3 Dec 2002 : Column 770continued
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I speak in a personal capacity and as joint chair of the all-party middle way group. Does the Minister accept that the rhetoric about a ban ignores the fact that the Scottish Parliament proved the impracticality of legislating for a ban? Does he agree that a regulatory solution would provide us with the best chance of balancing animal welfare considerations with civil liberties as long as people stick to the facts from the three-day hearing, where the Countryside Alliance, Countdown to a Ban and the middle way group found much common ground?
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that more common ground than might have been expected emerged from the hearings. When people who feel passionately about different views get into a room together, a lot can be learned if they are intelligent and willing to listen to each other. We all learned a great deal from those hearings.
The most important thing about the proposals that I have announced is that they are based on principle, not on drawing a line arbitrarily. They are based on principle and on testing the evidence against those principles.
My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), invited Mike Tomlinson to carry out an independent inquiry into the concerns raised in September by headteachers' representatives and some examiners about the grading of students' work in this year's AS and A2-level examinations.
The initial inquiry investigated allegations about the setting of standards for A-level grades this year, in particular, ensuring that the conversion from marks to grades was determined according to proper standards and procedures. Mr. Tomlinson's report of 27 September identified weaknesses in the way that the exams had been assessed this year and recommended a process of regrading. The outcomes of the regrading process were announced to Parliament on 15 October.
I turn first to actions to secure the 2003 examinations. The QCA has already followed the recommendations given in Mr. Tomlinson's first report, working together with the examination boards, the regulatory authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland and the headteacher associations. As a further short-term measure to help restore confidence in the system, Mike Tomlinson has recommended that, for the January and summer 2003 examinations only, an appropriately qualified individual should observe and report publicly to the QCA board on the awarding process.
I agree with that recommendation and believe that Mr. Tomlinson is best qualified to fill that role. Therefore, after discussion with the QCA, I have invited Mr. Tomlinson to carry out that responsibility and I am pleased to say that he has accepted.
I have also accepted Mr. Tomlinson's other short-term recommendations, set out in paragraph 69 of his report, for further strengthening of the system for 2003. In addition, I have received from the QCA separate advice on the extra resources needed to deliver the 2003 exams securely. I can announce today that I am prepared to make available up to £6 million once detailed costing work has been completed by the QCA. That money will mainly be spent on steps to ensure that the necessary markers can be recruited.
Separately, the QCA has advised the Government that in order to ensure timely delivery of English results at both GCSE and AS/A2-level in summer 2003, the GCSE English literature examination should be moved prior to the 26 May bank holiday, to relieve pressure on markers. The Government have accepted that recommendation for this year only.
The second major part of Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations are his medium-term recommendations, to which I now turn. Mr. Tomlinson has gone about his task thoroughly and it follows extensive consultation. His proposals are designed to ensure maintenance of the A-level standard in future years.
Mr. Tomlinson's first recommendation is for the systematic reform of the administrative requirements for the AS and A2 examinations, in order to reduce the demands placed on schools and colleges by the awarding bodies' differing requirements and practices. I strongly agree with that recommendation, and I have asked the QCA to take that forward urgently with the awarding bodies.
Secondly, Mr. Tomlinson calls for the professionalisation of examining, to include high-quality training for examiners and examination officers, linked to career development. We welcome those suggestions and will take them forward jointly with the QCA.
Thirdly, Mr. Tomlinson recommends clarifying and making more transparent the relationships between my Department, the QCA and the awarding bodies, through a memorandum of understanding. I accept that recommendation, and can tell the House that work is in hand to draw up just such a memorandum. In addition, I will consider carefully the points made at paragraph 96 of his report, about the varied responsibilities of the QCA and how they can best be addressed.
Fourthly, Mr. Tomlinson's report calls for arrangements to ensure and reinforce confidence that standards over time are being safeguarded. He recommends that the QCA should establish an independent committee, whose role would be to review and, if necessary, advise publicly on whether standards are being maintained. The Government agree and will put that into effect.
