Damian Hinds: The hon. Gentleman is, of course, extremely experienced in and knowledgeable about these matters, but does he know of evidence that suggests that the fourth AS-level tends to be a hard subject

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rather than one of the subjects that some people would consider to be less hard? Or is it the opposite?

Nic Dakin: For a start, when we are dealing with young people, we are dealing with a collection of individual choices. In my experience, as someone who has spent a lot of time advising young people and encouraging them to make choices, if they are focusing on three subjects, languages are often vulnerable to not being tried. What turns out to be someone’s fourth subject—the one they drop down to AS—might not have been their fourth subject when they picked it. We can play around with statistics, but what is important is the impact on the young person at the point of choice, when they decide on their post-16 programme. Being able to do four AS-levels and then either take all four through to full A-levels or to bank one, increases the flexibility of choice, minimises risk and encourages people to take subjects that would be beneficial to them—mathematics, for instance.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend knows what he is talking about, and the Association of Colleges backs what he says. In the briefing for this debate the association states that

“the removal of the AS as a stepping-stone may well reduce the take-up of subjects which are regarded as significantly harder at A-level than at GCSE,”

in particular,

“maths and modern languages.”

Damian Hinds: My question was about what the evidence was, not the effect.

Nic Dakin: The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is nothing if not persistent in asking questions that it is right and proper to ask and to answer, but evidence in this area is complex, as I hope I have illustrated.

When the Secretary of State says that he will divorce AS-levels from A-levels, but will retain AS-levels because he is “keen to preserve” breadth, he demonstrates that he is a master of irony. All the evidence of the past—and of the present—is that that will do exactly the opposite. The change will map on to the narrowing of the curriculum being driven forward by the EBacc in key stage 4, and with the focus on facilitating subjects post-16, it will ensure that the UK moves backwards, to pursue a narrow curriculum prescribed by a nanny-state Government who know best. The Minister shakes his head, but in reality the proposal is about the imposition of a centralised curriculum, compared with the move towards the personalisation of the curriculum over the past few years, which takes the individual forward, within a proper framework, in a direction that drives achievement and progression. It is a personalised curriculum that has been building the success fit for competing in the modern world, and that is what we really need.

Seema Malhotra: Does my hon. Friend agree that a narrowing of opportunity would have an impact on the life chances of many of our young people? It would, I am sure, be unintended, but it would be a consequence of the proposed changes.

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Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and therein lies the real risk. My fear is that we have a series of changes—and divorcing the AS from the A-level is a significant one—that will increase student failure and make the UK less ready to compete globally. We will rue the day if the Government do not think carefully and consider the evidence that is presented to them. For example, David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, wrote to the Secretary of State:

“Our curriculum leaders, and the clear majority of teaching professionals and college and school leaders believe that the AS qualification should be retained in its current form. We also believe AS has the support of a very large number of academics and admission tutors”.

Of 780,000 A-level entries, 439,000 were in sixth-form colleges, so such people know what they are talking about.

The Secretary of State rightly sets great store by the needs of the Russell Group universities. They are great universities, of which we are rightly proud, but they hardly struggle to recruit or compete. That is a good thing, but focusing on their needs to the detriment of everyone else’s might not only be flattering—and embarrassing —to them but might be trying to fix a problem that does not exist. Out of more than 300 institutions listed by UCAS, only 24 are Russell Group universities, and all those institutions and their students matter to UK plc.

Damian Hinds: Does the hon. Gentleman recall the meetings that he, I, and others in the Chamber attended, in which we met representatives of some of those universities who did not seem to think that there was a problem that did not exist?

Nic Dakin: I do not recall their outlining a problem that does exist, and certainly not one that would be solved by the proposal. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has already mentioned the serious concerns of Cambridge university about the impact of the change.

Seema Malhotra: I thank my hon. Friend for being extremely generous in giving way again. Does he agree that the Secretary of State’s original claim that the university of Cambridge backed his reform plans backfired when a petition was handed in to his Department, signed by 1,600 students and faculty members who were saying no to the proposals and disputing the fact that they had supported him? When students and faculty send the same message, it is a strong message.

Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend makes the point for me. Indeed, all those students and staff related to the university of Cambridge make the point for her and for themselves. I think that the Minister is listening today, and I hope that it is active listening so that we can get a better outcome for young people.

Kevin Brennan: If my hon. Friend is right that the Secretary of State has claimed that, it is very odd, because Cambridge university, in a letter from Dr Geoff Parks, the director of admissions, wrote to him on 12 July 2010:

“We are worried…if AS-level disappears we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade.”

That was in July 2010.

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Nic Dakin: Cambridge university’s points are very much on the record. I am sure that we are all listening and will want to take them into account as policy is driven forward.

Universities UK has drawn attention to the importance of AS-level grades as criteria in the admissions process, and stated that that is particularly important for the most selective institutions and for courses with a large proportion of applicants with very similar predicted A-level grades, which is a practical reason for AS-levels to remain. It has concerns about the impact on widening participation, both because without AS-level grades an increased emphasis on more subjective measures is likely—such as predicted grades and school references that might disadvantage some applicant groups—and because AS-level grades can boost confidence in candidates from low participation backgrounds. I have certainly seen the impact of grades boosting confidence and aspiration at the end of the first year, so I think that Universities UK is on to something. It also thinks that the removal of AS-levels as a stepping stone towards full A-levels may result in students being less likely to take risks with subjects that are perceived to be hard. It lists sciences, in addition to languages and maths, which I have already mentioned, so it is on the same page as me.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has said a great deal about the changes to GCSEs and to AS and A-levels coming in at the same time in 2015. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) drew attention to Glenys Stacey’s letter, in which she says that that will be

“challenging for exam boards and for Ofqual.”

It will also be challenging for schools, colleges, teachers and young people themselves. It may well be best for the Government to think about the students taking the new A-level for the first time who, after all, will have done the old GCSE. It is important to see curriculum progression so that one qualification leads to another. Where there is a dislocation in qualifications, there is a real danger that young people will fall through the gaps, and nobody wishes that to happen.

The points about bringing all the changes in at the same time have been well made. I know, from having led a college for many years, that the need to use resources to prepare new courses, teaching methods and the curriculum is a massive ask of institutions. It is an appropriate ask of institutions, but for all that to happen at exactly the same time would mean that the challenge was at its highest. It is what we might wish, but not how we would normally plan future programmes to get the best out project: this is really a project planning issue.

I have mentioned most of the things I wished to mention, but I want to come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, who alluded to the fact that the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) had said that it is important to listen to the siren voices. It is better to listen to them when they are there than to hit the rocks, frankly, and I hope that the Minister and the Government are so listening.

I will close by quoting Toni Pearce, the newly elected president of the National Union of Students. She will be the first NUS president from a further education rather than a higher education background, so I am sure

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everyone here wants to congratulate her. We will answer want to listen to her voice, because she comes from the sector that is experiencing the post-16 environment. She said that the Secretary of State’s

“proposed AS-Level and A Level reforms are entirely misguided, and would risk greatly undermining fair access to A Levels, to higher education and to other further education qualifications. The idea that the Russell Group which represents a small group of very particular universities should be given particular prominence in determining the make-up of these qualifications is nonsensical, and is opposed even by institutions that they represent. When it comes to these muddled proposals, Michael Gove could really benefit from a re-sit.”

Let us hope that he is re-sitting and listening, and that he does not hit the rocks.

3.44 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate. You pointed out at the beginning that the clock is an hour behind, and it is probably appropriate to our debate on education policy that the clock has been turned back, because that is exactly what is happening in what we are discussing. [Interruption.] I remind the Minister for Schools that the best humour is always recycled.

As someone who sat A-levels, like most people in this room, and who has taught and marked A-levels and set an A-level examination syllabus, I could say a lot of things and make many general points about A-levels and their history. Those points include those made today about the Government’s reforms, such as the speed of change and the political timetable—that was the phrase of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, I think, not mine—that they are being driven to.

There is the point about not reforming all A-levels at the same time, which is a ludicrous thing to do. The Government should take the time to do it properly and in all subjects, not have a two-tier approach to reform. Ofqual has leavened that a little by introducing a few more subjects, including one of the two subjects that I used to teach at A-level—economics—in which the Minister for Schools has a double first from Cambridge university. They have been added to the list, but nevertheless there is still a two-tier process in the reforms of A-levels, which is ludicrous.

