With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of qualifications, school league tables and the national curriculum.
Last September, we outlined plans for changes to GCSE qualifications that were designed to address the grade inflation, dumbing down and loss of rigour in those examinations. We have consulted on those proposals and there is a consensus that the system needs to change. However, one of the proposals that I put forward was a bridge too far. My idea that we end the competition between exam boards to offer GCSEs in core academic qualifications and have just one wholly new exam in each subject was one reform too many at this time.
The exam regulator Ofqual, which has done such a great job in recent months upholding standards, was clear that there were significant risks in trying to both strengthen qualifications and end competition in a large part of the exams market. I have therefore decided not to make the best the enemy of the good, and I will not proceed with plans to have a single exam board offering a new exam in each academic subject. Instead, we will concentrate on reforming existing GCSEs, broadly along the lines put forward in September. There is a consensus that the exams and qualification system we inherited was broken.
Our first set of reforms were to vocational qualifications, which had been allowed to become less rigorous options under the previous Government. Alison Wolf’s report outlined how to improve the quality of vocational courses and expand work experience. It secured near universal support and it will soon all be done. We are also reforming apprenticeships. Under the previous Government, the currency of apprenticeships was devalued alongside every other qualification. The Richard report on apprenticeship reform will restore rigour, as Andrew Adonis has explained so powerfully.
We are also reforming A-levels. Schools and universities were unhappy that constant assessment and modularisation got in the way of proper learning, so we are reforming those exams with the help of school and university leaders. GCSEs will also be reformed in a similar fashion. The qualifications should be linear, with all assessments normally taken at the end of the course. Examinations will test extended writing in subjects such as English and history, have fewer bite-sized and overly structured questions, and in mathematics and science there should be greater emphasis on quantitative problem-solving. Internal assessments and the use of exam aids will be kept to a minimum and used only where there is a compelling case to do so, to provide for effective and deep assessment of the specified curriculum content.
Importantly, the new GCSEs will be universal qualifications and I expect the same proportion of pupils to sit them as now. This is something we believe the vast majority of children with a good education should be able to achieve. However, reformed GCSEs will no longer set an artificial cap on how much pupils can achieve by forcing students to choose between higher and foundation tiers. Reformed GCSEs should allow students to access any grade while enabling high-quality assessment at all levels. The appropriate approach to assessment will vary between subjects, and a range of solutions may come forward—for example, extension papers offering access to higher grades alongside a common core. There should be no disincentive for schools to give an open choice of papers to their pupils.
I have asked Ofqual to ensure we have new GCSEs in the core academic subjects of English, maths, the sciences, history and geography, ready for teaching in 2015. These proposals will, I believe, achieve a swift and significant rise in standards right across the country, equipping far more young people with the knowledge and skills they need to achieve their full potential.
However, reforming qualifications alone is not enough to ensure higher standards for every child, and we must also reform how schools are graded to encourage higher expectations for every student. Existing league tables have focused almost exclusively on how many children achieve a C pass in five GCSEs, including English and maths, but that deceptively simple measure contains three perverse incentives. It encourages schools to choose exams based on how easy they are to pass, rather than how valuable they are to the student; it causes a narrow concentration on just five subjects, instead of a broad curriculum; and it focuses teachers’ time and energy too closely on those pupils on the C/D borderline, at the expense of their higher or lower-achieving peers.
Today I am proposing a more balanced and meaningful accountability system, with two new measures—the percentage of pupils in each school reaching an attainment threshold in the vital core subjects of English and maths; and an average point score showing how much progress every student makes between key stage 2 and key stage 4. The average point score measure will reflect pupils’ achievement across a wide range of eight subjects. As well as English and maths, it will measure how well pupils perform in at least three subjects from the English baccalaureate—sciences, history, geography, languages—as well as computer science, and also in three additional subjects, whether arts subjects, academic subjects or high-quality vocational qualifications.
