HL Deb 22 April 1982 vol 429 cc642-50

4.22 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science about the future of the Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations.

The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the future of the Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have considered this matter in the light of Mrs. Trenaman's report, which we published in October, and the comments on it. We are grateful to her for her review. It has prompted us to give fresh thought to the two functions of the council and the best ways of performing them.

"These functions concern the system of examinations at 16-plus and 18-plus, and the development of the school curriculum. We have concluded that a single body, constituted as an elaborate net- work of committees on the lines of the Schools Council, is not well placed to carry out both functions.

"On examinations, radical changes are required. Greater attention needs to be given to the coordination and supervision of examinations at 16-plus and 18-plus. Ministers need independent authoritative advice on how these examinations might best serve national aims for education. We shall soon need advice on the national criteria now being developed for the 16-plus examinations. The Schools Council is a large body constituted from the nominees of many interest groups. We need a small body comprising persons nominated by the Secretaries of State for their fitness for this particular important responsibility.

"My right honourable friend and I will accordingly discuss with the local authority associations the establishment of an Examinations Council, appointed and funded by the Secretaries of State. I am circulating in the Official Report a note setting out the proposed composition and functions of this council. Copies of the note are available in the Vote Office.

"Curriculum development is a practical and professional activity which goes on continually throughout the education system. This activity needs to be reinforced by a national body with the limited task of identifying gaps, helping to fill them, and assisting with the dissemination of curricular innovation. Such a body—a School Curriculum Development Council—needs to reflect the many interests concerned, particularly the teachers. Its constitution should promote the sensible ordering of priorities, and efficient operation. My right honourable friend and I will discuss with the local authority associations the establishment of such a body. We envisage that it would be appointed by the Secretaries of State after consultation, that it would be financed jointly by local and central Government, but on a more modest scale than the Schools Council, and that most of its members would be teachers. Details of its proposed composition and functions are also set out in the note circulated in the Official Report.

"We will also discuss with the local authority associations interim financial support for completing the necessary existing work of the Schools Council. As the new bodies come into operation, we would bring to an end our financial support of the council. We hope that many of the expert staff of the council will be ready to join the new bodies.

"My right honourable friend and I are ready to discuss our proposals with the teachers' organisations and the other bodies who nominate members to the council's committees. We hope that everyone will co-operate with the local authorities and ourselves in the new arrangements we propose. Our aim is to improve the quality of the examinations system and to promote the effective development of the school curriculum."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

Following is the information referred to:


1. This note gives details about the two bodies proposed in the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Education and Science on 22nd April.

Examinations Council

2. This would co-ordinate and supervise the conduct of examinations at 16-plus and 18-plus. Its functions will be:

3. This body would be formed of about 10 to 15 people drawn from within and outside education, appointed in a personal capacity and unpaid, of good standing in their fields and reflecting a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience. The body will carry out its difficult and important functions through an expert staff. The members will be appointed by the Secretaries of State, after consultation with the interests involved. The body will be funded by the Government.

School Curriculum Development Council

4. Its functions would be:

  1. (a) to inform itself broadly of what curriculum development is currently going on;
  2. (b) to judge its adequacy and to identify gaps and likely future needs;
  3. (c) to stimulate, within a modest budget, work to meet the identified needs; and
  4. (d) to promote the dissemination of curriculum innovation, whether stemming from its own work or from that of others, where adequate means do not already exist.

5. The body might have a majority of teachers in a total membership of about 20, appointed by the Secretaries of State in a personal capacity and unpaid. Some two-thirds of the teachers might be selected from lists of names submitted by the teachers' organisations, and these lists, together with names proposed by other bodies, would also be taken into account in appointing the remaining teachers members. Other members would be appointed to reflect appropriate interests: in particular the local education authorities, further and higher education, industry and commerce. Departmental officials would not be members of the council, but the Secretaries of State would wish to appoint assessors.

6. The Secretaries of State propose that its funding will be partly by the Government and partly by the local authorities collectively. Some of the Government funding would be by way of specific commissions.

