BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 29.09.02

Interview: DAMIAN GREEN, Shadow Education Secretary.

On whether Education Secretary Estelle Morris should resign after the A levels grading row.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The government has got itself into the most almighty mess over 'A' Levels. Not that it's really anyone's fault, or so they're saying, even though the man who chaired the Qualification and Curriculum Authority has been sacked. But because of the shambles over downgrading some exam results, tens of thousands of papers will have to be re-graded and the government will have to take another hard look at the whole system. The Conservative Party had called for the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, to resign. What are they saying now? The Shadow Secretary is Damian Green. Mr Green, the government has had an independent inquiry as you wanted, concluded that really no one was to blame although Sir William Stubbs has been fired, so you're satisfied now are you. DAMIAN GREEN: No, because what Mike Tomlinson's inquiry said was that he, he acquitted the Secretary of State Estelle Morris of malice, she hadn't directly interfered, but he convicted her of incompetence. He said that the problem lie in decisions taken by the Department for Education and the QCA, the exam watchdog. Now the head of the QCA has gone, the head of the Department for Education is staying. And what we've learnt since that report came out on Friday is that Sir William Stubbs said he explicitly warned ministers that this was a disaster that was going to happen, indeed, Mike Tomlinson's own words, this was an accident waiting to happen. So what we have now is a minister who was warned by her own senior official that if she carried on with the policy she wanted this would result in damage, potential damage to thousands of young people. That's precisely what has happened and I really do think she still should be considering her position. HUMPHRYS: Even though there was no political interference? So you're saying she should go because she's incompetent instead of politically interfering. GREEN: That's right. I mean I think it's the way she's run the department and the effects of that, that she was warned that this was going to happen and yet here we are sitting this week-end with tens of thousands of young people at the end of September not knowing whether they've got a fair 'A' Level grade or not, therefore affecting their entry into university, some of them will have already have gone off to university, they don't know if they're going to be re-graded and maybe they should then accept another university place next year, these are decisions that will affect these young people for the rest of their lives. The system has been messed up by the government and the Secretary of State was warned explicitly that this might happen. HUMPHRYS: So given that that warning was issued by Sir William Stubbs, or we believe that warning was issued by Sir William Stubbs, are you saying that he ought to be re-instated. GREEN: No I think clearly relations between him and the Secretary of State and the department have broken down irretrievably, that in itself I think is something that we should consider when we ask if the ministers involved are fit to do their jobs. But what the most important thing now is to do is to clear this up, try and treat as fairly as possible the young people who have been affected by this, and restore some confidence in the exam system, because if you step back a bit, 'A' Levels have served us well for about fifty years and by reforming them, to use new Labour's own words, which we've been hearing a lot during the course of this programme, the government has completely destroyed credibility in them. We now have, I mean it's interesting, you were talking about tens of thousands of young people, the Department for Education is still putting out figures of about five-thousand people who've been unfairly marked. So we don't even appear to know the scale of the problem yet, let alone how we're going to deal with it, and that seems to me to be the urgent thing that needs to happen over the next few days. HUMPHRYS: But given that there are those structural problems, does that mean that you would get rid, structural problems with the AS Levels in particular which have the knock-on effect that we've seen over the last few months, would you, would the Conservative Party get rid of AS Levels? GREEN: Yes, we said that some time ago, even before all this scandal broke. I said that AS Levels were doing more harm than good because they were putting young people on an exam treadmill after sixteen. I think we do too much examination in this country, I think particularly post sixteen where we're driving people away from other things like sport and drama and music that they should be doing and enjoy doing, and that education has become too focussed just on passing exams, so that's one thing, so I would get rid of them, but clearly long-term, the whole A Level system needs to be reformed. The other immediate reform I think would help would be to give the QCA, the exam watchdog, the same sort of independence that the government gave the Bank of England. I'm taking one of the government's own ideas. I think at the root of a lot of this is the fact that ministers and officials at the Department for Education interfere in grade setting and in exams because ministers feel their political lives are on the line if exam results don't get better and better year by year. That's a nonsensical state of affairs to be in and the way to avoid that is to have a genuinely independent exam watchdog, and that I think should be a matter of urgency. HUMPHRYS: Damian Green, Shadow Education Secretary, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.