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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Watchdog to tackle exam standards
Education Secretary Ed Balls
Mr Balls wants every child to learn to write and spell properly
The exam system in England is to be put in the hands of an independent watchdog to counter criticism that GCSEs and A-levels are getting easier.

The body will be split from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Education Secretary Ed Balls announced at Labour's conference.

He said he wanted to end the "old and sterile debate" about exam standards being "dumbed down".

Mr Balls also unveiled plans to boost literacy and numeracy.

He told the BBC it was vital to separate the roles of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which currently sets the national curriculum, sets tests and regulates exams.


Mr Balls added: "All the evidence I have is that standards have been maintained and the reason why, therefore, results are rising is because of the hard work of teachers and young people.

"But to give employers, parents and young people themselves the confidence that we are maintaining standards, I believe this independent regulator will give that credibility and that assurance so we can get on and celebrate the achievements of our young people."

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He told conference delegates later: "I want to end young people being told that the GCSE or A-level results they are proud of aren't worth what they used to be."

He also repeated the party's pledge to raise the school leaving age to 18, by 2013, promising "every child the best start in life, a world class education for all and not just a privileged elite".

He admitted one in five primary school children still "fell short" in skills as they went up to secondary school, and announced extra help for children who were fail to master basic writing skills - which follows similar schemes in reading and maths.

And he said no child or teacher should be in fear of bullying in the classroom and promised teachers more powers to tackle truancy and discipline.

'Quite right'

The Conservatives welcomed the plans for a standards watchdog, with shadow education secretary Michael Gove saying: "It is quite right to break up the QCA and separate the role of regulator from its other functions.

"I am glad that Ed Balls has adopted a policy we have been advocating for many years.

This is a very welcome development, and the logical next step
Ken Boston

"The key test for him, however, is to ensure that exam standards are robust by global standards and that we reverse the trend that has seen us falling behind our international competitors."

Lib Dem education spokesman David Laws said: "This change is both overdue and underwhelming."

He added: "The whole of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should be replaced by a independent education standards authority - which should not only monitor exams but independently commission and advise upon good educational practice and curriculum issues."

QCA chief executive Ken Boston said: "This is a very welcome development, and the logical next step along the path QCA has been advocating."

Mr Balls, a close ally of Gordon Brown, also suggested to the BBC that the prime minister was mulling over whether to call an election this autumn or wait until later.

He said: "I think Gordon Brown will be looking very carefully at the events of this week."

Mr Balls added: "It's a very interesting question as to where the gamble really lies."

His comments follow speculation about the prospect of an election in October or November, and come amid increasingly favourable opinion polls for Mr Brown.

Later, the prime minister will make his second set-piece appearance when he faces questions from Labour delegates.

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