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15 Oct 2002 : Column 204—continued

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend is right that we need to keep a sense of perspective about where we are in Northern Ireland, even on such sensitive issues as law and order. In some areas, there has been a considerable increase over the past two years in disorder on the streets, for instance, as against what went on in the two years previously. However, there has also been a continual reduction over the years—in some ways a dramatic one—in the number of murders in Northern Ireland.

On drugs, I want to see those on the streets dealing in drugs lifted and put where they should be—behind bars. I know that that is an ambition shared by the Chief Constable. Although it is a problem of great concern in Northern Ireland, the rate of drugs misuse in Northern Ireland is estimated, in terms of arrests and convictions, at one eighth the rate in Scotland. A sense of perspective is necessary. Similarly, when we consider the resources

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that we put into dealing with the matter, yes, they are overstretched, but there are three times as many police per head in Northern Ireland as there are in other parts of the United Kingdom, and the position is about the same as regards resources.

We do combat the problems. It is not always easy to suffer the minutes and to watch the hours, but my hon. Friend is right: when we look at the hours, the years and the decades, there has been a significant move forward for people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Was it really wise to suspend? Does not the Secretary of State understand that for very many people it is deeply offensive that the constitutional parties, whether nationalist or Unionist, in Northern Ireland were penalised through no fault of their own? Is it not solely and exclusively the fault of Sinn Fein-IRA because of their violent activity? Will the Secretary of State now say unequivocally that the reason the power-sharing Executive and the Assembly have been suspended and are at breaking point is Sinn Fein-IRA's activities, and theirs alone?

Dr. Reid: I have already made known my position on suspension. Yes, I do realise the burden, annoyance and frustrations of those who feel that they have done very little and yet are having their commitment and capacity to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland taken away by suspension. I have also made it plain, as somebody who has supported devolution all my life—unlike most of the hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches, I might say—that I would have preferred not to suspend, but I have given my reasons for that. The right hon. Gentleman will not have missed the fact that some of people who he says were so pained at being suspended had actually resigned last week, so that was slightly out of my hands.

As regards the future, I am making judgments on these cases. I do not claim that they are infallible judgments or that they are necessarily right. They are my political judgments. They are made in an attempt to sustain the whole process on an inclusive basis, with the potential to resolve decades-long, generations-long and in some cases centuries-long problems, violence and conflict. If we look over the past five or 10 years, there is enough evidence there that up to this point that judgment has proved correct. What we need now is a substantive indication, as the right hon. Gentleman said, from Sinn Fein that that judgment has been correct—that the trust that we placed in the republican movement and its willingness to move to the democratic resolution of problems and away from violence, as long

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as we provided democracy, justice and opportunity for them, was right. That is the challenge facing us over the next few months.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I recognise that my right hon. Friend had little alternative but to do what he has done. Is it not a fact that the present situation will only cause pleasure to those who opposed and undermined the Good Friday agreement from the very start? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will work closely with the Irish Government during the time the Assembly is suspended, and that it is extremely important that the two Governments should work together? Is it not a fact that Sinn Fein must take some responsibility for playing right into the hands of those who opposed the agreement from the beginning?

Dr. Reid: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that I will be working closely with the Irish Government on the matter. May I say how much I welcome the statement yesterday making it clear that there had been no ambiguity in the choice between violence and democracy? It was a statement not just from the Prime Minister of this country, but from the Taoiseach—the Prime Minister of Ireland. It was an indication of how strongly he and the Irish Government feel about the position. I look forward to working with them, and I greatly welcome their support and their efforts.

Dr. Julian Lewis: What exactly does the Secretary of State think that IRA-Sinn Fein intended to do with lists of the home addresses of prison officers and police officers, together with lists of which of them had and had not been issued with firearms for their personal protection? Why does he think that the IRA-Sinn Fein cell responsible for this latest disgraceful episode described the Prime Minister with two words, one of which was Xnaive"?

Dr. Reid: As someone who always closely considers the evidence, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, although since I am not allowed to reveal any secrets, I cannot contradict anything that he said. On the intentions of the perpetrators of the incident, I cannot prejudge whether the IRA or somebody else was responsible. I can only refer him to the statements that I have been making publicly as well as privately for a considerable time, saying that a ceasefire, even when I judge it in the round to be intact, is not the point. The point is that, if people are on ceasefire but are maintaining a capability in terrorist terms that could be used to break a ceasefire in the long run, they will destroy the confidence that is necessary for power sharing. I think that that answers his question.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We must now move on to the next business.

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15 Oct 2002 : Column 207

A-level Grading

5.21 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on A-level grading.

As the House will know, following the publication of examination results in summer this year, there have been concerns about the grading of A-level and AS-level examinations and about the way in which exam standards are set and maintained. I recognise the anxiety and uncertainty that that has caused. Students have been left unsure whether their grades in A-levels and AS-levels this year accurately reflect the standard of their work. On behalf of the education service, I repeat my apology to all the students who have been affected. My responsibility throughout has been to ensure that the concerns are carefully and thoroughly investigated, that the recommendations are acted on as rapidly as possible and that clear action is taken to avoid this situation ever arising again.

