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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 June 2002

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

School Examination System

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Woolas.]

9.30 am

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Today's cohort of sixth formers is made up of some of the most examined children in British educational history. Of course, regular testing gives teachers, parents and pupils useful information, but how many children will look back and say that their school days, far from being the happiest of their lives, were marred by over-examination?

Those of us with children in the state sector know that the process begins with standard assessment tests at the age of seven, and that children are then put on a conveyor belt of continual examination, which runs through to GCSEs, AS-levels and, finally, A-levels—and that is just within the school system.

SATs have a role to play in helping us carry out important checks on children's progress through the education system. However, the majority of teachers have serious reservations about the national system for testing young children. That may be connected with teachers' disenchantment with the increasing paperwork that the Government machinery churns out for them. Between April last year and March this year, the Government sent schools 4,500 pages of reading material. How are head teachers expected to find the time to read that amount of paperwork? I am sure that all hon. Members have heard that cry go up from teachers in their constituencies.

The national standards take little or no account of local differences, socio-economic variations or the number of children with special needs in a class, and that creates all sorts of perverse incentives. One head teacher described to me how a parent who had a child with special needs had told her, "I expect you won't want my child, because he will affect your SATs results." I am pleased to say that she was having none of that, and took the child on.

At best, SATs are a crude measure, but we all know how parents pore over the resultant league tables in a quest to find the best school for their children. However, education depends on so much else, such as the school's ethos, the head teacher's leadership and even the company that one's children keep.

I commend to the Secretary of State the performance indicators in primary schools—or PIPS—scheme, which measures the difference that a school makes to one's child. A bright seven-year-old may easily obtain level 2 in their SATs, but have they really been stretched to their full potential? One can find that out using PIPS, but not SATs. Conversely, a less bright seven-year-old might just miss out on level 2, but should they stand condemned at that stage for missing a national target, if they have made real progress since entering school at reception?

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I am sure that I am not the only mother of boys who wonders what on earth happens to them around the age of seven. The terrible twos seem to make a bumpy reappearance for about 18 months until some maturity miraculously kicks in at the age of nine. However, seven is precisely the age at which children undergo their very important first test. Under a school-based PIPS evaluation scheme, one can take account of all such factors and keep a handle on how a child is learning and progressing. If there are difficulties, teachers can take a parent on one side and explain what progress the child is making. The information will be available, and it will be possible to see quite graphically what added value the school is giving the child and what the parent, the school and the child can do together to raise standards. There will not simply be a bald national statistic.

What about the Green Paper proposals to reduce the number of compulsory GCSE topics and to enable brighter pupils to take subjects early? As a language graduate, I am worried that that will be an excuse to drop some hated foreign language, which will push Britain even further behind in languages.

In my day—I loathe using that phrase, but there have been changes since I was at school, and as Members we tend to relate our experience to what is happening now—we had O-levels and CSEs. The introduction of GCSEs was designed to get over the two-tier approach to exams at 16. Taking nine or so subjects in one go was a test of one's capacity to carry a breadth of subjects and cope with sheer volume before the relative luxury of specialisation and streamlining.

In terms simply of load bearing, the O-level year was far and away the most difficult I faced in my schooling. I had to carry nine subjects, some of them not my best, all at the same time. In some ways, A-levels were easier. Allowing pupils to skip GCSEs altogether and go straight to AS-levels risks creating a two-tier effect all over again, so I would caution the Government over those proposals.

AS-levels were not around in my day and I am glad that I did not have to do them. The lower sixth was a chance to breathe after the heavy pressure of the GCSE year or its equivalent and before the seriousness of A-level exam pressures was upon us. That year saw a flowering of extra-curricular activity, including the production of a school musical, service to the community and gaining Queen's guide badges—all education, but not necessarily subject to examination. I am not surprised by the growth in popularity of the gap year, as children increasingly want time to live before they knuckle under to a university education.

One member of my family started his final exam season yesterday. He is one of a cohort of guinea pigs who have been relentlessly examined and re-examined since 1983 and his observations are worth listening to. He feels that his classmates have been tested so extensively that it almost contradicts the concept of comprehensive education. Testing stamped into kids where they stood in relation to their classmates at a very early stage. He experienced the revisions of the AS-level system and the new A2 levels, and he points out that the modular system of examining progressively throughout the two-year period does not suit all types of student, especially the last-minute merchants who need the focus of a deadline to put the work in.

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The fact that AS-level students are first examined in January after a September start puts some people off pursuing those subjects, and a poor result after one term's study can deter people altogether. Some schools have had a drop-out rate of 50 per cent. between September 2000, when they embarked on the new revised sixth form scheme, and June 2002. My relation feels that some less academic pupils were casualties of being encouraged to pursue AS-levels and A2 levels rather than the more vocational courses to which they might have been better suited. He questions the need to reform the A-level system, along the lines of the famous dictum, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

It is right to listen to the pupils' concerns. They are sitting the exams, they will have to face the consequences and they are left with the memories of what it was really like. Interestingly, at the peak of the exam season we have had a rash of hits on the Conservative party website from pupils sitting exams who want to tell us about their problems. All the hits—there were over 40—involved one of three issues: exam quality, exam overload or the exam boards. Given the age of the correspondents, I shall refer to them by Christian name only to preserve their anonymity. For example, Mark said:

Alex, a pupil from West Yorkshire, said of a history course:

Those examples are reactions in the raw from pupils who have to deal with the system.

Paul from West Yorkshire commented on his experience of moving from GCSE to AS-level:

Another comment on the AS-level system came from Peter from Surrey, who wrote that it promotes

It is also interesting that the website had a hit from a teacher, Sue from Suffolk, who wrote:

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Teachers are forced to focus on the exam system against their wishes. They want to teach the syllabus and improve education, but the system and league tables force them to focus too much on exams. They are shell-shocked by the environment of change in which they have lived for many years. We need stability—an innovation holiday—in education.

