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Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 11 June 2013

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the future of examinations.

There is now a widespread consensus, underpinned by today’s authoritative report from the Select Committee on Education, that we need to reform our examination system to restore public confidence. That is why today we are publishing draft details of new GCSE content in core academic subjects. The independent regulator Ofqual is publishing its own consultation on the regulation of reformed GCSEs. We are publishing the draft content in English, mathematics, science, history, geography and modern and ancient languages alongside this statement. We will consult on that content over the next 10 weeks. We expect that these subjects, with the exception of languages, should be ready for first teaching in September 2015, with the first exams being taken in the summer of 2017. Languages and other subjects will follow soon after, with first teaching from September 2016 and the first exams being taken from the summer of 2018.

The new subject content we are publishing today has been drawn up in collaboration with distinguished subject experts, all with expertise and experience in teaching. I would like to thank them for their dedicated work. In line with our changes to the national curriculum, the new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That will mean that there should be more extended writing in subjects such as English and history. There should be more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science and more testing of mathematics in science GCSEs, in order to improve progression to A-levels. We should have more challenging mechanics problems in physics, a stronger focus on evolution and genetics in biology and a greater focus on foreign language composition, so that pupils require deeper language skills.

This higher level of demand should equip our children to go on to higher education or a good apprenticeship. We can raise the bar confidently, knowing that we have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools to help students to achieve more than ever before. Our education reforms—the growth in the number of academies and free schools and the improvements in teacher recruitment and training, as well as sharper accountability from improved league tables and a strengthened Ofsted—are raising standards in state schools. That means that new GCSEs will remain universal qualifications—accessible, with good teaching, to the same proportion of pupils as now.

The specifications that we are publishing today also give awarding organisations a clearer indication of our expectations in each subject. Under the previous system, specifications were often too vague. This caused suspicion and speculation that some exam boards were “harder” than others, undermining the credibility of the exam system as a whole. Including more detail in our requirements for subject content should ensure greater consistency and fairness across subjects and between exam boards. By reducing variability in the system, we hope to ensure that all young people leave school with qualifications that are respected by employers, universities and those in further education.

While making GCSE content more rigorous, we must also correct the structural problems with GCSEs that the coalition Government inherited. As today’s report from the Education Committee confirms, the problems with English GCSEs generated last summer proved beyond any doubt that the current system requires reform. Both the Education Committee report and Ofqual recognise that controlled assessment, which counted for 60% of the English GCSE qualification, undermined the reliability of the assessment as a whole. I therefore asked Ofqual to review the regulatory framework for GCSEs to judge how we might limit course work and controlled assessment and to reflect on how we could lift a cap on aspiration by reducing the two-tier structure of some GCSEs. I also asked Ofqual to explore how we might reform our grading structure, the better to reflect the full range of student ability and reward the very best performers.

Ofqual’s consultation sets out how reformed GCSEs can be more rigorous and stretching while encouraging students to develop and demonstrate deep understanding. It is proposed that course work and controlled assessment will largely be replaced by linear, externally marked end-of-course exams. It is proposed that the current two-tier system will end, except where it is absolutely essential: in maths and science. In those subjects, Ofqual is consulting on how to improve the current arrangements to deal with the concerns that we and others have expressed about capping aspiration. Ofqual is also consulting on a new grading system that will give fairer recognition to the whole ability range.

Young people in this country deserve an education system that can compete with the best in the world—a system that sets, and achieves, high expectations. Today’s reforms are essential to achieving that goal. By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling and more stretching, we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education that will equip them to win in the global race. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of the statement and the consultation documents.

Here we are again. Last summer, we had “Bring back CSEs and O-levels”: dropped. Then it was the English baccalaureate certificate: dropped. Just last week, it was going to be I-levels, but there is no sign of them today. The Secretary of State is cutting back on resits for students, but he affords himself a fourth attempt at GCSE reform. The problem last summer was that he started with qualifications when he should have started with the curriculum. He was putting the cart before the horse—a grade A lesson in bad policy making.

When we were in government, we raised standards across schools. On the performance measure of five A* to C grades including English and maths, we went from 35% in 1997 to 59% in 2010. Let me give the House a quote:

“Schools got better over the course of the last 15 years.”

Those are not my words but those of the Secretary of State a year ago. The improvements were the result of a laser focus on literacy and numeracy, better teaching and better schools.