There is the fixation on core subjects, and the lack of focus in the proposals on those not progressing to university. The Government seem to assume that A-levels exist only for the purpose of getting into university, which is of course a parody of the reality. That may be the experience of 100% of Ministers, but not the experience of 100% of youngsters sitting A-levels in the country, to which we might have thought that Ministers would pay some attention.

There is the elbowing out of non-Russell Group universities. It seems to me that the Government are almost trying to create a tier of polytechnics—ironically, since the Conservatives abolished them, they now seem to be absolutely determined to have a first division red-brick and sandstone university sector and a polytechnic

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sector. Why do they not just rename them polytechnics, if that is the Government’s real intention and what they are about?

There is the silly attitude towards methods of assessment. It is an absolutely daft attitude to think that all the different subjects, knowledge and skills—believe it or not—that are required to pass A-levels can be assessed in final examinations. There is the silly interference with question design by Ministers, which is absolutely ludicrous. Anyone who had taught in a classroom for one minute, even at A-level, would know that there is a wide range of mixed abilities among students taking A-levels. Getting them into the exam so that they can show what they know is also important: as well as supplying stretch to the most able, a way into the examination has to be supplied for many students.

There are also all the resulting timetabling issues—obviously, none of the Ministers has tried to write or put together a timetable—and the proposals are absolutely ludicrous. Everybody in the profession is telling them that, but they are not listening. I could go on and on, but I want to focus on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), once I have congratulated my hon. Friends the Member for Feltham and Heston, for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on their speeches, and congratulated the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who did not venture a speech, but has made some intelligent interjections to help us along in the debate.

I want to focus on the AS-level. It is only fair at the outset to make it clear that we regard the decision to divorce AS-levels from A-levels as one of the least evidence-based, most captious and casually damaging decisions that the Secretary of State for Education has taken so far. It is therefore only fair clearly to signal to everyone here and to the education world that we will not implement it. We will re-couple AS-levels and A-levels in September 2015, after the next general election.

Nobody outside the bunker in Sanctuary buildings thinks that divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is a good idea. I doubt whether even the part-time Minister for Schools—he does not have exams or the curriculum on his list of responsibilities but is here today because the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is away on a foreign trip—thinks that it is a good idea, although he will tell us that it is because he has to perform his role as the Secretary of State’s flexible friend. I cannot really believe that he genuinely thinks that that is the case, but while we have him here, I ask him to listen and to look again at the decision that has been taken.

When the Under-Secretary announced the measure in the House, she tried to give the impression that she had support for the divorce. When I pointed out to her that she did not, she grandstanded, and tried to give the impression that she had the support of the Russell Group universities. Let me remind Members what the group actually said:

“The current AS-level provides a useful indicator of progress, which is invaluable for university admissions. We worry that without these results universities will have to place more emphasis on A-level predicted grades—of which more than half are wrong—

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school references or older GCSE grades. From our experience these are less reliable and would unduly prejudice disadvantaged students who receive less help when applying to university.”

Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that that is exactly what the 1994 Group and Universities UK have said. As I pointed out to the Under-Secretary at the time, the most trenchant opposition to these proposals came from not the Labour party, the National Union of Teachers or even from the “The Blob”, as the Secretary of State likes to refer to those educationists who study these subjects and spend their time doing research into education matters, but the admissions tutors in the university of Cambridge.

The Minister will be aware that, as long ago as July 2010, Cambridge university’s director of admissions, Geoff Parks, wrote to the Secretary of State, warning him that he could lose many gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that had been made in the past decade. He went on to add that it was no coincidence that

“our utilisation of AS scores as a core component of admissions decisions has been accompanied by a noticeable reduction in the number of complaints we have received from schools and colleges about the fairness of our selection process. The same period has also seen marked improvement in Cambridge examination performance.”

So it is good for students; good for fair access and good for Cambridge university, according to the admissions tutors, but what do they know?

The Minister will also be aware of the research that was undertaken by the Cambridge university general admission research working party, which found that AS-level grades were easily the best predictions for degree performance, proving to be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston said, “sound verging on excellent”, and that was in every subject, bar maths, where the sixth term examination paper was better.

It is not surprising that 40 Cambridge admissions tutors signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph, which was published on 30 January, a week after the announcement was made, calling for the reversal of the decision. In their letter, they said:

“Good results give students from all backgrounds the confidence to compete for a place at highly selective universities, including our own. They reduce reliance upon grade predictions and enable schools to hold the line in the face of pressure to raise predicted grades unrealistically.”

Anyone who has ever taught in a sixth form or college will be aware of the pressure from pupils and parents to raise A-level grade predictions. It is sometimes difficult for teachers to hold the line, which might be why those predictions are not always particularly accurate, as the Government’s own studies have shown. They are particularly inaccurate about those from less affluent backgrounds or ethnic minorities. Heavy pressure is often put on teachers in relation to predicted grades. With the AS-level, there is no argument. There is a public examination, which is externally assessed, marked and a grade awarded.

The admissions tutors finished that letter to The Daily Telegraph by saying:

“If AS levels disappear, university entry will become less fair.”

They were referring to the divorcing of the AS-level from the A-level.

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Nic Dakin: Given that my hon. Friend has stated so clearly the value of this benchmark, can he see any reason for getting rid of it?

Kevin Brennan: Apart from the strange explanations that we get from Ministers about trying to free up some time for people to do other things in year 12, the only reason that I have heard is that it relates to the experience of the Ministers in the Department and that they want to go back to the good old days when four out of five of them were in private school doing their A-levels. Perhaps they think, “It was good enough for me; why shouldn’t it be good enough for everyone else?” If that is what they are doing, they are ignoring the evidence.

I challenge the Minister today as someone who says that he is committed to fairness, who is a Liberal Democrat Minister, who has enjoyed the privilege of a fee-paying education and a Cambridge university education and who claims to be committed to social justice. How can he defend this policy in the light of the clear and thoroughly researched evidence that it will result in university entry becoming less fair?

Damian Hinds: We must be a little bit careful with this widening participation and access argument. Although it is undeniably true that many more young people have gone to university in the past 10 years, the figures show that the intake of the most selective universities has changed very little by comparison. Of course it is a very good thing that more young people have gone to those universities, but we must not confuse the two things and say that AS-levels have been a force that has made Cambridge university much more open.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Cambridge has been the university that has most used AS-levels to bring about widening access. It can show that it has widened access as a result of them in the past 10 years. If he wants to challenge the admissions tutors on the claim that they have successfully widened access through the use of AS-levels, he is free to do so. They are absolutely clear about it and say that if AS-levels disappear, university entry will become less fair. The Minister must answer that point. So far, Ministers have failed to answer it, or to explain why they are persisting with the policy.

In any case, the Government accept that Cambridge is right, and presumably that the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the National Union of Students, the teachers and head teachers associations and we, God forbid, are right about the usefulness of AS-levels. Nevertheless, the Government will proceed with the damaging and unnecessary divorce of AS-levels from A-levels. Like the EBacc certificates, no one supports the move. The Government quite rightly abandoned their proposals on the EBacc. The Minister might well have had an influence on that decision. Who knows? It happened to coincide with his appointment to the Department. As I said earlier, we will not proceed with the divorce of the AS-level from the A-level, and everyone should be aware of that.

Pat Glass: We have had people with huge expertise coming to us and saying that this is the wrong thing to do. The only other area where we have seen such an

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overwhelming objection has been to the proposed changes to GCSEs. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, because the Government ultimately took the right decision in that area.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is right. The Secretary of State has had to issue a direction to Ofqual in relation to this proposal, because everyone thinks that it is nonsense, and it was confirmed in parliamentary answers to me that he had to issue a direction. On 31 January, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask what assessment Ministers had made of the recent Cambridge university admissions research working party study of AS-level as a predictor, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk, said that she had “reflected on” the study. So, she had reflected on it and she agreed that AS-levels were

“a useful aid for university admissions”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 887W.]

So the Government agree with everybody that AS-levels are a “useful aid” for admissions. They know what the research is, and they have reflected on it.

Seema Malhotra: In the spirit of reflection, I was reflecting myself on the list of organisations that my hon. Friend gave that are opposed to these changes. Does he agree that it is quite staggering and quite concerning that no real evidence has been put forward for this change?

