Yet another interesting article about the education system...
'Ed Balls seeks power to dictate what textbooks GCSE and A-level students must study'. The Guardian, Thursday 19 March 2009
"The schools secretary, Ed Balls, is seeking a new legal power to dictate the basic content of every public exam in England, in a move that would give him or any future secretary of state the right to decide which books children must study at GCSE or A-level.
The law would allow the government to set "minimum requirements" for qualifications. One senior exam board source said it would give ministers "mind-boggling power" over exams if it got on to the statute books.
Opposition MPs will attempt today to remove from the apprenticeships, skills, children and learning bill the clause that gives the secretary of state control of basic qualifications content. Guidance published alongside the bill says it could be used to specify "which authors' works needed to be studied for someone to gain a GCSE in English".
Ministers insist the power would be exercised only as a last resort, to preserve the teaching of Shakespeare, for example, if there was a suggestion it should be scrapped from the curriculum.
The bill will break up the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority into Ofqual, an independent exams watchdog, and a smaller Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) responsible for qualification design. Announcing the move last year, Balls said it would protect the exam system from political interference, as Ofqual would be independent of ministers while the QCA is answerable to them.
But the contested clause, which has gone unnoticed in the sprawling bill until now, has raised concerns among exam boards and opposition MPs, who fear it will in fact strengthen ministers' ability to interfere with the exam system for political gain.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "What is taught in schools should not be dependent on the whim of some here today, gone tomorrow politician. And the idea of Ed Balls or Gordon Brown determining which parts of history children are taught, or which books and poems they should read, is a rather frightening one.
"This revelation simply serves to highlight that while the government is pretending to be creating a more independent system of qualifications, curriculum development and oversight, what is actually happening is that ministers are retaining huge powers to meddle in both what is taught and how standards are measured."
The parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill is due to debate the clause today. Ministers promise that the power would be used only in "exceptional" circumstances, and that the law makes it explicit they cannot interfere in grading, assessment or structure of exams.
In a letter to the Liberal Democrats, dated 14 March and seen by the Guardian, the schools minister, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, insisted the effect would be to limit their interference and protect the exam system. A memorandum of understanding is promised, to set out exactly when ministers could use the power.
However, exam boards fear that the measure is too broad. Bene't Steinberg, head of public affairs at Cambridge Assessment, the parent company of the exam board OCR, said: "Cambridge Assessment believes that teachers and academics are the best people to decide what goes into a qualification. However, if politicians must keep their hands on the levers of qualifications, this clause needs checks and balances. The government has explained that it will only use the power in exceptional circumstances and in line with a defined process. We don't see why that should not be put into the act and made law to protect future generations."
McCarthy-Fry said: "There is currently nothing in law to stop ministers intervening on anything in relation to qualifications so, by establishing an independent regulator of qualifications that is accountable to parliament, ministers are actually putting limits on the influence they can have.
"Ministers will rightly have no role in grading, assessments or standards. They will only use powers with regard to the curriculum in exceptional circumstances - for example, intervening to ensure Shakespeare remains a core part of what our children learn." "