Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260
MONDAY 28 JANUARY 2008
Q260 Stephen Williams: Let us take
a practical example. In either institution, I am sure that there
is a subject you could citeperhaps you have 20 places for
English and you get 80 or 100 applicants, all of whom actually
meet your entrance criteria, whatever they are. How do you then
select which students will be admitted to Coventry or Exeter?
Do you interview at that point? What other criteria do you look
Professor Atkins: For those subject
areas where we are a selecting institution, for example in design,
which is one of our major strengths, we look at portfolio. We
audition, interview and require portfolio evidence, and that would
be the major way in which we would discriminate at that point.
In other subject areas where we are a recruiting university, we
will make the standard offer.
Professor Smith: At Exeter we
use A-level grades to drive up A-level grades/UCAS tariff points
as the way of discriminating. The problem, therefore, with many
of our subjects, comes when we have a large number of people who
are predicted to get three As. We will at that point use the personal
statement. We will take into account school performance because
that actually is quite a good indicator of where the person fits
in that group, but really, of course, every university has some
courses for which it selects and some for which it recruits, but
for the vast majority of universities, there is always room to
move by upping the offer each year. Similarly to Coventry, we
have moved our standard offer now so our intake comes in on average
with about 395 UCAS tariff points, which of course is three As
at A-level and a bit more.
Q261 Stephen Williams: Professor
Smith mentioned in his introductory statement that he was involved
in a PQA group. What difference do you think that that would make
to applicants, if their A-levels were certain rather than predicted?
Would it make your admissions tutors' jobs easier?
Professor Smith: It is a great
example of a nice technical fix to a problem that actually ends
you up in another problem. PQA looks very attractivewhat
could be fairer than someone coming to admission with their grades?
The difficulty is that that militates against widening participation
activities. We find that a lot of the issues that we have in driving
up the percentage of students coming to us from the lower socio-economic
groups is a lot of painstaking workover two years oftenwith
the school, encouraging them to come and visit the university.
Some 68% of our widening-participation of students come from our
partner schools in the south-west, which means that we have at
least two to three years' engagement with the students. Our worry
is that PQA might seem technically nice, but what it might do
is specifically disadvantage those who have not got the confidence.
The ultimate thing that you find with people's choice with A-levels
is a large percentage of students who could go to institutions
that demand higher grades but who chose not to because of lack
of support, lack of aspiration and lack of ambition. I think that
PQA could, if we were not careful, make that problem more difficult.
Q262 Stephen Williams: I know that
widening participation is probably the remit of the other Select
Committees rather than this one, but none the less we have discovered
already that 9% of people get three As at A-level and a significant
proportion of those will come from state schools. At least they
would be known, I suppose, at the point of application, and maybe
they could be sought out by some universities, rather than waiting
for them to apply, so perhaps the dynamics would change. I will
ask a final question on A-levels and one more question about the
introduction of the A*. Do you think that that will enable you
to differentiate between top-level candidates, or will it lead
to a new set of problems?
Professor Atkins: On the face
of it yes, of course, it gives us a greater degree of discrimination.
The extent to which certain kinds of school will be able to coach
for the A*, as opposed to more general FE colleges, which may
not have that facility or staff who are as able to coach in that
way, remains to be seen. I have to say that, for example, in mathematics,
where the A* will be on core 3 and 4, as I understand it, we will
welcome that in mathematics itself and the subjects that require
mathematics at A-level. It will mean that we can see how students
are doing with the more difficult mathematics. At the moment,
because many repeat their AS modules in order to pump up their
marks in the first year of the sixth form, we find that the ultimate
A-level grade in mathematics can hide a grip that is not that
good of the more difficult subject matter in the second year of
Professor Smith: The core issue
is the distinction between people getting As and Bs, Cs and Ds,
and Madeleine referred to that earlier. That is a very good predictor
of their ability to cope. A* will undoubtedly allow us to introduce
stretch and to have another tool to measure. However, the core
issue from the report that we published in the group that I chaired
last week is that the predictions are that 3,500 people will get
three A*s, 11,000 will get two A*s, and 29,000 will get one, compared
with the 24,000 who get three As at A-level now. The issue between
now and A*s coming in is to make sure that we do not see a move
up from 31% of As coming from the independent school sector, because
as Madeleine has just said, one worry that we have all got, which
I shall pose as an open question, is: which schools do you think
might decide that their job is to coach people to make sure that
they get the A*? That would be a very unfortunate outcome if,
in three years' time, we were sitting here saying, "Oh gosh.