7. The council would appoint its own staff.

4.26 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and we, too, are grateful for Mrs. Trenaman's review of the Schools Council, but we are surprised that despite the gratitude that the Secretary of State expresses, he has ignored her recommendation for a national body dealing with both curriculum and examinations. The Schools Council is to be abolished. Instead of Mrs. Trenaman's recommendation for a streamlined council, with the number of committees reduced and the numbers on those committees reduced—with which we were in complete agreement—there are to be two councils—one on examinations and one on the curriculum. The Secretary of State will apparently have great powers of patronage, as the appointments are to be entirely in his hands. This means very much greater control by Ministers and the department.

Which is to be the more important council? I guess the examinations one. I ask, are there to be any teachers on this council? There is no mention of that in the Statement. Will the Examinations Council determine the curriculum?—because that we believe would be most unfortunate and deplorable.

In paragraph 4 the Statement says, on examinations, that radical changes are required. After recent announcements on the 16-plus, one wonders very much what the radical changes will be. Can the Minister enlighten us as to what is meant by that? Is the Examinations Council, which is comprised of only 10 to 15 people, to give—I quote from the Statement—the authoritative advice on how these examinations might best serve national aims for education"? The 16-plus and the 18-plus are mentioned in the Statement, but the 17-plus is not. Are they, too, to be within the province of the new council?

The Curriculum Council, the Statement says, is to identify gaps and likely future needs. Will there be the resources to fill those gaps, if they are identified by the new council? The recent HMI report on the schools would suggest that there would not be the resources.

Lastly, with regard to consultations, were there consultations with the local authority associations before this Statement was drawn up? Since they contribute half the funds for the Schools Council, it would seem right that they should have been consulted. I should like to know the answer to that. Is this really a consultation document? Is it a document that is going to be discussed properly by all involved, and will the Secretary of State be willing to make any changes in his proposals if they do not seem acceptable to all the parties?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and we should like to give it a broad welcome. While not sharing the Government's total reaction against quangos, we believe that very often they are cumbersome bodies with too much to do and with aims that are too muddled. We think that the suggestion of two separate bodies with very specific aims is an intelligent and useful one. Nevertheless, there is the problem of the relationship of each body to the other, which has been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady David. How are they to connect with one another? Which of the two is to have the greater influence? It would in particular be an extremely bad thing if it were the new examinations body that was going to make the running.

I think there is a very wide appreciation now that the education system in this country is very severely hampered by the influence of the universities all the way down in secondary education, and this change would seem as if it might work to reinforce that rather than to relieve it. It might, therefore, for instance, work against the present movement for education for capability and for the arts in education.

So, on the whole, a welcome to this scheme, but I think there are some undoubted snags and we should like to know a bit more about that. There is just one question in particular. Noble Lords will not have had the note that has gone with this Statement, but among the functions of the Education Board is that of considering appeals by individuals. Whereas, of course, it is always welcome, not least on Liberal Benches, that there should be appeals from decisions of all kinds, is it being suggested that there should be a major setting up of appeals from examination results, or what does this particular phrase mean? But on the whole we give a general welcome to the scheme.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord for their reception of this Statement, more so perhaps to the noble Lord than to the noble Baroness. I note that they both approached it with a certain reservation, which is understandable because it is a new document. I can confirm to the noble Baroness that this is in fact an occasion on which Parliament is the first to know the intention of the Government, and the discussion will take place in the light of the Statement which has been made this afternoon in both Houses. She asked about the composition of the Examination Council. This body, it is envisaged, would be formed of about 10 to 15 people drawn from both within and outside education; appointed in a personal capacity, and not paid; of good standing in their fields, and reflecting a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience.