That measure will incentivise schools to offer a broad, balanced curriculum, with high-quality teaching and high achievement across the board. It will also affirm the importance of every child enjoying the opportunity to pursue English baccalaureate subjects. By measuring average point scores rather than a single cut-off point, the new measure will ensure that the achievement of all students, including low attainers and high achievers, is recognised equally.
Alongside today’s proposed changes to exams and league tables, we are also publishing our proposals for the new national curriculum in England. Over the past two years, we have examined and analysed the curricula used in the world’s most successful school systems in jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Massachusetts and Singapore. We have combined the best elements of their curricula with some of the most impressive practice from state schools in this country. The result is published today in a new draft national curriculum for the 21st century, which embodies high expectations in every subject.
We are determined to give every child, regardless of background, a broad and balanced education, so that by the time their compulsory education is complete, they are well equipped for further study, future employment and adult life. All the current national curriculum subjects will be retained at both primary and secondary levels, with the important addition of foreign languages, to be taught in key stage 2. Our new draft programmes of study in core subjects are both challenging and ambitious. They focus tightly on the fundamental building blocks of study, so that every child has the knowledge and understanding to succeed.
A key principle of our reforms is that the statutory national curriculum should form only part of the whole school curriculum, not its entirety. Each individual school should have the freedom to shape the whole curriculum to their particular pupils’ aspirations—a freedom already enjoyed by the growing numbers of academies and free schools, as well, of course, as schools in the independent sector. Programmes of study in almost all subjects—subjects other than primary English, mathematics and science—have been significantly slimmed down, and we have specifically stripped out unnecessary prescription about how to teach, and concentrated only on the essential knowledge and skills that every child should master.
In maths—learning from east Asia—there is a stronger emphasis on arithmetic and more demanding content in fractions, decimals and percentages, to build solid foundations for algebra. In the sciences, there is rigorous detail on the key scientific processes from evolution to energy. In English, there is more clarity on spelling, punctuation and grammar, as well as a new emphasis on the great works of the literary canon. In foreign languages, there will be a new stress on learning proper grammatical structures and practising translation.
In geography, there is an emphasis on locational knowledge, using maps and locating key geographical features from capital cities to the world’s great rivers; and in history, there is a clear narrative of British progress, with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past. In art and design, there is a stronger emphasis on painting and drawing skills. In music, there is a balance between performance and appreciation. We have also replaced the old information and communications technology curriculum with a new computing curriculum, with help from Google, Facebook and some of Britain’s most brilliant computer scientists. We have also included rigorous computer science GCSEs in the English baccalaureate.
With sharper accountability, a more ambitious curriculum and world-class qualifications, I believe we can create an education system that can compete with the best in the world—a system that gives every young person, regardless of background, the high-quality education, high aspirations and high achievement they need and deserve. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Under this Government, the words “GCSE” and “fiasco” seem to be linked indelibly. This is a humiliating climbdown. The trouble with this Secretary of State is that he thinks he knows the answer to everything, so he digs out the fag packet and comes up with his latest wheeze. What does that result in? It results in free schools that do not get built, scrapping AS-levels, which Cambridge university hates, and the rejection of English baccalaureate certificates by the CBI, which says they are a mistake. This is a familiar routine; one of the Secretary of State’s advisers briefs the Daily Mail, and when it falls apart by lunchtime, it is time to blame the Liberal Democrats. His priority is pandering to the right wing of the Conservative party.
Parents and pupils are left confused and frustrated. Will the Secretary of State now apologise to them for this shambles? Having done down their hard work on GCSEs, will he accept that that was the wrong thing to do? The statement demonstrates once again his flawed vision for education and a total misunderstanding of the future needs of our country.
Last September, the Secretary of State said:
“After years of drift…we are…reforming our examination system to compete with the world’s best.”—[Official Report, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 655.]
Is it not the case that he is the one adrift? This is a total shambles. Forced into apologising to the House when he scrapped Building Schools for the Future and forced into a partial U-turn on school sport, he should have learnt his lesson by now. It is simple, really: before announcing a bright idea, would it not make sense to check it first with the deputy headmaster?