Fifthly, Mr. Tomlinson recommends simplification to the rules governing resits and Xcashing-in" of AS units. I accept that recommendation and I am asking the QCA to consider that urgently with the awarding bodies and with other partners.
Sixthly, the report recommends changes to the timetable for publication of A-level results, to give more time for marking and awarding. We will consult the QCA and other interests concerned, in particular university interests, colleges and schools, to see whether such a desirable change can be achieved.
Finally in the medium term, Mr. Tomlinson recommends increasing the use of information and communications technology in the administration and marking of public examinations and eventually in the examination process. We agree that this issue needs to be addressed, and I am asking the QCA to put forward fully costed options, which I will consider positively.
In the longer term, Mr. Tomlinson has identified two further issues for consideration. The first is the decoupling of AS and A2 examinations, to create two free-standing qualifications as part of the 14-to-19 policy developments. Mr. Tomlinson suggests that consideration should be given at the same time to other changes in the design of A-level assessment. We agree that these issues are important, and we will consider them as part of the 14-to-19 reforms in the next steps document on this matter to be published early in the new year.
Secondly, Mr. Tomlinson calls for further work on the practicality of introducing a post-qualifications admission system for entry to higher education. Together with the QCA, universities, colleges and schools, we will explore the practicality of moving to such a system.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I thank the Secretary of State for the early sight of his statement and I echo his thanks to Mike Tomlinson and his team for their work in preparing the two reports that he has produced.
This summer's A-level fiasco was the worst crisis in the history of public exams in this country. Tens of thousands of young people and their parents were left uncertain about the A-level marks awarded for a period of weeks. Those students and their parents owe a vote of thanks to the head teachers who insisted, against the assurances of those running the exam system, that there was indeed something fishy going on.
What today's announcement needs to mark is a fresh start for the exam system. The Tomlinson report and the Secretary of State's response will be judged against five criteria. Has the exam system been freed from the suspicion of political interference? Will exam standards be maintained over time? Will the marking system cope with the number of exams? Are young people being asked to take too many exams? Does the exam system work efficiently with the university admissions system? Today's report and the Secretary of State's response meet some of those tests, but not all of them; and will therefore, sadly, fail to give schools and their pupils the exam system that they deserve.
Some of the Tomlinson findings are sensible, and I am glad that the Secretary of State is acting on them. First, I welcome the announcement that he will set up an independent committee to advise on whether standards are being maintained year by year. We called for an independent inquiry into this subject back in August, and the Minister for School Standards was particularly diligent in repeatedly rejecting that idea. Today, the Secretary of State has rejected the Government's previous policy. That is a welcome U-turn, and we look forward to many more from him.
Secondly, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to be more positive in welcoming Tomlinson's desire to separate the AS and A2 exams, as a first step towards a serious review of exams post-GCSE and, indeed, including GCSE. Again, we have been calling for that review and a cut in the number of exams for some time, and the Government have so far rejected it. I do not expect the full damascene conversion yet, but an indication that he is turning towards the light would be welcome today.
Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether running the current system effectively would take an additional 50,000 examiners? That was one of the figures mentioned at the press conference this morning. If so, does he acknowledge that radical surgery is required to keep the system running efficiently?
Fourthly, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate what his plans are on changing the timing of the exams or the university year? Does he recognise that taking and marking A-levels earlier in the school year would allow the university admissions process to be smoother, more considered and less stressful for all concerned?
Fifthly and most importantly, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to reject Tomlinson's view that no radical change is needed in the relationship between the QCA and the Government. A watchdog whose chairman can be summarily fired by a Minister is a watchdog with no real teeth. The suspicion that exam results are being manipulated for ministerial convenience is not only damaging for the exam system, but insulting to hundreds of thousands of young people who work hard on those exams.
The marks must be not only independent and fair; they must be seen to be independent and fair, so the QCA itself must be independent. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to that goal? He has a huge task to restore confidence in our exams. That will take more than a short-term fix. Everyone who will take A-levels in the next few years deserves a simpler, better and fairer system. The shambles of this summer must never be repeated.