A lot of the A*s have gone to the independent school sector."
What does that do when universities come before you again, and
we talk about widening participation? Universities that are pushed
to having as many A*s as possible are clearly going to run into
Q263 Stephen Williams: One final
questionwe have talked a lot, but it is my fault because
I have asked the questions. We have talked purely about A-levels
so far. Of course, a lot of people applying to university at the
moment, and hopefully in future as well, will have other qualifications,
such as the new Diploma, the Baccalaureate, and so on. How many
people from both your institutions come in with anything other
than an A-level, and are their success rates at application any
more or less than with an A-level?
Professor Atkins: I cannot give
you the exact proportion, but I can find it out for you and let
you have it.
Q264 Stephen Williams: In general
Professor Atkins: In general terms,
we accept a high proportion of students who have vocational qualifications,
often with one A-level, and sometimes just vocational qualifications.
We also take, as you would expect, a fair proportion from access
courses. We find that the commitment to study and to be successful
is an enormously important part of predicting whether or not those
individuals are going to be successful. There are some aspects
of vocational qualifications that fit well for the kind of assignments
that students have to do with us, and there are some that do not.
The main problem is one of coverage. It is often quite difficult
for us to know the extent to which a particular syllabus has been
covered on some of these vocational qualifications. There are
knowledge gaps and inconsistencies from college to college, and
often school to school, so we have to do a little more work in
getting all students to the same base point. That does not mean
to say that they are less good as qualifications; just that they
put a slightly different requirement on to us in order to be successful
with those students in the first year.
Professor Smith: At Exeter, well
over 90% come in with A-levels. The interesting finding that we
have is that those who are coming in with the International Baccalaureate
do better in firsts and 2.1s than the average, by about 6%, and
no IB student has yet dropped out of university. We think that
that is worth noting. However, because we need to spend time supporting
the Government's agenda of reaching out to people from backgrounds
that are under-represented in HE, we are enthusiastic supporters
of things like Diplomas, and we will be taking people with Diplomas,
and we want to go down that route. Also, as was announced today,
we will be working with Flybe as one of the companies on this
new skills training, precisely because we have got to attack the
problems across the piece. The fundamental problem in the UK is
the percentage of kids who leave school at 16 without five GCSEs
including Maths and English grade A to C, which is currently 54%.
If you read Leitch, you see the problems that those kids are going
to have in future.
Q265 Lynda Waltho: I would like to
speak directly to the CBI. You will be receiving school leavers,
and they will have a range of qualifications: A-levels, the Baccalaureate,
national vocational qualifications. Do your members like that,
or would it be simpler if there were one qualification to choose
Susan Anderson: Clearly, GCSEs
and A-levels have a good track record. Employers understand what
a GCSE grade C in English and maths means. They know that it delivers
a certain standard of literacy and numeracy, and, similarly, they
know what an A-level means. In the case that Steve and Madeleine
were talking about, where a young person presents themselves for
employment with three As at A-level, that is not a problem for
employers because we interview people. We interview everybody
and would not offer someone a job without doing so. We have no
problem distinguishing between able people because we interview
them. As people get older and more experienced, their A-level
or degree or their level of qualification and experience is supplemented
by all sorts of work experience. Employers are used to GCSEs and
A-levels. That said, many companies, such as those in hospitality,
catering or hairdressing, could see real value in vocational Diplomas.
That is why we have supported vocational Diplomas. We think that
they enable young people to realise how to apply their literacy
and numeracy skills. If you can see how that will be applied,
you can see how important it is. So, yes, for employers in those
sectors, the Diplomas will be valuable qualifications, as long
as it does what it says on the tinthat is the key test
for employers. However, because we always interview, we do not
have a problem differentiating in the way that our universities
do, as they frankly do not have the resources to interview every
Q266 Lynda Waltho: What about the
original outline for the Diplomas as being more useful? Carrying
on the Chairman's point about the possibility of the CBI possibly
stymieing the original outlinewhat would be your answer
to that? Did the CBI stymie the original Diploma?