The noble Baroness referred to radical changes. Of course, the final recommendations on the 16-plus examinations are in formulation, and it is our intention to have this new body ready to advise the Government around the turn of the year, when we expect those to be available. The 17-plus is a separate issue, and at this stage, at least, will not come under the purview of either of the new bodies.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, was anxious about the question of the curriculum development aspect of the work being overshadowed by examinations. I think the Government have sufficiently often made the public and the House aware of their own concern that the curriculum should always remain at the centre of the educational system. I have probably responded to all the points that I am able to among those that noble Lords have brought before me at this stage. I think the noble Baroness is going to return to the charge, but I shall resume my seat.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. Our welcome I think rather depends on the relationship that the two new bodies are going to have—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. The Schools Council, after all, was the Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations. In fact, it was given a new constitution in March 1978—that was only four years ago—and one wonders whether it is really necessary to change the arrangements so radically in such a short time. No body is perfect, of course, and the Statement refer; to an elaborate network of committees; but, after all, the Schools Council was concerned with both functions—that is both curriculum and examination—and it is quite possible that some of this elaboration may have been necessary.

I wonder whether it is really necessary and desirable to separate curriculum and examinations to this extent. Our education system is, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has said, examination-led, and it should be the other way round: the exam should be the child of the curriculum, rather than vice versa. I am slightly concerned that this trend may possibly be accentuated by the new proposals.

However, since the Government propose a separate examination body, could I ask the noble Lord three questions? First, are the Government going to shelter behind the new body as an excuse for dragging their feet in the unification of GCE and CSE exams, to which they are committed? Second, will the Government consider proceeding rapidly towards a new vocational or pre-vocational examination at 17, along the lines recommended by the Mansell Committee? Thirdly, will the new body give serious consideration to the Schools Council's proposal for an I-level to run concurrently with A-levels? This was a very valuable suggestion, in my view, which was made by the Schools Council, and I hope it simply will not get lost in the reorganisation.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord for his reception of this Statement. He asks whether it was necessary to carry out such a drastic simplification so soon. I think it might be worth saying that one of the anomalies of the Schools Council is that it was not actually a council at all. It was made up of a finance and priorities committee, with 28 members; a professional committee, with 37 members; and a convocation, with 56 members. That brings it to 121. In addition, there were an examinations committee, a primary curriculum committee, a secondary curriculum committee, a committee for Wales, a publications committee, a parents' liaison group, a further education liaison group and a world of work liaison group, bringing the total number of committee posts up to 305.

That total does not include observers or assessors; nor the members of the 15 subject committees, or the four monitoring and review groups; nor the projects steering groups. The subject committees alone add a potential 231 further members. I recognise that the work is complex, but I think the noble Lord will recognise that the machinery was complex and that there was danger in this of diffusion of the work. Indeed, this is what the Government felt was happening. The appointment, as the noble Lord said, was made in 1978. I need not remind him that this Government came into office in 1979. I think we have operated, if I may say so, with both prudence and despatch in bringing forward this proposed reform at this time.

Baroness David

My Lords, I did ask one question which was not answered by the noble Lord, and that is whether there were to be any teachers on the Examinations Council. The noble Lord read out from the note, which I had read before because I was kindly supplied with it, where it says specifically that on the Curriculum Council there will be teachers; but it does not say that in relation to the Examinations Council.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Baroness knows as well as I do from the note that the people will be appointed after discussion, and at this stage, therefore, it is not possible for me to say who they will be. Also from the note she will know that they will be appointed from both within and without education. I would be very surprised indeed, as would the noble Baroness be, if the people from within education did not include any teachers.

I did not reply to the second of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, about the 17-plus examination. I had intended to make it clear that that is without the purview of the present arrangements. He also raised the point about the A-levels. I regret to say that I have lost the point and will have to write to him, unless he would like to remind me of it now if the House would forbear.

Lord Kilmarnock

Very briefly, my Lords, I asked the noble Lord whether the Schools Council's proposals for an I-level, an intermediate level, to run alongside and concurrently with A-levels, was still under consideration.

Lord Elton

My Lords, this is something which is under consideration. I could not now tell the noble Lord.

