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15 Oct 2002 : Column 213—continued

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which she has responded to a problem that has been very difficult for the Government. However, will she confirm that the staff at OCR has been completely absolved from any blame? That is important for me, as many of them are my constituents, and OCR is based in my constituency.

Estelle Morris: I appreciate my hon. Friend's constituency interest in that. Of course, OCR is an independent body, and it is for its members to read and absorb Mike Tomlinson's report. However, that report went no further than to examine the actions of OCR's chief executive and senior examiners. I hope that my hon. Friend can take some assurance from that, although I leave that to her sound judgment.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sighting of her statement and for her courage in coming to the House to deliver it.

Liberal Democrats remain committed to the A and AS process, although we accept Mike Tomlinson's comment that it was rushed and that the extra year would have made a significant difference. We also believe that it is essential that the QCA is not simply reformed but abolished in its current form and that we have an examination watchdog that is totally independent of the Department for Education and Skills. Without that, everything else will be considered a fudge.

We have had two months of sheer hell affecting tens of thousands of young people who were subjected to experimentation at every level of their school life, their teachers, their further education college lecturers and their parents. In that time, our examination system has become the laughing stock of Europe and, indeed, the world. Yet now it appears that nothing happened and that all is well. It appears that either the shy and retiring Sir William Stubbs panicked when he discovered that this year's results were 0.3 per cent. out of line with his predictions and forced the exam boards to redraw the grade boundaries or that this year's students at AS and A2-level had a universal dip in performance, not when they sat their exams, handed in their course work or when their work was marked, but when their papers were graded. That is the sum comment of the Secretary of State today.

Far from restoring confidence, today's statement merely adds to the belief that the dead hand of Government was behind this debacle. We are delighted that 1,953 students have received positive regradings today, but tens of thousands have been left wondering Xwhat if?" Is the Secretary of State prepared to publish the numbers of students who would have gained different grades on the original grade boundaries? That set of statistics is crucial in determining where the fiddling went on.

At the heart of this fiasco is the question of standards, particularly that of maintaining the gold standard at A-level. Does the Secretary of State accept that simply

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using the word Xstandards" again and again without defining what it means has contributed in large part to the chaos? Does she agree with the QCA, which clearly thought that it meant limiting the number of students achieving certain grades, or does she agree with the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who told the QCA last week that this definition

The Government are right to maintain standards vigorously but they have no right whatever to determine how many students meet those standards. However, that is the impression that is abroad this year.

This statement speaks volumes. It speaks of a Secretary of State who panics every time bad news arrives and does not have the guts to say to No. 10 that running scared of criticism is no way to run a Government. Does she accept that No. 10 would not sanction charges of grade inflation, and that is what really lies behind this sorry saga? Will she confirm that in her Department's media plan, agreed with No. 10, deflecting accusations of grade inflation came near the top of the list of priorities for July and August? Will she confirm that the press releases issued on 14 August by QCA and 15 August by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), along with numerous articles about gold standards, were all planned in advance to head off criticism of grade inflation? Will she admit that her Department created such a climate of paranoia over maintaining the gold standard that this year's fiasco became inevitable?

In short, the Secretary of State is responsible for this year's A-level fiasco and she must apologise to the 90,000 students who feel that they have cheated.

Estelle Morris: I suppose that one of the advantages, or disadvantages, of being in perpetual opposition is that one can change one's mind about six times a day. To be honest, in the past few weeks, the hon. Gentleman has been changing his mind between the XToday" programme and XWorld at One", but so be it.

On the grading question, I am a mite cross with the hon. Gentleman at this point in time. Let us just think about it. In August, we were accused of grade inflation. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who speaks for the Conservatives, went on the XToday" programme followed by XWorld at One" to say the same thing, unlike the Liberal Democrats, and I grant him that—that given that A-level grades had improved, we must immediately have a thorough inquiry into the exam system. He did not congratulate the students and teachers on working harder and learning more effectively; he said that there must be something wrong with the system because the results had improved. Mike Tomlinson actually reports that at the root of the problem, at every level of society, is an unwillingness to believe that, year on year, our children can learn more effectively, students can get better and teachers can teach more effectively. Having heard that in August, in September the Government were accused of grade deflation. All of a sudden, rather than making the exams easier, to get better results, we had made the exams more difficult to get the grades lower. That is the complexity of the situation.

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The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is usually generous of spirit and, with Labour Members, he usually gives due recognition to the achievements of youngsters in August when the results are announced. He always does so. He will know, therefore, that maintaining that their grades are due to the fact that they had worked harder and achieved more is a pretty difficult task. That is why we are prepared to assure the nation that there has been no political interference in the setting of grade boundaries or anything else; it is no more and no less than the result of the hard work of our teachers and pupils.

What is sad about what the Opposition spokesman and the hon. Gentleman have been saying today is that we set up an independent inquiry and, in effect, they have both said that they do not trust its results. They must think about the message that that gives to head teachers, parents and students. Both the hon. Gentlemen are still saying that there has been political interference in the setting of exam grades this year. There has not been—no evidence of that has been found—and while the Labour party is in power, there never will be. I also repeat that I do not believe that there ever would be were any other party in power.

Opposition Members have a choice. They can continue to play politics with that accusation or they can think carefully about the implications that it has for teachers and the students who are now studying for next year's examinations. No matter whether hon. Members believe us or Mike Tomlinson, the key thing about the report today is that every single organisation of head teachers that brought the original complaint, both from the maintained and the independent sectors, has signed up to say that the process undergone during the past few weeks has been robust, that they trust it, that it is fair, that they think that students now have the right grades and that they want to get on with teaching and learning. I back them. I certainly do not back the hon. Member for Ashford.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must inform the House that many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Could we please have shorter questions and, hopefully, shorter answers too? I call the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller).

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Does my right hon. Friend yet have enough information at her disposal to determine whether the papers that were wrongly marked were in one geographical area, or were spread about? Has she been able to draw any conclusions from that data yet?

Estelle Morris: No, I have not. The list of units—we must remember that they are units and not full subjects—were published and have again been published today for anyone who wishes to look at them. It would depend on which schools in which geographical areas tended to choose OCR as an examining body. I

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cannot give my hon. Friend a geographical make-up, but all the units that were regraded were from OCR, not from the other two examining bodies.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): Does the Secretary of State now accept with the benefit of hindsight that, despite the delay and the consultation, this problem had its origins in the way in which AS-levels were introduced, when the first warnings of grading problems were issued? Obviously, she has only a few weeks to ensure the credibility of next year's system, but when she considers her longer term duty of restoring the reputation and status of A-levels will she no longer rule out abandoning the AS experiment, which has contributed to this problem and caused endless other problems inside schools too?

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