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3 Dec 2002 : Column 774—continued

Mr. Clarke: Well, I completely agree with one thing that the hon. Gentleman said: there is a need to mark a fresh start in this approach. Unfortunately, his statement simply did not do that and took a series of misleading and wrong paths. Let me deal with the points of substance.

The first and most important thing that we have to do—it was the core of Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations—is to establish stability in our examinations system. Stability is very important for the immediate future. Pupils, teachers and the parents of those starting or contemplating AS and A2 exams should know that we will retain AS and A2-levels for the

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foreseeable future. Although we will continue to debate future improvements in the context of our Green Paper on education for 14 to 19-year-olds, including the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, it is important for us to state that no change will be made without timely and effective consultation and consensus across the education system.

Our immediate priority—I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not share it—must be to rebuild confidence in the system and ensure that this year's problems are not repeated. I repeat that Mr. Tomlinson's report provides a very sound basis for ensuring that they are not.

Mr. Tomlinson has said that a period of about five years needs to elapse before we begin to make substantive changes in these areas, for precisely the reason that I have just given. It is therefore striking that the Opposition spokesman should call for immediate changes in the AS and A2 examination systems, immediate changes in timings in relation to the university year, immediate changes in the burden of school assessment, and immediate changes in terms of the process at issue with universities—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ashford says from a sedentary position that he did not say that, but his statement specifically called for precisely those things. That is a key point for him to identify.

The Leader of the Opposition said that A-levels were not worth the paper on which they were written. The Opposition education spokesman needs to make his party's position absolutely clear. A straight choice exists: join us in putting stability and confidence into our examination system; or pursue what he calls a radical review by tearing it all up, starting again, and demolishing the confidence that people up and down the country have, and should have, in our education system.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement? I also join the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) in thanking Mike Tomlinson for his report; indeed, I thank him for both his reports. It is interesting that his recommendation in paragraph 69 was the first on which action was taken—I am sure that that was the swiftest action on a recommendation ever. It is welcome that Mike Tomlinson will do that job, too, over the next 18 months, and we are grateful to the Secretary of State for that.

There are many reasons for us to be grateful for the Tomlinson report. The administration of three different boards, in which Mike Tomlinson has clearly identified enormous room for errors, must be sorted out immediately—I hope that the Secretary of State did not have a long time scale in mind when he responded to the hon. Member for Ashford. I recommend that the Secretary of State look to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to perform that role. All the exam boards have assured me that they do not want to be involved with the entry and administrative system, and giving that role to UCAS, for example, would be a sensible way forward.

I also urge the Secretary of State to introduce an individual tracking system for every student's work during the process, as one of the most frustrating

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elements this year was that no one could find out where they were within the system and how to deal with it. We welcome post-A-level entry to university, which is a sensible way forward. We also support the decoupling of AS and A2 examinations, and the ending of commercial conflicts of interest within the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, an element hidden in the report but a very important one. We recognise, too, that AS and A2 results should not be compared directly with the old A-levels. That was at the root of one of the problems.

We particularly welcome the call for an end to annual arguments about grade inflation, as paranoia rather than wrongdoing was at the root of this year's fiasco. Far from putting robust new structures in place, however, the report simply asks the Government, the QCA and the boards to hatch a way of working that suits them best. Schools, employers and universities will not be involved. What is the point of a memorandum of understanding between the Department for Education and Skills and the QCA when the Secretary of State retains the power to hire and fire the chief executive and to second members of his Department to senior QCA positions? Surely the Secretary of State should order the break-up of the QCA and establish an independent examination regulator, with that sole task, which would be directly accountable to Parliament and not to his Department.

Today's statement does not go far enough in preventing any repetition of this year's events. Changes made to grade boundaries should be published as a matter of course, not hidden, as they have been this year. Examiners from other boards should be present during the awarding process to make it less incestuous. Adjusting candidates' grades without reference to their scripts—which was identified as a problem by Nick Tate, of the then School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, in 1997—should be ruled out. Will the Secretary of State rule out that practice now?

Where in the statement is there any satisfaction for the thousands of students robbed of their legitimate grades this summer? The report says that any remaining concerns are being Xdealt with". Peter Chapman, the head of the Knights Templar school, does not think that they are being dealt with, and Mike Tomlinson agrees. In a recent letter to the head teacher, Mr. Tomlinson says:

That is an outrageous statement to make about examination grades for this year. Peter Chapman's psychology students are now preparing for their resits in January, but they have had their scripts back from the examination board without a single mark on them. There is nothing to show where they went wrong, and there is nothing in the statement that will sort that out.

Will the Secretary of House tell the House whether an AS grade from January 2003 will be half an A-level? Will it have that credibility when students take it, or does he expect another change to take place? Finally, can he put his hand on the Dispatch Box and tell the thousands of

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students who took their exams this summer that they all have the grades that they deserve and that they are accurate?

Mr. Clarke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his relatively constructive approach to the statement. I want to highlight the point that he made when he called for an end to annual arguments about grade inflation. He is absolutely right to do that, and I associate myself completely with his remarks. It is shameful that, summer after summer, the work of teachers and students in improving their education performance is demeaned by commentators in the press and in other areas. If the hon. Gentleman and I can make common cause on at least one thing, it is that we should try to deal with that problem in the future. He was right to say what he said.

On the specifics, I confirm that we regard getting a common administrative approach in the three examination boards as a top and immediate priority. I have committed myself to that and do so again now. I confirm that an individual tracking system is a worthwhile and positive idea. That is why I am asking the QCA to make recommendations to me about the communications and information technology that will be an important element of making such a suggestion happen.

I can say that we will consider the question of the post-A-level qualification and decoupling in the context of the inquiry of my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards into 14-to-19 education. We will see where we go. However, I want to make it clear that we are not proposing any immediate change in the balance between the examinations. That would be wrong and destabilising. However, if the hon. Gentleman asks me whether we are prepared to look at a different relationship in the future, the answer is yes, through the vehicle of my hon. Friend's report which will appear in a couple of months.

On the memorandum of understanding and the question of independence, all I can say is that the hon. Gentleman has a serious point, as does Mr. Tomlinson. Mr. Tomlinson's specific recommendation to deal with the immediate situation was that we should remove the uncertainties now, and that is why he recommended clarifying and making more transparent the relationships between my Department, the QCA and the awarding bodies through a memorandum of understanding. I am implementing what he recommended to get the answers right. However, as I pointed out in my statement, paragraph 96 of Mr. Tomlinson's report says:

In making that recommendation, he highlighted precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman made. I can confirm from the Dispatch Box that the issue needs to be properly considered with all the organisations to see where we go.

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I accept the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point—in fairness to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), he made it too—that it is exceptionally important to have a system that is seen to be independent and effective. The focus of Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations was quite correctly on putting the current situation in order by dealing with the problem in the best way that we can.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could rewrite history, and the short answer is I cannot. However, I can try to ensure that we understand what happened and that we take the steps that will ensure that history does not repeat itself. We are doing that in accepting this report. It is the right way for us to go.

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