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The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has urged the Government to abandon their proposals to introduce the super-A-level, which it says presents substantial risks to the quality of examining in A-levels and the trustworthiness of the grading system. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mrs. Spelman : That is a helpful and interesting observation from my hon. Friend. I never thought that I would catch myself saying that anyone would want an innovation holiday, but our sympathy goes to teachers, who have had to cope with an inordinate amount of change, much of which has involved grasping changes in exam technique.

I was tremendously struck by a distinction made by a teacher of one of my children. Commenting on an exam result—it might have been less than ideal—the teacher pointed out that exam technique could be learned, but that the education and intellect of the pupil need nurturing and time. Given that we have had robust exam systems in the past, I am deeply concerned that teachers feel that the balance has shifted towards getting their heads round specific techniques required for specific exams. My hon. Friend's intervention is well made.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Perhaps we do not need an innovation holiday altogether. I sympathise with the wish for less innovation imposed from central Government, but there is still room for teachers to experiment with new methods and perhaps even new subjects that they want to bring to the curriculum. Such experimentation has been driven out by so much centralisation of the education system over the past few years.

Mrs. Spelman : I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he acknowledges that the PIPS scheme provides examples of schools innovating a method. Others can use that method, but a school may develop its own initiative and measure for its own satisfaction the difference that it makes to pupils of every ability. For the schools involved, and the children and their parents, that will give a much finer feel of how individuals are developing.

Our concern is to give schools the space to make perhaps necessary interventions. That is based on the fact that every signal that we receive from teachers and our children, who deal with the syllabus, suggests that there is not much space in the system because of all the centrally-imposed requirements to deal with things precisely and in a particular way. I sympathise with the view that more flexibility in the requirements imposed on schools would allow more scope for helpful innovation from them.

Bob Spink : My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Science and Technology Committee is considering education in the sciences. Among the evidence that we have received is the strong message that teachers ought to be authorised to set their own questions, which could go towards the national examinations. That facility already exists in some subjects.

We are contemplating giving teachers flexibility in how they deliver the curriculum to make it more relevant for them and their pupils, which would be

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innovative. I am not against innovation, but is my hon. Friend aware that where there is innovation, as in the advanced vocational certificate of education examination, which has been forced on colleges—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that interventions in Westminster Hall should still be interventions rather than speeches? He might like to catch my eye later if he wishes to develop his ideas into a speech.

Bob Spink : May I finish my point?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Briefly.

Bob Spink : Thank you, I appreciate that. Where innovations are to be introduced, teachers should be properly prepared. For instance, there has not been proper preparation and it looks as though this year's AVCE engineering examinations will be a disaster.

Mrs. Spelman : I thank my hon. Friend and look forward to the result of the Science and Technology Committee's inquiry, which will make good reading. In my experience, the Committee always produces highly informative reports and I hope that the Government take full account of its recommendations.

It would show common sense to pay more attention to what teachers say are appropriate questions for testing how much of the set syllabus pupils have absorbed. In the process, the teachers would gain an increased sense that Whitehall is listening to their accounts of their experiences in trying to deliver what they have been asked to do by the centre. More can be done in that domain.

The school examination system has not been helped by adverse press coverage of the examination boards, but I have read the reports carefully—they rose to a height over the weekend. We have learned over time to read between the lines of such coverage to find the source of the problem, and I have reached the conclusion that, in a rush to implement all the changes in Curriculum 2000, the boards have struggled to cope with the changes.

The number of papers marked by the Edexcel board, which is the butt of a lot of criticism, went from 4 million to 10 million in some six months. It requires no stretch of the imagination to understand that a board might struggle with such a sudden increase in volume. It was part of a noble aim for the new examinations to be more inclusive, but they were more complicated and the board did not cope with the inquiries that came in at the staggering rate of 100,000 calls—mostly from teachers—a month. It had to admit to a shortage of marking staff in April, and that has not done a great deal for morale. However, these are symptoms of a cause: the consequences of the changes were insufficiently thought through by the Government before they had to be introduced.

It is essential to have a good examination system in which teachers, pupils and their parents are confident. I invite the Minister to set out how confidence can be restored and how we can convince the next cohort of guinea pigs that it will all be worth while.

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9.49 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I start with an observation that may distress some of my hon. Friends, which is that the most recent disaster to overtake the examination system was started by us when Sir Keith Joseph was Secretary of State for Education and Science. He caved in to the constant pressure of the education profession—I should say the education establishment, ably supported by departmental officials—for the amalgamation of the O-level and CSE examinations, which were highly respected, for nothing better than political reasons.

I taught in comprehensive schools to both examination boards, and I submit that those examinations were carefully tailored and designed for the benefit of the different pupils who took them. Of course, the examinations overlapped—a CSE grade 1 was widely respected, and it was appreciated as the equivalent of a GCE O-level—but that did not mean that there had to be an examination big bang at the end of the summer term, which is now creeping back right through the term.

For what seemed good reasons at the time, I fear that we started a process of Government intervention and interference that has culminated in the undermining of respect for the whole examination system, the creation of further grade inflation—or a belief that it happens; which of us can tell?—and a feeling that the Government's attempts to control the examination system are like their attempts to control everything else. I am not making a party point, but it seems that their attempts are part of a political agenda rather than part of the education agenda.

I am concerned that the Government have carried through, and worsened significantly, the steps that we took in the 1980s. Our examination system was respected at the time, because it was based on the experience of teachers and on the highly demanding requirements of the major universities, and it was argued that some examination boards were harder and more rigorous than others.

I remember that the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, of which I am an alumnus, was regarded as one of the more demanding and that others were regarded as less demanding, but teachers could choose examinations that were appropriate for their pupils, both in terms of their breadth and their curriculum content and level. The CSE was designed for less able pupils, and the O-level for at least some more able pupils—those whom my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) called the big bang merchants.

