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Breakfast with Frost
Estelle Morris MP, education secretary
Estelle Morris MP, education secretary
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: ESTELLE MORRIS MP EDUCATION SECRETARY SEPTEMBER 22nd, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Well we've heard of match-fixing in the world of sport but until this week exam-fixing hadn't entered the public consciousness. Now the very integrity of the gold standard in British education, the A-level, has been called into question. Facing the music this week, Education Secretary, Estelle Morris has called for an independent inquiry to try and find out whether exam boards adjusted pass rates this year and whether or not there was pressure from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Government to do so. She joins us now - thank you very much Estelle for being here. One general question, it came up yesterday in the papers and it's come up again today in the papers, that lots of schools, and headmasters and secondary heads associations and so on, are saying that they are wanting to move from the A-level, the discredited A-level, to the international baccalaureate. Now if people do want to move from one to the other, would that concern you, worry you, horrify you or please you?

ESTELLE MORRIS: No it wouldn't horrify me, actually. In fact when we introduced A and AS-levels we looked at the baccalaureate and it's never really gone off the drawing board. But what I do want to say is that these things take time and I think the worst message anybody could give is that next year all the exams are going to change again. I think one of the good things, one of the good things that have come out this week, is that I think there is an agreement now that we want our 16 to 18 year olds to have a broader curriculum. Now at the moment that shows itself in AS-levels and A-levels, but over time, and everybody agrees it's over time, it could become a sort of baccalaureate. So I just want to be careful that I explain that, in that it's a journey, it's about change over time because we need stability in our schools. There is a lot of agreement out there that the 16 to 18 curriculum needs to be broadened. I'm delighted to have that debate and I do hope that, if anything, that's one of the very good things to come out of the difficulties we've had this week.

DAVID FROST: So it might happen in the future.

ESTELLE MORRIS: It might happen but it's not going to happen for the youngsters in the lower sixth doing their exams next year. I think as adults, we've got to give that message to young people that nobody's going to change the exam system for them. Nothing's in stone, is it? If we think back to when we were children, exam systems do change. So the fact that we do want to look at it again and see what's best for the youngsters and reflect modern needs, that should be a thing we should be confident to do.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the marking down scandal we've been reading about this week.

ESTELLE MORRIS: Yes.

DAVID FROST: Am I right in saying that, from your point of view, you're saying that none of your ministers, or yourself, either requested this, encouraged it or knew about it at the time.

ESTELLE MORRIS: Absolutely David, I mean we just don't do that. There's some rules that are written rules and the notion that any of my ministers - I don't believe any minister's done it of any government - would say that the results don't look right, they don't look right, change them. It's terrible. The notion that ministers say "the results look too good, lower them," just doesn't make sense. And that's one of the things that's worried me. People are right to ask the questions, they must ask the question, and I must answer. But I have answered and Mike Tomlinson will report. And, you know, they do it as they wish but constant asking of the question and doubting our answers, I'm not sure serves any purpose. I'm confident about it but I'm more confident that Mike Tomlinson will come forward with a very good report next Friday.

DAVID FROST: But you are unequivocal about that none of your ministers and yourself knew about this or required it to happen and the suggestions that David Miliband had meetings with Sir William Stubbs when it must have been discussed, the marking down, is not true.

ESTELLE MORRIS: Absolutely not. But David Miliband, as I did, had meetings with Bill Stubbs, and that's right because we wanted to make sure that the exam system was going well. Just let me say, do you remember about a year ago when there was difficulties with Edexel, we, you know, had a conversation about it then. One of the things we were checking that that board was up and running, that there were enough markers there and I'd have been worried had David Miliband not been meeting Bill Stubbs and asking how it was going. But we don't, we didn't talk about the results or the bound, the grade boundaries. We certainly didn't put pressure on to change - absolutely! If I'm sure about anything, I'm sure about that.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of who did, who initiated this?

ESTELLE MORRIS: The complaint?

DAVID FROST: No, who initiated the marking down -

ESTELLE MORRIS: But what -

DAVID FROST: David Miliband didn't -

ESTELLE MORRIS: No, no -

DAVID FROST: - who did?

ESTELLE MORRIS: I think it's quite complicated and this is - people are right to be concerned because, you know, my job, my department more than any other, is about individuals. It's about children and families and everybody cares so it's really important to lots of individuals but it's a very complex business and every single year the grade boundaries get adjusted. So you might get an A with an 82 one year, it might be 80 the next. And what seems to happen, from what I've seen, is there do seem to have been some late decisions about changing those grade boundaries. Now, I don't know, I think I've made the right decision - I know I have - in asking Mike Tomlinson to look at it and maybe in politics it's a lot to ask but I do think everybody now should wait to see what Mike says next Friday and then expect me to act on it - and I will do - but for me to guess, as well as the press and everybody else guessing, I'm not sure that takes us further forward.

DAVID FROST: What, what's going to happen, Estelle, though, about, let's say, the hundreds or thousands of people who turn out to have been marked down wrongly, who should be in a better university or they're no longer in a university at all or whatever? What is going to happen to those people - you can't squeeze them all in this year?

