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16 Oct 2002 : Column 366—continued

6.38 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): What outsiders find puzzling about politics is how a debate that embraces a wide number of subjects and in which all Members are interested becomes so polarised. Those on one side make it clear that, as far as they are concerned, the starting date for everything wonderful about the education system happens to be 1997, and that nothing of any value occurred before then. Everybody in the real world understands that the process of government is continuous. All Governments do good things and less good things. The Labour Government have done some good things and less good things, and the same is true of previous Conservative Governments.

Obviously, an Opposition day debate puts into sharp focus the things that might be wrong. That is the purpose of opposition, but the point of the debate is not to denigrate everything in the education system but to focus criticism properly where it might be made. Some Labour Members have tended to take a blinkered view that there is only one starting date and that only one party cares about a particular topic. That runs counter to the intelligence of the population, who know that that is not true and that it is not the way to go about things.

As for criticising aspects of new Conservative policy, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and her colleagues might remember that some of the things that we had in our policy ideas box a few years ago are now the policy of the Labour party and the Labour Government. I enjoyed Prime Minister's Question Time today, at which the Prime Minister teased my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about completing the Thatcher revolution, when many members of the right hon. Gentleman's own party believe that he knows more about completing the Thatcher revolution than anyone on the Opposition Benches.

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I shall concentrate my remarks on the concern about examinations expressed in the Opposition motion. Three aspects cause me particular concern. I am puzzled about why the fuss about improvement—the higher quality of students and their grades—arose in the first place. I am concerned about the Government's role in understanding that the structure of the new examination would lead to problems. Finally, I am worried about the reasons why there should be any perception of Government interference in the process.

First, I am puzzled about why, when it emerged that A-level grades would be better than in the past, there was such an extraordinary panic among the Government and the examination boards. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made clear, the whole structure of the examination was designed so that hard-working pupils would achieve better grades. First, they were taking a public examination at the end of the first year of the sixth form, which had not previously taken place; secondly, the way in which the examination was structured and the modules introduced ensured that those who worked hard could count on reaching a basic standard, and that a significant improvement in grades was highly likely.

I should have thought that a Government who always castigate Opposition parties if they raise a scintilla of doubt about grade inflation would have spent the summer preparing the British public for a significant improvement in A-level grades and explaining precisely how that improvement, which I find entirely understandable, had come about. At what stage did someone suddenly think that it was a problem? I cannot understand that. The examination was set up and people worked harder, so grades should have been better—but at some stage somebody panicked. Why? We have never had a clear explanation.

The second source of my puzzlement and concern is how the Government could have known nothing about the way in which the very nature and structure of the examination would lead to higher grades and cause some of the problems on which Mike Tomlinson reported. How did they not know that that was going on? That is the most significant challenge facing the Government tonight.

The House debates many issues that affect people's lives only tangentially, but occasionally we do things that affect people on a personal level for the rest of their lives. In his eloquent and excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) described the personal difficulties affecting some of his constituents that will mark them for life. When a great principle goes wrong, the bottom line is that people are damaged. The Government cannot and should not walk away from their responsibility for that, and they will not do so. We have had only the first major report and this is only the first Commons debate, but there will be more, because the Government are responsible for real damage on this occasion.

First, how did the original intention behind the AS-level system—to broaden the post-16 curriculum and to have five subjects going down to three—get lost, so that it became four subjects going down to three? There is

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not much broadening in that. Was the upheaval really necessary if we were to have only four, not five, subjects initially? How did that come about? Who took that decision?

Secondly, the recommendation was that the relative weighting of AS and A2 should be 40:60, to acknowledge the fact that the first year examination must necessarily be easier because students had had only one year of study. Who took the decision to make the weighting 50:50? Name the Minister who took that decision and explain the reasoning that led to their failure to understand that that would cause the very inflation about which the Government are now concerned. Was it a wise decision, who took it, and why was the original 40:60 recommendation turned down?

Thirdly, there is the issue of where the grade boundaries should be set and the grades defined. As Mike Tomlinson reports, the system contains no definition of what constitutes an A-grade, a C-grade or an E-grade. How did that come about? Who failed to spot the omission? Which Minister was responsible? The QCA is not an independent organisation: it is accountable, not to Parliament, but to the Department for Education and Skills. How is it that throughout the years of development, the problem was not spotted?

Is it true that at a relatively early stage, in 1998 or 1999, meetings took place between Government advisers and representatives of the QCA—meetings at which senior officials from the DFES were present—during which the deficiencies in structure were brought out? If it is true, why were the problems not communicated to Ministers? Did they not know? Why did they not take responsibility?

Can Ministers explain how a school that knows what it is doing—of which there are thousands throughout the country— can produce a pupil who works hard and gets an A-grade on an examination, but receives a U-grade on a piece of coursework? How is that possible? We have had no explanation so far. We have raised all those issues, but received no answers—certainly not from the Secretary of State, who hardly mentioned the examinations issue.

The third source of puzzlement is the perception of what the Government wanted and the suspicion of interference. Could it be that in education, as in every other sphere of public service, nothing in this country moves unless the Government know all about it; and when things go their way, they claim credit, but when something goes wrong, their hands are snatched away as though they had had a collective electric shock, and it is all somebody else's fault? I can provide examples of that. We have not gone into the individual learning accounts scandal today, although the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned it and we could have explored it. A system was set up to help people to get back into the world of education, but they were let down because of chronic Government failure, for which Ministers have never taken responsibility.

When the Government manipulate access to university as they have been doing, is it any wonder that people suspect they might be guilty of manipulating the examination system as well? I agree with Mike Tomlinson that there is no evidence of direct ministerial interference, but everyone in the Chamber and outside can understand how such a perception might arise, given

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the fact of an interfering, manipulative, centralising, authoritarian, bullying Government. That is what the Government are, and that is why, when something goes wrong, people outside suspect that the Government had a hand in it.

If we are to move on, we have to recognise that the Government are at fault and Ministers have to acknowledge that. They have to explain how they knew nothing until we reached the current stage. They have to answer the questions that thousands of school pupils and their teachers are asking about how the individual who should be responsible can pass on that responsibility to others.

If we want to find a way out of the uncertainty and translate the good things that happen in some schools to schools throughout the country—as we all do, without exception and regardless of party—the one thing that is needed is certainty in the system. The Government are guilty of having failed the public: they have introduced uncertainty into the examination system, which has been thoroughly damaging to the chances of hundreds of thousands of this country's students. What is needed to restore that certainty are an independent inquiry into the examination system—including GCSEs as well as A-levels—and an independent QCA. If we can achieve those things, we might rescue something from the mess.

Finally, I want the Government to answer this question: if the boards' perception was that somebody somewhere wanted grades to be lowered, how did that perception come about? How was it communicated to them, or did they just make it up? How did Bill Stubbs come to perceive that the marks that pupils had worked hard to achieve and which the examinations had been constructed to create were wrong and had to be lowered? Was it the fairies, or did somebody somewhere give the boards a real sense that that had to be done? Bearing in mind the Government's track record, most of us know the answer.

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