Mrs. Spelman : The last-minute merchants.

Mr. Turner : Yes; the big bang comes later.

We may have started the process, but it has become a great deal worse because, during the past 15 years or so, Governments of both parties have put more and more pressure on schools and the examination system—on the schools to deliver, and on the schools examination system to monitor delivery. There is nothing wrong with putting pressure on schools to deliver, nor is there anything wrong in measuring the attainment of schools.

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I welcome the fact that we introduced SATs, but it might as well be admitted that they measure the performance of schools as much as the performance of pupils. They are a crude and not wholly satisfactory measure, but at least they moved in the right direction of giving parents and schools the necessary information on performance. Some schools were shown to be excellent and brilliantly performing in both crude and value-added terms. It is a matter of regret that we have not taken the value-added route in measuring the performance of schools.

Without SATs, however, we would not have been able to measure the performance of schools at all. Parents would have been left at the mercy of rumour and playground gossip about the quality of a school, whereas we can now see when some schools are creeping up the league table and others are creeping down. We can at least tell when schools are performing better than they used to in relation to their competitors, even without having value-added measures in place.

That is not an argument for not introducing such measures. I am simply saying that we have access to information that we did not have 10 or 15 years ago and, more importantly, that parents did not have. I welcome also the publication of SATs results, because it is no good the information being available to a small group of professionals alone.

I am not criticising every examinations measure taken by the Conservative Government, but we started by caving in to a demand that was driven more by social engineering than by educational aspiration. We have done so again more recently by amalgamating a range of examinations in new exams whose names employers do not recognise. Confidence in examinations depends on the ability of parents, students, employers and university admissions tutors to recognise their quality. Some have far more time to go into the detail than others.

One would expect a university admissions tutor to understand the difference between a vocational A-level and an ordinary A-level and to be abreast of the development of the AS-level and the A2-level, but I doubt that many others are. The constant changes to the system, nomenclature and content of examinations syllabuses is undermining confidence in the system.

Another problem is our utter failure to establish whether grade inflation is taking place, and the loss of A-level scripts from the early 1980s means that it is impossible to compare their quality with those from the early 1990s. That disastrous loss makes it impossible to establish whether an A-level today is worth what it was in 1980. The fact that so many more pupils are getting A-levels is to be welcomed, but it would be a great pity if they were receiving awards in a devalued currency.

The next step must be gently to withdraw Government intervention in the examination system. A-S levels are an examination too far. Some head teachers may say that they

but they also recognise several problems with implementation. Certainly, many sixth formers to whom I have spoken, in state and independent schools,

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would agree more with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. AS-levels impose too great a burden, too quickly, on pupils who have only just emerged from the GCSE system. They interfere with proper enjoyment of the lower sixth year and participation in out-of-school activities, and they produce a huge additional demand on teachers and an intolerable demand on examinations boards, which they were ill-equipped to face in the first year. If AS-levels had been only an option, they might have been introduced with more confidence. Many pupils who go through the lower sixth leave at the end of the year with nothing to show for it, which is a matter of great regret, but the greatest regret must be introducing a new system without the confidence of its participants.

We have a right to criticise the QCA and its predecessors, whose number over recent years signals the fact that there has been too much meddling, interference and intervention by the Government, and I do not blame this Government alone. The only power that Sir Keith Joseph had to drive through the introduction of the GCSE was the fact that the Secretary of State signed the examination certificates and could threaten to cease to sign the certificates of those boards that refused to introduce the GCSE.

Greatly to my regret, the Government took additional powers and prohibited the use of long-standing and highly respected examinations that are provided by examination boards in this country and which are lawful in West Africa and even in Scotland. That is an instance of wholly unnecessary interference and intervention, of a wholly un-Conservative sort, stemming from the Education Reform Act 1988.

The QCA claims to have a vital role—or at least a role that its chairman, in evidence to the Select Committee, claims is vital—in monitoring examinations and the content of the national curriculum. I am not convinced that its role is vital. When schools are not confident about the quality of an examination board, they can thankfully still shop around, although, regrettably, in a much reduced market. They have only three boards rather than the 10 or 12 that they used to have to choose from.

Schools are leaving Edexcel. Head teachers in my constituency have said that they will not use it again because they are not satisfied with the quality of service that they and their pupils receive, which is a much more effective power in holding examination boards to account than that of the Secretary of State working through an arms-length quango that seems more interested in managing than monitoring the examination system.

The QCA has also moved into setting examinations itself, which is a wholly inappropriate role for a body whose function is to monitor, referee and hold the ring between different examination boards. How can the QCA be poacher and gamekeeper and monitor quality effectively if it is setting SATs itself?

The Government are wrestling to overcome the problem of how to withdraw from an over-regulated examinations system and move to one in which schools can innovate and professional bodies can be involved in developing examinations. I am talking about a system that ceases to be nationalised and becomes once more decentralised.

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In my criticism of what happened under Sir Keith Joseph, I accepted that he implemented a demand that professionals made of him, but I regret that he did so and that he did not leave them alone to introduce the examination and see whether it was a marketable proposition.

Now we have a far more centralised system that we must decentralise to allow examination boards, schools, teachers, professional bodies and universities to innovate. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has left the Chamber, but we need not so much an innovation holiday as innovation in a time and of a sort that those involved in the system demand and that can be coped with by those outside it who depend on the quality of information that it provides. The latter is the most essential element in the examinations systems, but we have a long way to go before we can regain it.

10.6 am

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for his genuinely authoritative and well understood views, which derive not least from his own experience. I have certainly seen that on a number of occasions with regard to educational matters. I shall change the emphasis of the debate slightly, however, from the effects of the current position of the schools examination system as it relates to schools and pupils to the overall context and the outcomes that it produces.

