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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 July 2006, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Education matters
On Sunday 16 July 2006, Andrew Marr interviewed Alan Johnson MP, Education Secretary

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Alan Johnson MP
Alan Johnson MP, Education Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Alan Johnson, unlike most of the new Labour hierarchy has a trade union background.

He's even had a real job as a postal worker before he got caught up in politics, and now he's in charge of Britain's education system.

He has performed so confidently that political friends and foes predict an even more glitter future.

Good morning. Now we can tell that you're a keen supporter of David Cameron by your sartorial position here ... Delighted to see that you're sending out that kind of message.

ALAN JOHNSON I've been around for 20 years in public and I was coming on these programmes without a tie when David Cameron was having a fag behind the bike shed at Eton so ... doing it first.

ANDREW MARR: Very soundly put. Now you've got a couple of new initiatives coming out. The first one I wanted to ask you about, the very serious issue of knife crime in schools. The number of stabbings not up enormously but a huge increase in the number of people.. kids basically, David Cameron's hoodies probably, carrying knives. So what are you going to do about it?

ALAN JOHNSON Well I don't know whether there's a huge increase. I mean the level of knife crime has stayed around the same over the last ten years but nevertheless it's a worry for parents and for teachers. So in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill there's the ability now and the power for head teachers to search students who are suspected of carrying a knife.

Now we've decided to take that one stage further because of the worry that a student who is suspected of carrying a knife might pass it on to somebody else and give a general power, not a duty but a power - it's up to the head teacher to make the decision themselves - to not just search the pupil they suspect but other pupils as well, and we think this will help as one of several measures to actually tackle the problem.

ANDREW MARR: Some of the teaching unions are, as you know, a little concerned about this. They feel that teachers might be put into the position of confronting somebody who may have a knife, that it's dangerous, its not necessarily their job.

ALAN JOHNSON Well they have a concern but in general they believe that it's right for that power, as long as it's not a duty, and it's at the discretion of the head teacher and teachers. They can, if they wish, call someone else in to do it, they can call the police in to do it, they can have security people to do it, but the point that's been made by head teachers and teachers themselves, is while you're waiting for the police to come, then the knife might vanish, and they're very concerned to tackle the problem if they believe it exists in their school. So I think it's just another of the range of powers that we can give to teachers to use their own discretion as to whether to use them or not.

ANDREW MARR: Another area of great parental concern, certainly a great deal of national conversation has been about A-levels. Are they too easy? Are too many people getting grade 1 at A-level? Now there have been suggestions that you're going to toughen up A-levels.

ALAN JOHNSON Well we asked the curriculum ... the qualifications in curriculum authority to look into this on the back of the Tomlinson Report, but the concern is not that A-levels are not good. The children waiting for their exam results in about a month's time I'm sure will have done very well. Children are doing much better at A-levels, and the concern amongst employers, universities as well as parents and teachers, is how do you discern now when so many pupils are receiving the top A-grade at A-level.

ANDREW MARR: So it's not that A-levels are getting easier in your view ...

ALAN JOHNSON No, no, absolutely, they are not getting easier.

ANDREW MARR: ... people are getting clever.

ALAN JOHNSON .. it's people are.. they're working harder, there's ... I mean if you look at what's happened over the years there's a lot more tools and ability and availability of help and assistance now. So the question is, given that the A grade, the top grade at A-levels, is about people who get between 80% and 100%, is there an argument for an A-star?

We do it at GCSE, we have done for some stage ... for some time, an A-star grade where you could discern perhaps students who get more than 90% so you can stretch the very best in that and you can have a new category. Now we've asked the QCA to look at this and they're due to produce their report soon.

ANDREW MARR: And would you favour that, if that's what they suggest?

ALAN JOHNSON Well I think there's a real issue here and I would be inclined to favour that actually. I think there's a real issue here that when you get 96.1% of pupils, as we did last year, getting good A-levels, is there an argument for actually introducing an A star grade? I think it was something that we looked at during the Tomlinson review and I think it's something that may well unite employers, parents, teachers and head teachers.

ANDREW MARR: And there's been a parallel worry, I think, certainly among some schools and some head teachers about course work and the sense, not to put it too bluntly, that parents have been helping their children with course work at home and that this is clearly unfair.

ALAN JOHNSON Well it's not so much about parents helping their children, the issue about course work is the availability on the internet of ready made essays and a whole range of things that ...

ANDREW MARR: For cheating.

ALAN JOHNSON Well ... there is a concern that that can just be copied out, so the pupil hasn't really got a firm understanding. And so QCA again are looking at the availability of course work not just in A-levels but in GCSEs as well to see whether in some subjects ... In some certain subjects you have to have course work, design and technology being one. In other areas, like History, English and many other subjects, QCA are looking to see whether the course work should either be done under more supervision of the teacher, or whether parts of that course work can be replaced by an exam.

ANDREW MARR: It sounds a little bit like back to the future, back to more traditional, old-fashioned examinations.

ALAN JOHNSON Well course work has played a role throughout educational history, but I think we have to keep abreast of what's happening. I mean the growth of the internet in particular is where this courses a concern.

You can download information now very quickly that previously you would have to go and sit in the British Museum for a day and do a proper research into it. Now you can get it very easily. Does that mean that we need to change the balance between course work and exams?

ANDREW MARR: Let's move on to wider politics. Is it right that the police should investigate or interview the Prime Minister over this cash for peerages affair?

ALAN JOHNSON Well Andrew, I'm not going to get involved in the actual specific issue that the police are investigating at the moment. I had this discussion with you last time I was on this programme about whether there is a real problem at the heart of the British body politic because this affects all political parties, not just us. The police are interviewing other political parties as well. I just make this point: first of all, the way we fund political parties in this country means that party leaders have to go out and be responsible for raising funds. The only way to ...

ANDREW MARR: And that is¿ do you think that is wrong?

ALAN JOHNSON Well I actually do not believe in the public funding of political parties. Now Sir Haydon Phillips is looking at this as part of his review. He'd have to go a long way to convince me that was the right thing to do.

But you have this issue there and then you have the issue of patronage of the House of Lords. So the only thing that I would point out is that before we came into government, no one knew who was donating to political parties or how much, and at the same time, the Prime Minister of the day had complete patronage over who went to the House of Lords. We changed that.

ANDREW MARR: And yet, two ministers so far interviewed by the police, the Prime Minister's close friend, personal envoy arrested, and preparations apparently being made to interview the Prime Minister of this country over alleged corruption. This has never happened before and it utterly shocks people. I mean they're talking about it in St Petersburg, they're talking about it round the world. It's not just another little problem.

ALAN JOHNSON Yes, well let's see what happens when this investigation is finished. It never happened before because no one knew who was donating to political parties. We introduced electoral commission to oversee that.

We insisted that any donation of more than £5000 has to be recorded and published quarterly. We insisted no anonymous donations. No overseas donations to political parties, and at the same time we introduced the House of Lords Admissions Commission which now means that the Prime Minister does not have patronage over who goes to the House of Lords. He submits recommendations, the final ...

ANDREW MARR: But don't you feel ... don't you feel bad about this stuff?

ALAN JOHNSON I think it's awful because ... I think it's awful because it puts a smear over my party and I hope that's a smear that will be cleared through this police investigation, but I also think ... I feel badly about this because it puts a smear over British politics. We probably have the least corrupt political situation in the world, the least corrupt political system in the world, and for this to actually be another reason why people would shrug their shoulders and say: "Well they're all the same" - to be cynical about politics. I think it's just bad for British political life and for British life in general.

ANDREW MARR: Alan Johnson, thank you very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a 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


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