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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1079—continued

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that we must also look carefully at the

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number of GCSEs that some of our children take at 16? It is right for them to take a good balance of subjects, but the increasing tendency of schools to present themselves according to the number of children taking as many as 12 or 13 GCSEs has its dangers. That can work against a broader education.

Mr. Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks with some authority on these matters, Later, I shall make the case that we should not fall for the old English fallacy that more means worse. In this context, she raises an important point. We want to stretch young people. It is not right that the only way to do that is to do more and more GCSEs.

Chris Grayling: I am listening carefully to the Minister. There is broad agreement that the problem has to do with young people aged 14 to 16 who are not pursuing academic subjects. I am worried that tinkering further with the examination system for those aged 16 to 18, which has not been working badly, is the wrong priority for the Government and for schools.

Mr. Miliband: I shall make it clear later that it is vital that we offer stability and confidence to young people doing A-levels or GCSEs, or who are starting to think about their GCSEs. No Government should ever go in for tinkering for its own sake. However, there is a case for introducing stretch and breadth into the learning programmes of even the most academically able young people. We must try to ensure that the system stretches them to go as far as their talent can take them.

The third aspect, after curriculum and assessment, has to do with qualifications. We must have a long-term qualifications framework that motivates young people to stay in learning, with clear progression routes, whatever their strengths and aspirations. It must be meaningful and credible to higher education, employers and others who use qualifications to make judgements on individuals.

The benefits of a clear ladder of progression to a common qualification or group of qualifications at around 18 or 19 are obvious. Responses to our consultation last year told us that, although most people supported the aims of the matriculation diploma, it risked adding unnecessary complication to the existing system without being radical enough to achieve the degree of change that we should be aiming for.

That is why groups such as the National Association of Headteachers, the Headmasters Conference and the Association of Colleges are increasingly attracted to, and arguing for, what they call an English baccalaureate. Baccalaureate-style qualifications work well in many other countries. They stretch learners, and value a range of achievements. Designed for English circumstances, built on clear commitment to higher standards, such a model could work here.

It would not however be right for the Government to impose those reforms; but I am gratified by the degree of consensus that exists among schools, higher education, colleges and employers. Now is the time to test and refine that emerging consensus. That is why we have appointed the working group on 14 to 19 education and training, chaired by Mike Tomlinson. We have asked

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the group to consider, over the next year to 18 months, how to effect longer-term change of 14 to 19 learning, covering curriculum, assessment and qualifications.

Mr. Willis: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the qualification system itself is one of the things that has bedevilled our education system? Our qualification system starts from the top and moves downwards because it is geared primarily to enabling universities to select students in the easiest possible way. Unless we tailor examinations to meet curriculum objectives, we shall simply fall into another trap. How does the Minister square that with what he says about an English baccalaureate? We should simply be creating an examination structure for particular students with the particular objectives of higher education, trade or other vocational avenues.

Mr. Miliband: I respect the hon. Gentleman's views on this as on many other subjects. However, my comments about recognising all achievements in a unified qualifications system cover his point. We should certainly not disparage the need of universities to recognise high achievement; it is important that the qualifications system play that role, but that should not be its only role. Rather than the system being a series of hurdles that weed people out of education and training, I want it genuinely to be a ladder of opportunity that allows them to proceed.

Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying, but the point that was just put to him is a valid one. Are not many universities moving away from demanding specific grades and adopting a points system? They are asking students to obtain a certain number of points in their A-levels. Does that not show a willingness to consider a wider approach? A credit accumulation system might suit everybody's needs.

Mr. Miliband: My right hon. Friend, too, speaks with much authority on this subject. Universities use a range of techniques and the Government are giving some support for research into the possibility of a credit accumulation system of the sort that she describes.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Miliband: Yes, but this will be the last intervention that I shall take; I do not want to overstay my welcome.

Mr. Chaytor: Is not the beauty of the English baccalaureate concept that it would enable us finally to erode the distinction between the academic and the vocational, if it was based on a credit accumulation and transfer system? Could we not look more closely at the operation of the baccalaureate in France, where rigid divisions between the academic and vocational no longer exist?

Mr. Miliband: I hope that my hon. Friend has the chance to describe the beauty of the new system in a contribution later on. His overall point is well made. I have never understood why in this country we think that

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vocational qualifications are second class, given that law, medicine or music are all vocations. It is time that we moved beyond that outdated distinction; it is not healthy for the country. Different qualifications should not have a different status. I should like us to move towards general and specialist study, as that would cross the academic and vocational divide.

It would be wrong of me to close my speech without reporting to the House on the reforms being introduced to ensure the safe delivery of examinations this summer. While reform is being considered, stability is essential. For this year's A and AS-level students, for those taking GCSEs and for those who are considering their GCSEs, reform must be long term; it must not destabilise the learning opportunities of young people.

The issues raised by head teachers' representatives and some examiners, in September 2002, about the grading of last year's A and AS-level examinations led to widespread concern about the stability of the A-level system. I repeat my deep regret for the distress that was caused, above all, to young people, but I am pleased by the vigour and efficiency with which the new team at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority—the chief executive, Ken Boston and the chairman, Sir Anthony Greener—are seeking to implement the widely welcomed recommendations of the Tomlinson reviews. They are also following up all outstanding complaints about grading or marking last year.

In consultation with teacher associations, head teacher associations and examination boards, the QCA has now produced simple and clear descriptions for AS and A-Level standards. Furthermore, as recommended by Mr. Tomlinson, the code of practice has been amended significantly. The memorandum of understanding that was recommended is under discussion between the Department and the QCA and will be published in the not too distant future. I can confirm that the QCA is establishing an independent group of experts to report on the maintenance of standards in selected groups of subjects from year to year.

On 3 December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that we would make available up to an additional £6 million to secure delivery of the 2003 exams. The money will be spent on ensuring that the 2003 examinations are delivered accurately and effectively, with particular attention paid to ensuring that there are sufficient examiners. The examinations taskforce, chaired by the QCA with representatives from the awarding bodies and the teaching profession, will oversee delivery of the examinations.

The Government do not mark exams, but hon. Members should be in no doubt that we in Government are determined to take whatever action is necessary or recommended to improve arrangements for testing and marking so as to ensure the smooth running of public examinations this year and beyond.

Mr. Willis: During the row about A and AS-levels, a major criticism related to the independence of the QCA from the Government. The Minister referred to the memorandum of understanding which was outlined in the quinquennial review, but many of us are still gravely concerned that the Government are too close to the QCA and that unless the authority becomes wholly

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independent we shall not get back the confidence that the system so clearly deserves. Will the Minister think again about that—

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