I want to pay tribute to those who have argued against the Secretary of State’s plans. The CBI said that they would leave young people in a holding pattern when they need a clear target to aim for at 18. Entrepreneurs, such as the inventor of the iPhone, said the impact on this country’s economy would have been catastrophic. The head of the leading private schools association said that the Secretary of State was hankering after a bygone era. Backward looking, narrow and two-tier, the best thing would be for the Education Secretary to go back to the drawing board. Instead, we have another back-of-the-envelope plan: a new national curriculum, following the last one that his own expert advisers said was deeply flawed.
Education is too important for this kind of short-term thinking. Most children only get one chance at their GCSEs. Surely their future is too important to be subjected to the usual party politicking and parliamentary game-playing. [Laughter.] Conservative Members laugh at the suggestion that that is the case. If the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) visits schools in his constituency, that is the message he will hear from teachers, parents and pupils. We have to focus on standards, and move beyond this shambles. Surely there should be a cross-party consensus on a future plan for the next generation of qualifications. That should be based on the best available expert evidence, not on the back of an envelope. Will he do things differently this time?
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his questions. He asks: when we get things wrong will we apologise? Yes. In my time as Education Secretary I have made mistakes. Every Minister makes mistakes. When I made mistakes over Building Schools for the Future, I was happy to come to the House and acknowledge that I had made an error. Where I have made mistakes in other areas, I have been happy to acknowledge that I have made an error, and the very first thing I said today was that I embarked on one reform too far by seeking to move towards single exam boards. I am happy to acknowledge today that that was an error.
One thing we did not hear from the shadow Secretary of State was his view on that reform, because when he wrote to me on Wednesday 26 September 2012, he said:
“I welcome the proposal to introduce single exam boards for each subject.”
I acknowledge that that was a mistake, but in the brief and shining moment that he had the House of Commons in the palm of his hand, I am afraid that the shadow Secretary of State did not enlighten us about his view on single exam boards. He did not enlighten us on his views about vocational qualifications, apprenticeships or A-levels.
He asks me if I will work with others to ensure cross-party consensus. I am delighted that there is cross-party consensus on our reform of vocational qualifications, as he has acknowledged. I am delighted that there is cross-party consensus on our reforms of apprenticeships, as Andrew Adonis has acknowledged. I am delighted that there is growing support for the changes to A-levels and university entry, as I have acknowledged. What I hope to see is consensus on how we reform GCSEs. There is growing consensus in that the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders have welcomed the changes we are making today. There is also growing consensus in that the CBI, the Institute of Directors and every body that represents industry says that we need to restore rigour. I hope, after today, that we can get clarity from the hon. Gentleman and consensus across the House, and that we can work together, as we have so successfully on so many other issues, to ensure that children get the high quality education they deserve.
Order. There is much interest in this subject, which the Chair is keen to accommodate, but I remind the House that there are two debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, the time for which is not protected. We have to finish the main business by 5 o’clock, so I need short questions and short answers. We will be led in this exercise by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and, in particular, on the publication of the new national curriculum. Does he share my view that the 2007 curriculum, written by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and introduced by the last Government, was hugely damaging to educational standards in this country and the cultural and scientific literacy of school students, and that the new, knowledge-based curriculum published today will do an enormous amount to raise standards, undo that damage and put our curriculum on a par with the best in the world?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the fantastic work he did during his time as a Minister to ensure that some of the mistakes made in the past were reversed and that some of the successes achieved in the past were built on. I absolutely agree with him: the curriculum took a wrong turn in 2007. Real improvements were made to the national curriculum and how it was taught when the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was Education Secretary. Sadly, those improvements were not maintained. I hope we are now back on course in order to ensure that our curriculum ranks with those of the highest-performing jurisdictions in the world.
Copies of the national curriculum, my letter to the exam regulator Ofqual and all the other relevant documents will be placed in the Library.