Parents are worried that, by allowing unqualified teachers into classrooms, this Government are damaging education standards. They want to know that the changes to the curriculum and qualifications will help to equip their children for the jobs of the future. Let me set three tests for the changes. First, will they strengthen rigour and raise standards, by introducing the rigour of the future that rejects a choice between knowledge and skills? We need both. Secondly, are the changes driven by the evidence of what actually works, here and elsewhere? Thirdly, will they command consensus and stand the test of time?

On the curriculum changes, we will study the detail of today’s proposals. We want to strike the right balance between setting out entitlements to high-quality education and freedoms for schools and teachers to innovate. What is the Secretary of State’s evaluation of how academies have used their freedoms, and of the implications of that for the future national curriculum? When will he bring forward plans for other subjects that are not covered by today’s announcement? In particular, what about the young people who want to study high-quality technical and practical subjects? For too long, they have been the forgotten 50%, yet there is no reference to them in today’s statement.

We support the reform of controlled assessment, but we do not support its wholesale abandonment across almost all subjects.

“Moving towards linear assessment will reduce the reliability of GCSE. Less coursework means less assessment time which leads inevitably to lower reliability—this is about as cast iron a rule in assessment as there is”.

Those are not my words; they are the words of Prof Dylan Wiliam, one of the distinguished experts to whom the Secretary of State referred in his statement.

What body of evidence supports this wholesale switch on controlled assessment? The Secretary of State has previously expressed doubts about tiering. I welcome the principles Ofqual has set out today. Has he changed his mind on tiering in maths and science?

On grading, I accept that there is a good case for more differentiation at the top end, but I am concerned about consolidation at the other end. Surely it is vital that there is challenge and stretch for all students across the ability range? There is a strong argument for moving to what Ofqual has described as scaled scoring, giving students the actual percentage mark subject by subject. I know Ofqual feels we are not ready for that yet, but does the Secretary of State share my aspiration to move towards such a system in the future?

In conclusion, there is a clear lesson from this past year: this is no way to conduct system reform. Future change should be informed by the evidence and should properly engage with professionals. If we do that, I think we really can achieve lasting and successful reform.

May I, first, thank the hon. Gentleman for his witty and discursive response? Picking through the thickets of the comments he made, I think there was a broad welcome for the direction of travel we have set out today, and in our efforts to achieve consensus across the House—which has always been my aim—I am grateful for that.

May I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his acceptance that Ofqual is right to recognise the case for tiering in mathematics and science? He asked what my view is: my view has always been that we should, wherever possible, seek to remove any cap on aspiration, but we have listened to the experts, and they conclude in this case that tiering in maths and science is appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I believe, as some do, that we should move from not just an alphabetical to a numerical skill, but to scaled scores. The consultation provides an opportunity for those who believe that that is appropriate to make their case. Ofqual will make a judgment, and I will listen closely to what it says, but I think the need to change the way in which we award grades reflects the improvement in teaching, to which he alluded and which I entirely endorse.

The hon. Gentleman asked about technical and practical subjects. As I have confirmed before, technical and practical subjects are our highest priority in the Department for Education, which is why our reforms started with vocational qualifications and the publication of the Wolf report. I recently wrote to the hon. Gentleman to ask him if he still stood by his endorsement of the Wolf report. I still await a reply, but I know he is a busy man and I shall wait patiently to hear what he has to say.

The final thing I should say is that the hon. Gentleman asks for evidence for the case for change, and all I need do is commend to him the superb work done by the Select Committee in its report today, which points out that it was the introduction of changes by the last Government that fundamentally destabilised GCSEs. The hon. Gentleman himself has acknowledged that there was grade inflation on Labour’s watch. Let us be clear: yes, there were improvements, thanks to changes in our education system and a higher quality of teaching than ever before, but they were put in doubt by Ministers’ failure to ensure that the gold standard was adequately protected. We are, at last, protecting the standards on which all our children depend.

Instead of all this perpetual messing about with the education or examination system, would it not be better and simpler to return to the arrangements of my distant youth, in which in order to matriculate—that magic but now disappeared word—pupils had, as the Secretary of State knows very well, to get six credits at school certificate level, one of which had to be in mathematics and one in a foreign language? If they got those six credits, they went on to the higher certificate, and if they could get two distinctions in higher certificate they automatically got a state scholarship and a guaranteed free university education. Everybody understood it, it worked very well, so why do we not go back to it?

