Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-90)



  80. Would that be considered for vocational GCSEs as well?
  (Mr Weller) It would allow the possibility of a single GCSE, encompassing more than one route, so you would not have to call it a vocational GCSE; it would be a GCSE that had different flavours to it. It will not just be science.

Paul Holmes

  81. Going back to the AS-levels, in June last year there was a lot of debate in and out of Parliament about the problems of the first year of AS-levels. Estelle Morris did a review . What feedback are you getting, almost 12 months later, about whether that worked in solving the problems?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Estelle Morris called for the review, and that was produced in two parts. Some of the recommendations referred to the length of time of examination and the time in which it was put in place. The information coming back to us now from the awarding bodies is that it is much quieter. There is more calmness around the system. I would hope for a season that is not nearly so spectacular in terms of thunder and lightning. There will still be imperfections because we are trying to anticipate the choice of young people in terms of their subjects. We have not yet enough experience of how they want to move out beyond arts and into sciences and so forth, and we have got to be on the alert for that.
  (Mr Weller) Teachers are much more confident about the level to which they are teaching. What might have seemed to them rather daunting content last year does not seem so bad.

  82. Some of the initial problems, like textbooks not being available until half-way through a course, and the examining board guidance not being available until half-way through the course—because I was doing all this last year and suffering it—we are obviously past those problems in the first year. My eldest daughter is studying for AS-levels this year, and have a lot of former colleagues who teach post-16 who have been bending my ear this last week—and I am on a panel for post-16 in two weeks' time, and they have still got an awful lot of problems with the system, with overload and too many exam clashes. I was interested in what you said about switching AS and A2 around because at the moment you are sitting half of you're A-level when you have done two terms' work, which is ludicrous.
  (Mr Weller) The jury is out. The teachers' associations were completely divided on that the first time around. Some views have shifted, but there is no clear consensus.
  (Ms Evans) We would be very interested in QCA to hear feedback about the way those systems are working out now. As part of the review that the Chairman mentioned, the Secretary of State has asked us to go back in 2003—in case there are things we do not think will work. We will go back in 2003 and any evidence that was around that we could use to illustrate what is happening in the system would be appreciated.

Mr Baron

  83. I first of declare an interest that I am married to a Scot and very fond of the country, but without wishing to become Rob Roy, can you answer the question I put to David Bell of Ofsted: there is a general perception, certainly amongst the Scots who are south of the Border, that the Scottish education system is in some way better than the English one. What comments do you have to make about that perception? Have we any lessons to learn south of the Border?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We looked in a variety of places to draw on their experience and see if we could improve it, and we looked at Scotland as well. In some respects the Scottish system is significantly different. The basis of their higher education is a four-year degree, whereas it is a three-year degree in England. Therefore, young people have to be taken at a level of attainment that is higher than their Scottish counterparts. That invokes, as a consequence, a specialisation. Culturally it is significantly different. I do not think the kind of answer that you might be looking for in a straight "yes" or "no" is possible. It is rooted in a number of aspects. Can I say from where I am now responsible, that there is also in some aspects complacency in the Scottish system. In England there is a constant exposure to criticism, which we found irritating and annoying, but nonetheless invigorating. That causes us to look very carefully at what we do to see how we can improve it. I think you have much to be proud of here in England.


  84. I am sorry that this session has been so absorbing for the Committee that we have kept you longer than normal, but the guidance that you were due to put out to primary schools—the BBC highlighted the official guidance on how much time primary schools should devote to teaching different subjects—is a year overdue. Is that accurate, that report; and have you done it now?
  (Sir William Stubbs) As a preamble, Chairman, you have kept me a long time. I do hope that you will give me one chance on one topic that you have not raised, before you close.
  (Mr Jones) The report is accurate, Chairman. For some time ministers were looking at a whole range of issues to do with, for example, the length of the school day, and to issue guidance whilst ministers were still considering those issues would have been silly in so far as one could have had a situation where changes were being made in terms of the arrangements for issues such as the school day, at the same time as documents were being issued which were written against the background of a particular set of requirements. We have re-vamped that, because time has gone on. We have done considerable work with a whole range of schools helping us to do what I was talking about earlier—spread good practice. That is at the point where we are now seeking ministerial approval for that to go out and to be part of the advice we give to primary schools. Hopefully, we should see that going into the system quite shortly.

