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Volume 565: debated on Monday 24 June 2013

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 15 and 17 together. We are reforming GCSEs to ensure that they stand comparison—

Order. May I just say to the Secretary of State that this is an attempted grouping on the hoof, of which I had no notice, but being the obliging fellow I am I will do my best to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman?

I apologise, Mr Speaker, and thank you. We are reforming GCSEs to ensure that they stand comparison with exams in the highest-performing jurisdictions. We are consulting on changes to subject content for GCSEs. Ofqual is also consulting on changes to the structure, grading and standard of the new qualifications.

I agree with the Secretary of State that many state schools do not stretch their brightest pupils enough to allow them to compete with pupils from private schools. In my constituency, only two out of seven schools reached the national average in GCSEs last year. I do not think there should be a school in the country in which fewer than 70% or 80% are getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths. Will he consider bringing back the black country challenge to boost standards in Dudley in the way the London challenge improved them in London?

That is a very acute point from a Member of Parliament who, I know, is passionate about education. I will do everything I can to ensure that all the elements that made the London challenge and black country challenge a success apply to schools in his constituency through collaboration and a culture of excellence. I look forward to talking with him about how we can work together to ensure that his championing of high educational standards can be extended across the black country.

Will the Secretary of State consider yet again the inclusion of British sign language as a GCSE subject? It is appropriate for those students who are less academic and is, after all, a language someone can use throughout the whole of their life.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) for making the point that British sign language was one of the few languages I learned when I was younger for family reasons. For that reason, I am committed to doing everything we can to encourage its take-up. We are working with Ofqual, the exams regulator, to see whether we can ensure that there is a qualification that is as rigorous as possible and that stands comparison with other GCSEs.

I thank the Secretary of State for cantering through the questions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) that we need to drive up standards. What are the Secretary of State’s proposals for practical and vocational subjects? It is important that children who excel in those areas are given the reward they deserve.

I absolutely agree. One of the recommendations from the Wolf report is that instead of simply having a pass/fail mark for practical and vocational qualifications and allowing students to pass purely on the basis of what a teacher rather than an external assessor has assessed, we should have a more sophisticated grading system and more rigorous external testing to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications are seen, rightly, as equivalent. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the steadfast support he has shown for state schools in his constituency, including the outstanding comprehensive, Thomas Telford.