Flattery will get the Secretary of State nowhere. I welcome the glimmer of humility, as well as many of the changes announced this morning, not least the range of subject areas that will now count for the value-added tables and for GCSEs. Will he confirm that all these subjects will now be of equal weight and that citizenship will not only remain in the curriculum, but have a national programme of study?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman not only for his distinguished tenure of the office of Education Secretary and the reforms he introduced, but for the statesmanlike way in which he has responded, which I am sure others can learn from. I can absolutely and with pleasure confirm that citizenship will remain a programme of study at key stages 3 and 4. I look forward to working with him to ensure that this valuable subject is even better taught in more of our schools.
I welcome today’s announcement and I am pleased that the Secretary of State has listened to the concerns of head teachers in Chatham and Aylesford. Under the last Government, heads would have just started to plan or implement a reform or strategy when it would be ripped up and changed. I fear that we are continuing down the same path, so can the Secretary of State assure the House that he will end the constant tinkering with the curriculum, so that heads can get on with planning and delivering good education for their students?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the benefits of the national curriculum approach that we are taking today is that one of the areas that matters most to heads and teachers—how they teach—will be devolved to their responsibility. It has been the case in the past that prescriptive teaching methods and particular styles of pedagogy have sometimes intruded into the national curriculum. We have stripped them out to concentrate on the knowledge that every child should expect to have and that every parent needs to know their child is receiving.
The right hon. Gentleman galloped through his statement so fast that I would have challenged anybody in this House to follow it in any detail. He tells us that it has been widely accepted by all sorts of people who could not have had very much notice of it. Let me bring him back to the point: this is a dramatic U-turn, but the fact of the matter is that we kept telling him, “Consult, base your policies on evidence and try to be bipartisan.” I have not seen any evidence of that, and if the new proposals do not meet those criteria, they will also fail, as will the reforms of A-levels.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who was a distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. I am sorry that the speed of my diction was too fast for him, but I believe that the clarity of our proposals was understood very well by those on the Opposition Front Bench and other Members who have spoken. As I mentioned earlier, our proposals have also been welcomed by head teacher organisations. They have given that welcome because we did exactly what the hon. Gentleman enjoined me to do: we consulted. We put forward proposals, some of them very radical, for change to our examination system. Many of those proposals have been welcomed. One of them—one that was dear to my heart—was a bridge too far. I have listened, and that is why we have dropped it. I hope that in future we will continue to work—as I have worked so pleasantly with him in so many other areas—to achieve consensus for all our children.
Over the past few months we have had a number of debates in which I and many other Members have pointed out to the Secretary of State our concerns about some of his proposals. I am delighted that we are now moving towards a rigorous, reformed GCSE, a slimmed-down national curriculum, which has been a long-cherished aspiration of the Liberal Democrats, and an accountability measure that will push schools to encourage all pupils to do their best. In the consultations that the Secretary of State continues to have, will he ensure that we get that measure right so that we continue to push up participation in subjects such as modern foreign languages, while also guaranteeing the place of creative and technical subjects and religious education?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has engaged in both the consultation and the broader debate. The points that he and many of his colleagues have made during that consultation have been the right ones. They have been designed to ensure that we recognised that there were faults with the examination and qualification system that we inherited, that they needed to be put right, and that challenge and rigour were welcome, but that we also need to listen to what school leaders and head teachers are telling us about how to implement that.
At midnight tonight, the Science and Technology Committee will publish its report on engineering skills. Clearly, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on its content just now, but will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that he will read it very carefully? It is an evidence-based report that commands the cross-party support of the whole Committee, so will he assure us that it will get an evidence-based response?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman’s Committee for the fantastic work it has done in the past and I look forward to reading the report. We have ensured, I hope, with the national curriculum changes we are making, that the building blocks of a mathematical and scientific knowledge will be there in order to ensure that higher-level engineering qualifications can be enjoyed and achieved by a wider group of pupils than ever before. Of course, when we make our propositions, we always look at the evidence. I was delighted earlier this week to see that a number of scientists in America were looking at the initial outline of our approach to our curriculum. We are moving in the right direction, with a greater attention to evidence than any other jurisdiction in the world.