Susan Anderson: If I can return
to my opening remarks, we said that the CBI's priority was to
raise standards of numeracy and literacy, particularly at 16 but
also 18, and to raise the number of students doing STEM degrees.
That was the most important priority for us. We felt that the
upheaval of replacing GCSEs and A-levels with a new, untried and
untested Diploma did not seem to be the right focus when we had
so many employers saying that they were concerned about the literacy
and numeracy of our young people, particularly those who leave
school at 16. The strategy that has been undertaken, to develop
the Diplomas and do that in tandem with GCSEs and A-levels, has
been the right one. As my colleague Richard said, we now have
the Diplomas. We have good Diplomas and those employers who have
been closely involved in designing the curricula are satisfied
that those Diplomas will deliver the skills and competences that
employers need in those sectors. We must ensure that the new system,
which has been designed to deliver the Diplomas, teachers with
specialist skills and the coming together of the colleges and
universities, does deliver. There are some big asks there. We
feel confident that they will deliver in the various areas where
they are being piloted and trialled, but there are concerns about
delivery. Therefore, it was entirely right and appropriate to
have a twin-track approach: to retain A-levels and GCSEs as well
as to develop the new vocational lines of Diplomas. It was absolutely
the right thing to do.
Q267 Lynda Waltho: What about today's
announcementssomewhat disparaging in some casesabout
what are called "Mcqualifications"? You referred to
the Flybe input. What is your view on that? Will that be another
complication, or does it show less confidence in the system that
you believe your members have?
Susan Anderson: I will be absolutely
clear: these are not A-levels and GCSEs; they are workplace qualifications
and as such they will be very valuable. Organisations that provide
high-quality training such as Flybe, Network Rail and McDonald's,
have been delivering very effective training. But part of the
problemthis is a common problem in business, where we are
spending about £33 billion on training every yearis
that only about a third of that training is recognised by qualifications.
The qualifications do not reflect the needs, the competences and
the skills that business needs. What is happening in a number
of initiatives is that the qualifications are reflecting the business
needs rather than the qualifications being out here somewhere
and not being helpful either to employers or to their employees
of whatever age.
So they are very different. Of course we need
to ensure that quality is assured, and the various organisations
and companies are going through very comprehensive quality assurance
and will have to meet exactly the same criteria as an Edexcel
or a City and Guilds. That is an important point to make, but
the point that I cannot emphasise enough is that they are delivering
workplace skills to meet workplace needs. Therefore it does not
matter whether they are 16, 18 or 60; a person who arrives with
a good qualification reflecting business needs will always be
employable. That is our key objective in this initiative.
Q268 Fiona Mactaggart: We have had
a bit of evidence that suggests that what our present examination
system tests is people's capacity to pass those examinations rather
than what I think Professor Atkins was at least hinting at, when
she referred to a lack of synoptic understanding of subjects among
some of the students who enter Coventry. I am quite interested
in an issue that was raised in the CBI evidence and which reflects
that. Does our present testing system at A-level and elsewhere
properly enable teachers to teach concepts and students to reflect
them? If not, what would you change?
Chairman: Who is that to?
Fiona Mactaggart: Professor Atkins, I
think. She walked into this in her earlier remarks.
Professor Atkins: What I was hinting
at was, indeed, a possible tension which we feel is potentially
developing between an assessment system through the school period
of a young person's life, where there is a great deal of teaching
to the test and the ability to repeat AS modules, in particular,
again and again to try to improve on grades, and what we would
wish to provide as a university-level education. In vocational
courses in particular we are trying to achieve graduates who are
very good indeed at problem solving, with messy, real-life problems.
That requires a deep understanding and deep learning, and the
ability not just to have a selection of techniques that you have
learned by rote and learned to apply by rote, but to select the
appropriate tools and methodologies for that particular problem
because you can understand the connections between them and you
can see that that might well be relevant in trying to tackle the
issue that is the subject of your group work, your assignment
or whatever it might be. We are slightly anxious that the atomisation
of AS/A2 and potentially of Diplomasalthough the extended
project will be extremely helpful theremeans that some
students arrive with us believing that their university life will
be chunked up like that as well and that we are going to teach
them to the test, whereas we are taking live projects from employers,
business and the private and public sectors and encouraging them
to work in teams on that kind of activity-led curriculum. They
find that transition quite difficult. It does not mean to say
that that they cannot do it, but it does mean that we have to
teach in a rather different way to begin with in order that that
synoptic understanding is developed and that understanding of
connections between tools, techniques and methodologies is really
Q269 Fiona Mactaggart: Does the CBI
want to say anything about that?
