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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): It is worse.

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman says that it works. That means that he is satisfied.

Mr. Brady rose

Estelle Morris: I shall give way in a moment.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead did not mention the fact that there are twice as many students from middle class backgrounds as from working class backgrounds in higher education. We have 7 million adults with no basic skills because the education system failed them in the past, as there was no planned way of improving their skills when they left school. We heard nothing from her about work-based skills and training, and the progress that can be made in that respect.

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The hon. Lady made three clear points to which I shall confine my remarks, so that I can respond properly to the debate.

Mr. Brady rose

Estelle Morris: I should like to make some progress on AS-levels, but if the hon. Gentleman has a point of correction, I shall give way.

Mr. Brady: The Secretary of State misheard my earlier remark. I said that the Government had made it worse, as they reduced access by taking grants away.

Estelle Morris: The last point is not true, but I suppose that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for at least raising some concerns about children getting into higher education—a matter that was not mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead.

Many of the hon. Lady's comments related to AS-levels. I am happy to say to the House what I said yesterday: this was not the best implemented set of curriculum reforms that has ever been introduced. She did not mention the tragedy of other major curriculum reforms that have not been well implemented. I cast my mind back to the national curriculum reforms of the 1970s and 1980s, when syllabuses were sent out to primary and secondary schools time after time. The schools bought books and trained teachers, but then had to start again. In the end, our good friend Lord Dearing was called in to try to make something out of the mess that the Conservative Government had created.

I do not make those comments with any sense of pride. If we look throughout the education service—I am prepared to reflect on this matter—there must be something wrong with the fact that each of the major curriculum changes introduced in the past quarter of a century has not got it right first time. That is a lesson to reflect upon. It is with sadness that I admit that the introduction of the AS-level reforms last year did not do credit to anybody who had responsibility for their implementation.

We must admit that fact and learn from it, but I want to go further. In arguing about implementation, it is the easiest thing in the world for the Opposition and opponents elsewhere to say, "You've got it wrong, so take responsibility; it is all no good." But, with respect, that achieves only the scoring of cheap political points. There is something fundamental that is more important. More than four years ago, in 1996, when the first look was taken at widening the post-16 curriculum, there was unanimity throughout our learning community on the view that our sixth-form curriculum was too narrow.

I stand by that view. I think that we let down our sixth-form students. I have not moved from my belief that it is important to acknowledge that a narrow curriculum of three A-levels is insufficient to prepare our students for the world that they must enter. It is not only the Government who are expressing that view; I think that general agreement remains on the need for a broader post-16 curriculum.

The saddest aspect of the hon. Lady's comments—I shall give way to her immediately if she was not saying this—was that, for the first time, she called into question the Opposition's support for a broader post-16 curriculum.

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Whatever the inadequacies of implementation in the past year, I would welcome her support for the view that a narrow curriculum of three A-levels is not sufficient and that we are right to keep to the drawing board. That includes, from this September, a commitment to the broader curriculum.

Mrs. May: It is obvious from what the Secretary of State has just said that she did not listen to a word of my speech. I specifically referred to the issue of a broader curriculum. Having presided over the implementation of AS-levels, does she understand that students, as well as teachers, parents and the Opposition, say that the impact of AS-levels has been not to broaden the curriculum but to narrow it?

Estelle Morris: If we accept the need for a broader curriculum, we have two choices. Either we ask students to study more subjects in less depth or we accept that we are asking them to work harder. We asked them to work harder. The hon. Lady talked about the burden of work in the sixth form, and the fact that it had cut out a lot of extra-curricular activities. We want to keep the gold standard of the A-level. Everyone wants that: it is a good examination that gains credit with universities and employers and is respected throughout the world. If we are to broaden the post-16 curriculum while keeping the gold standard of the A-level, the bottom line is that we must ask students to study more, harder and across a greater breadth. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot broaden the curriculum and then turn round and say to students, "Hang on, you're working too hard."

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) rose

Mr. Bercow rose

Estelle Morris: I want to make some progress.

Saying such things will not work. Last year, we told sixth-form students that we thought that they could cope with more studying and a broader curriculum in the first and second years of the sixth form.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Estelle Morris: I want to finish this point. Things went wrong because the assessment was organised in such a way that it disrupted the flow of learning and teaching.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned my interview on the "Today" programme yesterday. I want to make two points. I think that the burden of assessment was too great. I also think that when assessment is too frequent during the school year, with the best will in the world, students stop studying and start to prepare for revision, and once they have had their assessment, they go over the papers again. The biggest complaint that I heard was not that students did not want to do more subjects, nor that they did not want a broad curriculum, nor that they did not accept that they could spend more time studying in the first year sixth, but that the flow of teaching and learning was interrupted by too frequent assessments.

Our proposals, which will come in two stages, will show that we have addressed that problem. We want to make progress from this September because we want to

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ensure that students who are studying from next year have another option. Believe it or not, many students wanted to keep the end-of-module assessment and the January assessment but, for those who did not, there need be no reason to take assessments on any of their modules before the end of the first year sixth. Many schools chose that option last year, and many could have left their assessments until the end of the second year sixth—if, as I have to admit, the guidance from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and others had been clearer.

The hon. Lady also asked about the interviews. Some students and teachers have said that the problem was not only the assessment but the prescription in the syllabuses, and that there was just too much to cover in the courses. I think that they are right about that in some subjects. Having spoken to David Hargreaves, the chief executive of the QCA, I understand that his impression, following his first review, was that that was the case in two subjects; the one that was cited to me was mathematics.

It would have been foolhardy, after asking the QCA to look at the matter for three weeks, to say yesterday, "I announce that we are going to slim down all the programmes of study." The evidence from the three-week review did not suggest that that should be the case. I am happy to give the hon. Lady the acknowledgement that she asked for today. If she had read the report that was issued yesterday, and the Government's response to it, she would have seen that we have asked the QCA to look at the subjects slowly so that we do not rush things and have implementation next year as inadequate as it was this year. We have asked the authority to take its time and report in due course on whether some of the subjects were over-prescriptive. I acknowledge that some were, but it is not my instinct that every AS-level subject asks too much of students. We cannot say on the one hand that we are dumbing down and that we have lowered standards, and on the other that we have asked too much of students. Many mixed messages are being conveyed.

Let me outline several important principles. The broader curriculum is necessary. It is not too much to ask of our sixth formers that they study more than three A-levels; it is important that they do. It is also important to keep the gold standard and the rigour. We have not done that properly this year, but we will improve next year. By the year after that, we will have totally revamped the assessment system. I am happy to state in the House, as I did in writing yesterday, that some study programmes that have been announced for syllabuses need reconsidering. However, although that applies to mathematics and one or two other subjects, it is not true of all subjects.

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