I was elected to Parliament after a fairly long career in manufacturing industry, during which I was responsible for employing a vast number of people at all levels. That meant having to rate young people according to the inevitably limited information provided during the application and interview process. I had to judge what they had displayed of their potential, and the self-confidence and inner sense of achievement that had been instilled in them by the schools that they had been fortunate—or not, as the case might have been—to attend.

An employer looks not only for aptitude and application, but for a real sense of the student's, and therefore the young person's, sense of achievement. Examinations are the one test during a student's school career that puts his academic calibre, whatever it may be, on display for public assessment, particularly for future employers.

My deep anxiety is that today many students up and down the land are living through days and weeks of extreme tension—as it happens, the debate is taking place at that very time. However, we at Westminster must recognise that a broader tension is in play. We must consider the school examinations system with a view to ensuring that everything possible is being done to give every student the chance of personal measurement and a sense of achievement. However, we must also ensure that the system is used extensively not only by the Government and local authorities, but by schools, to assess their value in terms of the work that they do and wish to be measured by, in their own eyes and, above all, in the eyes of parents and local communities.

There is also a tension for young people in having to build up a passport of qualifications that will enable them, in the case of the manufacturing industry with

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which I was involved, to join the roof tile line, to go into brick manufacturing, quarrying or building roads or to go into the office and manage the accounts.

I talked to the four high school head teachers in my constituency. They have markedly different catchment areas, which has affected the measurement of their performance in terms of examination passes achieved. We must recognise that the AS-level in particular has added to that tension by placing an unnecessary and unfair burden on pupils over 16 who have continued their education. That is backed up by the teachers' sense that they are teaching something that they do not, for the life of them, believe is part of the value that they can offer or that the children want to carry with them as a passport to the real world of further education or work.

Those of us who are concerned about the AS-level are not going through education and sitting the examination today, nor are we teaching it. Although we recognise that it came on the back of a Dearing recommendation, hon. Members on both sides of the House must ask the Government important questions through the debate secured and so ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman): is the AS-level approach primarily motivated by a desire to sign up to something that gives us confidence that we are producing a school system that delivers results and is it truly of value to students, teachers and employers, and to the benefit of the country over time?

Even though it is early days, AS-levels are not showing any signs that they are of any benefit. Many employers still recruit students straight from school, however much the debate moves ever towards further and higher education, and many schemes are in place to ensure that people have the chance of vocational training before they enter the world of work.

Many employers make assessments at the very time when pupils come out of school at 16 with a view to being in work. I have much anecdotal evidence that when students are considering whether to go on to higher education or vocational training, they hear about the appalling burden of the AS-level on their fellow students in the year above them. It is becoming a marked deterrent against encouraging children to stay on at school.

Although two schools in my constituency are in relatively prosperous areas of Cheshire, they have been seriously hit by the appalling blight on the rural economy, which was exacerbated by the foot and mouth crisis last year. Schools that usually manage to produce sparkling results in the national league tables have found it difficult to maintain that rate of progress, and we cannot expect every cohort to do as well as the next in measurable terms such as examinations. It is a major problem for schools each time that they do well, as they worry about losing funds next time they go down the league table.

One of the problems emerging from the examination system is that we are doing too much for our own purposes rather than focusing on those of the students. Winsford—the town that I represent—is a real challenge. It has many bright pupils and two excellent schools, but many children do not come from a family or have peers who value high achievement in education. It has become apparent that the AS-level is seen as one

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of the deterrents, simply because it denies what I, and I hope everyone in the Chamber, benefited from—staying on at school from 16.

The lower sixth year was particularly aimed at those not able to enjoy a gap year. Fortunately, I was, but many families were unable to support their children in a gap year between school and university or further education. The lower sixth was far from a gap year in that sense, but it was a gap from examinations—a chance to breathe and to move on from the healthy breadth and wealth of subjects at O-level. That is not unreplicated by the GCSE framework, but I shall not estimate whether past grades and attainments are as good, better or worse than today's. Frankly, I am not in a position to make that judgment. I do know, however, that the lower sixth year gave students an opportunity to develop breadth and depth in their subject without having to mug up on particular issues.

To a degree, modular testing has circumvented the problem of a three-hour hit at the end of the summer term that, for life, measures achievement in that subject. Modular curriculums have some downsides, however, and from conversations with lower sixth formers I know that students often feel that they cannot develop their interests sufficiently broadly to serve them well in future. That applies not least at A2-level the following year because, partly through the modular process and partly based on projects, the exams test particular aspects of a subject, rather than considering it in the round and seeking to draw innovation and imagination from the pupil.

Having trained as a lawyer, I have some authority in saying this: if one acquires an arts degree, by and large one feels that one has acquired a depth of knowledge, an ability to commit things to memory and an ability to assimilate, analyse, use and communicate information. However, I like to think that one has a chance to develop one's imagination. When I first acquired my law degree, I said to my parents, "You have a qualified lawyer, but it has been the death of imagination." Most lawyers have to drill all the imagination out of their heads to ensure that they pass the exam and leave nothing to risk. It is all about precedent and case law. I am generalising, of course: the very best lawyers are the most imaginative, so I did not last long.

The development of the AS-level was well intentioned and its problems were exacerbated by the experiences of Edexcel, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight that we should be determined in pursuing a strategic reduction of Government intervention. We should follow the radical, welcome and educationally beneficial step of saying that AS-levels, though relatively well intentioned, are not proving their worth and should be dropped—for the benefit of children, teachers and future employers alike. In my experience, AS-levels do not add to the reputation or employability of students. I hope that the Minister will reflect seriously on that.

10.18 am

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I apologise for missing the opening speeches. I was attending another meeting, attempting to encourage the Government to

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get us out of another hole—asylum accommodation centres. I particularly apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and promise to be present for her speech this afternoon. I declare an interest. I am anxious to contribute because my daughter has just finished her AS-levels, so I speak from bitter personal experience. I shall be brief.