ESTELLE MORRIS: No we can't, and I've worried about this a lot and, you know, as ever, you wish you weren't starting from where you are but I think the first thing is to look at how many youngsters it is. I'm hoping it's not as many as people think.

DAVID FROST: But do you hope it's about what?

ESTELLE MORRIS: I don't know because then I'd be guessing the inquiry out, because it would be the best way, it's going to be more difficult if it's more youngsters. I think a number of things, the universities have said there are lots of other places, this year if they can, but if not a lot of them next year. And I think what we'll have to do with the universities is sit down and look at the numbers and see what we can do. I can't promise to make it all right this year, but the universities have said anybody who would have got a place, who wants to come next year, they will be able to do that. So again, after Friday, hopefully, we won't have finished the inquiry but at least we'll have the facts so that we can make the decisions. What I most want is to settle children's futures - that's partly what my job's about and that's why I need to focus things.

DAVID FROST: What about a student who would have got into Bristol, but is in another university, just going up for the first time, sophomore term now. I mean will they get, in a year's time, switched from one university to another?

ESTELLE MORRIS: That's, that's a choice they're going to have to make and that will be for families really. They may have settled and carry on, they may leave and start again. And it's sort of guessing at what we don't know and those, those decisions are going to be for some, is what I want to do with the universities is to do the best we can when we've got the evidence and then to let them make the decisions. We need to do it calmly, we need to do it speedily, but more than anything we just need to be clear what the facts are because it's right we discuss it, because it's so important and it's not a good, not a good week, you know, for what we're trying to do in education, but let's get the facts and move on from there.

DAVID FROST: "Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, has however warned that she will take action against anyone found to have been involved in fixing exam results." Is that true? That that would include Sir William Stubbs?

ESTELLE MORRIS: It would include anybody ... included anybody, what's been said this week which is true, if you've not got confidence in the exam system, what do children think about us adults if we can't have an exam system where they can have confidence that their efforts will be accurately rewarded. And I will act that way but I don't want to guess ahead of the report. When I've got that evidence, I'll certainly take every action that's needed to put the exam course back on - the exam system back on course.

DAVID FROST: Does the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have your total confidence as of today? No.

ESTELLE MORRIS: Something, something's not right. Something's not right but if I could just - because these are always difficult questions for politicians - if you had of asked me that question last week, I could have listed loads of things that it's done very well. Of course it had my confidence otherwise I would have done something about it. But what I said on, what I said on Wednesday and Thursday, was when I look at the evidence, something is not right. I don't know whether it's the QCA, I don't know whether it's the exam board, I don't know whether it's something else. And what I need to do - and time's always difficult to manage in these circumstances - I'm not going to make judgements, if it's something in the QCA which leads me not to have confidence in it, I'll do something. But I'm not going to scapegoat it. I'm not going to find the solution out by saying it's the QCA because the press are pushing me to do that, because that doesn't serve kids and it's not the way to do politics. We'll wait the week, we'll wait 'til Friday and then get on with the job meanwhile, we'll look at the evidence and do whatever needs doing.

DAVID FROST: But you wouldn't rule out, and you're saying you've got, you wouldn't rule out changing the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority or supplanting it?

ESTELLE MORRIS: What - you know what - no I wouldn't, because you know what's key about it is, what, what I know is that it's distanced from us in terms of running the exams and that's not because we're bad, it's because it's right that it's distant from the politicians. It's a good structure, it's worked well for many, many years, exams are usually delivered and everybody's happy. So it's not the organisation, it's not the regulatory body that's wrong, but if it's not working correctly, I'll do something. We've just appointed - and this is one of the good things - we've just appointed a really good new man in Ken Boston to run it. He's been there a week, ... I've got every confidence in him.

DAVID FROST: His first report didn't go down a treat, though, it infuriated the headteachers.

ESTELLE MORRIS: It did. I think he did a very narrow report and by the time he reported, time had moved on and people wanted answers to more questions and hopefully we'll begin to get that at the end of next week.

DAVID FROST: You've got a Cabinet meeting on Iraq tomorrow, among other things, and we, we were showing that Independent story where Clare Short has spoken out. She's off message isn't she?

ESTELLE MORRIS: No I think Clare's always been very straight and I think if you look back she's always had concerns about this. She's voiced her concerns, that's her entitlement and no doubt when we get to Cabinet tomorrow, she'll voice them there as well, but -

DAVID FROST: But I mean, "We cannot have another Gulf War, we cannot have the people of Iraq suffering again, they've suffered too much." That sounds more than just a minor.

ESTELLE MORRIS: It does. I mean Clare's got strong views but - and I'm very fond of Clare, she's a Birmingham MP with me, but the minute I start answering for her on key issues like that, I think I ought not to do that. She's made her views this morning very clear and no doubt we'll hear a few of them in the next few days.

DAVID FROST: You'll hear them in Cabinet tomorrow.

ESTELLE MORRIS: Yes, I'll look forward to it too.

DAVID FROST: Unless they bring in the guillotine or something. Thank you very much Estelle for being with us and reviewing the current situation and the future situation and what will happen to the thousands or the hundreds and we'll wait to see how many it is who were fixed in that way. Thank you very much.

INTERVIEW ENDS

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