House of Commons debate on Government proposals for the English Baccalaureate on
16 January 2013
as reported in Hansard and extracted (and commented on) by Michael Bassey
This debate was on an opposition motion, proposed by Stephen Twigg on behalf of the Labour party.
That this House notes the breadth of opposition from business, the creative industries, champions of vocational education and schools to the Government’s plans to introduce English Baccalaureate Certificates; and calls on the Government to rethink its plans.
Stephen Twigg, shadow secretary of state for Education, opened the debate by saying:
This debate strikes at the heart of the challenge facing our education system. The central question for the debate is: how do our schools best equip the young people of today to play their part in the economy and society of tomorrow?
[MB comment: This was a good start. He went on to accept the idea of a ‘true baccalaureate’ as at the centre of the debate.]
Labour believes that a true baccalaureate approach, one that recognises skills, knowledge and the core characteristics needed to succeed in the future, should be at the centre of this debate. Although as a country we have made great progress in improving education, there is still a lot for us to do as we strive to compete with the highest performing jurisdictions.
[MB comment: So, the ‘true baccalaureate’ is about international competitiveness. He developed this argument.]
Our future economic competitiveness relies on our ability to produce aspirational citizens and young people with the skills, knowledge, resilience and character to get this country ahead in the world. That is why we have called this debate.
[MB comment: I know that this is the conventional wisdom and one shared by the present Government. In the debate the Minister for Schools, David Laws, said: "We must have a qualifications system that matches the best of any country in the world, and that challenges and prepares our young people to reach world-class standards." I am one of a growing minority that believes this view of our education system is wrong. As my website www.convivial-politics-could-save-the-world.com sets out to show, and my recent books Education for the Inevitable: schooling when the oil runs out and Convivial Policies for the Inevitable: global warming, peak oil, economic chaos elaborate, it is time to eschew economic growth and work to build sustainable communities with a high quality of life for all in a more-or-less energy and food self-sufficient country. Instead of educating for an entrepreneurial generation that will invent and sell goods and services around the world (which common sense should tell us is a diminishing scenario since many other countries are doing the same in a world beset by global warming and resource depletion) we should be educating for a sustainable future. But unless Caroline Lucas, of the Green Party, had spoken (which she didn’t in this debate) I think no one in the House of Commons would have challenged the ‘education-for-economic-growth’ argument.]
To return to Twigg’s speech, he stressed the need for consensus on what he called ‘sustainable curriculum reform’ and recognized that that should happen before decisions are made on assessment.
If we look back to the introduction of GCSEs in the 1980s, we will see that they were established with cross-party support. I share the concerns expressed by the former Education Secretary, the Conservative peer Lord Baker, that rushed reforms, lacking political consensus, do not offer the best way forward. We believe that the Government’s plans to introduce a narrow subject range of English baccalaureate certificates will undermine our future economic position, not strengthen it.
Concerns about both the substance and implementation of EBCs have been widely voiced. They have been voiced by business, including by the CBI and those in the creative industries and the knowledge economy. …
Excluding crucial subjects such as design and technology, computer science, engineering and arts subjects will not promote innovation in our schools. Those subjects are important to our future as a country, including our future economy.
He also announced the setting up an enquiry by Labour.
Yes, we need reform in our system of assessment and qualifications. That is why Labour has asked Professor Chris Husbands from the Institute of Education at the University of London to lead an independent review of 14-to-19 education in England. This is the exact approach that has been taken by the Labour Government in Wales.
[MB comment: Good. At last we have politicians recognising that academics have a significant part to play in educational reform and Professor Husbands is probably the right person to lead this review. But why couldn’t Twigg have mentioned the fact that Professor Richard Pring, of Oxford University, led a team of eight researchers, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and published the report of a five year study in 2009 called Education for All: the future of education and training for 14-19 year olds and subsequently Pring wrote The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All which was published at the end of last year. Is London being asked by Labour to reinvent the wheel – or perhaps to show that it is a different shape to that of Oxford? And why, in a debate lasting over three hours, did no MP mention this. Have none of them read Pring’s work? ]
Twigg then undermined the forthcoming review by announcing Labour’s intention to create a ‘technical baccalaureate’ at 18 and ‘English and maths for all’ up to that age. It led to a flurry of interruptions by MPs about vocational education and the Wolf report on this – which rather detracted from the intended substance of the debate.
In winding up his opening speech, Twigg described the Government’s baccalaureate proposals as:
A narrowing of the curriculum, backward looking in terms of assessment, and a policy for the few, not the many … week after week we see increasing opposition, whether from business, entrepreneurs, teachers or parents …
[MB comment: He didn’t mention that 22 professors of Education had written to the Prime Minister making a substantial case that the Baccalaureate proposals will cause ‘a perfect storm’ and urging him to ‘step in and stop this reorganisation’. ]
In total 29 MPs spoke in the debate.