AS-levels have enabled universities to make better grade predictions and to firm up the offers that they make to students. That is the one good thing that they have done. The rest is all bad, and the bad significantly outweighs the good. AS-levels are not broadening students' education in sixth form, even if that were, in itself, a good idea. Universities are asking for commitment. For example, my daughter, who wants to read English at university, was advised not to do a science, but to take drama studies as her AS-level to show commitment to the subject. She is not broadening her sixth-form education at all, but, rightly, showing commitment to it. The broadening is not working. The way to broaden education is through the old A-level curriculum by insisting that students taking, for example, English study within those subjects a broad range of other subjects to give them a fuller understanding of the texts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made a powerful point about AS-levels reducing the fun of sixth form and killing extra-curricular activities in the lower sixth. For example, the lower sixth always ran the school play. Pupils at my daughter's and son's schools are opting out of the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme and do not want to take part in Young Enterprise. Those things, which sixth form is all about, are withering on the vine and dying. The curriculum may be broader, although that is arguable, but the experience of sixth form life is much narrower.

AS-levels are squeezing the life, the breath and the fun out of sixth form education and that is their central failing, but, equally importantly, they are reducing teaching time. Sixth form is not six terms but five, because the last is spent revising and taking exams. Most schools now give students study leave in their third term before the exams, although I appreciate that that is contrary to the advice of examining boards. My daughter's sixth form education is four teaching terms, which is not nearly enough. Not only is that education not broad, but there is less of it. We are turning sixth form students into people who just cram academic subjects. There is too little teaching and students are losing the fun and joy that should be the sixth form experience.

The Government need to rethink the matter with an entirely open mind. I am sure that they had the best intentions, but many Government decisions—the poll tax, for example, which was scrapped—are taken with the best intentions and are proved wrong. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) says that the poll tax was not introduced with the best of intentions, which we can debate another time.

Mr. Andrew Turner : I said that it was not proved wrong.

Mr. Luff : I shall not be drawn on that subject, after your indulgence in letting me contribute, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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I genuinely believe that the Government thought AS-levels to be a good thing and that pupils' experience of the two years of the system proves that introducing them was not the right thing to do. My daughter's friends at other schools in the area have pleaded with me to do what I can to get the Government to change their mind. I am aware of no pupil taking those exams who thinks them a good idea; all the students think that the exams are a bad thing. The Minister shakes his head, but he is welcome to come to Worcestershire with his parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), and I shall introduce him to my daughter's friends, male and female, all of whom damn those exams. They say that they are a dreadful experiment, and they hate having to take part in it. The time has come to end AS-levels.

I urge the Minister by all means to consider ways to broaden the old A-level curriculum, but please scrap those exams now. Education policy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, should be pupil centred and focused on the children's needs, not ours. That is why those exams must go, and go quickly.

10.23 am

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am glad to have the chance to speak in the debate as, like other Members, I have personal, family experience of the matter.

This is the first time that I have attended a debate with the new Minister and I welcome him to his place. I look forward to his tenure of office in the Department for Education and Skills, however short it may be.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on securing the debate, as many of us have an interest in the subject for personal reasons or because it is important to the country. I very much agree with a large part of what she said. Much of what I shall say may mirror her remarks, but I hope that I shall not bore the Chamber by repeating them.

Like me, the hon. Lady has sons, one of whom is starting to take A-levels, so we have a shared experience in that respect. Anyone whose children have gone through exams knows that they are not only for children, but for the family. The whole family is inevitably involved. Indeed, it will probably be divorce for me if I do not get home tonight so that I can take my son to his exam tomorrow morning. No one else will, I am sure.

I am somewhat less in agreement with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) about league tables, and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) is rather more in line with my views. He pointed out the difficulties that schools face when they do well one year, but drop down the tables the next. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight said that at least we have information that we did not have before, but league tables provide us with misinformation that we did not have before. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury pointed out, they mislead parents about which schools are good and which are not.

It is surely a basic requirement of any top-class education system that it should provide for the needs of every pupil, but that is where the examination is going wrong. Individual children count for little and they are treated as examination fodder—units from which we can calculate statistics and draw up league tables.

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However, tests and league tables do not take account of the needs and problems faced by individual schools, nor are they interested in human detail. Despite that, they are the criteria by which the Government have decided that schools should be judged.

The Government have set an astonishing 4,500 targets for education, requiring no fewer than 306 million separate measures to be monitored. That is a staggering statistic. The Labour party's education policy seems to be examine, examine, examine—three years running, as others have said. Of course, tests can be a vital tool in the learning process, as they measure the retention of knowledge and skills and help teachers to chart the development of individual children, but we must not confuse a tool in the learning process with the learning process itself. That is what has happened.

The individual pupil taking eight GCSEs, perhaps five AS-levels and three A2 levels during his or her 17th, 18th and 19th years of life, will sit 68 exams. The more able pupils taking the advanced papers at the various key stages, world-class tests and the new advanced extension awards will sit a staggering 87. As the New Statesman rightly observes in its editorial this week:

Inevitably, teaching has become more tailored towards the requirements of passing tests as demanded by the league table culture. Meanwhile, education in the broader sense is suffering.

The testing regime has three damaging consequences. First, it places far too much pressure on the children. Instead of learning being an enjoyable experience tailored to the needs of individuals, pupils and teachers are expected to dance to the tune of the Secretary of State and her national targets. Secondly, it places far too much pressure on the teachers. The testing and targets regime sucks the life out of our education system, leaving too little room for teachers to exercise their professional judgment and creativity. That is in line with my intervention on the hon. Member for Meriden.

It is no surprise that a significant proportion of those who leave the teaching profession cite as their reason the lack of opportunities for exercising their professional judgment and creativity. It is no surprise either that, as a result, we face a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in our schools. In recent years, the maintained system has lost about 10 per cent. of its teachers each year. Over one in five newly qualified teachers leave the profession during their first three years of teaching, and the problem is particularly acute in key subjects such as mathematics and science.

