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Mr. Bercow: The recognition of error is welcome but belated. What does the Secretary of State say to my young constituent at Aylesbury high school, Emma Clark, who wrote to me on 12 June to say that the Government's handling of AS-levels was "a complete mess", and that the timing of the announcement of the review was "particularly insensitive"? She strongly objected to being sacrificed on the altar of political experimentation. In response to that hard-working and intelligent student, will the right hon. Lady personally apologise?
I do not believe that students who have just done their AS-levels have wasted their time to gain a worthless qualification that will not be respected by higher education and the outside world. I share that view with the hon. Member for Maidenhead, who began her speech well by congratulating and thanking those students. She said that the important message to them was that their studies in the past year were worth while and will be credited. I admit that I wish for Emma, as for the others, that life and the assessment had been easier in the past year. However, I always wish that policies could be implemented perfectly first time round. When we realised that the implementation was not perfect, we took action as speedily as possible.
Estelle Morris: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) first. Then I must move on because there is a danger of the debate becoming a discussion about AS-levels.
Neither Conservative nor Labour Administrations should be satisfied with the history of curriculum implementation. I have therefore asked the QCA to consider the matter and ensure that we understand why the information was unclear, and not sent out in a timely fashion. The examination timetables were not organised to avoid clashes and schools did not have sample texts or examination papers in sufficient time. That was possible but did not happen.
We have conveyed a clear message about what will happen in schools in September and beyond. We have to consider matters slowly and calmly and ensure that our education service is better able to implement curriculum change.
Diana Organ: What would my right hon. Friend say to further education lecturers and teachers in my constituency whom I met two terms after the introduction of the AS-level? They said that it was excellent, created good study habits and allowed students to progress to the gold standard of A2 because, in the important first two terms, the students were busy. They claimed that it did not have a detrimental effect on the retention rates of children in year 12.
Estelle Morris: I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend's constituents said. When there is a problem, the people who write in or complain tend to be those with an axe to grind. The irony of this brief consultation is that I received lots of heartfelt letters from educationists, students and parents who wanted to keep the thrust of the reforms. Equally, we received lots of letters from people who were unhappy with the implementation.
The important point is that a lot of people out there think that the curriculum reforms have achieved a welcome widening of the curriculum, a greater retention rate and greater motivation; we do not want to lose that.
Perhaps I am the one to say this in the House: someone who studies for A-levels but fails at the end of two years leaves school with no piece of paper or qualification to show for it. That happened to me. I did two years' study in the sixth form, but I did not manage to pass the end of term exam. Somewhere along the line, I probably did quite well in an essay or two, but I have no qualification or bit of paper that tells me that. The challenge that we face is to recognise that cohort of students and to ensure that their needs can be met as well. That, honestly, is what we have tried to do.
We have tried to provide flexibility, but the problem involves teachers, because they are hard working and always try to do their best for students. The real difficulty with the first year was that what was set out was a series of options: exams could be set in January, but need not; end-of-module exams could be taken, but need not. Too many teachers got the message that they would let down their students if they did not do every option. That is our fault for not being clear enough and for not giving teachers the confidence to read the regulations and guidance and choose the course most appropriate for their students. I have confidence that the guidance that we shall publish by September will give teachers that confidence.
Mrs. Campbell: I want my right hon. Friend to deal clearly with the point, which was apparently made in The Times, that the Government are about to eliminate the January examinations. Concern has been expressed to me by one of my local sixth form colleges that that would disadvantage students who might want to resit in January. What are her plans?
Estelle Morris: We want the January examination to remain available, so there will still be the option of doing the January assessments. We want a diverse and flexible system that allows teachers and students to make decisions that suit them. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the thrust of the comments is that the January assessment came too early and that students had not settled down to sixth-form learning. Today, I have tried to send the
I want to give the teaching profession and those aged between 16 and 19 the confidence to study the assessment options that we have given them and to make decisions in the light of their needs, knowing that those decisions will be recognised. Nobody will say that students are doing wrong if they do not take January assessments. Nobody will fault them for taking end-of-module assessments. Nobody will criticise them for leaving the assessments to the end of the two years, as some schools did. The irony is that those options were always available this year, but we did not get it right and we did not press that message sufficiently.
We have talked a lot about the gold standard of A-level and the broader curriculum. Some students, including adults, do vocational work. I feel that we as a nation have never given vocational studies the esteem and recognition that they need. The Government have made a huge improvement in expanding modern apprenticeships, and giving them the status that they deserve. For the first time, students have a real opportunity to gain vocational GSCEs. That will feed into modern apprenticeships, vocational A-levels and a more flexible and all-embracing higher education sector that recognises vocational degree-level courses.
If we can get this rightif, in years to come, we can stand up in the House and be as proud of the vocational gold standard as we are, rightly, of the academic gold standardwe will have gone some way towards being able to lay claim to an education system that teaches the basics well in primary schools, gives all our young people access to a broad and rich curriculum, and has the confidence to tell 14-year-olds, "We now want to tailor what we provide so it can meet the needs of you as individuals, which will offer you the opportunity to study in academic groups, vocational groups or both. Whichever option you choose will be given status and recognition, and you should be proud of your achievements, in whatever field they are made."
We will go further. We will be able to tell those 14-year-olds that, regardless of which route they take, their learning will end not at 16 but at 19and that, in a sense, it will continue throughout their lives. It will take place not just in schools but in high quality further education institutions, and in the best higher education universities that the world can offer. As for those who do not want to learn in any such institution, preferring to go to work or stay at home, we will give them the opportunities that they require.
Only if we can offer that commitment will we have gone some way towards ensuring that we have the learning community and learning culture that we want, and that we have put learning at the centre of all that we do.