Kevin Brennan: I might have found it staggering some time ago; I am afraid that I no longer find it staggering when the Department for Education proposes major changes for which there is no evidence. However, I should retain my surprise at its happening, because it is staggering when something is introduced simply because the Secretary of State believes—on a whim—that it ought to happen and when there is no evidence that it should happen, despite the fact that I am sure that he has layers and layers of submissions from his civil servants that point out the opposition to the proposals. But he does not listen to his civil servants; I am afraid that he only listens to his odious special advisers on education policy, and that is possibly the reason why the Government are proceeding with this change.

The Minister for Schools has a chance to do what is right, to go to the Secretary of State and to reflect a little himself on these proposals; he should speak to the Secretary of State and try to make him listen to the evidence and see reason. If the Secretary of State will not listen to that evidence or to the Minister, perhaps the only person that he will listen to is himself, because back in 2010 he made it clear to Ofqual that, to quote from Ofqual’s briefing, he wanted A-levels to serve their purpose as

“one of the selection tools used by HE”—

that is, by higher education—

“to identify the most suitable and best students for their courses”.

We know that the AS-level is the best exam tool to serve that purpose; at least, that is what the evidence shows. It should be used more, not less, for that purpose and yet the Secretary of State is determined to discard it. We will not discard it, and he should not discard it.

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Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I inform Members who have just joined us that we will finish this debate at 4.25 pm.

4.3 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate and on putting her case so clearly and in such a measured way. I am also pleased that we have had useful and helpful contributions from a number of other Members, including members of the Education Committee.

A lot of the contributions have pointed out that some of the proposals that we are discussing are controversial, and clearly they are. We are aware of a lot of the feedback that has come in from different organisations. Sometimes when Governments go out to consultation on particular proposals, they realise that they have made mistakes and they change the proposals. As a number of Members have indicated, we did that on the reforms to GCSEs that we had proposed, but I should say to those Members who have at times today suggested that popularity is the benchmark for introducing policies and the ultimate test that there are many other examples of changes in education and in other Government policy areas where proposals were extremely controversial at the time—I am thinking of key stage 2 national tests, the introduction of Ofsted and sponsored academies—and not welcomed by many in the relevant sector when they were introduced that have proven to be generally very successful and which are now welcomed. The consensus changes.

If we wanted an example of what happens when policy is introduced just on the basis of what is popular with the sector, we have Wales to look at. Wales has introduced, over time, many policies that were extremely popular in the sector, but which have proven, in many cases, to do huge damage to the quality of education in Wales. That is now widely and internationally recognised.

Pat Glass: Does the Minister accept that although those controversial reforms that he mentioned, such as the introduction of Ofsted and key stage 2 tests, may have been unpopular with some people working in education, there was nevertheless a body of evidence to support their introduction? Therefore, although they were perhaps controversial, there was huge evidence behind them, and they have subsequently proven the evidence.

Mr Laws: That was not said by many of the opponents of those proposals at the time. Actually, many opponents, including to sponsored academies, continue to maintain today that there is no evidence to show the success of those policies, so I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the issue is as simple as that.

Seema Malhotra: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Laws: If I may, I will make a little progress and then give way to the hon. Lady. I want to ensure that I get my speech under way.

As the key qualification for progression to university and as a key end-of-school qualification in and of its own right, A-levels have to be robust and to be rigorous,

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as was pointed out earlier. They need to compare well with the best qualifications internationally; they need to help our young people to compete with students from other countries for university places in the UK and abroad; they need to give pupils the best possible preparation for further study, teaching the core knowledge and skills that young people need to make the most of an undergraduate course; and they need to be—as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the shadow Schools Minister, indicated earlier—strong qualifications in their own right, providing test and challenge at the end of the school or college experience.

Our reforms for 16-to-18 education build on the reforms that we are making to the national curriculum, secondary accountability and GCSEs. Our proposals in those areas, which are out for consultation until 1 May, are to publish an average point score measure and a value-added progress measure covering English and mathematics, three of the EBacc subjects and three additional slots for other subjects that can be academic, arts or vocational qualifications. As the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston will know, the progress measure will be part of the floor standard. Those reforms will place a strong focus on English and maths while ensuring that students have a rounded knowledge of sciences, languages, humanities and the arts. There will also be a stronger emphasis on computer science and programming.

Our reforms of A-levels are designed to build on that strong base. We want to give students a better experience of post-16 study, ensuring they are studying for rigorous qualifications that will provide them with the right skills and knowledge to allow them to progress. Students currently start A-levels in September and then they immediately start preparing for examinations in January. They and their teachers have spent too much time thinking about exams and re-sitting them, encouraging in some cases a “learn and forget” approach. A student taking A-level maths would need to sit six exams: three papers for their AS-level, and three for their A2. The old rules allowed multiple re-sitting of those papers, so a student might sit some papers in January, and if they wanted to improve their grades they could re-sit them in June and again the following year, while sitting and then re-sitting their A2 papers. In 2010, 74% of maths A-level students re-sat at least one paper.

During the past few years, too many students in our schools system have spent too long preparing for and taking tests in years 10, 11, 12 and 13. During the past decade, we have been in danger of creating an “exam factory” in our schools, particularly in the last four years of education, rather than creating places of deep learning where teachers and students are given the time and space to develop deep knowledge of subjects, rather than just preparing constantly for public examinations. That is one of the key reasons why the Government are making the changes that we are debating today.

The focus that there has been on exams in every one of those final four years of school education can lead to young people failing to deliver and develop that deep understanding of their subject, and to their failing to make connections between topics. Re-sits have also led to too much teaching time being sacrificed for assessment preparation. Research—hon. Members have said that they are keen on it—from Durham university and Cambridge Assessment suggests that repeated opportunities for students to re-sit exams have also risked a form of

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grade inflation. This is why our reforms to A-levels are so important. Ofqual announced the first stage of the reforms last autumn by removing the January exam window, which will reduce the number of re-sits, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston said.

Seema Malhotra: The Minister makes some valid points, which I also referred to, about ways in which we might reform, such as reducing re-sits, which may have contributed to grade inflation, but does he not agree that those changes—those improvements—can take place within the current framework and that the de-coupling of AS-levels and A-levels is not required to achieve those improvements?

Mr Laws: Some of those changes clearly could take place without the additional measures that we are taking, but we believe, for the reasons that I am giving, and will continue to give, that they would not by themselves go far enough. That is why we announced earlier this year that from 2015 we would return to linear A-levels, with examinations taking place at the end of the two-year course. Linear A-levels will free up time for teachers to focus on what teachers do best, which is providing high-quality teaching, developing their students’ deep understanding and love of a subject, and ensuring, therefore, that the final two years of education are about not simply public examinations and test preparation, but doing what our education system is designed to do, which is educating young people in these key subjects.

Nic Dakin rose

Mr Laws: I would like to make more progress and then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Some have claimed that the introduction of linear A-levels will have a negative impact on the social mobility agenda. If that was going to be the case, this Government, and certainly my party, would have no truck with these changes. Creating a more socially mobile society and education system is crucial. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) made extremely well was that, listening to and talking about the criticisms from some in the education system, including from Cambridge university, people would think that we had an ideal system for social mobility today in universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. Actually, the proportion of young people from private schools and selective state schools in those institutions remains, in our view, unacceptably high. That model is not delivering social mobility.

Contrary to the claims I have mentioned, linear A-levels will allow young people to develop greater intellectual maturity through a two-year course. Some students may not have developed the skills that they need to excel in an exam in the first year of their A-level course, particularly those who may have had less support at school and home to develop independent study skills. A two-year course will allow all students progressively to develop the skills they need to be successful at university and to demonstrate their abilities through exams at the end of two years. We will also do more to target high-achieving sixth formers, in terms of the social mobility agenda, to ensure that they are fully aware of the higher education opportunities that should be open

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to them in all universities, including some of the best in the country. We will ensure that they are supported in exploring those options.

The crucial thing about a strategy for social mobility through the education system is not to think that we can solve the massive injustices in access to our education system through tweaking the admissions process at age 17 or 18. All the international evidence demonstrates that, in an education system with massive gaps between the outcomes for young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, which are already visible at ages five, 11 and 16, as we have had in this country for far too long, reducing those gaps through the measures that we are taking to intervene in weak schools—including policies such as the pupil premium, for example, which will target more money for the education of disadvantaged youngsters—will help us to make a step change in social mobility in this country. Those are far more important than the issues that we have been debating today.