Early last month, headteachers' representatives and some examiners expressed concerns about the grading of the work of some students in this year's A-level and AS-level examinations. The complaints focused in particular on changes that had been made to grade boundaries in some of the papers. Given the seriousness of the allegations, on 19 September I set up an independent inquiry under Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. His interim report, which was published on 27 September, identified weaknesses in the way in which the exams had been assessed this year, and recommended a process of regrading. That work has now been completed. Letters went last night from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to all students on its records whose grades had been revised. Since 10 o'clock this morning, a UCAS helpline has been in operation.

Mike Tomlinson announced this morning that a total of 9,800 candidate entries have had unit grades raised. All the adjustments relate to the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations Board. In the majority of cases, they have not resulted in a change to overall grades, but 1,945 candidates have had their overall grades raised—733 for AS-levels and 1,212 for A2 results.

UCAS holds a record on 1,089 of those students, of whom 689 are already in their first-choice university, although a small number are not on their first-choice course. A further 232 had no offer from their first or second-choice universities and are therefore unlikely to be affected by a grade change. On current UCAS estimates, that leaves about 168 students who may be eligible to transfer university. UCAS has told us today that there are no more than eight possible new students for any single university.

May I briefly outline the action that the 168 students need to take? Students who think that they may be eligible to move institution are being advised to contact their preferred university or college. Universities have been advised by their representative body, Universities UK, to honour all offers made to students before the publication of A-level results in August, and I am confident that they will do that. As I said on 27 September, the fact that institutions have already

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admitted their full quota of students for this year may mean that students who wish to transfer will be offered places for next year rather than this year. Clearly, the fact that the numbers are much lower than some speculated will make matters much more manageable. Universities and colleges have agreed to make final decisions no later than 31 October. Universities and students will not be disadvantaged financially if the latter move university due to regrading.

In his report of 27 September, Mike Tomlinson also gave his preliminary views on what had gone wrong. In particular, the QCA had not issued guidance on the attainment expected for a specific grade in individual papers. It had not provided a clear, consistent view of the standard required to ensure the maintenance of the overall GCE A-level standard. In addition, although AS units were piloted, A2 units were not.

I also asked Mike Tomlinson to investigate allegations that external pressure had been put on examining boards to lower the number of passes to protect against the allegation of lowering standards. Mike Tomlinson concluded that Ministers and the Department had applied no such pressure. He further concluded that officers at QCA had acted within their guidelines, but went on to say that

On 27 September, I decided that the confidence of the examining boards and the headteacher representatives in the QCA's leadership was damaged and that its future would be best served by a new chairman. We shall shortly announce the name of a new interim chair.

I recognise that a major task for the QCA and my Department is rebuilding confidence in the QCA and our examination system. Ken Boston, the new chief executive of the QCA, has announced a timetable for implementing the recommendations in Mike Tomlinson's report. By the end of October, there will be additional guidance on AS and A2 standards. By mid-November, further work on the statistical issues that underlie assessment and a revised code of practice for the conduct of the process will be completed. The QCA will also put in place improved communications with all partners. Current students on AS and A2 courses can be reassured by those actions that marking and grading standards in 2003 will be robust.

Ken Boston has also announced that he will set up an examinations taskforce. Its job will be to oversee the effective delivery of the AS and A2 exams in January and July 2003. It meets for the first time on Friday and will comprise representatives of headteachers as well as the exam boards. I welcome that decisive action.

Mike Tomlinson's report also provided wider lessons for the way in which the Government plan and implement such major changes. The Department will act on those lessons.Mike Tomlinson will now tackle the second part of his remit: to review more generally the arrangements for setting, maintaining and judging A-level standards. He will report to me and the QCA in November.

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Today's announcements are supported by the headteacher and teacher organisations, including those who raised the original concerns. All students who took examinations this year can be confident that the regrading process has been independent and fair.

I recognise the importance of exams as a means of measuring achievement and giving young people a currency for higher education and the world of work. It is therefore especially important that our assessment system is fair, transparent and efficient.

Although it is important to acknowledge this year's difficulties, it is also important to remember that the principles behind Curriculum 2000 were wholeheartedly endorsed. That must not be lost.

Mike Tomlinson has given us a clear way forward for re-establishing confidence in the A-level system, and for ensuring that standards are clear. I hope that this will enable us to avoid the sterile annual debate about exam standards, when better results should be a cause of celebration for young people and their teachers.

I want to put on record my thanks to all those in the education service who brought the original concerns to our attention. Their co-operation in and approval of the process that we have undergone have been crucial. I am also grateful to UCAS and Universities UK for their helpful and constructive approach. Finally, I would like to thank Mike Tomlinson and his team for the speed of their actions, their thoroughness and their integrity.

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