A recent Ofsted report says that

Because of those shortages, large numbers of children are taught by teachers who have no qualification in the subject that they are teaching. Ofsted found that only 77 per cent. of teachers who teach some mathematics in secondary school have a post-A-level qualification in the subject.

The third damaging consequence is the narrowing of the curriculum, which was taken up by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). When so much school time is taken up with preparation for tests and

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exams, there is less time in the school day for other non-examination subjects such as current affairs and citizenship, or, sadly, for pastoral care, which is an important loss to our schools. Extra-curricular activities such as sports, school plays, visits to outdoor activity centres and community service, which are all part of the school learning experience, also suffer. My son's school play was cancelled last year—the first year of AS-levels—because the teachers simply did not have the time to put it on.

The problem has been exacerbated by the introduction of AS-levels, which are often taken at the start of the third lower sixth term. As other hon. Members have said, the lower sixth used to be a year of broadening into adult life by taking on new experiences and responsibilities. It is often the year in which a pupil becomes a prefect and perhaps starts to look after younger pupils, but first year sixth formers are now pressed into academic work for the whole time and not given the chance to take on and learn how to handle responsibilities. The lower sixth has become merely a year of cramming for exams.

We want a broadening of the subjects on offer to older secondary and sixth form pupils. That has always been our wish for society, and one of the troubles of the old A-level system was that it was so narrowing at such an early age, but with that broadening must go a simplification of the qualifications framework for the 14 to 19 age group, perhaps along the lines of the European baccalaureate. Our colleagues in the Welsh Assembly persuaded our Labour partners in the Administration to do that, and I hope that the Government take some of those lessons on board.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to scrapping all national targets and replacing them with a statutory requirement for all schools to develop an individual learning plan for each child. Plans should be set by the school while being accountable to parents, the local education authority and Ofsted. Responsibility for children's learning would be put back where it belongs—in schools and the home, not the Department for Education and Skills in London.

Mr. Andrew Turner : I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments on the international baccalaureate. Would it be right for the Government to make such a shift?

Mr. Rendel : No, I said not that it would be right for the Government to make such a shift, but that it would be right for schools to be able to take the responsibility to decide which examination system to use. There is much to be said for the European baccalaureate, but it should be for schools to decide whether to use it.

Recent experiences have underlined the need for reform of schools examination boards. Not much has been said about that, but it is important. I do not agree entirely with the hon. Member for Meriden, who seemed to excuse the boards for their failures because of the pressure that they have been put under. Although there is no question but that that is a large part of the problem, they have questions to answer. There has been a series of blunders, particularly with Edexcel, but with others too.

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Stephen Carey, the Liberal Democrat leader on Hillingdon council, told me about one such blunder that has only recently hit the national media. Some 13 pupils at Haydon school in Pinner did not receive any results for their vocational A-level in information technology, which they sat in January this year. Edexcel has admitted that the papers were lost, but the first that the pupils knew about that was when they failed to receive results in March.

The solution suggested by Edexcel involves the pupils either accepting an average grade or resitting the exam with their main AS-levels. Needless to say, neither the pupils nor their parents are happy with that, and I imagine that organisations that take on such school leavers would not be happy if they were asked to recruit on the basis of grades that were awarded not following a marked exam, but merely as the average of the other grades achieved by other examinees that year. The quinquennial review of the QCA whitewashes the appalling debacle of examination board failures that have betrayed so many pupils and schools, and the QCA's failure to ensure adequate monitoring has made a mockery of Britain's examination system.

I hope that the Government come round to understanding that testing is not the same as educating. Our education system's objectives must be broader than a focus on whether pupils can pass 68 exams during their school career. Testing has its place, but only as one tool among many in building a broad-based curriculum. We should not narrow our young people's horizons to the walls of the examination hall. We should instead expand their horizons, widen their vision, broaden their minds and open up their opportunities. That is what education really means.

10.34 am

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): First, I welcome the Minister to his new brief. We were expecting a different Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), but he seems to have been substituted at the last minute. However, we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing a debate on an issue of such pressing concern to the public, especially as this is the first of two for which she is responsible today. She deserves congratulations on her work rate, as well as on her dedication to these important issues. The matter comes before the House when the whole school examination system is highly topical. Given its topicality and importance, it is disappointing that no interest has been shown by Government Members.

My hon. Friend spoke of the damaging effect of having a conveyor belt of testing and examinations, which is caused by the burden that it places on students and the burden of paperwork and bureaucracy that it places on teachers. She also spoke of the dangerous possibility that modern languages will be downgraded in the curriculum, as proposed in the 14 to 19 Green Paper, and added that modular examinations do not necessarily suit last-minute merchants. At that point, a ripple of recognition passed around the Chamber, I suspect because many hon. Members fall into that category.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who had to leave to attend a constituency meeting, spoke about the need for a period of stability in education to allow schools, pupils and parents to see the recent changes bed down. He also referred to an innovations holiday in the education system, which will strike a chord with many pupils who feel that they have been part of a guinea pig generation that has experienced all the new examinations and tests in recent years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has deep knowledge of the subject. Acknowledging that he would not be popular with his Conservative colleagues for saying so, he correctly pointed out that the process was started by a Conservative Government. That is absolutely true, and over-testing is an unintended consequence of it, but that scale of examination and testing was introduced for good reasons, such as the need to obtain proper information about pupil and school performance. Most people in education recognise that the process has gone too far, although, unfortunately, there seem to be signs that the Government are continuing to increase complexity and to create new burdens.

My hon. Friend mentioned his concern about grade inflation, or at least the perception that there might be grade inflation. He is right to draw attention to the findings of the international panel that considered the rigour and standing of A-level exams, and he said that it is impossible to be scientifically sure about what happened in past years. He also emphasised that we need to focus on maintaining what rigour we have in the A-level system, which must not be debased.