Nic Dakin: I thank the Minister for giving way. I find his contribution somewhat naive and a little complacent. I am pleased that he recognises that teachers are doing what they do best in helping youngsters learn, but that is what they are doing now. They do not need changes to assist them in that job, which they are doing extremely well.

Will the Minister focus on the key issue that has come up consistently in this debate—hon. Members agree with much of what he has already said—which is the significant detrimental effect of AS-levels being divorced from A-levels, which will result if the Government continue ploughing on with that ill-conceived policy?

Mr Laws: I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point directly. May I first say, somewhat gently, that it is naive and complacent to think that the issue that we are discussing—whether universities rely on AS-level grades, predicted grades or GCSE grades—has any central role to play in challenging the massive inequalities of opportunity in our education system today. It is a tiny issue, compared with the huge gaps that are emerging at ages five, 11 and 16. All the evidence, which hon. Members have been urging the Government to use and pay attention to, demonstrates that our social mobility problems are about the inequalities of outcome at those ages, not what is happening with university admissions.

Seema Malhotra rose

Mr Laws: I will make more progress before giving way again to the hon. Lady.

Some critics of the linear A-level have cited a link between the introduction of modular A-levels as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West, the shadow Schools Minister, mentioned earlier, and widening participation in higher education. However, the major increase in HE participation took place in the early 1990s, before the introduction of modular A-levels in 2000. Universities continue to work hard to widen participation and ensure they are opening their doors to students from all backgrounds, and I am confident that they will keep doing so when the new linear A-levels are introduced. Indeed, in many cases they need to do much more to offer those opportunities to young people, particularly from disadvantaged

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backgrounds. The Government intend to work in partnership with some of the universities, particularly those that have poor rates of access, to try to target those youngsters who should be gaining access to some of our best universities, but are not doing so.

Making the A-level linear does, of course, have implications—the hon. Gentleman raised this point earlier—for the current AS qualification. My ministerial colleagues and officials have been talking to and working with school and college leaders and universities to understand precisely the concerns that he set out so clearly to ensure that we can address them.

As we move to fully linear A-levels with exams at the end of the two-year course, the AS-level will remain as a qualification in its own right. It will continue to be available as a stand-alone qualification to be taught over either one year or two years, but the marks from it will obviously no longer count towards the A-level. Longer term, our ambition is to develop a brand new AS qualification that is at the same level of challenge as a full A-level, but for the time being that is for the future.

From 2015, the AS-level will be decoupled as a stand-alone, linear qualification and will remain at the same level of challenge as existing AS qualifications. That means that schools and colleges can decide whether to teach the AS-level over one year or two years. If schools and colleges decide to teach the AS in any given subject in one year, that would give them the opportunity, which I think the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was seeking—it is a valid concern—to co-teach the AS and the new A-level together, if that meets the needs of the students and if it is a sensible way for those institutions to ensure that they can deliver education for all young people who want to access both A-levels and the AS.

We want to preserve the AS so that students can study a fourth subject in addition to their full A-levels. We know that universities consider the AS a valuable qualification to provide that breadth, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. We also know that some universities use the AS in their admissions processes, although most place more emphasis on GCSE results and predicted A-level grades, as well as looking at a range of other information, including personal statements, academic references and, in some cases, admissions tests and interviews.

Kevin Brennan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Laws: I will make this one point before giving way.

Most universities do not use AS results as the main basis for making those decisions. Indeed, in some subjects GCSE results can provide a better prediction of degree results across all universities than AS results. Students who have very good GCSE results from schools where the general pattern is for below-average GCSE attainment also have real potential to progress at university.

Kevin Brennan: If the Minister continues with his proposals, AS-levels will be available for universities to use as evidence in only one subject, instead of all the subjects that the young person is studying. Although we

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could do with more research, he knows that there is powerful research evidence that suggests that AS-level is in fact the best predictor of how young people will do at university.

[

Interruption.

]

He can shake his head, but his own university’s research suggests that AS-levels are the best predictor—far better than GCSEs, and far better even than university admissions tests. I have the research here. I thought he had read it, but obviously he has not.

Mr Laws: I repeat the point I have just made: the majority of universities do not use AS-levels as the main basis for making such decisions. Indeed, we know that, in some subjects, GCSE results provide a better prediction of degree results across all universities than AS results.

Kevin Brennan: What’s your evidence?

Mr Laws: I am happy to send the hon. Gentleman the evidence.

Seema Malhotra: I thank the Minister for giving way again. He says that most universities do not use AS-level results as the main basis, but that does not mean that most do not use them as a key part of their decision making. Does he not agree that taking away AS-level results at that moment would take away something that is seen as a vital indicator of how well pupils are doing, particularly pupils from state schools or disadvantaged backgrounds?

Mr Laws: No, our judgment is that, if we get education right earlier on, which is the critical stage for delivering the social mobility that the hon. Lady and I want, it should be perfectly possible for universities to make such judgments without a loss from the removal of the AS-level. Some universities may have to adjust how they handle admissions. A-levels, however, are not simply mechanisms to help universities to sort students. The most important priority is to develop A-levels that secure the best possible educational outcomes for young people. Earlier, the shadow Minister said that A-levels are not simply to be structured around the needs of university access. They form a far wider purpose than that.

It will continue to be as important as ever that students from all backgrounds have the information they need to make the right choices about higher education based on teachers’ assessments of their progress, as well as formal examination results. School is the best place to monitor students’ progress and to help them understand the attainment they are working at and aiming for.

A-levels must be high quality, and they must change over time to keep up with world standards. Universities, the bodies that once set up examination boards themselves, are not as core a part of the process of qualification development as they once were. A good way for A-levels to keep up with the challenges of the global marketplace in qualifications is to respond to what universities are looking for. Independent learning and critical thinking are vital skills that A-levels must continue to develop.

We believe that losing touch with universities has meant that A-levels have not always been a suitable preparation for those embarking on degrees in some subjects. Indeed, many private schools offer different

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courses, such as sixth-term examination papers and the Cambridge pre-U, for those purposes. A-level reform is vital to ensure that all students, whether in the state sector or the private sector, have the best possible skills and knowledge to enable them to compete effectively. That is why the Government are giving universities a greater role in the development of A-levels. Awarding organisations will work with universities to determine the content of the new A-levels, and we are delighted that the Russell Group will be part of that. We also welcome contributions from other universities, as a number of hon. Members have indicated. We expect that the first new A-levels will be developed for teaching to begin in September 2015, with the first exams to be sat in 2017. Each year, Ofqual will also lead a post-qualification review process involving the Russell Group.

We can be confident from the way Ofqual has exercised its functions over the past few years that it will give us the independent and impartial advice that we need to make the right decisions and to develop an A-level system that is fit for purpose—not just for university entry, but for educating young people in the critical years of their lives.


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Persecution of Christians

4.25 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I am pleased to have secured this debate on the increasing threat to freedom of religion in certain parts of the world, which is an important issue. Due to time pressure, I apologise in advance for the fact that I may not be able to accept many interventions. These are issues, however, on which I have placed significant emphasis during my time in Parliament not only because I believe passionately in the inherent importance of protecting fundamental human rights but because the evidence demonstrates that those societies that protect and respect fundamental rights tend to fare better in their protection of other human rights.

In preparation for this debate, I have worked closely with Open Doors, an organisation focusing on freedom for persecuted Christian Churches. I also thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, His Grace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, and others who have circulated briefing materials ahead of today’s debate.

Although my focus is on the persecution of Christians, it is important to acknowledge that Christians are not unique in facing religious persecution. Indeed, I have previously hosted a debate on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Nor are Christians the only group affected when they are marginalised in society or excluded from public life. Rather, everyone suffers from the loss of talent and the undermining of the principles of fair treatment, the rule of law and access to justice. The defence of freedom of religious belief, as defined by article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, is important not only for Christians but for everyone.