  85. Sir William, the only little disturbance towards the end of this interrogation is that on the one hand you offered advice to the Secretary of State on how much part Shakespeare should play in the curriculum, and you suggested a reduction from an hour to three-quarters of an hour, which was speedily rejected by the Secretary of State, as I understand it. On the other hand, you do not seem to have been involved in the decision in the Green Paper about making foreign language non-compulsory at secondary level. When in passing I asked if you had evaluated the international baccalaureate and stormed into the Secretary of State's office and suggested there was a wonderful model that she had not tried, you said you had not done that.
  (Sir William Stubbs) I had not stormed into the office.

  86. In a different way you had not really evaluated the international baccalaureate and said, "this is an option you should look at, Secretary of State". Those three points reinforce the image a bit that on the one hand there was a bit of a transparency issue, which I was pushing earlier on, and the other was this harder profile of showing you had an independent mind and were going to tell the Secretary of State there was some very stuff out there that she was not aware of.
  (Sir William Stubbs) It certainly would not be the international baccalaureate, Chairman. Why should I go and tell the Secretary of State it is a wonderful qualification? I do not happen to believe it is a wonderful qualification. I think it has got strengths, and it is appropriate in its context, but I do not believe it would be appropriate for that to replace the AS and A-level system in England, not at all. There is an element of compulsion about it that is quite alien to the choice that young people have in their learning in this country, and I think that you should give that up with a considerable struggle. It would not encourage an inclusive education for 16 to 19 to put up these boundaries. There may be a place for it, and some schools have adopted it—largely those with pupils from overseas who use it for a variety of purposes. I would not storm in because it is not an issue on which I convinced myself it was worth storming in.

  87. Sir William, I happen to agree with you on that, but the three items I was trying to draw you out on—I did not know that that was your view, and I did not know what role you played in the decision to put in the Green Paper the non-compulsory nature of foreign languages. Is there not a role for your organisation to be slightly more independent in profile, and to be seen to be saying to the Secretary of State, "there are concerns out here that you should know about", and be a little bit more profiled for the public, rather than being more of a secret organisation? It is healthy to know that you do not think that the international baccalaureate is any panacea.
  (Sir William Stubbs) I have not been asked the question. As soon as I am asked the question, I give an answer. If the Secretary of State asks a question on that, I will give her a view on it. I was with you all the way there, when you were saying perhaps we should be more open and transparent, and then you just slipped into "rather than a secret". We are not a secret organisation, and I think that takes it too far. I have come as close metaphorically to banging the table with the Secretary of State about the speed with which they introduced changes in the examination system. It has been too fast. It has been too rich a diet and should have been slowed down. We have said that in the past. But looked at overall, the Secretary of State's judgment—and her bailiwick runs much wider than mine—concluded that there were benefits from introducing it in a certain timetable. Whether that could have been carried out on the front pages of the Evening Standard more effectively, is a matter of judgment. I think she was in no doubt about the views, and her predecessor, and in some matters I know we influenced her. It is a matter of judgment, but we are not a secret organisation, Chairman, no.

  88. Sometimes I use that sort of language just to tease you, and in this session I have been reasonably successful. There was something else you wanted to add.
  (Sir William Stubbs) Yes, in relation to vocational qualifications. We have spent a long time this morning, and very little has been mentioned about them, and that is undoubtedly an issue, Chairman. I leave you with the thought of how you might help us. I mentioned NVQs, and that not enough attention is paid to them. It should be a matter of spirit and pride that your plane is at the end of runway 2, taking off, and the pilot says, "rest assured, folks, I have got my NVQ level 3". Actually, that is probably the case.

Mr Chaytor

  89. If the pilot said that, that is the last thing to be reassured about.
  (Sir William Stubbs) That is because of your underlying suspicion about vocational qualifications. There is no-one in our system at present charged with the responsibility of promoting vocational qualifications. I use that as an example, but there are other vocational qualifications. The uptake of NVQs has levelled off and it is now about stable. Given that industry needs to have the high skills it has, I think that is a matter for increasing concern. It is not our responsibility, but it is not anyone else's either, and that is a lacuna in our national arrangements, Chairman, that I think someone should address.


  90. It is a point that is very well made, Sir William. Although we have had a very good run this morning and probably have done a little disservice to vocational education, that will be a very god reason for having you back sooner rather than later. Thank you for your time.
  (Sir William Stubbs) Thank you, Chairman.

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