I welcome the statement, because it signals that there is still much to do. I also recognise that those on the Opposition Front Bench support the need for change. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that the EBacc will continue and that he will emphasise the need to make sure that teachers think more about all pupils, not just those who are hovering around the C grade?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend who, both as a school governor and as someone with experience in further education, speaks with authority. He is absolutely right. The changes that we will make, I hope, to the accountability system will ensure that schools are incentivised to help students of all abilities. The English baccalaureate is a valuable measure that has already driven up participation in sciences, languages and history, and it will remain as a key element and measurement of how schools are responding to the needs of their pupils.
I welcome the retention of the GCSE brand, but when will the Secretary of State learn from his mistakes, like a good learner, and stop meddling and tinkering, to echo the words of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), and trying to micro-manage the school system in a way that will, I am afraid, inevitably and sadly disadvantage young people?
I certainly shall not stop challenging the entire school system to do better for all our children, because my first priority is always to ensure that the generation of children who are in school—who, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), has pointed out, only have one chance—get schools that are pressurised to do even better for them.
As for micro-management, almost all the changes that we have made during my time as Secretary of State have been to allow teachers and heads greater control and to free them from micro-management in order to ensure that they can concentrate on teaching and learning. The success of the academies programme, which more than half of secondary schools have now adopted, shows that head teachers are enthusiastic about this Government’s desire to empower them with greater control over the curriculum and how teachers are rewarded.
As a member of the Education Select Committee, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I thank him for listening to what the Committee said in its report “From GCSEs to EBCs: the Government’s proposals for reform”, which was published last week. It is a rare thing for a Minister to pay attention to a Select Committee, and I am sure that all the members of the Committee will be grateful to him for doing so. Will he tell the House whether there will still be significant reforms of the content of GCSEs? Will there, for example, be an opportunity in the history GCSE for a narrative British history qualification to be created?
First, may I place on record my thanks to the Select Committee? Sadly, the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), cannot be in the House today, for very good reasons. I am grateful for the detailed work that all the members of the Committee did in response to our GCSE reforms. There was consensus between the Committee and Ofqual on one of the flaws in our proposals, and I listened to the evidence that they both produced. I am happy to acknowledge my debt to the Select Committee and to Ofqual, because, as I mentioned earlier, they have persuaded me not to implement at this stage a key part of the reform programme that we put forward.
When I said, on 16 January, that I would have a crack at changing the Secretary of State’s mind, I did not believe that I would be here within a month thanking him for changing his mind—and I do thank him for that. I understand from his statement that three subjects in addition to the EBacc subjects will be recognised when determining how schools achieve. Will he take this opportunity to stress the importance of creative subjects and practical examinations for many people at the age of 16?
The hon. Lady has conducted a campaign on behalf of creative subjects with skill and panache. The fault is only mine that there was some confusion in the minds of some students and teachers about the distinction between English baccalaureate certificates and the English baccalaureate. There was a fear among some—which I felt was unfounded, but I understand how it arose—that artistic and creative subjects would be marginalised. I hope that the clarity that we have provided today on the accountability in the reforms will reinforce the fact that, for the hon. Lady and for me, artistic and creative subjects are central to a broad and balanced education.
I commend the Secretary of State for listening and learning. If more people did the same, the country would be a better place. As someone who has been a school governor for longer than he has been a Member of Parliament, may I ask him to ensure that children are given really good careers advice before they decide which subjects to take at AS-level in the improved national curriculum? That will be very important.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the changes that the English baccalaureate has helped to cement is that students will be clearer about the subjects that they need to take in order to get on to a particular course or into a particular university or college. Given how fast the world is changing, it is vital that we ensure that the advice is tailored to every student in the right way. It is also important that students recognise the potential of new subjects, such as computing, to offer them an even richer range of chances to succeed.