In Africa, as a result of the growing influence of Islamic extremism in countries not previously associated with persecution, there has been a marked increase in such activity. That has been most notable in Mali, but it is also increasingly evident in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Niger. Persecution manifests itself in many ways, including violent attacks by Islamic extremist groups, radical Muslims infiltrating politics, business and the judiciary to gain influence to be used against other religions, and extremists filling power vacuums in countries in flux, such as Mali.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady has mentioned Open Doors. Does she agree that all Churches in the UK could usefully have copies of its world watchlist of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted? The watchlist is informative, helpful and useful for all Churches.

Naomi Long: I absolutely agree. The watchlist is a helpful aid for those who are interested in this issue.

I have previously highlighted the persecution of Christians in countries where they are a minority, such as Sudan and Somalia, and persecution is still perpetuated at both state and community level. The current trend, however, is towards increasing civil unrest by Islamic extremists in countries where Christians are a majority, such as Kenya and Uganda. Small, local footholds have been created where radical Muslims do not tolerate anyone with a different belief system or religion. That

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trend has been most potent in the area of Kenya bordering Somalia. The pattern of infiltration and strategic positioning ultimately makes life impossible for Christian residents. How do the Government and the international community respond to that emerging challenge? What support can be offered to national Governments to combat that threat to freedom?

Although the Arab spring appeared to offer hope for progressive reform in many countries, it has failed to deliver on that promise in many cases. In many countries, the Arab spring has had disastrous consequences for religious freedom and has promoted a major exodus of Christians from the middle east. Already a reality in Iraq, the phenomenon is extending to other nations, most notably Egypt and Syria. Although we are all aware of the wider security and humanitarian crisis in Syria, there is a very real, but less publicly acknowledged threat to Christians. Jihadists have reportedly infiltrated the rebel movement, and tens of thousands of Christians have fled as a result. As one of the Governments involved in both Iraq and Syria, the UK Government must recognise that exodus and work with others in the international community to do all they can to protect people of whatever religion who are suffering persecution in an already desperate situation. What specific consideration have the Government given to that in their wider interventions in those countries?

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Lady aware that in Syria there are some 300,000 Christian refugees who refuse to be associated with the Sunni opposition or the Assad regime? In other words, they are in a neutral place. Because they are neutral, as Christians, they do not receive the aid or assistance that they should receive through the Arab nations or the Red Cross. Does she feel that that is an issue for Christians in Syria? They do not get the aid or the financial assistance that they need, because they try to stay neutral because of their Christian beliefs.

Naomi Long: I hope that the Minister will be able reflect on that in his response.

The nature of persecution is incredibly variable. In some situations, it will take the form of a “squeeze”, with pressure being applied, while in others it is in the form of “smash”, with recourse to violence. However, either kind represents a denial of article 18 and should be resisted. Recent trends suggest that squeeze pressure, where there is no physical violence, but pressure is applied to prevent Christians from being able to freely express their beliefs, has increasingly become the main form of abuse. It is much harder to identify and document. However, and perhaps as a result, it can be the most pernicious and damaging to individuals and families.

Life in the family sphere suffers, particularly for those who exercise their right to change religion. Hostility from the state or neighbours can place not only the individual but their family under considerable pressure. That social and religious pressure can occasionally lead to pressure from within the family, with divorce and death threats common after conversion. The right to change religion is specifically protected by the wording of article 18. Reports that within the UN there is a reluctance to promote the freedom to change one’s

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religion as a vital component of freedom of religious belief for fear of a backlash from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference nations are a concern, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that specific matter.

Persecution also impacts on the community sphere, manifesting itself as restrictions on employment or access to resources. There is evidence that Christian villagers have been denied access to water wells in northern Nigeria, for example, purely by reason of their faith. In Kenya, covert persecution of Christians has increased. Speaking of his own experience, one Christian states:

“The area is already very hostile, but now we are also suffering hidden persecution at our work places. Many of our jobs are in danger because of fabricated negative reports from our superiors; our colleagues at work discriminate against and isolate us—just because of our faith.”

Such persecution has affected teachers, who have been placed on forced leave or transferred from the region, while other professionals have lost their job, all on fabricated charges of incompetence. Those newly posted to the area are monitored, and if perceived to be Christians, are then targeted. It is very difficult for the aggrieved party in such circumstances to seek redress, because of the concealed nature of the persecution. Those who do report unfair treatment encounter a marked lack of corroboration for their reports from colleagues, often as a result of fear, leading to the dismissal of their complaints.

I would welcome reassurances from the Minister that, in the face of that more covert and insidious form of persecution, the Foreign Office has engaged with religious groups and national Governments to identify such trends and address their impact. It is important that international pressure focuses on the right to access justice for those who are affected.

Some Governments actively restrict the freedom of Christians to participate in the national sphere through the limitation of access to civil society and public life. As hon. Members will be aware, I have previously highlighted the fact that the state is the primary persecutor of religious minorities in Iran. Article 18 specifically protects the freedom collectively to express faith without interference, but as I have also previously highlighted, it has proved all but impossible to register church buildings and legalise church meetings in Algeria, so that despite the appearance of facilitating religious minorities, the effect in reality is to the contrary.

Such persecution aims not overtly to ban particular beliefs, but to restrict freedom of religion to a person’s private life. Worryingly, President Morsi of Egypt recently said:

“As long as the apostate keeps it to himself...he should not be punished...However, someone who proclaims his apostasy in public, and calls for others to follow suit, is a danger to society...the law and the shari’a intervene.

He gave open expression and Government endorsement to this restrictive practice.

Although the rise of radical Islamist groups has posed a particular threat to Christians, it is not the only threat. The Government in Eritrea, for example, have banned all religious groups other than Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islamic groups, and other Christian believers are persecuted, often with the active co-operation of state-

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recognised Churches. It is estimated that up to 2,000 Christians in the country are imprisoned for their faith, 31 of whom died in 2012.

Despite the growing prevalence of squeeze persecution in the region, many people still suffer acts of violence and aggression. Between November 2011 and October 2012, Open Doors recorded 1,201 killings of Christians worldwide, of which 791 happened in Nigeria and 161 in Iraq; 2,121 attacks on Christians, mainly in Nigeria, India, Syria, Kenya, Indonesia and Egypt; and, during the same period, 280 churches or other Christian buildings were burned or destroyed. In that context, I want to focus briefly on the plight of Christians in Egypt.

During the Mubarak regime, the differences between Christians and Muslims were often used as part of a divide and conquer strategy. However, since that regime ended, there has been a resurgence of more radical Islamist groups and an increase in their representation in high-ranking Government positions from which they persecute not only Christians, who are the largest religious minority in Egypt, but other minority faith groups such as Baha’is and Jews, as well as Muslim minorities such as Sufis and Shi’ites.

Christian communities face bureaucratic hurdles when trying to build churches; there is no mechanism to allow citizens to change their religion to anything other than Islam; and representation of Christians in state institutions and Government bodies is negligible, and, at the highest levels, absent. Since the uprising and the subsequent political and social unrest, Christians have increasingly witnessed the violation of their freedoms and face intensified threats to their peace and security. These incidents include the burning and attacking of churches, the kidnapping of Christian girls, and attacks on peaceful marches, resulting in the loss of innocent lives.

In one of the most significant incidents, 28 peaceful demonstrators at Maspero were killed in October 2011. Most recently, the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate and the main Christian cathedral in Cairo were attacked by mobs and, disturbingly, the police were seen to do little, if anything, either to stop the violence or to bring those responsible to justice. That incident is disturbing, not only because it is indicative of the rise in violent attacks on Christians, but because it demonstrates the continuing lack of will shown by the authorities to deliver fair and equal treatment under the law, not only to Egypt’s Christians, but to other minority faith groups. If the main cathedral can be attacked with apparent impunity, it prompts the question: what Church or individual is safe?

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Having a Coptic church in my constituency, I support absolutely the case that the hon. Lady is making for better protection for Coptic Christians in Egypt. Does she agree that, following the Arab spring, we must urge the Government to do all that they can to urge the new constitutions of those states to respect religious freedom?

Naomi Long: I absolutely agree and concur with all that has been said. It is hugely important that those countries are restructured in a way that will increase progressive democracy in those nations.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Naomi Long: I am afraid not. I have very little time and I want to make another point.