The Minister for Schools, David Laws, followed Mr Twigg and said “I praise him for his candour” before launching an attack on the policies of the previous government.
I thought I heard [Mr Twigg] acknowledge that the qualifications framework and examination system that we inherited from the previous Government were seriously flawed and ripe for reform. I think I heard him acknowledge that there were problems with the system of modularisation. I think I heard him welcome the radical and dramatic reforms—many of which seek to deal with problems that emerged under the last Government—pioneered by Alison Wolf as a consequence of her report. I thought I even heard him acknowledge, … that the last Government were wrong to deny state schools the ability to use IGCSE qualifications, which are now used widely in the system.
Partly as a consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s candour, therefore, and partly because of the forensic cross-questioning he received from those on the Government Benches, we have made a lot of progress in establishing that the existing examination and qualification system is deeply flawed and that we are right to be pioneering change.
Kevin Brennan (Labour) intervened asking whether the Minister remembered that he had said this in February 2010:
There has been a breathtaking rise in performance in education since 1997. Inner London was a basket case pre-97; ninety per cent of students were failing to get decent grades at 16 back then. The improvement’s been astonishing, dramatic, unbelievable.
Mr Laws brushed this aside.
In spite of the rather political exchanges we have heard from the Opposition Front-Bench team, I want to say that, as Lord Adonis has recently written, education should not be a political football. …
[MB comment: Many others have said the same including 14 professors of Education in a letter to The Guardian in April 2010]
Our ambition, quite simply, is to raise standards for all young people. We believe that the majority of young people are capable of leaving education with a wide range of good qualifications at good grades. We are also determined to close the wholly unacceptable gap between outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils and the rest, which is why we have introduced the pupil premium and many other reforms. …
If we are to realise this ambition for the schools system, however, we also need to ensure that our education system is delivering in at least three key areas. First, we need to know that the improvements in exam results are real and do not simply reflect grade inflation and falling standards. Secondly, we need to ensure that young people are choosing subjects because of their quality and relevance, not simply in order to meet league table and accountability targets, as I fear was the case for a period under the last Government. Finally, but crucially, we need to ensure that the content and stretch of qualifications is appropriate for the highly competitive environment—the shadow Secretary of State talked about this—that we will face in this century. …
To be blunt, most people consider that, in the three areas I have just set out … the last Labour Government failed to deliver. They failed to maintain standards, and confidence in standards, over time; … they failed to ensure that children were always choosing qualifications for the right reasons; … and they failed to ensure that the rigour and stretch of our qualifications kept pace with the best in the world.
[MB comment: Had he forgotten that a few minutes earlier he had said, ‘education should not be a political football’]
Our reforms combine rigour with a commitment to fairness and social mobility. They will raise the bar, but they will not shut the door on any young people. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether we would have a system in which a defined proportion of students would be able to get particular grades. I can assure him that we are absolutely not going down that route.
[MB comment: That is a clear statement that will be widely welcomed – and needs to be remembered]
Let me say a little more about the case for change. GCSEs were a bold and radical development in education policy. They introduced the idea that all children, whatever their background or ability, could sit a single exam in all academic subjects and receive a grade recognising their progress. GCSEs replaced a system that was fundamentally unfair, in that it divided children into winners and losers at an early age and helped only a minority of students to prepare for further study and decent jobs. The crucial principle of universality is one that we as a coalition Government are determined to retain. … There will be no return to the divisive, two-tier system of the past. … Twenty-five years on, the GCSE is now ready for change. Students and teachers are working harder than ever, but not all are achieving qualifications that properly reflect their ability and support them to progress successfully.
Graham Stuart (Conservative) intervened to ask:
why abolition of one suite of GCSEs is the right response, rather than simply introducing the measures and changes he has itemised for GCSEs as they stand?
The Minister replied:
In some of the core subjects where we are making these changes there is value in signalling the extent to which they will be improved and varied from the existing GCSE qualifications. There is some merit in underlining—through a change in how we describe these qualifications—how fundamental the changes could be.
Asked by Mr Stuart whether this ‘signalling’ does not imply that the many other GCSE subjects are also ‘broken’ the Minister said that they had no intention of allowing the other subjects to be ‘downgraded’ and added:
we will ask Ofqual to consider how these new higher standards can be used as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications, beyond these subjects at 16, to replace GCSEs”.
[MB comment: So it seems that every subject is for the melting pot.]
The Minister then spoke at some length about the reforms in progress.
I believe there has been a real improvement in education over the last two decades, but it is now widely accepted in all parts of the House that there has also been grade inflation. …
We have started to address the weaknesses of the current GCSEs, which privilege bite-size learning over deep understanding. Ofqual, the independent exams regulator, has already acted to make the GCSE more rigorous—for example, by tackling the re-sit culture and restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar. We have introduced the English baccalaureate, which has powerfully incentivised more pupils to study key academic subjects. …
We believe in the professionalism of teachers and those who set exams. They want to do what is best for students—rigorous teaching and rigorous assessment—but the system they are currently working in is flawed.