Concern extends to the rigour and independence of SATs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden suggested. More questions are being asked in the press about whether the SATs test are properly implemented and whether there is undue flexibility as to the testing system in some schools. In that context, she is right to ask whether the QCA should be poacher and gamekeeper in the SATs process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) spoke eloquently, drawing on his long experience as an employer. He and others raised one of the most important concerns about AS-levels: the effect of the examination process and Curriculum 2000 on the lower sixth. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) referred rather tellingly to moves to broaden the curriculum, which had the unwanted consequence of reducing the amount of sixth form teaching time from five to four terms. He also noted the irony that his daughter has been encouraged to take a drama AS-level as part of an effort to broaden the curriculum, but that such moves have been made at the expense of the school play, which lower sixth pupils would ordinarily organise. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) picked up on that, saying with feeling that examinations affect not only children, but their families.

The hon. Member for Newbury also attacked league tables in their current form. I trust that he endorsed last year's Conservative general election manifesto, which

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called for the introduction of value-added league tables. We are grateful for his support, even if it has come a little later than might have been appropriate.

Mr. Rendel : My understanding is that league tables were introduced a long time ago. Even before that, however, the Liberal Democrats were talking about measuring schools in value-added terms. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that our call for such measures is not new.

Mr. Brady : None the less, we are grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support.

Mr. Rendel : We are grateful for the hon. Gentleman's.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : It is a love-in.

Mr. Brady : The Minister need not worry about that.

I wonder why the Minister is replying to the debate, when the hon. Member for Bury, South, who is the Minister for young people and learning, was scheduled to do so. Perhaps it would have been embarrassing for him, given his response in the House a year ago to concerns about the introduction of the AS-level system and the crisis in schools at that time. Showing a wonderful talent for euphemism, he described the crisis in the introduction of Curriculum 2000 as

That is embarrassing, given that those teething problems appear largely to be with us a year later. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that and whether he takes any more seriously the scale of the problem affecting our schools and pupils.

The introduction of Curriculum 2000 was a shambles and the system is settling down into a state of more constant chaos, with problems not having truly been resolved. That chaos and confusion may be compounded by the Government's 14 to 19 proposals. The AS-level was intended to broaden the curriculum, so the suggestion that the Government want to slash the number of secondary pupils who study modern foreign languages is remarkable.

The Government say that they want to achieve parity of esteem for vocational subjects by offering GCSEs in them, but that brighter pupils should take AS-levels a year early and perhaps not take GCSEs. The Minister is nodding, but I hope that he understands that there is a clear contradiction between those two objectives. He cannot raise the esteem of vocational subjects that are examined at GCSE level while saying that GCSEs may not be appropriate for brighter pupils. He is moving towards enshrining, rather than removing, the difference in esteem between academic and vocational subjects.

That will be made still more damaging if, under the proposals, the brightest, most academically inclined children take AS-level a year early, as they will be the ones to retain the benefit of a sixth form year with a gap in the exam programme. The most academically gifted, who are probably most able to cope with the new pressures that are being piled on to young people, will get some relief from those pressures, whereas the less

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able and academic will still face GCSEs, then AS-level and then A2 in quick succession. That is a serious concern.

Schools and pupils all over the country are still experiencing exam overload, and that is being felt in the examination boards, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden pointed out. It is also being felt in schools, where there are insufficient teachers available to mark exams, and such problems are becoming endemic throughout the education system. Curriculum 2000 was introduced too quickly—it was rushed by the Government—and at great expense, but the experience of all too many schools and sixth forms is that the funding that was notionally made available for it was not passed on to them.

We have heard a story of chaos and confusion, doubt over the integrity of exams and measures to broaden the curriculum that narrow pupils' experience. Last year, in response to the shambles of Curriculum 2000, Ministers held a review, but few think that this year shows that they have got it right. The Minister must consider ways to reduce the exam burden on pupils and on schools. He should also consider whether the number of exams in year 12 should be reduced or the timing changed and whether schools would do better by taking AS-levels alongside A2 in year 13.

The introduction of AS-levels has broadened the academic curriculum slightly, but it has done so at the expense of teaching time and of extra-curricular activities such as music and sport. It is clear that a full inquiry is needed into the school examination system to establish how we can restore balance and credibility to a public examinations system that has never faced so much criticism. Our schools, our children, those in universities and the employers who depend on the outcome of the exam system all deserve better.

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : I thank the two Front Benchers for their kind words in welcoming me to my new post. This is my first opportunity to take part in an education debate in the House and, to clear up the confusion, I should say that I am now the Minister for young people and learning, which is why I am making the winding-up speech. I am sorry if that was not made clear.

Last week, a party of 10 and 11-year-olds from my old primary school, Grange Park, which is in my constituency, visited the House. We were talking about school days and one asked me about SATs. I had to say, "Well, when I was at school, we did not have SATs." The little boy's eyes lit up at the idea that we did not have to go through what they were going through. I cannot pretend that, had I polled the 10 and 11-year-olds in year 6 at Grange Park school, there would have been an overwhelming vote of confidence in having to sit SATs.

It is a great pleasure to respond to this important debate, and I join Members of all parties in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)

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for securing it. As several Members have said, it is timely, as the school examination period is going full steam ahead.

The hon. Lady focused on the nature of education and what we value in it, and she is right to say that a focus on league tables, testing and examinations is not sufficient. Members in all parts of the House should take a broader view of the value of education. We have all made mistakes—that has been acknowledged in today's speeches—and we all need constantly to review the best policy responses to the many challenges that we face.