We can only live in hope that Hong Kong, Massachusetts and Singapore do sport in their schools. The Secretary of State has presided over a reduction in the number of hours that PE teachers spend outside the classroom organising sport, and the children in our schools are spending less time on PE and physical recreation on his watch. What is the position of sport in his new, strengthened national curriculum?
Sport is stronger than ever in the national curriculum, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to feed back on the draft, which shows a renewed emphasis on competitive and team sports. I hope that he will welcome that. I am grateful to The Observer newspaper for showing in a recent poll that a majority of parents believe that school sport is being either protected or enhanced under this Government, rather than diminished. It is great to see that parents know that, on the ground, our commitment to sport is stronger than ever.
I am hopeful that the Secretary of State’s announcement will stop schools concentrating on the children who hover on the D to C borderline. Will he ensure that all schools are recognised for the progress of every pupil, and that they publish their progress data in comparative tables so that parents, teachers, carers and adults who look after young people can see that a school’s success includes those at the very top and the very bottom of the ability range?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course it is important that children and young people leave school with qualifications, but it is also important that we incentivise schools to ensure that those students who are very low attainers are the focus of particular attention. The progress measure that we are planning to introduce will be a powerful driver to help those students, and the teachers who are their best hope for success.
In the recent past, examining boards have competed with each other to offer better results. This has been a driver of grade inflation. Now we are moving away from having a single board per subject, how can we be sure this will be dealt with?
This is a very good point. I was keen to try to deal with this problem of competition, which I believed generated a race to the bottom. While I was keen to do so, however, I recognised that it was a step too far at this stage. We retain the option of moving in that direction if exam boards do not change the way in which they operate, but I have been encouraged by the eagerness with which awarding organisations have responded to Ofqual’s desire to ensure that standards are higher. I note that the shadow Secretary of State did not acknowledge Ofqual or thank it for the work it did to ensure that the English GCSE and other GCSEs were protected as gold standard qualifications. I am confident that the current leadership of Ofqual is doing the right thing. I believe that the steps and instruments are there to ensure that we can have more rigorous qualifications.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with nursery rhymes. This has been a week when Dukes of York have been in the headlines. [Interruption.] Little did I realise how popular hereditary peers would be on both sides of the House. In this process of consultation what we have managed to achieve, for remarkably little cost, is a degree of consensus about how much reform we need.
During his reply to the statement, the shadow Secretary of State said I should visit schools in my constituency. I am delighted to tell him that I do. His last visit to my constituency was to campaign for a Labour candidate in the local elections who ended up humiliated in coming third, behind the Conservatives who won the ward and the British National party in second place. May I urge my right hon. Friend to take no lectures from the Labour party on achievement?
I thank my hon. Friend for that elegantly and pithily put question. I would also like to take the opportunity to invite the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby to execute his own U-turn. As I say, on Wednesday 26 September he said he believed that we needed single exam boards for each subject. I no longer believe that is appropriate or necessary, but we are still none the wiser as to the Labour party’s position on that issue.
The Secretary of State accepts that we must learn from our mistakes. He referred in his statement to Ofqual saying that there were significant risks in trying to both strengthen qualifications and to end competition in large parts of the exams market. Will he tell us why he did not realise before now that there were significant risks?
I was clear that the programme of reform we put out in September was ambitious, and I wanted to ensure that we could challenge the examinations system—and, indeed, our schools system—to make a series of changes that would embed rigour and stop a drift to dumbing-down. I realised, however, as I mentioned in my statement, that the best was the enemy of the good. The case made by Ofqual, the detail it produced and the warning it gave, as well as the work done by the Select Committee, convinced me that it was better to proceed on the basis of consensus around the very many changes that made sense rather than to push this particular point.
I commend the Secretary of State for listening to the consultation, which is a sign of strength, not weakness. Given that we are a creative people, as illustrated by the strength of our creative industries, may I have his assurance that we will not marginalise creative subjects at school?