The combination of competition between exam boards and a high-stakes accountability mechanism in the form of league tables has led to a race to the bottom by exam boards. We must address that. In our consultation, we proposed introducing single exam boards for each subject, with franchises given to the winning exam board after a competitive process. …
We will shortly be publishing a consultation on how we will reform the accountability system for schools. … As part of the accountability consultation, we will consider floor standards and incentives to take high-value qualifications. We will also consider appropriate incentives for schools to teach all their students well, rather than focusing only on students near the C/D borderline.
The Minister said that he would consider some of the issues raised during the Government’s consultation (which ended on 10 December).
The Secretary of State and I are determined that these new, more rigorous qualifications will meet the needs of the vast majority of students who are currently served by the GCSE. The reforms and improvements to education that we are making will enable more students to operate at a higher level—that is exactly their point—and, as exams become more rigorous, we will equip students to clear that higher bar. So there is absolutely no reason to believe that there will be a substantial change in the proportion of students achieving a good pass. Indeed, our clear aim is that, over time, a higher proportion of children will secure a good pass.
[MB comment: During World War II someone told Churchill how to destroy the U-boat menace. “Drain all the water out of the sea and the U-boats will be visible on the sea bed.” When asked how the water should be drained he said, “I’ve given you the idea, your people must solve that one”.
The Minister seems to be saying to teachers, “We’re giving you the aim, now you must find out how to get there.”]
In response to the widely expressed concerns about education in the arts, he said:
The Department for Education remains fully committed to ensuring that pupils receive a well-rounded education, with high-quality music, art and design, drama and dance all playing an important part. … We have made a deliberate decision to keep up to 30% of the school timetable available for the teaching of non-EBC subjects. … We acknowledge that there are subjects for which 100% reliance on formal written examinations is not the best form of assessment, and we will be working with Ofqual, the Arts Council and others to review qualifications outside the core EBacc subjects.
On vocational education he said:
I also want to make it clear that this Government fully support high-quality vocational study. … We have already committed to improving the quality of vocational education so that those 14 to 16-year-olds who are better suited to vocational qualifications can be confident that those qualifications will be comparable with the best academic qualifications in terms of content, assessment and opportunities to progress. …
He wound up his speech by indicating that “final decisions” on the EBac have not yet been made, but that change now is essential.
Securing the right qualifications and examination system for young people in this country is one of the most important tasks for our Department, so it is absolutely right that we should take time carefully to consider all the contributions and views before we make our final decisions. What is clear is that the current system cannot continue as it is.
Pat Glass, a Labour member of the Education Select Committee, noting that the EBac will restrict and limit qualifications, said
subjects such as RE and music have a huge role to play in underpinning other vital subjects—philosophy, ethics, mathematics, even medicine—in later and higher learning. I find it strange to hear the Minister say that he is not downgrading these subjects. How can some subjects not be downgraded if other subjects are being upgraded? That simply does not make sense.
She said that replacing GCSEs with a higher qualification at the same time as changing the way all examinations are administered will be ‘a recipe for chaos and disaster in the system’. She went on to say
What is so important about GCSEs is that they are examinations for all pupils of all abilities. … There was cross-party support for their introduction in this House, supported by teachers, head teachers, universities and learned bodies, parents and employers. I fail to see any such consensus on the introduction of a replacement for GCSEs
Then she attacked the Secretary of State.
The evidence presented to the Education Committee has demonstrated that while reform to GCSEs is required—indeed, periodic reform to any qualification is required—the brand is not broken and that it is the Secretary of State himself through his language and actions who is intentionally trying to damage the brand beyond repair for his own ends.
She ended by saying:
One insider in the system recently told me confidentially, “When the blood bath happens, I expect this Secretary of State will be long gone.” Important though they are, we are not talking about trains, electricity lines or reservoirs; we are talking about our children and their futures.
She was followed by the chair of the Select Committee, Graham Stuart (Conservative) who started his speech asking
What are the aims of Government policy in education? There are two: to raise standards for all, and to close the gap between rich and poor. I think those two aims bring the whole House together in support.
While agreeing with many of the criticisms of the current system made by Ministers he said:
We attempt to define what is wrong with the current system, perhaps spending rather too long on that, and we then talk about the nirvana we would like to move towards, doing very little on what is in front of us now—the mechanics of the changes. We do not give them enough protection because we get into a fight with one side defending its period in office and another side pointing out that there are some serious problems and asking whether the other side is going to deny it.
It was an apt comment applicable to a number of contributions to the debate! Later he said that
We have had an announcement on new qualifications before we have had the findings of the secondary curriculum review. I think that looks like putting the cart before the horse.