First, may I say to my right hon. Friend that his youth is not that distant? He is still in the prime of life and the full vigour of all his abilities, and the system he has outlined, with credits for a broad range of subjects, is very similar to the English baccalaureate measure we have introduced. I did not know that, in introducing the English baccalaureate, I owed so much to my right hon. Friend, but I am happy to say that the virtues of the education system that existed in his youth have been reinstated. However, impressive as the education he enjoyed was, we also need to move with the times, and we are making a number of changes that better reflect the competitive nature of the 21st century.

Taken together, the three new reports announced today are not as bad as some of us may have feared. May I put it to the Secretary of State, however, that employers and post-16 providers want young people who have learnt how to learn, have been able to demonstrate that they are able to work in teams and are able to speak English as well as to write it? My experience through night school was that the old O-levels, with the final exams, were easy for those of us at the time who had a good memory. What we surely need to be moving to in the continuing consultation is removing the worst of the past and the over-emphasis on a modular approach and assessment, while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Will he continue to listen?

I am very grateful to be praised with faint damns by the right hon. Gentleman, and I entirely agree with him; it is important that speaking and listening sits alongside the composition, written and analytical skills in English language. That is what we propose to do, by ensuring that speaking and listening, which is inherently more difficult to assess, in what is a benchmark qualification, is assessed alongside the written component of English. I always look forward to hearing from the right hon. Gentleman, who is far, far more often right than wrong.

May I thank hon. Members from all parts of the House for their kind words and support since my accident?

I congratulate the Secretary of State on today’s statement. We have the broad outlines of the right policy and, unlike the shadow Secretary of State, I think that a Secretary of State who puts forward ideas, listens to the response and changes a Government policy as a result is making policy in the right way. However, may I put it to the Secretary of State that this has a tight timetable, so will he assure the House, parents and teachers that he will always ensure that getting it right is more important than sticking to the timetable he has set out?

I thank my hon. Friend for his generous words and may I say how good it is to see him back in his place in the House? May I also thank him for the fantastic work that his Committee has done in its report on what happened to GCSEs last summer, which is published today? I entirely take on board his endorsement of the Department for Education’s Hegelian approach to policy making of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis. We will make sure that the timetable is kept under review. We have already extended the timetable for A-level implementation to take account of precisely the concerns he has so wisely articulated.

The Secretary of State deserves an A* for his ability to cherry-pick the parts of the Education Committee report he agrees with while ignoring those parts he disagrees with. On grading, we all agree that there are good reasons for more differentiation at the top end, but surely it is not the top end that is our problem. So what in today’s proposals will support and challenge those 50% of children at the bottom end?

It is a very fair challenge from the hon. Lady, who has devoted a great deal of time in this House to reminding us how important it is that we tackle that tale of underachievement. We want to consult on exactly how the grading system can fairly reflect the full range of ability, but we also need to ensure that students who sit these examinations are supported long before they come to sit a GCSE so that they are able to achieve more effectively. We are making a series of interventions, ranging from the introduction of the pupil premium and the extension of 15 hours of free pre-school education to the poorest two-years-olds to the endowment from the Education Endowment Foundation fund to support research into how we can support the poorest students, which were intended to deal with precisely those children who are the strongest concern of both of us.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that we are committed to one qualification, open to all, and to looking at how we can raise aspiration for all students. If the evidence from the consultation shows overwhelming support for some element of coursework in arts and humanities, as well as in the practical subjects, will he retain an open mind on it?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has done throughout this process to ensure that it better reflects the needs of teachers, for whom he speaks so effectively. I have a real concern that coursework or controlled assessment in benchmark qualifications such as English and mathematics creates problems, but I listened to Ofqual when it argued that there should be an element of coursework to test bench skills—practical skills—in science, and I remain open to all arguments. I have a strong disposition, but it is not incapable of being swayed by strong evidence.

The Secretary of State will appreciate that I cannot speak about the detailed implementation of his reforms, but does he agree that an emphasis on rigorous qualifications and on obtaining core academic subjects is not, as is sometimes argued, contrary to the interests of working-class children and of black and minority ethnic children? On the contrary, precisely if someone is the first in their family to stay on past school leaving age, precisely if someone’s family does not social capital and precisely if someone does not have parents who can put in a word for them in a difficult job market, they need the assurance of rigorous qualifications and, if at all possible, core academic qualifications.