Attacks on churches are an assault not on an individual faith tradition, but on the rule of law, and, if a line is not held by the Government in addressing that, confidence in the state and its ability to uphold the rule of law in the face of pressure for all Egyptians will eventually be diminished. Statements confirming that the state takes responsibility for safeguarding freedom and security for all of its citizens and that it will investigate incidents are welcome, but what would be more welcome would be action by the security forces and police to intervene during such attacks and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. The Egyptian state must employ its security apparatus and judiciary in a non-discriminatory manner to protect all Egyptian citizens—Muslims and Christians alike—and preserve their equal rights.

Finally, I would like briefly to reference the 2012 edition of the annual human rights and democracy report recently published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome the open acknowledgement in the report of the growth of violence against religious communities and the affirmation of the right to freedom of belief, including the right to share, change and teach others about one’s faith. I also think that the restatement by the Foreign Secretary that such rights are not merely western constructs but are universal is important and bears repeating.

There is concern, however, that the sections on Somalia and Yemen make no mention of religious freedom, implying that this is not a major human rights concern in those countries, yet in both there is considerable evidence of the persecution of Christians and, in particular, of converts to Christianity. Similarly, the entries on religious freedom for Sudan and Eritrea appear to be weak. Perhaps the Minister will be able to reflect on those matters in his remarks.

In closing, the right to have a faith and to practise that faith, both in private and in community with others, and to change one’s faith and not be disadvantaged or endangered for reason of one’s beliefs, are basic and fundamental human rights that should apply universally. These are also rights that, although established in international law, remain under threat at national or local level. Where religious freedom is diminished, it is often accompanied by a generally unfavourable approach to the protection of other human rights and a lack of adherence to the rule of law and equal access to justice for all citizens, with wider implications for society.

I trust that continued focus on such matters in Parliament, whether through debates like this or through the work of the all-party group, will send out a clear message that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong international advocate in the UK Government.

4.39 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing the debate. The large attendance by Members from all parts of the House for a half-hour Adjournment debate shows that her subject not only is objectively important and significant in how we conduct our international policy in this country, but arouses

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powerful and continuing concern in all the political parties represented in the House. I am grateful to her for the way in which she presented her case and in particular for her generous comments about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s recently published human rights report.

As the hon. Lady said, an increase in persecution is threatening the existence of Christianity in the very region of its birth, with many people feeling that they have no choice but to flee to safe havens elsewhere. As the excellent report from Open Doors made clear, violence, discrimination and systematic persecution threaten Christian communities in Africa, the middle east and certain other countries around the world. The Government share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady and in the Open Doors report. We condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups on the grounds of their religion, regardless of the country or faith concerned. As the report rightly emphasised, our condemnation should extend not solely to the more extreme forms of suffering inflicted upon people because of their religion or belief, but to any and all forms of such discrimination.

I assure hon. Members that we are fully committed to promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief in its broadest sense, as defined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which was alluded to by the hon. Lady. It is worth reminding ourselves of that central passage:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I assure the hon. Lady and the House that we take those words seriously.

I want to respond directly and clearly to two of the central points in the hon. Lady’s speech. The Government’s position is to condemn laws against so-called apostasy and any Government policies anywhere in the world that punish people for changing their religion or belief voluntarily and freely, because that is at odds with the words of the universal declaration. Also, we accept completely that, when we talk about religious persecution and the human right to the free expression of religion and belief, we are talking about not only the private or domestic sphere but, in our understanding, the freedom to practice that religion openly and to make manifest one’s religious or other belief in the way that one conducts one’s life.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I welcome the Minister’s commitment. He and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) rightly referred to the universal declaration, but encouraging co-operation and respect for religious rights is also right there as a purpose of the United Nations in article 1 of its charter. Can he tell us what specific steps the Government will be taking at the UN to raise the issue up the international agenda in the way that needs to happen?

Mr Lidington: We raise the subject repeatedly in the UN, at the Human Rights Council and in opportunities that we get in the General Assembly and from time to

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time in the Security Council. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have resisted occasional attempts in the UN to return to language about defamation of religions, which used to characterise some of the debate. With the agreement of the March 2011 resolution of the Human Rights Council, we have been able to move on to more productive discussions of the issue; resolution 16/18 is not perfect, because it was a compromise to achieve consensus in the UN council, but it included not only a focus on combating religious intolerance, but key statements about protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society. We also continue to support strongly the work of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and we attach great importance to seeing his mandate renewed during the year.

Rehman Chishti: I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for securing this important debate. The Minister talked about the Government looking to the UN and the Human Rights Council to take certain measures, but the United States has set up the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which looks to set policy by having research done around the world. Will the United Kingdom be setting up a similar body?

Mr Lidington: When the Government came to office, we set up a committee on human rights to advise the Foreign Secretary. It brings together experts, including people who are committed to various religious faiths. It provides a coherent and not unwieldy system for giving such advice. It has had an impact on the thinking of the Foreign Secretary and of my ministerial colleagues in the FCO, so we are seeking to attain the same goal as the United States but have chosen a slightly different means to go about it.

Jim Shannon: In my intervention on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), I referred to the specific case of the 300,000 Christians in Syria. Will the Minister consider contacting the UN refugee agency to put forward our case that those Christians are not receiving the aid that they should receive through the UN or the Red Cross because they are Christians? They want to be neutral in the Syrian conflict and are persecuted as a result.

Mr Lidington: If I understand the hon. Gentleman rightly, he is saying that the non-governmental organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, are not providing aid as they ought to be on account of the Christian faith of some of the refugees. He is certainly levelling a serious charge. I will look into it and write to him—with copies to the hon. Member for Belfast East and the Library—because I do not want to talk off the top of my head.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing the debate. We have discussed the charter of the United Nations, but will the Minister join me in celebrating the fact that the Commonwealth charter published last year enshrined religious tolerance in articles II and IV? Given the number of Commonwealth countries mentioned by the hon. Lady where issues with religious persecution continue, however, does he agree that there

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is more to do to ensure that the Commonwealth respects the spirit and the letter of the charter?

Mr Lidington: I agree completely that there is more to do. As I hope to have time to explain, we seek to do things multilaterally and in our bilateral relationships with various countries.

The hon. Member for Belfast East asked what the FCO was doing in practical terms and how we monitor the trends in religious discrimination. We require our embassies and high commissions around the world to monitor violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. We are clear that that freedom involves not only the right to hold personal thoughts, but to manifest them individually and collectively. We provide our missions overseas with what in the jargon we call a toolkit—a set of detailed monitoring criteria—to help staff at our embassies and high commissions to analyse in detail the many potential manifestations of discrimination on the grounds of freedom of religion or belief, including discrimination in access to education and employment, or other administrative or legal restrictions on groups, buildings or individuals.

I shall move on from that general point to some of the countries to which the hon. Lady alluded. I apologise to hon. Members that I will not have time to go through them all, but I will write to her about the other countries that she mentioned and will place a copy of the letter in the Library.

The hon. Lady spoke particularly about Egypt for much of her speech. We have been clear that we need to speak up in public comments and private conversations with the Egyptian Government about the importance of religious toleration and mutual respect. When my noble Friend Baroness Warsi visited Cairo in February, she met both Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, and the Sheikh Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, to discuss minorities in Egypt.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), spoke out strongly condemning the violent clashes that took place outside St Mark’s Coptic cathedral on 7 April. He also commented that freedom of religion and belief is a vital component of a democratic society and that the security forces should act effectively to uphold those freedoms to express and practise religious belief. My hon. Friend went to Egypt in January and discussed our concerns about the protection of minorities, including Christians and women, when he met the Muslim Brotherhood’s

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political party, the Freedom and Justice party. When he went to Egypt again in March, he met the Anglican bishop and representatives of both local and international human rights groups there to hear their concerns and to ask what more the UK could do to support their activities.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Is there any link between aid and this problem?

Mr Lidington: Most of our aid is directed not Government to Government, but through non-governmental organisations and charities. The Department for International Development, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, has published a set of principles about the partnership that exists between DFID and faith groups both in the United Kingdom and worldwide. That sets out a number of principles for co-operation in delivering aid, sometimes through faith groups that are really close to the people in greatest need in developing countries, and to ensure that aid is distributed in a way that takes no account of religious belief and is not affected by discrimination of the sort the House would condemn.