He then asked how it could be that the EBac would actually raise standards.
The Government wants to set the bar higher. … But if we move the metric up, what is it about the measure that will change teacher quality? It can have some effect, but let us face it, is it the key driver of improvement in education quality? I do not think so. If we exclude equivalencies, in 2011 48% of children did not get five good GCSEs including English and maths. If the GCSE currency is so bankrupt, weak and devalued, and yet half of children are failing to achieve that measure, it is not obvious that pushing it up will magically lift performance …
His main message was
I ask the Government to consider some slowing down.
[MB comment: As such he could have supported the motion under discussion, but because of the partisan nature of Parliament, as a Conservative MP, he voted against it.]
Ian Mearns (Labour) gave a detailed critique of the proposals which deserve quoting from extensively.
As a member of the Education Committee, I have on many occasions expressed my serious concern about the introduction of the English baccalaureate in secondary schools, which occurred initially in 2010 without any consultation with education professionals, and was implemented retrospectively, to the detriment of many improving schools, who were then pushed further down league tables—tables that, I believe, are of questionable use when it comes to adding value to our education system. Can the Secretary of State produce the huge weight of evidence on which he has developed the policy, because I am struggling to find much of it?
… I am troubled by many parts of the proposals, which I will attempt to go through systematically.
First, on the consultation regarding EBCs that ended in December, members of the Education Committee, parents, students, governors, businesses, teachers, head teachers and other education professionals have expressed considerable concern that the proposals have been rushed through and that the consultation parameters were too narrow and did not allow for comprehensive discussion. Many, including me, believe that the proposals surrounding examinations should not have been decided upon, and certainly not introduced, until the forthcoming review of secondary school accountability and the secondary national curriculum had taken place.
Another result of the policy will be the introduction of a two-tier education system, in which pupils who do not achieve the EBacc will be given a statement of achievement that will not reflect their true ability or potential to employers and colleges, who will more than likely deem a certificate of achievement as inferior. I am afraid that that is a sad fact of life. That is largely owing to creative and vocational subjects being disregarded and assessed as in some way second class. … Such an attitude to creative and vocational subjects is disgraceful and worrying, given our country’s history of ingenuity and technological entrepreneurship. I question a policy that places the importance of Hebrew and classical Greek above that of business studies, information and communications technology, or design and technology. … In restricting subject options, we are also restricting pupil potential. …
Another aspect of the policy that concerns me is the likelihood that, in the case of most subjects, there will be no assessment other than a three-hour end-of-course examination. That, too, highlights the two-tier nature of the policy. Many pupils thrive on an examination system that involves a combination of modular work and examinations. By introducing a qualification based purely on exams, the Government is almost casting aside all the pupils who do not excel at examinations but have a flair for coursework. I believe that that is counter-productive, and that it will be detrimental to a large proportion of young people. …
In my opinion, too much emphasis is being placed on employability. I believe that we should be asking ourselves what education is for, and concluding that it should be about trying to provide a system which, while preparing young people for work and working life, also produces well-rounded human beings. … Let us help to prepare our young people to thrive and contribute to our community, rather than trying to retrofit them through a citizenship service. Let us try to do that while we are educating them.
I believe that, if we are to answer the question of what our education system is for, we should begin by revisiting the Tomlinson review of 2004, and using it as a starting point for the fashioning of education policy for the future. I think that that would be greeted warmly by a great many people in the education profession. …
During an Education Select Committee session, the Secretary of State suggested that it would be possible for more children to succeed in a more difficult exam because they would be “taught better”. I found that response almost delusional. I believe that such comments devalue the hard work of our teachers, who work in difficult, emotionally draining environments, and many of whom already give far more than what is expected of them.
It is all very well constructing an education system and a menu of examinations that may or may not fulfil the needs and aspirations of thousands of clones modelled in the image of the Secretary of State for Education, but the vast majority of children, I am glad to say, are not like that.
[MB comment: Almost alone among the speakers in this debate Ian Mearns understands that the EBac of 2010 was a different animal to that of 2012 – the first affecting schools placing in league tables, the second affecting individual students. Unlike the Secretary of State, he clearly values the opinions of the teaching profession and the many others who have serious concerns about the proposed changes. He has expressed many of these concerns. And he recognizes that dismissal of the Tomlinson review by his own party was a mistake.]
Nick Gibb, the Minister of State, then spoke. Here are extracts from his speech.
