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Standing Committee G
Thursday 24 January 2002
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Amendments of part 5 of Education Act 1997
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 560, in page 176, line 36, leave out paragraph 1.—[Mr. Brady.]
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 561, in page 177, line 2, at end insert—
No. 562, in page 177, line 4, leave out 'excessive' and insert—
No. 563, in page 177, line 8, after 'approve', insert—
'(including terms of payment)'.
No. 564, in page 177, line 14, at end insert—
'''(3B) Where the Authority shall exercise its powers later than at the time of accreditation, it shall give not less than 180 days notice of such changes to the producer of such qualification.''.'.
No. 565, in page 177, line 14, at end insert—
' ''(3C) Where the Authority shall exercise its powers later than at the time of accreditation the Authority shall bear the costs of any such changes, to the awarding body or educational institutions.''.'.
No. 566, in page 177, line 22, leave out subparagraph (ii).
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Amendment No. 565 follows logically from the thrust of my argument on the other amendments, especially No. 564.
It is reasonable to build in a period of notice in the event that an accreditation is removed during a course of study leading up to an examination or qualification. It is also reasonable that where accreditation is removed during a course of study, the costs should be borne by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority rather than by the awarding body, school or educational institution that is involved in teaching that course of study.
Amendment No. 566 is designed to probe the Minister's intentions behind the broad rights of entry in the provisions that extend as far as allowing unfettered rights of entry when determining a reasonable fee. Subsection (2) should be deleted, thereby constraining the powers of entry to a certain extent. Although inspectors could enter the premises of an awarding body to satisfy themselves that the appropriate standards were being maintained in relation to the award or authentication of a qualification, they could not enter and have unfettered access to the awarding body's accounts and confidential papers.
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It seems extreme to take powers to allow the QCA powers of entry to crawl all over the books of an awarding body to decide an appropriate fee for a qualification. That suggests that the Government believe that we are moving towards a single awarding body rather than several competing awarding bodies that can keep the fee under control through normal competition in the marketplace. We shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I should like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) in these proposals, particularly in so far as they are designed to probe the Government's intentions regarding competition between examining bodies and any intention they may have either of maintaining standards or of driving down prices by unifying the examining board as is the case in Scotland.
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills will be aware of cases that I have brought to his attention concerning the Edexcel examining board—in particular, its history syllabus 9267. I thank him for his responses to the concerns of my constituents and of the staff at Carisbrooke high school in my constituency who have had extraordinary difficulties with the board.
Thirty-six of the school's students took the history exam at advanced level in June 2001. If it is any comfort to my hon. Friend, I may tell him that I obtained a grade E in A-level history—it was, of course, much more difficult then. The pupils got worse results than expected, but most of them got good results in politics, which was taught by the same teacher. They launched an appeal on 19 August and were told that they would receive a reply within 20 to 30 working days. After 59 days, no response had been received. During that time, candidates of course suffer the danger of having their university applications rejected and their places given to someone else.
The lesson here is the inability of Ministers, despite their best endeavours, to offer any comfort. The Minister said that his officials had been in touch with the Joint Council for General Qualifications and he understood that the report on appeals would not be coming out until March 2002; that it would not contain the information that parents wanted; and that
''It is at the discretion of Edexcel to make such information public and I have been advised that they have no plans to do so''.
That seems extraordinary. I recall that when Sir Keith Joseph was Secretary of State the only power he had over examining bodies was to sign the certificates at O-level and A-level. On the back of that, he was able to introduce GCSEs. The lesson that some would draw is that we must have a single examining body under state control. That is not my conclusion—and I am glad to see the Minister shaking his head—because the clear message from Mary Hoather, the head teacher at the school, in her letter of 17 January to the chief executive of Edexcel is
''Clearly our frustration and anger has made us change examination board for our history examinations in future and is making us consider seriously for other subjects''.
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In other words, the market is working. It would work a great deal better if there were not only three examination boards for England. It would work better still were people able to recognise openly that the standards of some examining boards are slightly higher than others.
I remember from my schooldays our slight criticism of those who took Associated Examining Board examinations rather than Oxford and Cambridge examinations, because we felt the standards were not the same. I am sure that that was recognised also by higher and further education institutions. I do not agree that there is competition to drive down standards, as long as there is transparency about which board issued the certificates. I hope that the Minister will assure me that there is no agenda to unify the examination under state control as has so lamentably happened in Scotland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): May I take this opportunity for the last time to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) shared his history grade with the Committee: that might explain his distorted view of the previous Government's record—[Laughter.]—or perhaps not.
The comments on Edexcel underline the importance of the relationship between the QCA and the examination boards. The impact that such events have on students and their families is traumatic and stressful, and we should not understate the effect on those individuals. However, we should not exaggerate the problem and give the impression that the examination system is on the verge of collapse. If serious mistakes are made in a couple of examination situations, we have a responsibility to maintain an appropriate, balanced reaction.
Edexcel experienced difficulties during the curriculum 2000 reforms. The Government responded by asking the QCA to audit that examination board, and to report on the reasons for those weaknesses and failings. That report will be published soon, and will be a public document. MPs and others will be able to examine the reasons for those difficulties and the QCA's recommendations for putting them right.
The QCA has placed its head of quality assurance at Edexcel, to ensure that performance improves immediately. It is important that none of the mistakes be repeated when students take their exams in the summer. Committee members were right to express concern, but we should have a proportionate, responsible response. The conclusion that we make about the difficulties of one examination board should not lead us to believe that the best solution is to create a monopoly provider. That is not the Government's position.
It is appropriate to have choice and diversity, but we cannot tolerate too many failures of the kind that have occurred. It is important that the QCA use its powers. The amendments concern the relationship
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between the QCA and the examination boards. That underlines the importance of the QCA's role as a regulator of the performance and standards of the examination boards, and its powers of intervention when mistakes are made.
Most of the amendments have reasonable objectives, although they are not necessary or desirable. Amendment No. 560 would remove the paragraph enabling the QCA to devise and apply criteria that would limit the number of qualifications in similar subjects or functions that it accredits. We consider that paragraph very important. We intend to have a robust and transparent framework of worthwhile qualifications that can be easily understood by users and the general public.
It is also important that learning and training needs in that context are fully addressed. Equally importantly, public choice and confidence may well be improved if the number of qualifications is reduced, and the unnecessary overlap and duplication in provision is eliminated. We believe that it is a sensible power to give the QCA when the qualifications framework is not actually supporting the objectives of raising standards and making things clear for students, when it is confusing, when it is unwieldy and when there is unnecessary duplication. We believe that it is appropriate to ensure that the QCA can intervene in those circumstances to streamline and rationalise in a reasonable way. We believe that the majority of people would support its having that reasonable power.
Over the past two years, the QCA has undertaken a substantial programme of accrediting qualifications up to and including level 3. It has accredited more than 3,000 qualifications. In many areas, we have the qualifications that we need, but there is a doubt about whether the QCA and its sister regulatory authorities can legally deny accreditation to qualifications that may otherwise be sound but may unnecessarily increase provision in particular subjects. If we are to avoid an undesirable proliferation of qualifications, it is important that the QCA should be able to have the power and the criteria to deal specifically with the issue of excessive numbers of qualifications. For that reason, we do not believe that amendment No. 562, which would replace ''excessive'' with ''reasonable'', would be helpful.