sorts of skills that the hon. Lady mentions, and that we would develop new computer science specifications. That announcement was widely welcomed, and I have been working since then with Ian Livingstone, Microsoft and others to ensure that we can provide people with the coding skills with which they were not provided in the curriculum that we inherited.

I seek reassurances from my right hon. Friend that students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia will be afforded the additional time and appropriate assistance needed during a more rigorous exam process.

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point on behalf of those students who labour under the disadvantage that comes from having special educational needs. We want to ensure that all students are capable of sitting the examination and that, if they have a particular disability, or live with a condition such as dyslexia, appropriate support is provided.

During the consultation, will the Secretary of State listen carefully, particularly to the engineering industry, which is concerned about the artificial divides that have crept in between vocational and academic qualifications? We all need to develop some practical skills—even the Secretary of State needs to learn how to use a left-handed screwdriver. In doing that work, will he also listen to those who are worried about the lack of continuous professional development in the teaching profession because of the pressures in the curriculum?

I am painfully aware, as are the British School of Motoring and the Department for Transport, of the need continually to improve practical skills, and as a result of my failure in that area I have had recourse to expert engineers on more occasions than I care to remember. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and we must ensure that the academic qualifications in maths and the sciences for which students study to age 16 are preparation for the vocational courses that follow, including in engineering. The point about continuous professional development was well made, and we will ensure that that is a priority of the new chief executive of the Teaching Agency.

Under the existing GCSE system, too many of the most vulnerable children leave school with nothing. What arrangements will be made for children with special educational needs?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. In every nation, a small percentage of students—perhaps 5% or 6%—live with such severe special educational needs that it is difficult for them to secure access to an academic curriculum by the age of 16. We must ensure that those young people have a full and rounded statement of what they have achieved at age 16, so that they, their parents, and potential employers know that they have talent and real ability. Although that talent may not be recognised through an academic curriculum, it can be recognised in the world of work and deserves to be applauded. We want to work with specialists in the field of special educational needs to ensure that that achievement is recognised and, where appropriate, for those students to secure EBacc certificates in English and mathematics at a later stage.

Children in homes that are not connected to the internet—largely those in disadvantaged areas—are likely to fall one grade behind other children, so tackling rather than increasing poverty must be a priority. Does the Secretary of State agree that working with families in those children’s early years is more important than waiting until they fail at 16 and hoping to sort things out in the two years that follow?

I absolutely agree and would say two things. First, the efforts being made to improve access to broadband across the country will help to ensure better internet access for every family. Secondly, improving education in a child’s early years is critical. That is why we are extending the number of hours of pre-school learning available for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and why we are ensuring that the early years foundation stage is more rigorous.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware of the investigation by The Daily Telegraph into the conduct of exam boards last year. One examiner was recorded as saying that the exam in question had so little content he was surprised it got through, and other examiners were caught telling teachers which questions to expect in that year’s exams. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the reforms will end the ludicrous situation in which exam boards compete with each other in a race to the bottom to offer the easiest exams to schools?

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the clarity of his question and the cogency of his argument, as is The Daily Telegraph on the public benefit that accrued from its investigation.

I was sitting elsewhere.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on learning his Welsh lesson, even if he has proved himself a rather slow learner? My constituents can enjoy the benefits of the Welsh baccalaureate now, rather than wait until 2017. Will the Secretary of State learn another lesson from Wales by studying what happened with Leighton Andrews’s decision to award fair results to those who were cheated by the mismarking in the English exams?

There is a lot to admire in Wales, including the hon. Gentleman. I do not, however, admire the way that the regulator and the Education and Skills Minister are one and the same, and we must separate decisions taken by politicians from those taken by regulators. That is the approach taken in England, and I think it is better.

I welcome the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ensuring an absolute focus on genuine educational attainment, rather than grade inflation. Will he reassure the House by confirming that the planned consultation exercise will focus not only on course content but on how the new exams will be implemented to ensure maximum possible success?

Yes. My hon. Friend makes an important point and we will do everything we can to ensure that the consultation includes not only content but method of assessment and support for teachers.

I welcome the statement, chiefly because it builds on the English baccalaureate, and also because it reflects the important conclusions of Professor Alison Wolf’s report. However, may I stress the importance of ensuring that further education colleges, universities, sector councils and representatives of business communities are consulted, because their views are pivotal? My right hon. Friend will find that they are also supportive.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose commitment to the FE sector is well known. He is absolutely right: no reform of examinations at 16 can succeed unless we listen to the best voices in further education.

Bottom of the class again!

Businesses in my constituency tell me time and again of their concerns about standards and their confidence in them. Members may find it hard to believe, but I was not the most academic pupil. I am therefore particularly interested in how best we can help such students. Guiseley school in my constituency has done excellent work on encouraging pupils into engineering and on working with local businesses to determine their needs. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that while he is introducing the changes he will put equal emphasis on creating opportunities for those less academic pupils and on encouraging partnerships such as the one that Guiseley school has established with local businesses?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a characteristically acute point. It is absolutely right that we should ensure that all students, of whatever ability, can progress at the age 16 either to the world of work if it suits them, or to further and higher education. We need to work with business to ensure that that can happen.

May I express my sympathy for him in finding himself the final person to be called? As it says in the King James Bible, which, of course, has been distributed free to every school under this Government, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.