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Let us have a comparison so that we can understand exactly what is happening. We would be happy to stand up and say that we had been proved wrong, but I suspect that we would be proved right in saying that GCSEs and A-levels have suffered. Is it right, in this day and age, that 90 per cent. of people taking GCSEs can
pass? There is something fundamentally wrong with that. If someone gets more things wrong than right, they should be heading towards a fail, not a pass, and they should not get a certain number of marks simply for turning up. My right hon. Friend made a valid point: unless we have such a comparison, how can we tell how we are doing in comparison with the people against whom we are competing? There are other yardsticks of measurement to say how we are doing in that competitive sphere, in the sense of who is taking our jobswho is coming to work in the UK.
People educated in the UK are finding it difficult to compete with those educated to the higher levels that we see abroad. That is why schools that choose to examine the current situation and are not happy with it are turning their backs on A-levels and GCSEs and looking towards the more independent, more respected and higher-standard international baccalaureate. I should declare an interest in that I was taught the international baccalaureate, and I believe that it is a superb system.
Mr. Ellwood: It was under a Tory Government and a Labour Government; I am afraid that I had to witness both. I am trying to stress that the levels of education that one receives from the baccalaureate are very different from those that one gets from GCSEs.
O-levels have not disappeared from the world that we live in. Someone who goes to an international school in Singapore can still take O-levelsthe same exam that many of us here in the Chamber took when we were at school. But if we get students doing GCSEs today to sit the O-levels in the same subjects, we will find that many of them cannot pass because of the difference between the two.
I echo the comments made by our Front-Bench team in pleading with the Government to be honest and give us an opportunity to judge and scrutinise the current situation. We are happy to be proved wrong, but I am convinced that we will be proved right. If we are, we owe it to education, our pupils today and the next generation, who will be competing in a very difficult world, to ensure that we have the right level of standards and that we do not have more and more grade inflation.
The provisions in the Bill to set up Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are central to our ambitious programme of education reform. They are part of ensuring that we deliver two things successfully. One is high-quality assessments and qualifications that enable all children and young people to gain the knowledge, understanding and skills that they need to play a full and active part in the economy and society. The other is adults who have, and can continue to develop, the skills that they need to succeed in the workplace.
We are changing the qualifications landscape and reforming assessmentsreforms that are more urgent and important than ever in the challenging economic circumstances that we face. At a time of qualification reform we need an anchor point, an expert body that people trust, as many hon. Members have said, and that gives us confidence in the standard of qualifications and assessments. That is what Ofqual will bea credible, authoritative regulator of the system. Fundamental to that credibility is the independence that is enshrined in the Bill, which I shall explain.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: There is no provision in the Bill for Government observers to attend the Ofqual board. If the board itself decided that it wished to have such observers, that would be entirely up to the board, but nothing in the Bill requires that.
Mr. Stuart: Am I right that the Minister has just said that there is a possibility that there will be departmental observers on the board of this supposedly independent guarantor of standards? She seemed to suggest that there could be observers if the board so decided. Perhaps she could tell us who will appoint the members of the board.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It will be a decision of the board whether it wishes to have independent observers. It will be an independent body, and there is nothing in the Bill that will require it to have Government observers on the board.
I return to a point that many hon. Members have made. We want to get away from that all-too-familiar footage on television every summer when exam and test results come outthe nervous teenagers approaching the board, the whoops of delight, and then immediately the cut-away to the dumbing-down debate. That is not fair on our young people, and it is not fair on teachers.
Mr. Gummer: I am sorry, but the Minister really cannot say that without accepting that if that body cannot compare standards with those abroad and those that we have had before, everybody will continue to believe that standards have fallen. It does not matter how independent it is; it must compare those standards and prove people wrong, or people will go on believing that and we will go on having the nervous scenes that we have had on YouTube and so on.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will explain what I believe will happen. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent Ofqual from making those comparisons, but we are not requiring it to do things in that way.
Mr. Ellwood: The Minister has been very generous, Madamsorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I am confusing genders. If there has been no grade inflation, why has it been necessary to introduce the A* grade, which I understand many universities are now obliging students to attain?
I was pleased to hear that the setting up of a strong and independent regulator has received widespread support. Most hon. Members in the Chamber would agree that that is needed, but there are inevitably some differences of opinion about exactly what Ofquals role should be. Two themes in particular attracted debate in Committee, and they are again the subject of amendments today: first, what Ofquals role as a standards watchdog meansthere seems to be some confusion about what is meant by the standards that Ofqual must maintainand secondly, what independence means. Ofqual must be free to take the decisions that it needs to take to maintain standards. It will report to Parliament on how it does so. However, that does not mean that Ofqual should operate without reference to matters that are at the heart of Government education policy, such as the content of GCSEs or the purpose of national curriculum assessments.
Let me take standards of qualifications first. We spent a good deal of time on that in Committee, and quite rightly so. Protecting standards is the key driver for the establishment of Ofqual. It is essential that we haveI am drawing on the wording of the Bill nowqualifications and assessments that give a reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding, and that indicate a consistent level of attainment, including over time. That needs an expert, independent regulator with the powers to ensure that qualification standards are maintained and the credibility so that people trust it when it provides that assurance.
The Bill has a range of provisions that are all about delivering on that, including objectives for Ofqual in respect of safeguarding the standards of qualifications and assessments; a power for Ofqual to set conditions that are binding on awarding bodies, so that Ofqual can have all the leverage that it needs to safeguard standards, coupled with a strong set of enforcement powers if an awarding body steps out of line; strong powers to regulate assessments; a reporting line to Parliament, not Ministers; and separation from the organisation that develops the curriculum and delivers and develops related qualifications or tests, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.
What we do not have, because there is no need for it, is anything in the Bill that tells Ofqual exactly what it should do to safeguard standards. The Bill makes it clear what Ofqual needs to achieve and how it will be held to account. The focus of the Bill is rightly on outcomes and accountability, not on process. Ofqual is not being told how to achieve its objectives. The starting
point is that we need to trust Ofqual to get on with the job that it is given and leave it to choose the right tools for doing just that.
We would certainly expect Ofqual to publish evidence underpinning its conclusions on the maintenance of standards andto pick up the point in new clause 2to consider lessons from other countries. Ofqual will be accountable to Parliament for the way it pursues its objectives, but we will not prejudge the best way for it to gather or present its evidence on qualification standards, or what it should publish and when. That should be Ofquals call. Parliament, not least through the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, will look to Ofqual for the definitive word on the quality of qualifications in this country. That is what the Bill enables. The Bill gives Ofqual all the powers that it needs to monitor those standards and pronounce its judgments on what it finds without fear or favour.
That is why I do not support amendments 61 to 63, 71 and 74 and new clause 2, which relate to standards. I agree with what I take to be the underlying sentiment of some of those amendmentsthat standards of qualifications need to be as high as ever they werebut we do not need amendments to the Bill to deliver on that. The Bill already gives all the safeguards that we need.
Given the time, I shall deal with Ofquals independence, on which our message is clear. To be an effective regulator, Ofqual must be fully independent. The acid test is whether Ofqual has the powers that it needs to meet its objectives, the freedom to exercise those powers and the responsibility to report to Parliament and the public on its performance against those objectives. The Bill meets that test in every respect. It has to; there would be no point in establishing Ofqual without making it fully and clearly independent. Being independent, Ofqual might sometimes say things that will be uncomfortable for the Government and others, as we found when it reported on science GCSEs a few weeks ago. Home truths
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