Among those challenges is that of providing more young people with the opportunity to stay on in education. I sat my O-levels in 1983, when the majority of my age group left school—only 47.8 per cent. stayed on. Last year, that figure was 71.6 per cent., but we are still near the bottom of the league of industrialised countries for the number of people who have the opportunity to continue in education and training beyond 16. The drop-out rate at 17 and 18 is even higher. I am passionate about education, which is why I am so delighted to have been given this portfolio. Education is important in itself and as a way to facilitate greater mobility in a country in which people's life chances are still, too often, determined by birth. Of course, it is also vital for our future economic success.

We must achieve the right balance between the extent to which we prescribe, set national targets and provide a national framework and that to which we allow innovation at local and school level. We have not always got that right. In the Labour Government's first term, we were centralist in setting targets, particularly in our strategy for the primary sector, although that has delivered literacy and numeracy improvements, which have been acknowledged even by those who were wary of the strategies. However, as we move on, we should address the concerns about the lack of opportunity for innovation at local and school level.

The hon. Member for Meriden said that the new AS system may be challenging for those who leave things until the last minute. As a terrible last-minute merchant, I realised that the old A-level system was great for people like me, who could mug up in the month before the examination and still get good grades. However, it did not provide an entirely fair or accurate assessment of how good I was at my subjects, compared with others who worked much more consistently through the two years of A-level study. The hon. Lady's example demonstrates the challenge that we face in progressing the curriculum for those aged 16 to 18 while covering all those between 14 and 19.

At the end of last month, we completed the consultation on the Green Paper proposals for the 14 to 19 curriculum. We are considering the responses. The consultation was extensive and it included substantial input from teachers, schools, governors and local education authorities. It also included an important innovation—a real input from young people.

We have been listening to young people, such as those whom hon. Members have mentioned today, who have been sitting the AS-levels. We want to get these things right—we shall not rush into changes in the 14 to 19 curriculum. We want maximum debate and maximum

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consultation, but the contributions to the debate show the challenge that we face. We have been criticised for being prescriptive, but when we suggested that we could loosen the modern foreign languages curriculum, we were criticised for it.

There is no question of our downgrading modern foreign languages. As one who gave up French aged 16 and greatly regrets having done so, I do not want to see such downgrading. The Green Paper says that we want more opportunities for young people to study modern foreign languages in primary school. That would be a welcome development.

Mr. Brady : Will the Minister clarify that? If the modern foreign languages curriculum is loosened, will more or fewer people study foreign languages at secondary school?

Mr. Twigg : Obviously, I cannot answer that question, as it depends on the choices that are made by young people. One could argue that making 14 or 15-year-olds study a foreign language when they do not want to do so might not be in their interests, nor in those of others in their classes. We shall consider the responses that we received, which are mixed. I see some Opposition Members nodding at that.

I move on to the AS-level, which is the major focus of today's debate, although points have been raised about GCSEs and the SATs system. I fear that I may have to disappoint the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), as I do not feel that my first speech as an Education Minister will be one in which I can announce that the AS-level is to be dropped, but we shall consider all the evidence. The debate has provided an important opportunity for hon. Members to express views on behalf of their constituents.

Mr. Luff : And families.

Mr. Twigg : Yes, and families. We have heard distressing tales in the media of young people being overloaded, but concerns are inevitable when we move to a new system. Year 12 students may have needed to attend classes on only three days a week under the old system, and there may have been far more opportunities for other extra-curricular activities. It is understandable that many year 12 students feel hard done by, given the significant change.

Some institutions, however, have told us that augmented programmes have improved retention rates, although we have heard another point of view in the debate. It is too early to identify the result. If the rates have improved, the programmes must have enabled students to be powerfully motivated while broadening their areas of study and giving them opportunities to try subjects that they would not otherwise encounter. We have seen a broadening of the number of subjects that young people study, and 60 per cent. of lower sixth students, who are aged 16 and 17, now study four or even more AS-levels. Under the previous system, two or three was typical.

Mr. Luff : There will be a broadening only if the subjects are different. In my daughter's case, there is no broadening at all, and she is doing four subjects.

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Mr. Twigg : I take the point. Clearly there will be different instances in different cases. It is inevitable in such debates that we all think back to our own school days. I recall people who did two A-levels, but these days such people would do three or four. There may be broadening in some cases and not in others, but there is broadening overall.

Several students who are studying have been quoted, and I concur that many say that they are not happy with the new set-up. For example, one student responded to us by asking

Another said:

That bears out what has been said.

Other young people who have responded to our consultation or been in the media have made different comments. Sarah Tresman, the head girl at Guildford high school, sat the new exams last summer, and she told The Times in April that spreading the exam stress over two years was much better than leaving everything to the end of the upper sixth:

Ee Lin Chiam, who calls herself

contacted BBC News Online last week to say:

and various other subjects—

Perhaps she is an extraordinary young person, but she demonstrates that some young voices are not joining the general criticism of the new exams.

Clearly, we need to consider the issue, but there will be no headlong rush to change the system and we shall review it in the way that we did last year. Many legitimate concerns were raised by schools, pupils and hon. Members following last year's experience, and significant changes were made in response. We shall examine the experience of this year.

There is great danger of doom and gloom. Phrases such as "disastrous exam season" have been used, but we should be careful about using them. Large numbers of young people are getting the opportunity to study and to sit the exams. There is great benefit in the broadening of opportunities that is taking place, although it may not be on the scale that we expected. The more modular approach and greater emphasis on assessment benefit those young people who are not last-minute merchants.

I strongly disagree with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on GCSEs. The positives of the GCSE greatly outweigh the negatives, and that will feed through to the new curriculum.

I see that time is drawing to a close, and I want to finish with what I hope is a unifying point. We are in the middle of the exam season and I think that Members on

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both sides of the House—the Chamber is rapidly filling up—will want to wish those young people who are sitting exams all the best. We hope that their results are again good, but we shall take the opportunity to review the system to achieve the best high-quality qualifications and curriculum arrangements for our young people.

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