I am in love! The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and if I had been a member of the Labour party I would have voted for her to be leader.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and, in particular, the reforms to ensure that essay writing skills are tested in English and history GCSEs, and the reforms that ensure a deeper understanding of and facility with mathematical processes and formulae in the maths and science exams, with less predictable and more demanding questions. Will he assure me that the exam boards, chastened as they are by universal criticisms of their failure on the stewardship of grade values, will not allow grade inflation to creep into these newly reformed GCSEs?

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for the fantastic work he did in office to lay the foundations for some of the changes we are announcing today. I do think that the exam boards are chastened and that their current leadership recognise that the credibility of the qualifications they offer depends on their policing standards with even greater rigour than ever before.

The Secretary of State will know that rigour and reliability are quite elusive, that many Governments have tried to combine those two and that it is difficult to do so. May I welcome today’s report and what he said to the House, and the fact that this is going to be subject to consultation? However, may I say to him that sometimes he should learn the lesson that I learnt during 10 years as the Chair of the Select Committee, which is that you have to carry people with you—you have to carry parents, students, teachers and the broader community with you—and that he sometimes falls into the trap of being more in favour of disruptive innovation than building a consensus for change, which he really will need?

What are the Government doing to ensure that a putative future Labour Government will not falsely inflate the grades of schoolchildren, as Labour has done before?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We cannot guarantee that a future Government, of whatever political colour, will not be tempted to try to flatter itself by bringing in a little grade inflation. We have in Ofqual and in its current regulator a strong leader determined to ensure that that will not happen. It is a pity that we do not have the same robust system of regulation in Wales, for example.

The CBI has said that we need to produce “rounded and grounded” young people, but I understand that these plans will not assess those important competences, which business require. Why is the Secretary of State not listening to business organisations?

I very much enjoy listening to business organisations, even those such as the CBI that have historically perhaps been wrong on big issues—for example, the euro. Nevertheless, there is a lot that the CBI has said about education that I do commend, and I think that the introduction of a greater degree of rigour in English language writing skills and a higher level of demand in mathematics meet exactly the request from all sorts of businesses to ensure that there is higher attainment among the students they wish to recruit.

Does the Secretary of State agree that as a majority of people believe that GCSEs have become easier in recent years, these substantial reforms are essential to restore the confidence of employers and further education establishments in the GCSE system?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know he is committed to education—we first met in a school in his constituency—and I know he absolutely believes that we need to restore confidence in these examinations. The only people who are let down if there is not public confidence in these examinations are young people, and he is absolutely right to point out that confidence has been eroded over time.

It is vital that the GCSE brand is consistent, and is respected, across the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell the House what consultations he has had, or will have, with the devolved Administrations, including the Northern Ireland Assembly? Will he ensure that agreement and consensus can be reached, so that GCSE qualifications will not be compromised in any region of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend—will know that I am absolutely committed to the unity of this kingdom and I want to do everything possible to ensure that Ulster remains British. That is why it is important that we say to people in Northern Ireland, and in particular to Northern Ireland’s current Education Minister and the devolved Administration, that the changes that he might make to GCSEs have attracted the attention of the regulator, Ofqual, here. I do want to work with him and the many superb teachers in Northern Ireland to ensure that there can be as close as possible an alignment between our education systems.

Does the Secretary of State agree that our children deserve the best education we can give them, and that they get only one chance of that? Does he also agree that the extensive use of coursework has masked the true picture of some of our pupils’ abilities?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are some subject areas—art and design, design and technology—where it is important to show practical skills through coursework, but there are other areas, particularly English and mathematics—particularly English—where, unfortunately, coursework and controlled assessment have not reinforced the rigour that we all want.

Following on from that last comment, why does the Secretary of State not believe that properly assessed and moderated coursework demonstrates a depth of understanding of a subject that simply learning facts to be churned out at an exam does not?

The hon. Lady misunderstands the fact that at the moment, as the Select Committee report points out today, coursework and controlled assessment can lead to over-marking and inconsistency. It is also the case that the modularisation of GCSEs, which occurred under a Labour Government, led to precisely the sort of cram-and-forget style of learning that I think neither of us approves of.