I think that those on the other side of the debate are exaggerating the consequences [of the EBac]. …
Let me address the allegation that there is a lack of evidence for the necessity of the reforms. There is, in fact, ample evidence. Both the Royal Society of Chemistry and Durham University have found that students of similar ability are being awarded higher grades than their equivalents in the past. … During the short period between 2005 and 2011, the proportion of A to C grades in maths and English rose from 46% to 60%. During the same period, we were falling in the league tables of the programme for international student assessment. …
[MB comment: It is not clear, and perhaps can never be clear, to what extent the ‘higher grades’ are mainly due to ‘grade inflation’ or improved teaching and hardwork by students. Ofqual is now taking vigorous steps to maintain standards and avoid grade inflation in GCSE assessment. It is not clear why replacing GCSEs by EBCs will reduce the likelihood of grade inflation.]
One of the most damaging aspects of the last Government’s GCSE reforms was the introduction of modularisation. They introduced that despite the evidence that it leads to more teaching to the test, that it reduces curriculum flexibility for teachers, and that it fragments knowledge. It also increases the number of resits. Research by Rodeiro and Nádas in 2012 found that pupils admitted that they would have worked harder had there been only one chance for them to pass the exam. That is why the Government were right to end GCSE modularisation for those starting their courses in September 2012.
[MB comment: This is a very one-sided account of the pros and cons of modularization. A paper by the two authors cited here of 2010 suggests that nationally the discontinuation of modular GCSE English appears likely to result in a reduction in 2014 of between 3 and 7.5 per cent at grade C and between 11 and 13.5 per cent at grade D.]
In 2007, under the last Government, the quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, introduced wholesale reform to the secondary curriculum at key stages 3 and 4, which fed into revised GCSEs. We moved from a knowledge-based curriculum to a skills or competence-based curriculum, which, in essence, resulted in a greater focus on the skills of learning and how to learn, rather than the knowledge inherent in a subject. This 2007 skills-based curriculum has done enormous damage to our secondary schools. … I fear the Labour party would want to take us back to that position if it were to win the next election. …
I am also worried that schools are not setting enough internal tests and end-of-year exams in years 7, 8 and 9. Testing is important, and I was alarmed when I heard references to the Tomlinson proposals, as in the long term they would eliminate any external examination at 16, which would be a retrograde step ….
I urge the House to vote against the Opposition motion.
Fiona Mactaggart (Labour) urged the Secretary of State to introduce a ‘sixth pillar’ to the EBac – the creative subjects.
Every piece of research since he has introduced this measure by which we judge our schools shows that schools are cutting their education in creativity and reducing the number of their teachers qualified to teach these subjects. That is betraying future generations and it will damage our country’s international achievement, economic success and, in particular, the success of our creative industries. I beg him to think again, because I think he is capable of doing so and I think he is big enough to do so.
Andrew Percy (Conservative) a former teacher and local councilor covered a number of issues.
As many people have said, the previous Government certainly achieved some great progress in education and in standards in this country. However, at the end of their 13 years in power an awful lot had not been achieved and some great challenges had not yet been responded to. … The measures were continuously changed and, as happens with all Governments, we ended up focused entirely on the league tables.
The one thing they did do was create an inspection regime that punished schools for happening to be in deprived areas. I did not find that the inspection regime helped teachers; it seemed to be more designed to catch teachers out.
We cannot deny that in terms of literacy and numeracy there is something seriously wrong in this country. … Something had to be done about modular exams, because they have contributed to a slip in standards. So I support a lot of the thrust of where the Government are heading. However, one issue I have a big problem with is the implementation of the EBacc. We are told that a lot of the elements of it are not going to be compulsory, but the reality is that in the teaching profession schools teach to whatever the measure is. The measure will become the EBacc, as it is becoming already.
Among the guff and nonsense in Every Child Matters, the previous Government talked a lot about a child-centred education, and I would like us in this debate to get back to that. We have talked a great deal about what Government want to see. We have talked about what parents want to see. We have talked somewhat about what employers want to see. But at the centre of all this should be what is best for a particular child. For some children, delivering the EBacc and giving them access to it will be appropriate, but for others that is simply not the case. ... We have to factor into the discussion the child’s background and the possibility that they will not have support at home.
We are, in effect, setting some children up to fail by forcing them on to a subject that they will not get support with at home, that they do not need in the future or for the basis—
Nick Gibb interrupted:
I am alarmed at what he is saying. Our schools have to be able to redress the background that those children have and make up for the lack of support at home in the school. That is what Government must achieve to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds.
Andrew Percy continued:
I could not agree more, but we will set young people to fail if we force them down a route on which they will not be supported. In education it is not as simple as saying, “This is the curriculum offered at Eton—the gold standard. This is what we must offer in this school. If the teachers just worked a little harder and if everyone tried a bit harder, we would get the same outcomes.” We would not and we have to understand and accept that. We have to move beyond the theory of what would be lovely to deliver, and deal with the reality of what is deliverable in our schools.
[MB comment: His appeal to “deal with the reality of what is deliverable in our schools” was perhaps the truest and most memorable statement in the whole debate. No doubt his party bosses were displeased!]