My hon. Friend has lobbied me with characteristic politeness, persistence and authority on behalf of creative subjects, and I am happy to give him that assurance. I believe that the new accountability system on which we are consulting today will ensure that creative and artistic subjects, alongside high-quality vocational subjects, can take their place in making sure that schools are graded appropriately.
The head teacher who told me last year that he had gone to bed in 2012 and woken up in 1956 probably thinks that today he woke up on groundhog day. Does the Secretary of State not realise how much harm he does to young people every time he disparages the GCSEs that they work so hard to achieve? What value does he think employers should place on today’s GCSEs?
I think the real harm occurs when children are at schools where teaching is not of a good quality, and where ambitions and aspirations for those children are insufficiently high. One of the problems we have experienced in the past is that employers have said that some qualifications—including those introduced under the last Government—do not command confidence. That is a tragedy, but today we are playing a part in the ending of it.
I greatly welcome the move away from the blunt, simplistic “five-plus C-plus” measure involving the “three perverse incentives” to which my right hon. Friend referred. Will he strive to make the new progress measure a lot simpler and easier to understand than “contextual value added”, which was so complex that it was hardly ever used?
My hon. Friend—who used to be a member of the Education Committee—has made a very good point. One of the other problems with contextual value added was that it seemed to embed a culture of low expectations by automatically assuming that students from particular ethnic minority backgrounds would do less well. The “value added” measure that we hope to introduce will be clearer and simpler, and will also embed high expectations for every student.
Only last Friday, when I visited a secondary school in Bebington, in my constituency, I was greeted at the gates by exasperated teachers who were fed up with learning the latest news about their subjects on BBC News 24. Now that the Secretary of State has apologised, will he put things right by answering the question that he was asked earlier, and telling us how much all this has cost?
Over the last three years, the Department has made significant savings in every area by concentrating on better value for money. I think that, overall, this move will save money for a variety of schools and students by ensuring that modularisation, controlled assessment and coursework—which have absorbed so much energy and time—will no longer absorb energy, time and money from our schools.
Are not the really important points that we should greatly enhance aspiration in all pupils, particularly those in lower-income groups, and that we need to do something about grade inflation if any public examination is to have some value? May I also say to the Secretary of State that it seems to me that the only purpose of consultation is to enable people to listen to those who are consulted, and that paying respect to what they have said is a mark of ministerial strength rather than ministerial weakness?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is absolutely the case that I have strong views about improving the education system, and that I am happy to debate in any forum in order to present those views, but it is also the case that I believe that it is through debate—through the testing of propositions—that we can reach a consensus, a synthesis, on how best to proceed. I am delighted that so many of the changes that we have made which were initially controversial and vigorously contested—from the introduction of academies and free schools to changes in the way in which teachers are paid and rewarded—are now accepted. However, when the arguments overwhelm me and I recognise that I am wrong, I think it best to retreat.
Basically, the Secretary of State has failed his resits. It is a delight to see him eating humble pie. Boris Johnson might say to him festina lente, and that might become his motto for the rest of his career in his present job.
The Secretary of State has said that he wants all schools to flourish in many different ways, and wants the methodology of teaching to be different in every one, but it is teenage pregnancy that has prevented many young women from being able to prosper in society. It means that poverty is as hereditary as wealth in this country. When will the Secretary of State ensure that proper sex and relationship education is statutory?
Let me say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, I congratulate him on his deployment of Latin. [Hon. Members: “What did he say?” He said, essentially, “Make haste slowly.”
Secondly, I happily acknowledge—as one who, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), took seven opportunities to pass his driving test—that resits are sometimes necessary. Winston Churchill once said that success meant moving from mistake to mistake without any loss of enthusiasm along the way.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about sex and relationship education, I can tell him that sex education is already statutory.
A resit will be necessary.