The hon. Member for Belfast East mentioned Kenya. We recognise that there has been an increase in attacks against churches, but I caution the House that although the conflict in Somalia has of course a religious dimension, it might be argued that what we saw in Kenya was an attack prompted by political concern at the intervention of Kenyan troops in Somalia rather than purely sectarian terrorist attacks. It is not only churches that have been attacked, but many secular locations from bus stations to bars. There has been a spate of grenade and armed attacks in Nairobi suburbs, Mombasa and the north-east province of Garissa. We are working with the Kenyan authorities to respond effectively to those security challenges and the threat of terrorism from extremist groups in Somalia.

In Syria, we are increasing our support to the Syrian National Coalition and other opposition groups that are opposed to extremism. We want to support moderate opposition groups to boost their appeal and effectiveness over extremists. We have encouraged opposition groups, especially the National Coalition, to ensure that their policies for a future Syria are genuinely inclusive and cover the interests of all Syrian minorities, including Christians. John Wilkes, the UK special representative to the Syrian opposition, is in regular touch with the Syrian Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office here.

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Nursery Funding

4.55 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a privilege, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon for what I think is the first time. It is also a privilege to debate the important issue of nursery funding. As all parents, grandparents, foster carers and indeed anyone involved with young children know, child care funding has been a contentious issue for some years. Indeed, over the past few years, the price of child care has risen by more than twice the rate of inflation, despite average earnings falling back to 2003 levels.

As ever, a quick glance at the relevant evidence illustrates the sheer scale of the problems faced by our nurseries, not only in my patch in York, but throughout the country. More than 600,000 children use the 15,000 nurseries in the UK, 80% of which are in the private, voluntary and independent sector, employing more than 200,000 people. However, occupancy in nurseries has fallen to 71% as parents continue to struggle to pay their child care costs. That in turn leaves nurseries struggling to survive as local businesses.

One of the main reasons for the continuing rise in child care costs is nursery providers having to cross-subsidise the Government’s free entitlement funding. They do so by increasing the fees they charge to families outside the free hours and to those not eligible for funding. The Government are the biggest procurer of nursery places, but they are, alas, among the worst culprits when it comes to paying for the places they procure. The National Day Nurseries Association is a charity that represents children’s day nurseries throughout the UK, and recently announced that 84% of nurseries claim that the funding they receive does not cover their operational costs. That is worrying. In fact, the average shortfall for free entitlement hours is around £547 per child per year, which is a substantial amount in total.

It is important to highlight the fact that local nurseries are also local businesses and, like every other business, they need sufficient cash flow at all times to keep going. It is already apparent that the status quo represents a serious problem and is extremely unfair not only for nurseries that are struggling to cover the cost of the so-called free entitlement, but for families who are being forced to pay increased child care prices to subsidise the Government’s free places.

Before I go further, I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber agree that child care is extremely important and offers families, especially women, the opportunity to resume their career after having children, a choice that is welcomed by some and, unfortunately, a necessity for many. Quality child care can make a significant difference to children’s development, instilling many important qualities such as communication among their peers, independence away from their parents, and learning to interact positively.

Sadly however, much of the debate about child care provision focuses on cost, which has had an increasingly negative impact on parents, with many believing that child care is simply too expensive, ruling out the option of returning to work or building a career. Since my election to Parliament in 2010, I have had the privilege of visiting a number of local nurseries in my constituency, such as, to name a few, Little Green Rascals near Elvington,

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Sunshine Day nursery in Huntington and Tiddlywinks in Osbaldwick. I must also mention an excellent visit to Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby. Having met, on several occasions, the owner of Polly Anna’s, and having talked at length with the owners of the other three excellent nurseries that I mentioned, it is absolutely clear to me that the tremendous work that is carried out across York’s nurseries—I assume that that is exactly the same across the country—is increasingly under threat as a direct result of funding issues.

The shortfall in funding is due, first, to the free entitlement funding provided by the Government. Free entitlement consists of 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year and is funded through the dedicated schools grant, with an estimated total spend of £1.9 million a year. However, there is great disparity across the country in how much is spent on child care by individual local authorities, and therein lies a big part of the problem. The National Audit Office found that free entitlement varied from £2.78 to £5.18 an hour, with the national average placed at £3.95 by each local authority. My constituency receives only £3.38 an hour from the City of York council. I have had many discussions with the council about that figure, but sadly, to no avail.

With regards to the extension of free entitlement to disadvantaged two-year-olds, the Department for Education announced an average funding rate of £5.09 an hour to try and counteract the disparity, but that has unfortunately only led local authorities that were funding more to immediately reduce their rates in an apparent race to the bottom. I appreciate that local authorities need to be held directly accountable for their decisions, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on local authorities that seek to spend the bare minimum on nursery funding. The sad truth of the matter is that many child care providers receive low levels of funding for every child under the Government’s free entitlement scheme, which results in nurseries running at a loss. Therefore, they have to increase the price of child care outside the free entitlement hours and of child care for those to whom the free entitlement is not applicable to make up for the shortfall. They cannot charge at the moment for any top-up on those 15 free hours to bring it back to break-even levels.

The coalition Government know that something has to be done about that, which is why the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who has responsibility for child care, released her report “More great childcare” on 29 January. The report sets out her plan of action on how the Government will achieve their vision of an exceptional child care market that consistently delivers high-quality early years education—a noble ambition. However, although the report has produced some good ideas on child care funding, it is mainly concerned with reducing bureaucracy, rather than tackling hard financial problems. Changing the staff-to-child ratio is another welcome proposal, and those steps will ultimately result in a more efficient and more respected early years sector. However, I believe that the proposals could go further.

Considering that staff costs, on average, are at least 70% of the running costs of nurseries, there is real concern that any savings that could be made through the staff-to-child ratio will go towards increasing staff pay and training. To my mind, that is completely

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understandable and the right thing to do. Nurseries must invest in their staff; by doing so, they are investing in their businesses, because the nursery staff are their business. However, that does not solve the problem of child care costs. Currently, only one in three nurseries break even, which is a serious problem that is likely to get worse.

However, laying the blame for such a situation at the door of the coalition Government would be short-sighted. In the past 12 years, the value of free entitlement per hour has increased by approximately 33%, while at the same time, minimum wages have increased by at least double that. With an industry that has such high staff costs, that lack of funding has been keenly felt, so it is my hope that today’s debate will conclude with the Minister proceeding to urge the Government to review their current funding sooner rather than later. In an ideal world, that would enable nurseries to stop increasing the price of child care for those outside the free 15 hours and also to children not eligible for the entitlement.

I appreciate, however, that the Government cannot afford to tackle every issue and reduce the vast deficit simultaneously. I understand the financial situation, the struggles of the Government, and the difficult decisions that they must make. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that ignoring the problem will only result in the price of child care increasing further. It could even be argued that the status quo will adversely affect the wider economy over the longer term. After all, although the Government provide significant public funding in recognition of the value of child care, complicated and inefficient funding mechanisms are often used that result in much of the funding not reaching the providers, and therefore, families are unaware of their entitlement.

On top of that, occupancy in nurseries has fallen to 71%, as parents can no longer afford to keep their children in early years education for long periods of time. If local authorities fail to cough up adequate funding from central Government, there is a real danger that nurseries will continue to suffer from under-occupancy, leading to closures and creating local unemployment. In the two years leading up to September 2011, official figures highlight the fact that more than 700 nurseries have closed. I fear that the Treasury will lose out over the long term if it fails to work with the Minister’s Department to rectify the funding deficit now.

I have discussed the idea of more funding for free entitlement places. However, I have also touched on the possibility of altering the allocation of such funding, which could involve, at little extra cost, the removal of local authorities as the middlemen in the funding entitlement. That is an important point to bear in mind, because nurseries up and down the country understand that the Government cannot just throw money at the sector. We are living in hard economic times. However, as I have previously stated, I believe that the cost of doing nothing will be far greater.

The Government previously introduced reforms to every local authority back in 2011, as it was thought that nursery funding was inconsistent and patchy across the country, with too many children, particularly from disadvantaged families, not accessing any or all of their free nursery hours. Consequently, it was announced that the free entitlement for three and four-year-olds

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would be extended to 15 hours a week and that it would reach the most vulnerable families who stand to benefit from it most.

