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Monday, 23 September, 2002, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
No 10 'to blame' for exams fiasco
Confidence in the current system has been shaken

Downing Street's policy unit is more likely to have been responsible for ordering the down grading of A-level exam results than Estelle Morris, a former Labour education secretary has claimed.

Liberal Democrat Shirley Williams, who was education secretary in James Callaghan's Labour government, said she believed Ms Morris was "telling the truth" that none of her ministers had any part in the scandal.

It does have the fingerprints of Number 10 on it... Number 10 the policy unit

Lady Williams
An independent inquiry set up by the government to look into the A-level results crisis will hear evidence from state and private schools on Monday.

Head teachers believe the government's exam watchdog for England, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, got exam boards to downgrade candidates in an attempt to protect the exams from accusations that they were becoming too easy.

It has repeatedly denied this.

Baroness Williams, the Lib Dem leader in the House of Lords, said she believed the crisis was an example of the government's obsession with centralised control.

Junior ministers culpable?

She called on the government to take a fresh look at school league tables, stressing that the fun in education was being replaced with a "supermarket" mentality where results were compared like prices.

Lady Williams told BBC News Online at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton: "I don't think Estelle Morris was at fault.

Lady Williams
Williams: Estelle Morris 'unlikely' to be responsible for exam markdown
"My impression is very strongly that she is right, that she was telling the truth when she said she wasn't involved.

"I'm not so sure about some of the other more junior ministers in her department.

"It does have the fingerprints of Number 10 on it. I don't mean, number 10 the prime minister, I mean number 10 the policy unit."

'Lack of sensitivity'

Lady Williams, a staunch advocate of civil liberties and an opponent of the regulations heaped on teachers and the school curriculum, said the exam result fiasco was an example of excessive control from the centre.

"That's the kind of worrying thing where central control from on high just lacks the sensitivity to actually see what is happening to teachers, parents and kids.

"Everybody just shrugs their shoulders and says to the young people affected, 'you can try again next year'.

"Supposing you can't? What if your family can't support you?

"It's a desperate situation for thousands of young people and what it shows up is a huge hole.

"It really isn't for number 10 or anybody else for that matter to tell people how to adjust exam results."

Human beings

Lady Williams argued that the emphasis on school league tables was coming at the cost of children's involvement in ancillary subjects like music.

"He or she is not just an exam passer," she said. "He or she is a human being.

"They may excel in sports or drama.

"I think it is really terrifying that we are narrowing down to a mechanistic assessment of children by how many pass exams.

Estelle Morris
Morris is 'not to blame', says Lady Williams
"It is not dissimilar to the 11-plus which simply sorted out a fifth of the population to go on to higher education and told four fifths to get lost.

"Now the proportions have changed, we are only now telling two fifths to get lost.

"But that is a terrible indictment. We really shouldn't be running education like a supermarket where you compare prices.

"We have run out of creativity for children and teachers alike in the name of pushing up standards.

"Now if standards meant improving right across the board, character, originality, interests, then I wouldn't mind so much.

"But it doesn't. It always boils down to the same thing, how will we pass exams."

Slow progress

Lady Williams applauded Ms Morris's comments that A-levels may be scrapped and could be replaced with Continental-style baccalaureate exams in the wake of the current results crisis.

"In fact I was pushing the baccalaureate back in the days when I was education secretary."

But, she conceded: "It always takes everybody forever in education. We were saying that A-levels were too narrow back then as well."

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