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15 Oct 2002 : Column 216—continued

Estelle Morris: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is clearly well versed in the matter given his former post. For the record, AS-levels, which used to be a 40:60 not a 50:50 split, emanated from the discussion document published by the Conservative Government and Ron Dearing. When we took power, we consulted. At the time, it was a 40:60 split, but it was to count for 50 per cent. of the marks. During the consultation, people thought that that system was too complicated and we came up with a 50:50 split. Interestingly, that was widely accepted by schools.

I accept that the technical implementation of that 50:50 split has caused difficulties. One thing that Mike Tomlinson said was that he would have expected the QCA to study a number of different ways to ensure that the statistical processes for getting that split were robust. He did not say—I specifically asked him this because of course, I would want to consider it—that inherent in a 50:50 split is an inability to get it right. He said that more statistical modelling needed to take place. The new chief executive of the QCA has agreed to undertake that.

What schools need now is certainty. Whatever is for the long term, I want to give them an assurance that no further changes will be made to the syllabuses—to what pupils learn and what they teach—without timely consideration and due warning—that is, not in the foreseeable future.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): Does my right hon. Friend accept that parents, teachers and students will contrast the dignified, decisive and, today, feisty way in which she has responded with the squalid and childish response of those on the Opposition Front Bench? When she is considering these matters further, will she give some thought to whether the introduction of an international baccalaureate, or something similar, might in the long term help to overcome some of the problems?

Estelle Morris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. An interesting debate has been going on in education circles for as long as I can remember about the baccalaureate and it has now been put in the public domain, and rightly so. It is important to give assurances, as I told the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I do not want schools or teachers to go away from any debate in the House thinking that the system is about to change again. If my hon. Friend means by a baccalaureate some sort of

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overarching qualification in which we can recognise both the study of some subjects in depths, which are A-levels, and that broader curriculum, that is something in which I personally and the Government have been interested. I put on the record that that is for the long term, not the immediate term. What schools want to know most of all now is that there will be no immediate changes. I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution, however. That is a debate that the education service and this House should continue.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Is an AS-level half an A-level or not?

Estelle Morris: There are six modules in an A-level: three at AS-level and three at A2. AS-levels count for half an A-level. They are recorded in the performance tables as such. Due to the linear nature of some subjects, it was deemed that the first year six, usually the AS-levels, would be marginally easier than the old A-level standard. To maintain that standard, therefore, the second year had to be marginally more difficult than the A-level standard. That is where the difficulty lies. What is clear is that the overall standard of AS and A2 is the same as previous A-level standards.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): I thank my right hon. Friend for the apology that she has issued to students this evening—a refreshing change, to which Opposition Members are obviously not used. I have had inquiries from only two students in my constituency. Given the hype raised by the battle cry of Xpolitical interference" and Xinterfering" from the Opposition parties, I would have expected more. Is it not the case that those battle cries do not undermine the Government in the way that Opposition parties clearly intend, but undermine those students who are now facing difficulties? Should we not now focus on how to ensure that the students affected get the help that they need quickly and how to announce a robust system to the House in the next eight weeks, so that we can have clarity for next year's exam results?

Estelle Morris: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the details that I have been able to give the House today about the students—just under 200—who are eligible to change university, the procedures for this year's examinations, the changes we shall make and the support we shall give reassure her.

Criticisms were made today about acting precipitately—acting too quickly or too slowly are both accusations that have been made over the past few weeks. What I have tried to do during the past few weeks was actually to deal with the problem that arose at the start of September. This is the first occasion on which I have made any political comment, either party or otherwise, or attacked anybody. While others have been doing that over the past few weeks, I have been busy getting on with solving the problem that arose. I hope that today I have been able to lay it to rest.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am surprised that the Secretary of State should conspicuously have failed to recognise the work of many individual staff at the OCR, many of whom may be my constituents who work in Cambridge, or those of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). If the

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Secretary of State persists in scapegoating the QCA and the OCR, they will recollect that she and Ministers were responsible for insisting that 40 per cent. of the work at AS-level should be counted as half an A-level, for the botched implementation of the AS-level in the first level and for the ill-advised assessment review in 2001.

Estelle Morris: I think that I have already answered the latter points. I am certain that, as regards the hon. Gentleman's constituency, he misheard, rather than deliberately misunderstood; none of the comments that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) were meant to imply any criticism of staff at OCR. I said, and I say again, that OCR will read the report. I reassured my hon. Friend that Mike Tomlinson's comments had been at chief executive and senior adviser level. To reassure the hon. Gentleman about his constituents who work at OCR in whatever capacity, I have made no comments about what they have done; I have referred them to Mike Tomlinson's report and I am happy to say that again.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is the cloud that has hung over all A-level results, so will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the tens of thousands of successful A-level students and pay tribute to the work of their teachers and schools?

Estelle Morris: Of course.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) talked about the generation that had been experimented on, but they have also achieved more than any previous generation at each of their examination stages. I congratulate them and their teachers, parents and families for supporting them. Like my hon. Friend, I am delighted that the number of students who were today notified of changes in their results was lower than we might have expected.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Does the Minister understand that one of the reasons why her whitewash today will not wash is that too many of us have direct personal experience of this fiasco? My daughter, whose AS-level grades were affected, rang me today from her school to express the anger felt by her teachers and friends about the totally inadequate response comprised by the report and the Minister's statement today. It ducks the major issue. Does she not understand that only comprehensive re-marking of the relevant papers will suffice? Will she go back to her office and immediately order that re-marking, and offer to pay for it as well?

Estelle Morris: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should distrust Mike Tomlinson's report and the word of the HMC, the Secondary Heads Association, the National Association of Head Teachers and all the teacher representatives. It is a good report, with good work over the past three to four weeks, and I am sorry that so far not one Opposition Member has chosen to support Mike Tomlinson and his recommendations.

As regards marking, the exercise undertaken by Mike Tomlinson has been wholly unusual. Never before has anyone had to look at the way in which grade boundaries were set. There is a well-established process

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for any school that wants remarking to take place. By the time the inquiry was set up the number of schools that had asked for re-marking rather than regrading was roughly the same as in previous years, except at OCR where the number was significantly higher. That led me to say that it looked on the face of things as if there was a problem at OCR. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that when any school which applies for re-marking—the boards have extended the period during which that can take place—and re-marking takes place, the fee is sent back to the school.

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