I warmly welcome today’s announcement. What representations has the Secretary of State had from employers’ organisations showing that they feel these changes are likely to add to the economic competitiveness of this country and make it easier for them to select credible candidates for employment?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The CBI has pointed out that the number of employers who are dissatisfied with school and college leavers’ basic skills remains stuck at around a third; the Institute of Directors has said that the value of GCSEs has declined; and the Federation of Small Businesses has said that eight in 10 small businesses do not believe that school leavers are ready for work. Business recognises that we need rigour, and that is why business supports the coalition Government.

Teachers—even head teachers—who are responsible for delivering the Secretary of State’s curriculum have expressed little confidence in him on the nature and timing of his changes. When will he really listen to the professionals in schools who actually teach and plan and know what they are talking about?

It is an unfortunate myth that the profession is united. There is a range of views within the teaching profession and among head teachers. What is striking is that an overwhelming number of those who lead outstanding schools and are developing outstanding practice support the drive for higher aspirations that this coalition Government are leading.

Education is the best opportunity for poorer children to change their life chances. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need an exam system that employers and teachers have confidence in, to help those poorer pupils achieve in life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Few people know more about the chalk face than he does, given that his partner is a primary school teacher. He is absolutely right that we need to change our examination system, to restore confidence that has unfortunately been dented.

The Secretary of State’s entire statement is about the importance of qualifications, and I am sure parents will appreciate that, but can he give parents an assurance that no unqualified teachers will be teaching these GCSE courses?

One thing I can say is that teachers are better qualified than ever, and the new head of the Teaching Agency and the national college, Charlie Taylor, has been responsible for changes that ensure that we have more highly qualified young people, teaching to a higher standard than ever before.

I declare an interest: my daughter is a teacher in a state school.

Does the Secretary of State agree that he is in danger of winning over teachers, winning over the Opposition and doing a very good job? Is that the way we should be proceeding?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right: sometimes we need to be divisive and pugnacious, but today I am glad that consensus on a number of issues appears to exist across both Front Benches.

Will the Secretary of State accept that his proposals will blight the value of the qualifications of those taking examinations in the next four years and break the union of qualification currency between England and Wales? Should he not have tried harder to get a compromise, instead of simply leaking the contents of his meetings with the Welsh Government to the press?

Into every life a little rain must fall. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that the fault lies, I fear, with those who have not been as anxious to preserve the rigour in the examination system as our regulator, Ofqual. I will say no more.

I welcome the removal of grade inflation—we owe it to our young people to have a value system that everyone recognises. However, as someone of Welsh heritage, who got all my qualifications in Wales, I am very concerned that certain qualifications will now have greater merit than others, which will disadvantage poorer communities, and some employers will not understand the two sorts of qualifications that may come about.

My hon. Friend puts her finger on a really important issue. One thing that I am anxious to do is to secure, with the help of the regulator, a proper understanding that can help us to encourage those responsible for qualifications in Wales to recognise which changes are appropriate and which are not.

As the Secretary of State knows, we have some of the best secondary schools in the country in Hackney, where rigour is very important. As the Secretary of State’s approach to education policy seems to be that it is in one day, out the next—he is playing hokey cokey—can he assure head teachers, parents and pupils in my area and around the country that there will not be a lot more changes down the path?

A clear direction of travel has, I hope, been set today and we will of course consult and listen, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right. In Hackney, a high level of ambition has been embedded for years, and I know there are head teachers and teachers in Hackney who welcome the direction we have set today.

I declare an interest, in that my wife is a teacher. The Secretary of State has already referred to the opinion of the Federation of Small Businesses that eight in 10 of its members thought that school leavers were not ready for work. How will these reforms address that problem?

Small businesses, like all businesses, want to ensure that students have the English language skills necessary to communicate with confidence in a business setting and the arithmetical and mathematical skills necessary to compete effectively in the 21st century. I believe that the changes we are making to English and maths—the benchmark qualifications—will meet the needs of business.

Would that every young person who had failed their resits on three occasions was able to claim that they were merely engaged in a process of Hegelian dialectic with the examining authorities, although I would prefer a more Socratic dialogue, such as has been engaged in in Wales. It is a real shame that the Secretary of State has set himself against coming to a common position across the whole of the United Kingdom. What I really do not understand for the life of me is why he thinks that learning vast quantities of “The Wreck of the Hesperus” or “The boy stood on the burning deck” or “If” will make young people better equipped for the work environment.