The one plea that I would make, which is often made by the profession, is that when we get through this, we must have in our schools a period of stability so that everybody—parents, young people and the teaching profession—knows where they are.
[MB comment: Another valid point – clearly coming from his past experience as a school teacher.]
Steve Read (Labour)
The Department for Education seems to have a habit of not listening to people. … In a world where both China and India, every year, produce more new graduates than there are in total in this country, we need to identify, nurture and utilise the talents and abilities of every child in our country. Without that, we will be unable to compete in the coming century because we will fail to harness the talent and unlock the potential of every growing citizen. …
[MB comment: another one who sees England in competition with the rest of the world and expects education to be the answer!]
It is critical that England’s exam system commands the support and confidence of the whole country, not least parents and students, schools, the teaching profession, and business. These proposals do not achieve that, and this rushed consultation is no way to secure the world-standard examination system that our young people need and deserve. I hope very much that the Secretary of State will listen to these voices.
Instead of looking forward to the demands of coming decades, these proposals look backwards to the failed two-tier examination system of decades past, a system that classed children as successes or failures without recognising that every child is different and that every child has something to contribute. It also fails to value subjects that are critical to our future economic success.
Dan Rogerson (Liberal Democrat)
We should be clear that we have excellent teachers, probably the best qualified and best motivated that we have ever had, who are doing a great job. If results have improved, it may be in part because there has been competition between exam boards and changes in assessment patterns. It has also been because of improvements in teaching—the Secretary of State has acknowledged that, and I do too—and because young people themselves have worked incredibly hard to achieve those results.
[MB comment: Three cheers for his deserved praise for both teachers and students.]
I hope—I am sure it is true—that we as a Government will look across the ability range to make sure that whatever people are capable of achieving, they are supported in doing. It is not just about the very high flyers; social mobility is about making sure that everybody gets to where they could go. That is good for them, but it is also good for us as a country to ensure that we are making use of their skills and talents in future. We want a system that allows them to achieve, supports them in doing so, and does not dispirit or disillusion them in any way.
[MB comment: Has he ever reflected on “social mobility is about making sure that everybody gets to where they could go”? Hundreds of people could carry out the duties of the Secretary of State for Education, and indeed of the Prime Minister, but only one at a time can get there.]
Nick Dakin (Labour)
Mr Dakin raised the important question of “why at 16?”
GCSEs were brought in as a “leaving the system and going into employment” exam, and then that framework was changed so that people leave not at 16 but at 17 or 18. That raises serious questions about what these exams should be like and who they are for. … Why have such a wide range of exams at 16 if they exist only for the accountability of institutions?
He also asked what was happening to personalized learning which had not be mentioned before.
I fear that we are moving away from the strength of personalised learning, which was beginning to blossom. It was not perfect and issues needed to be dealt with, but there was a consensus behind it that was driving greater achievement, greater progression and greater performance in the post-education world. We are in danger of moving back to another age of greater failure. …
He went on to argue that we should keep GCSEs and work to improve, not destroy them.
The Chair of the Education Committee reminded us of the quality of the brand of GCSEs and of their performance. We may want them to perform better, but he reminded us that they are a brand that deliver and perform quite well, that we could work with and develop them better, and that what people involved in the consultation are saying is, “Let’s get on with it and let’s make it better together, but without tearing up the past or the present.”
Chris Skidmore (Conservative ) made a partisan speech attacking the wording of the motion with a long list of quotes from people and organisations who had expressed support for the EBac proposals. He was interrupted by Lisa Nandy (Labour):
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the consultation for the Education Committee’s report on the English baccalaureate certificate, which was heavily subscribed to by people and organisations outside the House, not a single response was overwhelmingly supportive?
Of his many derogatory statements just one will indicate his tone. He said of Stephen Twigg:
It is obvious that he has no understanding of the current debate or if what is going on in the wider world.
Skidmore ended with:
We are in a global race in which qualifications from the 20th century will no longer equip us with the skills and knowledge needed for the modern world. We need not only to look outwards and emulate countries that are powering ahead, fuelled by a rigorous education system that will not accept second best, but we must also look inwards at ourselves and recognise that if we do not reform our education system we will be letting down future generations of pupils who will be competing in this modern, international world. That is why we need reform—we recognise that the world has changed, and we must change with it.
[MB comment: No comment. I put my viewpoint on this cloud cuckoo land argument earlier!]
Bill Esterson (Labour), in contrast to the previous speaker, made a sequence of educational points about what young people need in today’s world.
