Previous SectionIndexHome Page

15 Oct 2002 : Column 209—continued

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of her statement, and I add my thanks to Mike Tomlinson for the work that he has had to do.

Today's announcement of the A-level regradings represents one more step in what has been the worst crisis ever to affect the exam system in this country—a crisis made worse by the staggeringly inept way in which it has been handled by the Secretary of State and her Department. Tens of thousands of students have had months of not knowing whether their grades were mis-marked. Two thousand families now know that they were fiddled out of the proper marks, and 88,000 others have been severely disappointed today, all because Ministers insisted, against the advice of their officials, on introducing the new A-level system too fast and too soon. Mike Tomlinson described that system as an Xaccident waiting to happen". The accident happened, and the Secretary of State is still trying to evade responsibility.

The root of this fiasco has been political interference in the exam system. I am afraid that nothing in the Secretary of State's statement suggests that she is prepared to reduce the degree of political meddling in the details of education, which are best left to heads, teachers and examiners. In her statement, she confirms that officers at the QCA had acted within their guidelines. If she believes that, why did she sack the QCA's chairman, Sir William Stubbs? Will she admit to the House now that he was a convenient scapegoat, used to take the pressure off Ministers? Will she also tell us why Sir William would have put pressure on exam boards to downgrade the marks if he did not believe that he was serving the interests of his political masters? It is not in the interests of the exam boards or of the QCA to

15 Oct 2002 : Column 210

depress the grades. It might, however, be in the interests of Ministers to do so, if they were worried about accusations of dumbing down.

So let us have the Secretary of State's explanation of why Sir William acted as she has accused him of doing. Interestingly, the Secretary of State said in her statement that she had sacked Sir William not because he had put pressure on the exam boards, but because the boards perceived that they were under pressure from the QCA. Might it have been possible that Sir William perceived that he was under pressure from Ministers?

While we are on the subject of the QCA, will the Secretary of State finally commit to making it fully independent of the Government? The main job for her, or her successor, is to restore confidence in the exam system. That will not be achieved until it is completely taken away from political interference. If the Government were to introduce legislation in the next Session to achieve that, we would give it a fair wind.

On the exam boards, why does the Secretary of State think that only one board has been implicated in this problem? What did OCR do, under this perceived pressure from the QCA, that the other boards failed to do? How does she propose to deal with the 2,000 students who have suffered? She says that students will not be financially disadvantaged. Will she tell the House what the compensation package will cover? Will she also make it clear what she will do for the other 88,000 students who will be feeling angry and disappointed today because they have not been regraded? [Interruption.] Ministers say that those students got the right grades. I would recommend that they find the time later to visit the BBC website and read the comments of some of the students who have been affected. The words Xwhitewash" and Xsham" appear frequently. Many of those students may want their papers re-marked, not regraded, but their schools will be put off by the cost. Will the Government do the decent thing and pay for any re-marking that is demanded by those students?

Can the Secretary of State now clear up why an AS-level is worth 50 per cent of the marks when the exam board says that it constitutes less than half the work? The authorities said that the schools misunderstood the situation, which is a real insult to thousands of heads and teachers. Can she understand why two exams, each of which received 50 per cent. of the marks, might be regarded by reasonable people as being of equal weight?

The Secretary of State said that she has asked Mike Tomlinson to produce another report by next month. Will she now agree to a fuller review, completely independent of the Government, to look into the whole future of A-levels? Without that, the system will continue to fall under suspicion. The QCA's own task force will not be enough because by her actions the QCA has been proved to be simply an arm of Government.

The Secretary of State eventually apologised for the damage that the scandal has caused. For 50 years, A-levels served young people well, with all concerned regarding them as the gold standard for exams. Her place in history is secure as the Minister who destroyed that gold standard. No one doubts her integrity, her decency and her good intentions—but with that integrity and decency she has set up a system that has not worked, she has obstinately ignored advice that it would not work, she has tried to evade personal

15 Oct 2002 : Column 211

responsibility for the fiasco and she has failed to take the first step towards restoring confidence in the exam system, which is for her to resign.

Estelle Morris: I cannot believe that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) has just said that he wished that more students had received incorrect results. [Interruption.] That is essentially what he said. All those students who now know that the results they received in August were accurate should be pleased by that. The hon. Gentleman said that he wished that more had found out today that they had been given inaccurate results in August. That is not my view. The hon. Gentleman has spent so much time jumping on every passing bandwagon in the past few weeks that he has forgotten to read the reports that Mike Tomlinson has produced.