Teenage pregnancy is a real problem, as is the risky behaviour of so many young people from poorer homes who do not have high levels of educational qualification. One of the things that we can do about that is ensure that they are taught in the right way at primary school.
I welcome the rare display of humility that my right hon. Friend brings to the Dispatch Box today, and his determination to introduce education reform. One third of our European Union postings are filled, but two thirds are unfilled because we do not have candidates with second and third languages. What is he doing to encourage more students to take up languages in primary and secondary school?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, although I do not know whether he was suggesting that humility at the Dispatch Box was rare or humility from me was rare—but let us cherish it whenever it occurs.
One of our biggest problems has been our insular approach to teaching foreign languages. The English baccalaureate has been one of the means by which we have increased the number of students studying French, German, Spanish and also new languages such as Mandarin. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, therefore, and our new measure and our new national curriculum requirement that languages be taught at key stage 2 in primary schools will help to ensure that we become a less insular nation.
This is a timely statement, because tomorrow in my constituency I am due to meet parents who have been concerned about the suitability of the Ebacc structure for the needs of their children. Can the Secretary of State reassure them that the new extended curriculum will meet the needs of students who struggle in more formal and traditional learning environments and with formal examination structures?
It is designed to do exactly that. Some students are written off prematurely and it is assumed—often because of their background or as a result of poor early primary education—that they cannot cope with formal learning, but more students can cope than is currently acknowledged. However, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that it is very important that we make sure students of all abilities are supported. That is what our new accountability system will do, and it is also what the changes to special educational needs provision in the Children and Families Bill being brought forward by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), will do.
Absolutely. As I said earlier, my approach is always to argue strongly for radical change and then to make sure that where that radical change is right, it is implemented, consolidated and agreed, and where that radical change may just occasionally be a step too far, then to acknowledge that we only make progress in this life by recognising when to cut our losses.
I greatly support what the Secretary of State is doing, but some of us are not convinced he was wrong to want to put in place a single exam board for each subject because of the grade inflation that has come about as a result of having multiple exam boards. He said he would keep this matter under review. Will he give us an idea of how long he will give the existing regime to prove itself before he might revisit the matter ?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think there was a case for the change he describes, but I felt that the best was the enemy of the good, and we agreed it would be better to put this to one side. We are still not clear whether Labour believes we should move towards having a single exam board. That was its position last September; we do not know whether it has U-turned since then. It is important that we give the exam boards a chance to show that they can improve GCSEs, but if they have not done so in the next Parliament, more steps could be taken.
Our new history curriculum will affirm the important place of British heroes and heroines in fighting for liberty over many centuries. Let me also take this opportunity to say that the role of Mary Seacole is not just cemented but enhanced in the curriculum. I also believe the new history curriculum is fairer in its treatment of black and minority ethnic figures in European and world history, and is more inclusive in its approach to the contribution women have made to our past, but I look forward to hearing all responses from both sides of the House about how we can make sure the subject is taught properly. As for creative and artistic subjects, we will do everything possible, working with the Arts Council and others, to make sure that they are of high quality.
Examination league tables have many merits, but there is often a conflict between them and the young person in question getting the best impartial advice to suit their future. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that where that conflict arises, the best advice and the future of the young person will always win?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that was the case with existing league tables. They were a good thing and helped to drive up standards, but they created perverse incentives and I hope that the reforms we have put forward today will ensure that young people are better advised about the options that will enable them to succeed.
It is clearly crucial that young people gain key skills at the earliest possible stage, particularly in mathematics. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that under the new curriculum, children will learn their 12 times table at the age of nine, rather than learning the 10 times table by the age of 11? Does that not demonstrate the huge shift that is going on to improve standards?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. There is a higher level of ambition at every stage in the national curriculum and a decisive shift towards 21st-century subjects, so that mathematics is more rigorous and the computing science curriculum is more attuned to the demands of today. Critically, that curriculum will not only prepare people to be the programmers of the future, but help to keep children safe online by ensuring that e-safety is at the heart of how children are taught in primary school.