I want to pick up on the theme pursued by other Members who talked about preparation for work and for life, and ask the Secretary of State some questions that I hope he is considering. What are qualifications for? What is education for at age 16 and beyond? What are we trying to achieve with our qualifications? What is in it for young people and for the country? In a globally competitive world in which we struggle to keep up with countries that, until recently, were regarded as developing, we have different needs for our future work force. In a world with technology on a scale that many us never imagined when we were at school, the needs of young people are completely different from those considered when GCSEs were created. …
Employers tell me that they want young people who can solve problems and who have strong communication skills and an ability to get on with others, but good sets of GCSE passes—or other written exam passes—do not necessarily correspond with those three skills. Businesses need staff who will help them to thrive, and we also need people who will start and grow their own businesses. We need excellence in the services that support our creative industries and our high-tech manufacturing that will produce the jobs and growth that will enable this country to thrive and our people to enjoy prosperity.
There is no question but that we need academic qualifications. High standards in English and maths are at the cornerstone of success for this country, but so too are qualifications in engineering and the arts. The young people I speak to want to study vocational subjects—engineering, design and technology, music, art, catering and hairdressing. Those subjects are crucial for young people who want to pursue their chosen career and a country that wants its economy to succeed. In short, success in school and beyond results from the combination of academic and vocational study, and our qualification system needs to reflect that mix. …
The Secretary of State’s proposals indicate a preference for an end-of-year exam, with no assessment or coursework, in a number of subjects, but in the real world how useful is the ability to succeed in a three-hour written exam? I would question whether it is of much use at all. In many jobs, the ability to perform tasks is essential, and, yes, success in work is closely linked to an ability to perform under pressure, often under time pressure. However, in the long run it is the quality of the product or service that an organisation delivers that is critical to success. The role of the individual in contributing to that success does not appear, as far as I can see, to be in any way linked to the ability to pass an exam.
The ability to solve problems, to think on one’s feet, and to communicate effectively face to face, on the phone, by e-mail, in a letter or in a report are all essential skills in the world of work and outside it. They all depend on good English, yet there will be no spoken communication element in the EBC, no testing of real world skills linked to the use of IT in English and no testing of key communication skills such as customer service, which is a vital skill in today’s world. I am not saying that GCSEs were perfect, but surely we are moving further away from a qualification and examination system that measures those real world skills, not closer to it.
Damian Hinds (Conservative)
I must say that we new MPs are used to seeing rather stronger worded motions than today’s, which makes me wonder whether the Opposition’s heart is really in it. The motion talks in general terms about requiring a rethink, but without specifying or committing to the things that they think are wrong and the things they would do differently. …
[MB comment: I agree. The motion could have ended by calling on the Government to halt its plans and to set up a Royal Commission of all parties and professional and public interests to reflect on the issues expressed by the previous speaker and put forward plans for a National Education Service based on a national consensus.]
Hinds also made an interesting point about the costs of examinations.
Schools have been paying £100,000 a year on examination entries—a number that doubled in just a few years. It is worth reflecting that had that not happened, we could have had a lot more teachers in this country.
Neil Carmichael (Conservative) commented on the extent of continuity between the two ‘Front Benches’ which he said he realized:
when I was reading Lord Adonis’s recent book on education.
[MB comment: This was the only reference in the whole debate to a contributor having read a book about education though several had read Prof Alison Wolf’s recent report on vocational training]
He expressed strong support for the EBacc and saw a key role for Ofsted in protecting the non-Ebacc.
One of the myths that needs to be completely debunked is that the Ebacc will stop other subjects being taught. That is clearly not the case, because most, if not all, schools also offer a wider variety of subjects. That is what they are supposed to do, and what they will continue to do. I do not believe that enough attention has been paid to the role of Ofsted in ensuring that schools are going beyond the Ebacc subjects. We need to be much clearer about the process involved in the inspection regime, and about the impact that the Ebacc will have on the delivery of other subjects.
Kevin Brennan (Labour) the shadow Schools Minister, winding up for the proposers, larded his speech with amusing reflections on the interactions of personalities and policy proposals.:
It is the wrong reform, because it does not address, as we have heard overwhelmingly from Members on both sides of the House, the real issues and challenges for education at 16.
It is more and more clear that the Government’s proposed EBacc certificate is the wrong reform on the wrong timetable. What is more, the Secretary of State has got it the wrong way round. In one sense, I am certain that he agrees that it is the wrong reform, because we know that it is not the reform that he wanted. He announced the reform that he wanted using the now traditional method for making important Department for Education announcements—via a leak to the The Mail on Sunday. He was celebrating his great news triumph when word got through to the Deputy Prime Minister in his hotel room in Rio.
The Deputy Prime Minister was so furious with the Education Secretary that he not only made him withdraw his plans and modify them into the incoherent mess that we have been hearing about today, but made him sack his trusted lieutenant, the former schools Minister, and replace him with the current part-time schools Minister, who I think is off in the Cabinet Office doing his other job—a Lib Dem incubus in the Secretary of State’s lair.
The EBacc is also the wrong reform because it does not seriously examine the purpose and relevance of high-stakes public examinations at 16 when the participation age has been raised to 18. That topic is causing a veritable buzz in the world of education. The Secretary of State needs to listen not just to his closest advisers and cronies and his own soliloquies.