There are two things that I would say. First, I am always anxious to reach consensus with colleagues in Wales, but it takes two to make a consensus. [Interruption.] At least two. The second thing that I would say is that when it comes to learning English, yes it is important to have the utilitarian skills that business demands, but it is also important that children from every background are given a chance to appreciate beauty—the best that has been thought and written. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates beauty in many spheres of human endeavour—

And he is quoting Keats now. All I would say is that he is not the only person who has an interest in poetry. I was delighted when John Cooper Clarke, one of my favourite poets, said only last week that our approach to the teaching of poetry was absolutely right.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had, or does he intend to have, with the Welsh Government on the issue? It is crucial that we retain the integrity and credibility of Welsh pupils in the eyes of employers and universities across the United Kingdom. Has he considered suggesting to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that she go to the Welsh Assembly to speak to her political colleagues about a positive way forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I respect the devolution settlement, and it means, of course, that the Education Minister in Wales can make the appropriate decisions which he considers to be right for Wales, but I want to ensure that we can work together in future to bolster confidence in all the examinations that young people take. I have already had a meeting with the Welsh Education Minister, which was frank and cordial; I hope that we can have further such meetings.

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), the timetable is tight, and discussions and interaction with the devolved Administrations are vital. We should be ever mindful that they also have a legislative process to go through. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the timetable is not too rigid, so that delivery in all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be achieved?

That is a very good point, and we will work with the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, and with Westminster representatives like the hon. Gentleman, who takes a close interest in these matters, to make sure, if we can, that there is proper alignment.

I thank the Secretary of State for his announcement, which is a huge step, putting more rigour and higher standards in academic subjects. May I press him on when we can expect the draft curriculum programme of study for design and technology, and in which year he expects that to be taught?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we put forward draft programmes of study for different curriculum areas, some of them attracted more controversy than others. It is fair to say that design and technology was one of the most controversial. We have listened to some of the critics, and a new draft will be forthcoming in a few weeks’ time.

I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who is responding to the demands of employers and higher and further education providers, and to the needs of pupils, by reintroducing rigour to the exam system. Does he share my concern that pupils in Wales, who may want to seek employment opportunities across the UK and beyond, could be disadvantaged if the Welsh Government refuse to follow this reform? Will he agree to make the qualification available, irrespective of the Welsh Government’s judgment, to those schools that want to pursue this new rigorous GCSE?

Absolutely—this qualification should be available to all state schools that have high aspirations for their students. Next Monday, I look forward to meeting Andrew R.T. Davies, the gifted gentleman who leads for the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly. I will also talk to Welsh Conservative MPs, of whom there are a growing number, to see how we can take this forward effectively.

As a member of the Education Committee, I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive use of our report in today’s statement, because it was a well-researched, considered report. I also welcome his appreciation of the role of Ofqual, but does it include making sure that teachers are not teaching to the exam rather than to the subject as a whole?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of the problems with the way that modularisation occurred was that it led to too much teaching to the test, and insufficient deep understanding. I hope that our reforms will address that.

My constituents in Northumberland will welcome this effort to raise standards across the board, although my local schools already produce outstanding results, despite very low per capita funding. Will the Secretary of State meet a delegation of head teachers of my high schools at some stage this summer in Westminster, to discuss both this consultation and the proposed transitional funding arrangements?

The English language, used right around the world, is perhaps the greatest export from these islands, but one of the knock-on effects is that, despite the best efforts of colleges with specialist language expertise, such as the Montsaye academy trust in Rothwell in my constituency, as a nation we do not teach modern languages as successfully as we might. Against that background, why will modern languages be in the second wave of these reforms, not the first?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is simply that there are some quite difficult issues to deal with when it comes to finding exactly the right way to ensure that speaking and listening skills, in particular, are properly assessed, but I absolutely agree with him that we need to do more to encourage the take-up of languages. Unfortunately, it dipped under Labour; it is now increasing, thanks to the changes that we have made with the English baccalaureate measure.

Businesses that I have met in my constituency have told me of their concern about the level of literacy and numeracy among some school leavers, yet pupils can only sit the exams that are in front of them, and teachers are surely right to teach to those exams. Does that not show that the current system is not operating fully for everybody, and that the Government are right to focus on it, and fix it?