Lord Robbins

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to expatiate a little further on the relationship between the two bodies which the Statement says are to be constituted. I did not gather from the Statement or from his elucidatory remarks any conception of this future relationship. Who is to be top dog?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the proposals that the Government have, where they are fairly clear in our minds, are proposals for discussions with local authorities and other interested bodies. I would expect the relationship to develop in the light of those discussions. They do relate to each other, but I would remind your Lordships that we are talking about curriculum development and not curriculum policy. That may seem a subtle distinction, but it alters somewhat the importance of the curricular aspect of the examination function. Both bodies will work to my right honourable friend. My right honourable friend is very well seized of the interrelationship between these two aspects of the work of the current council. It is one of the criticisms that one hears of the existing Schools Council that this relationship is not sufficiently closely reflected in its current workings. I think the noble Lord may be assured that this important aspect will not be lost sight of.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Secretary of State for Wales is responsible for education in Wales in its totality, would it not have been appropriate to set up comparable councils in Wales to deal with examinations and with curricula? To what extent was thought given to this? Is the noble Lord aware that there is a strong tradition of education in Wales, that there are national educational bodies in Wales and that there was expectation that the Government would have given consideration to the Welsh identity in this respect? It was a new opportunity for them to do so. Will the noble Lord convey this view to his right honourable friend if his right honourable friend has not already thought of this? Meanwhile, can he say what Welsh representation it was intended that there should be on these committees?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I shall be happy to take to both my right honourable friends, the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Wales the concern which the noble Lord has put before the House. The Secretary of State for Wales was a party to all these arrangements, and the document carries his approval as it does that of my right honourable friend. I would say that this House and the Government are aware of the distinctness of Welsh culture and the tenacity with which certain Members of this House feel it necessary to defend it. At the same time, we are seized of the strength which can derive from single institutions covering both the Kingdom and the Principality if the Welsh ingredient is preserved therein.

I cannot say what individuals will be appointed after consultation but both my right honourable friends will be keenly aware of the noble Lord's aspirations and the spirit of education in Wales. I am certain that that will not be lost sight of.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, are the Government now proposing to bring Scotland within the scheme?

Lord Elton

No, my Lords. The Scottish system appears to bring benefit to the Scots, I believe, sufficient for it not to be added to by their being brought into the English system. I should not like this to be thought of as an English system, because it is also a system which embraces the people of Wales, is it not?

Lord Beloff

My Lords, since the Minister has received some criticism on the Statement, may I, from this side of the House and particularly from those who have been concerned about the deterioration in standards of schooling, give a very considerable welcome to the thought of a new beginning. I think it was essential, if we were to break out of what some might regard as a vicious circle, that we should have two new bodies to look afresh at these two main components of our educational system. One hopes in particular—and I think I gathered this from the Statement; although I should be glad to be reassured—that the new body on examinations will be able to have a fresh and thorough look at the ill-starred proposal for amalgamating the two 16-plus examinations.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if I may say so, the noble Lord behind me has laid a curate's egg. I agree with him that a new beginning is a welcome occasion. I must say that I do not share his anxieties about the 16-plus which we debated with such closeness even under the last Government. I think it is very agreeable that having got out of the morass then proposed, we have arrived at something for which there can be general support. The other factor which the noble Lord will find strengthens his argument is that, when it was proposed within the Committee on Education, Science and the Arts in the other place that the Schools Council should be abolished, that proposal was rejected by one vote only.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the noble Lord did not answer my question about the appeals procedure envisaged for this small examination body and how broad would be its scope.

Lord Elton

My Lords, that is a possibility embraced within general policy. I cannot permit the noble Lord to pin me down more closely. It is one of the things that will be discussed.

Baroness Denington

My Lords, may I ask that the Secretary of State in making the appointments of those other than educationalists should give serious thought to appointing industrialists from the various aspects of industry, as it is surely essential in this day and age that we get a much closer relationship between the needs of the workplace and education?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am obliged for that thought. It has been on our minds to see—and it is difficult to say this without appearing to diminish the stature of education—that the product is something which suits the consumer. Otherwise, children of talent will find that, because their talents have not been developed in the right direction, they cannot be employed as they should. I shall put that before my right honourable friend.