We need a proper debate and consensus around reform, which addresses the key issues that the Chair of the Education Committee has often cited, as he did again today—in particular the long tail of underachievement. Perhaps we should rename the EBacc certificate the GOVE—general opposition to vocational education—because the Secretary of State has nothing to say on how we can have a gold standard in vocational education. That is why we have had to take the initiative in developing the Tech Bacc, in which he seems so uninterested.
What traumatic event in his past could have led him to have this seemingly inexplicable aversion to the appropriate use of controlled assessment and his insistence that only written exams should count? Then I remembered—
Michael Gove: - the driving test.
Kevin Brennan: He is ahead of me—he is very quick. The driving test is administered on a basis of a written test combined with a practical controlled assessment, and the Secretary of State failed his driving test on six occasions. And this is the man who does not believe in re-sits! Had the driving test consisted of a course in the theory of driving followed by a three-hour written test, the Secretary of State would no doubt have passed first time, with flying colours. He might have achieved a merit, perhaps even a distinction, maybe an A* for demonstrating his in-depth understanding of the intricacies of the highway code. But would that have made him a better driver, and would the public have been safe with him behind the wheel? Possibly not. …
However, the English baccalaureate certificate proposal is not a product of consensus based on evidence; it is being rushed through to meet a political, not an educational, timetable. That is the wrong recipe for reform, and the right recipe for chaos.
Michael Gove, Conservative Secretary of State for Education spoke briefly to end the debate.
Understandably, the CBI and others have questioned the purpose of assessment at 16. As [Mr Gibb] pointed out in a brilliant speech, it is important that we have rigorous, summative assessment at that stage. The Labour party has questioned the appropriateness of that. If Labour believes we should get rid of proper, rigorous assessment at the age of 16, it should say so. If, as the shadow Secretary of State hinted in an interview in The Guardian, Labour believes we should go back to the 14 to 19 Tomlinson diploma approach, it should say so. Disappointingly, although the critiques mounted from the Opposition Benches had much to recommend them in terms of forensic detail and passion, precious few positive alternatives were offered.
[MB comment: While disagreeing with his judgement ("brilliant") on Mr Gibb’s speech I support his strictures on the Labour party. Labour should have argued for moving external assessment to 18 and put strongly the case for a proper enquiry and need for consensus.]
The Secretary of State tried to dispel Mr Brennan’s denigration of the Coalition’s attitude to vocational education with these words:
An apprenticeship will now be conferred on somebody only where they not only secure English and maths to an acceptable standard, but have an occupationally specific qualification which guarantees or confers mastery in a specific area and can be graded on more than simply a pass-or-fail basis. The fact that this reform was so carefully designed and has been so widely supported underlines our support for improving vocational education.
Unfortunately time for the debate was running out so although Mr Gove said that in the course of the debate a number of misconceptions were repeatedly expressed, the only one he cited was this:
It is important to say that we do not think that every subject should have three-hour exams. Nowhere in our consultation have we said that three, six, nine or 12-hour exams are appropriate. We believe that rigorous examination in academic subjects requires the deployment of end-of-course linear assessment, but there are a variety of subjects, many of them creative, which, as the Arts Council recognised, should be assessed in other ways.
[MB comment: At least this was a positive outcome of the debate]
He then said:
I note that it is 4 o’clock. I hope this conversation can continue. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House for your indulgence and, in particular, I thank the Members who contributed to the debate for the brilliant speeches that I so much enjoyed the opportunity to listen to this afternoon.
Hansard records that:
Question put. The House divided: Ayes 239, Noes 308.
[MB comment: This gives a fascinating example of the poverty that can prevail in Parliamentary debate. Aside from the tribal scrapping (my side right, your side wrong) most of the speeches were based on unchallenged opinion rather than professional evidence. If the speakers had read some of the recent books demonstrating how testing, league tables and performance targets are damaging all-round education and then interviewed some teachers, they could have focused their speeches on the dire reality of schools – as experienced by teachers and students, and widely recognised by parents. Suggested reading for future debates: Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching: from political visions to classroom reality (Bangs, MacBeath and Galton, 2011); School Wars: the battle for Britain’s education (Benn, 2011); From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: the democratic route (Coffield and Williamson, 2011); Radical Education and the Common School: a democratic alternative (Fielding and Moss, 2011), The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All (Pring, 2013); and two American studies - Not for Profit: why democracy needs the humanities (Nussbaum, 2010); The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Ravitch 2010). And perhaps I may add my own: Education for the Inevitable: schooling when the oil runs out (Bassey, 2011). Had the debate been underpinned by some of these readings the ‘rethink’ called for by the motion could have morphed into a ‘halt’ followed by a major enquiry starting from the question posed by Professor Pring in his book: “What counts as an educated 19 year old in this day and age?”]