There are still several problems, however, when it comes to distributing the free entitlement to the providers. For instance, a lot of fraud and error still exists in the tax credit system, with £265 million being lost from the child care element of working tax credit. Many nurseries are also not informed if parents are in receipt of the child care element of working tax credit, which means that levels of parental debt are increasing, as the designated funding is not passed on. One nursery in my constituency has told me that its level of bad debt has gone up ninefold this year, and sadly for many, that is unsustainable. Consequently, direct funding to the provider could solve a number of problems, and I would be interested in the Minister’s views on that.

Overall, the purpose of today’s debate was to raise the issue of nursery funding with the Minister and hopefully manage to strike a chord. However, I will finish by asking whether the Minister or his colleague will meet me and some local nursery representatives from York to discuss the issue that they face directly. It is important that the Department hears directly from the nurseries that are so affected at the moment—as I say, the purpose of such a meeting would be to discuss the problems surrounding nursery funding. I hope that through this speech I have managed to convince the Minister to review the existing funding system and arrangements from the perspective of the nurseries, in relation to child care and the long-term sustainability of our nurseries, not only in York, but across the country.

5.9 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I apologise for the fact that you have had to listen to me twice on different subjects this afternoon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing a debate on such an important issue. It is of great relevance not only in his constituency, but, as he explained very clearly and ably, throughout the country. He explained concisely and effectively the concerns that providers, including those in his constituency, have about the funding of early education and their determination to ensure that we have a rational funding system that gets adequate amounts of money through to the front line to do the vital job that he referred to.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who leads on child care, is not able to be with us in the debate. She is abroad today. She passes on her apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and has indicated to me that she would be happy to meet him to discuss these issues with him and anyone he wants to bring along from his constituency, so I hope he will take up that opportunity directly.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important issues that I should like to deal with directly. Those issues are reflected in many of the recent debates on how to ensure high-quality and affordable child care throughout the country. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to deal with the points that he has raised,

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which will be of concern to other hon. Members and to many people who rely on this industry and who work in it.

I should like also to outline some of the reforms that we have made and are in the process of making, and the further reforms that we plan for free early years education—some of the other reforms that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has announced recently. It is important to locate the reforms within the broader vision for child care and early years education as a whole, which was championed so effectively by her in the paper entitled “More great childcare”. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer mentioned, the Government published that document in January. It sets out an ambitious vision for child care and early education to ensure that we provide the best start for young children and help those parents who want to go into employment to have the child care that they need in a flexible and affordable way.

The vision is to create a dynamic and thriving child care sector in which the emphasis is firmly on quality and which draws upon international evidence of what works best. “More great childcare” is clear that, to achieve that vision, we need a child care profession that attracts the best possible staff to work in it and to lead it. Those people should have a passion for what they do, but, importantly, they must also be highly trained and highly qualified, which has not always been the case.

We need to give providers the flexibility that they need to deliver the best for children and, by doing so, create more affordable, better-quality early education and care, which will help children and ensure that parents can feel confident about returning to work. Alongside that, we are working with Ofsted, as my hon. Friend will know, to create a system of regulation and inspection that has high expectations of quality and that ensures that the quality improvements that the Government aspire to are delivered on the ground.

We need to free providers from unnecessary bureaucracy and give them more flexibility to focus on what makes a difference in improving the impact of early learning on children, not least those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom early intervention is particularly important. We need to improve the effectiveness of those who work every day with young children to build a stronger, more professional work force, giving providers greater flexibility to invest in high-calibre staff, as well as overhauling the existing early years qualifications.

“More great childcare” also explained how the Government propose to reform funding for early education. The high-level objectives are clear: simplification, greater transparency and ensuring that as much funding as possible reaches the front line. The responsibility for distributing early education funding rests, of course, with local authorities, which should know their local child care markets. Most visibly for nurseries, that role means setting hourly rates through the early years single funding formula.

My hon. Friend also highlighted a weakness in the early education funding system—the lack of transparency. Some providers have concerns that local authorities do not always pass on enough of the funding that they receive from Government, but, by extension, they find the funding system hard to understand. In too many

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cases, they do not know what funding decisions local authorities reach—I am talking about many of the people in their areas. Given how providers are affected by those decisions, that cannot be right, so the Government are changing it through the reforms that we have announced.

Working with a number of provider groups, the Department now publishes financial benchmarking data annually. Those data show simply and clearly the funding decisions taken by local authorities across the country. Importantly, too, the data enable providers to compare decisions across local areas. A system of effective local decision making relies on active local accountability, and we are giving providers the information that they need to exercise that accountability. However, we want to go further, and the recent two-year-olds early education funding allocation shows how that might be possible.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government are expanding early education to two-year-olds from lower-income households. That starts with the most disadvantaged 20% of two-year-olds, which is about 130,000 children—

5.16 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.24 pm

On resuming—

Mr Laws: The Government are expanding early education to two-year-olds, particularly focusing on lower-income households. That starts with the most disadvantaged 20% of two-year-olds—about 130,000 children—in September this year. From September 2014, it will be extended to 40% of children—260,000 in total. That ambition is matched by significant new investment. National funding to support the initiative will reach £760 million in 2014-15. The Government also allocated £100 million of capital funding to local authorities in November last year to support delivery of the new entitlement. That real opportunity for providers will inject a great deal more money into the child care system.

Funding for two-year-olds is not encumbered by the complexities and historical problems that affect schools more widely and early years funding. The new two-year-olds entitlement has enabled the Government to put into practice their ambitions for transparency and simplicity in early education funding. In November last year, the Government allocated the first £525 million to local authorities for two-year-olds early education in 2013-14. For the first time, the Department was able to publish details of how much every local authority is allocated. It could point to an average national hourly rate that underpinned the allocations. That hourly rate should translate into attractive rates for providers locally. The national average rate of £5.09 per hour compares favourably with the £4.13 that the Daycare Trust found in its 2012 child care costs survey, which providers are charging parents per hour. In fact, £5.09 still compares favourably to the £4.26 per hour in its recently published 2013 survey.

I was interested to hear my hon. Friend say that there was evidence that some local authorities might not be funding properly at the full rate. The Government were clear that they wanted local authorities to pass on the new two-year-olds funding in full at the hourly rate. The Department does not recognise the problem of local authorities not passing on the rate in full, but we will

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collect data on the hourly rates and publish them as soon as possible, and the point that he made today will reinforce that. It will enable providers and others to see exactly what rates local authorities are funding at and to challenge local authorities where there is a discrepancy between the rates that we are funding at nationally and the rates on the ground. If he has any further evidence on that from his area, we would be delighted to see it.

My hon. Friend explained with great clarity the concern of many nurseries that local authorities hold back too much of the funding allocated by Government. In 2012-13, the latest year for which we have data, local authorities retained centrally £160 million out of total dedicated schools grant spending of £2.1 billion. That masked great variations, however, with many retaining little or nothing. Let me be clear: some central spending by local authorities is important in, and indeed critical to, delivering the Government’s vision of early education transforming the life chances of many children. Central spending is often used to purchase, for example, specialist help for providers working with children with special educational needs or other additional educational needs to help them to access early education. Such spending is frequently welcomed by providers and must continue.

Equally, in the current economic climate, we must ensure that every penny is being used effectively. For 2013-14, we introduced, for the first time, the requirement that local authorities must secure schools forum approval for centrally retained early years spending. That gives power back to local providers, but we want to go further.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are consulting on reforming the local authority role in free early education. In that consultation, the Government

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propose two reforms to how local authorities retain funding. First, we propose a new definition specifying what authorities can and cannot retain funding for. In “More great childcare”, the Government were clear that the role of local authorities in early education should be refocused on tackling disadvantage to ensure that all children can experience high-quality early education. In other areas, the local authority role should be more limited. For example, the Government want Ofsted to be the sole arbiter of quality in early years, rather than replicating the job that local authorities have done in the past.

Secondly, we are seeking views on percentage limits on how much of their early years budget authorities may retain for those purposes. We will take into account fully the views of providers responding to the consultation.

The Government also want a simple and clear funding offer, so that nurseries know and understand the funding that they receive and bureaucracy is kept to an absolute minimum. We are consulting on proposals to simplify and rationalise the early years single funding formula. From that, I am confident that we will put in place changes to introduce a simpler and less burdensome system of funding. I have already touched on the complexities and historical problems of early education funding for three and four-year-olds. The changes will resolve those problems. I hope that my hon. Friend will take up the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary further to develop the points he made so powerfully today.

Question put and agreed to.

5.30 pm

Sitting adjourned.