Let us be clear about what Mike Tomlinson said. Political interference in the exam system is a serious allegation. I said when I gave my first statement on the issue that not only had no political interference ever taken place under Labour Ministers but that I believed that it had never taken place under any Conservative Minister. Even if the Liberal Democrats were ever to get to be Education Ministers—[Interruption.] That is going too far and I withdraw that comment. Seriously, I believe that politicians are unanimous on the issue and not one of us—we are all committed to the education of our children—would dream of instructing the chief executive or the chairman of the QCA to fiddle the results. We did not. I had the decency to say that the hon. Gentleman and his party would not have done that, but he did not have the decency to say that we did not. Mike Tomlinson, who is impartial, has said that. Nobody accused us of doing so—not the Headmasters and Mistresses Conference, the Secondary Heads Association, or any of the other head teachers associations. Bill Stubbs said that there was no political interference. The allegations came from elsewhere, but Mike Tomlinson said, in any form of words that he could find, that there was no evidence, written or verbal, and no allegation that Ministers interfered. He concluded that there was no interference.

The problem now is not that you do not believe us or the integrity of our profession, but that you do not believe Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. On that you rest, and it is up to you to justify it—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The Secretary of State has forgotten herself for a moment. She must use the correct parliamentary language.

Hon. Members: Regrade her.

Estelle Morris: Only from A up to A*.

The hon. Member for Ashford spoke of an accident waiting to happen. Mike Tomlinson did say that in the press conference on 27 September. The position was that there were no subject-specific grade criteria and no clear, consistent view about the standard required. The statistical and practical issues had not been fully worked through. All those are responsibilities of the QCA.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 212

Because that infrastructure was not in place, it was, as Mike Tomlinson said, an accident waiting to happen. He also said that the chief executives of the three examining bodies believed that they were being put under further pressure. The three inadequacies in the infrastructure and the perceived pressure that I have described account for what went wrong this year.

I come now to the matter of timing. Mike Tomlinson said that the structure had been introduced too quickly, and I have said all along that I accept every one of his recommendations. I shall act on them, but I want to clarify the record in respect of the timing.

When this Government were elected in 1997, A and AS examinations had been consulted on already by the previous Administration. Those examinations derived from a report by Ron Dearing—an excellent man, and the report was not bad either. In those days, the Tories were committed to AS-levels. They want to withdraw them now, but that is a different matter.

We decided in 1997 to consult further on the matter. The previous Conservative Government might have introduced their proposals in 1997, but we delayed until 1999. We then consulted further. After that further consultation, we postponed the implementation of A and AS-level exams for a further year, to 2000. By that time, four years had passed since the publication of Ron Dearing's report on the wider curriculum for 16 to 18-year-olds.

I accept Mike Tomlinson's contention that a delay of three years rather than two might have prevented some problems. We intend to learn from that, but I want to say two things in that regard. We delayed introduction for two years after 1997 because of the results of consultation. No plea to delay introduction by another year was made to us, either in papers or correspondence from the QCA or as part of the consultation, and neither was any such plea made to us by any organisation representing head teachers. However, I accept Mike Tomlinson's report and, as I said in my statement, I believe that it is something of which Government should take note.

I come now to the important questions of compensation for students, and the QCA. Some students have been inconvenienced financially and made poorer by the extra accommodation, tuition and travel costs incurred when they chose to change universities. They will be reimbursed by a special fund being set up by my Department.

As for the QCA, the House should recall that it was set up by the previous Administration. Its impartiality has served the country well, but I accept that the time may have come when the public—and, more importantly, teachers, parents and students—want added safeguards to ensure that impartiality. That is why I welcome the decision by Ken Boston, in whom I have the greatest confidence, to establish what I might call a stakeholder body, involving head teachers and their representatives, to oversee the examinations to be held next January and June. Mike Tomlinson will monitor that body's work overall, and it will provide an added safeguard for next year's results.

However, Mike Tomlinson may say in November that further safeguards are needed, and he might make proposals to that effect. If so, we will adopt them. The Government have no interest in doing anything

15 Oct 2002 : Column 213

other than ensuring that the increased standards achieved by pupils, students and teachers over the past five years are supported by a robust examination system.

Next Section

IndexHome Page