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12 Jul 2001 : Column 946

Points of Order

1.27 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Reference has been made in business questions to terminal 5, in which I have a direct constituency interest. Both the previous Speaker and you have made it clear to the Government that any announcements about major decisions should be made on the Floor of the House. Will you express your view that an announcement on such a major issue as this should be made on the Floor of the House rather than during the recess?

Mr. Speaker: My view is that at all times when Parliament is in Session Ministers should endeavour to get to the House to make statements. However, we are talking about a three-month recess and it would be unfair of me to say that no statement should be made by any Minister during the recess.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you take a look at the question of ministerial accountability in the context of answering for London Underground? I fear that, come the autumn, Ministers will not answer questions or appear at the Dispatch Box in respect of London Underground, but will say instead that the private infrastructure companies that they set up are responsible for maintenance, London Underground is responsible for operations and Transport for London is responsible for policy, yet their fingerprints will be all over—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is trying to extend business questions.

Harry Cohen rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows how to take up such matters, even during a parliamentary recess.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The better regulation task force today issued a report condemning the role of the regulatory system, but that report is available in neither the Vote Office nor the Library. Will you look into the omission?

Mr. Speaker: I shall look into the matter.

12 Jul 2001 : Column 947

Opposition Day

[1st Allotted Day]

Post-16 Education

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) to move the first motion, I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.29 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I beg to move,

No one who in the past year has had any contact with students in year 12—the lower sixth form—in any of our schools or colleges, or with their parents or teachers, can be in any doubt about the impact of the introduction of AS-levels on those young people. There are increased work loads, more stress, fewer study periods and fewer extra-curricular activities. Those pupils have been guinea pigs throughout their school careers, and will continue to be so into year 13, with the new A2s. They deserve our thanks, and I offer my best wishes and support to all who have been sitting AS-level examinations this year.

It is important that we conduct the debate on the future of the AS-level in a way that does not leave the young people involved feeling that the qualifications that they have received are in any sense to be discounted. It is also vital that the Government, working with higher education institutions, ensure that the problems surrounding those examinations do not impact on the future academic opportunities and careers of those students.

AS-levels and key skills were introduced with the best of intentions: to broaden the curriculum offered to young people post-16. However, there was too little time for their introduction. Examinations boards complained that they did not have enough time to prepare the syllabus or materials; schools did not have enough time to prepare; timetabling was a nightmare.

Most schools did not receive any extra funding for AS-levels. The Government announced more money, but schools said that local education authorities did not pass it on. LEAs said that the Government had not given them any extra money. Without the clarity of a national funding formula, who knows? All that most schools know is that they did not receive any extra funding. At a time of teacher shortages, more teaching hours were needed. In addition, of course, we still do not know how universities will view AS-level results.

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Far from broadening the experience of students at such an important time of development in their lives, the extra work load of the AS-level means that the very extra-curricular activities that used to provide breadth of experience, such as sports, drama, music and voluntary work, are being written out of school life in year 12 owing to lack of time.

At last week's Education questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), quoted some head teachers as saying that they agreed with the AS-level. The quotations were from that day's edition of The Times, but he quoted somewhat selectively. He failed to quote, for example, Elspeth Insch, head teacher of King Edward VI Handsworth school in Birmingham—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): A very good head teacher.

Mrs. May: As my hon. Friend says, she is a very good head teacher. She said:

Rick Moore, an English teacher at Manor Park community school in Nuneaton, said:

It is not only teachers who complain. Kate Dyer, a 17-year-old pupil at Rosebury school in Epsom, said:

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): Half term.

Mrs. May: Half term; I am grateful to the Secretary of State.

Kate Dyer continued:

Those were some of the quotations that the Under-Secretary did not cite in Education questions. He did refer to the entry in The Times of that day from Chris Henstock, the head teacher at Lutterworth upper school in Leicestershire. The Under-Secretary quoted him as saying:

What the Under-Secretary did not say was that that head teacher went on to comment:

If the Government are to treat young people fairly, they will have to recognise and address all those problems—far from being broadened, the curriculum for those young people is being narrowed—and not just the issues about which they, the Government, want to talk.

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There is no doubt that the Government's rush to get the reforms through is at the heart of all the problems. Young people, parents and teachers have suffered because the Government simply did not think things through or provide enough time for proper preparation. As John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

The current problems are not an inevitable result of reforms to widen the variety of post-16 academic experience, but are the direct consequence of the over-hasty manner in which the Government rushed into reform. While we welcome the setting up of a review of the crisis, from the first interim report it appears that the Government have not learned the lessons of the past. Their response so far merely addresses one part of the problem.

We shall of course wait for the full Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report that will appear towards the end of the year, but I was concerned about the Secretary of State's attitude when she talked about the matter in her interview on the "Today" programme. Despite the fact that students interviewed before her said that the main problem facing them was the increased work load throughout the year, she insisted to John Humphrys that the key issue was the timetabling of exams.

We are used to a Government who are out of touch with what happens in schools and refuse to listen properly to what teachers and others are telling them. I had hoped for the sake of young people that this Secretary of State would be different; sadly, it seems she is not. It is vital that the Government do not regard the recommendations of the first report as a panacea for all the problems encountered in the new system; indeed, there may be further problems.

Yesterday, the Leader of the House said that he was not in a position to give a guarantee to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that all AS-level results would be published as intended on 16 August. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), refused to answer the same question a week ago. With some estimates suggesting that exam boards are short of 1,000 exam markers, that is causing concern to parents and students. I hope that, in her response this afternoon, the Secretary of State will give the House a guarantee that all AS-level results will be published on 16 August. But we need to go further, as the question is not simply about how many exam papers the students should sit at one go, which is what the Government have addressed so far. The real question is whether the interim exam is needed or whether it is an exam too far.

For a long time, I have been a strong advocate of the gold standard of A-levels. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] So are some of my hon. Friends, from the sound of it. In a world where young people will be expected to be more flexible in their working lives, we need to look at whether further breadth is necessary. Whatever the exam structure, maintaining standards of academic excellence and rigour is important, and we should be able to point to those

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exams as a gold standard of such qualities. However, we must also look at how much breadth is necessary. Some may say that I have been on quite a journey in coming to that conclusion. We should nevertheless root principles of excellence and rigour in our examination system and recognise that we should not support a system simply because it has always been a certain way. We must be willing to adapt to the needs and requirements of today's world.

I hope that the Secretary of State is willing to initiate a proper national debate on our post-14 examination and qualification system, as we need to consider more than just AS-level exams. As well as AS-levels, we now have the new vocational GCSEs—GNVQs are now vocational A-levels—A2s, the new advanced extension awards or AEAs, world class tests, key skills and S-levels. A document provided by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tries to explain the AS-levels. It explains that AS and A-levels will be graded and says:

When the Secretary of State replies, I hope that she will feel free to explain that.

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