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3 Dec 2002 : Column 778continued
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): Does the Secretary of State agree that part of the difficulty last summer was the lack of understanding of the process by those involved and, perhaps more significantly, by the education media? Clarity must be established. What will the Department do to ensure that students, parents, schools and the media fully understand the process?
Mr. Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend, whose comments are perceptive. The Tomlinson report makes a series of recommendations on clarifying relationships so that confusions cannot recur. I announced my acceptance of the recommendations and confirm that it will be part of our responsibility to ensure that heads, and through them, parents, fully understand the processes. I hope that that will ensure that the misunderstandings will not take place again.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Secretary of State cannot deny that the fiasco happened under a Labour Government's watch of five years in office. It is not acceptable to blame everyone else.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he anticipates major changes in five years. What does he have to say to all those young people who will take A and AS-levels in the next three to four years? Is it that their exams are inadequate and that he intends to make substantial changes to them? If so, that will be very demotivating.
Mr. Clarke: I am not going to say that the exams over the next three or four years are not worth the paper they are written on, because it would not be true. Indeed, it is damaging to public and political debate that a key Opposition party takes that stance. It is also striking that the hon. Gentleman supports his Front-Bench spokesman who proposes major changes in the next two or three years and wants to rip up the current A and AS system. As I said, that is not the right approach. We need to get confidence and stability in the system that we have and to ensure that it works in the way that it can. That is what we will do. We will not go around trying out fancy ideas here, there and everywhere and rip up the system in the way that the Conservatives advocate.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about securing a supply of examiners and providing them with career development. Does he recognise, however, that many will have to be recruited from serving teachers? As part of his review, will he consider ways in which acting as an examiner can
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations about professionalisationnot a nice word, I knowis the right way to go. I can confirm that we will deal with the matter as she suggests. I can also confirm that the extra resources will be designed to ensure that we get a more professional system that works in the best way possible. Marking an assessment should be an important part of a teacher's experience and should help to enable them to teach in various ways. The more we can help that to happen, the better it will be.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Secretary of State will recall that Mr. Tomlinson's initial report said that the examining boards were not able to aggregate AS and A2-level results in a way that set an acceptable and commonly understood standard, which was one of the problems. What does he intend to do about that? Judging from his answer to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), he is proposing to keep 40 per cent. of the demands on students, which will represent 50 per cent. of the marks at AS-level. How do Mr. Tomlinson or the Secretary of State propose to set a standard against which subsequent results can be judged?
Mr. Clarke: As I think I said, the QCA has acted on Mr. Tomlinson's initial report. For example, it sent out exemplar material on precisely how to do that. I am surprised that the discussion has come to this. The choice is simple: do we try to make the existing AS and A2-level system work for children who go through schools in the next few years and give them the confidence that it works; or do we try to rebalance the system fundamentally and change the system yet again? It is clear from all the representations that I receive from teachers and others that there has been too much change and they want a period of stability. That is Mr. Tomlinson's recommendation and I think it is the right way to proceed. If the Opposition want to make all the changes in the next year or so, they should come out and say so, but I am not sure many educationists would agree with them.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I welcome the Government's positive response to the recommendations in the report, particularly the review of the QCA's varied responsibilities. However, are not the difficulties that we have experienced over the past few months largely due to the fact that we still do not have a properly criterion-referenced marking system, so we face the annual review of grade boundaries? In addition, is it not the case that our young people, particularly in the 14-to-19 phase, are massively over-examined and that we still place too much emphasis on external assessment? Does Mr. Tomlinson's report say anything about that, and do the Government have a view on those points?
Mr. Clarke: We cannot get to the position of having marking systems that are 100 per cent. criterion-referenced, although we can move in that direction. In fact, that is what Mr. Tomlinson recommends and what we need to do. There are serious issues about ensuring not only that the administration of the different boards is consistent but that we have a common approach in the areas mentioned by my hon. Friend, and those are matters for the future.
Mr. Tomlinson does have points to make about over-examination, and as I said in my statement, he raises the serious question of whether we have got right the balance between assessment and learning, and I take that seriously. To be blunt, if Mr. Tomlinson, a former chief inspector of schools, and Ken Boston, the chief executive of the QCA, are saying that there are issues to be addressed, we would be very foolish to take no account of that. However, the right way to do so is through the review of 14-to-19 education being conducted by the Minister for School Standards, which will involve consultation throughout the system. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater would be a mistake, but we have to look at the situation in the round and take account of points such as those expressed by my hon. Friend and of professional opinion.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Does the Secretary of State understand that those of us who are parents of students who had the misfortune to be caught up in the Government's fiasco this summer with A2 and AS-levels genuinely believe that the qualifications that our sons and daughters received are not worth the paper they are written on because they significantly underestimate their achievements? Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the question that he tried to duck when it was asked by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough? Does he believe that all those students got the grades that they deserved? If not, will he take the one remedy that he has at his disposal and organise a full remarking of those exams?
Mr. Clarke: This is absolutely extraordinary. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, although I know that he did not accept my answer: I do not believe that it is possible to rewrite history. We have to follow the line set out by the hon. Member for Ashford and make a fresh start. I am genuinely surprised that Opposition Members seem to want to assert, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) did in his question, that A-levels and AS-levels are not worth the paper they are written on. That is simply not true, and it is not an acceptable way to proceed. I find it extraordinary that Conservative Member after Conservative Member continues to reinforce the statement of the Leader of the Opposition. Parents and teachers throughout the country
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): The Education and Skills Select Committee has been considering this issue, and the three exam boards explained to us in some detail that they arrive at their gradings using different processes. Will consideration be given to the best way of ensuring that there is greater transparency in the awarding of grades, because we should not jump to the conclusion that two exam boards got it right and one got it wrong?
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that point. We need to take precisely the considered approach that she suggests, making sure that the exam boards are working in sync. The implication of today's statement is that the QCA is working, with our support, to try to achieve precisely the result that my hon. Friend requests.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I wonder if I may try to elicit a response from the Minister, who seems to be under the impression that following a statement he does not have to answer our questions. This is a very straightforward one. Who was responsible this summer for what most parents, most teachers and most pupils affected was a great cock-up?