Richard Wainer: Our members have
not raised that concern with us. As Susan said, their issues are
about ensuring that young people are literate, numerate and employable.
With support from the former Department for Education and Science,
we looked at exactly what is meant functional literacy and numeracy.
What skills, activities and tasks do they want young people or
any of their employees to be able to perform to the basic level?
We defined literacy and numeracy and we are glad the Government
took that up and that they are now developing functional literacy
and numeracy modules to be included in the GCSEs and the new Diplomas.
Their main concern is making sure that young people can exhibit
Q270 Fiona Mactaggart: I wonder whether
that is one of the reasons for the shortage of students succeeding
in the science subjects, because they are linear subjects, where
prior understanding is very often required in order to do further
work. That is reflected in what Professor Atkins was saying about
anxiety and about people beefing-up the first bit of their AS
results and having a grade that overall does not reflect their
real capacity in mathematics, for example. I am concerned that
physics, mathematics and modern foreign languages are all subjects
in which the present way of teaching to the test might not help
the development of students' understanding of that subject. If
that is the case, it could be a reason for the low number of entrants.
If you think there is any truth in that, what would you do about
Professor Atkins: We would say
rather less testing through the sixth form years and the nature
of the testing to be more problem-based and synoptic rather than
chunked up into units, with just that bit of knowledge tested
and then put to one side.
Professor Smith: Very briefly,
I think the issue goes back a lot earlier. A lot of work must
go on about what happens pre-14, when students make choices about
what they are studying. Our concern about A-levels is that they
tend to benefit the middle class because those parents know how
to make sure their children are re-taking the modules, so you
see an effect there. The problem we have with A-levels is that
students come very assessment-oriented: they mark-hunt; they are
reluctant to take risks; they tend not to take a critical stance;
and they tend not to take responsibility for their own learning.
But the crucial point is the independent thinking. It is common
in our institution that students go to the lecture tutor and say,
"What is the right answer?" That is creating quite a
gap between how they come to us with A-levels and what is needed
Fiona Mactaggart: May I ask Susan Anderson
Chairman: We are running late because
of the Division. I will therefore ask my colleagues to speed up
a little, because we are still on section 1.
Susan Anderson: I want to go further
back than A-levels. When we asked our employers what they understood
by literacy and numeracy, some of it was pretty fundamental stuff.
Some workers who come into the workplace cannot do mental arithmetic,
do not know their multiplication tables and cannot work out fractions
and percentages, but those things are easy to test. Sometimes
schools assume that having learnt those things once it is for
ever in the brain, but that is not always so. Many companies tell
us that people cannot spot errors or rogue figures because they
cannot do mental arithmetic. Those are things that you can test
pretty accurately and, linking to the Diploma point, if you can
apply them and understand why they are applied and see why they
are important it makes them more relevant. That is especially
so if you can apply them in a construction or a retail environment,
for example, if children know that they want to take that particular
vocational route. Those skills are pretty basic and if children
are not getting them right at 16, 14 or 11, that is a good indication
for employers of whether schools are getting the basics right.
Q271 Fiona Mactaggart: I wonder whether
the responses that Professor Smith and Professor Atkins gave imply
that we should not allow retakes for part 1 of AS-levels.
Professor Atkins: Some universities
do not permit that. I think I am right that some medical schools
do not permit the retake mark to be included, but that would have
to be checked. There is concern about this culture. In a sense,
you are saying that students work very hard in sixth form. They
absolutely do and that is partly because tests come up every three
or four months. The pressure for those tests is enormous. In the
first year of sixth form, students are told that they have to
get close to 100% in maths because next year they will not get
such a high mark and they have to get their average up. That is
an enormous pressure. We do not doubt the amount of sheer hard
work that is going on. However, that would perhaps be better directed
if students were saying, "This subject is really exciting;
we have time to think and to get enthusiastic about it,"
rather than, "We have to do another test paper on Friday."
There does not seem to be as much time to explore the subject
as there used to be.
Professor Smith: That is why a
lot of universities do additional specialist admissions tests
that measure competence. At our university, we use several of
the major national tests. The Department for Children, Schools
and Families is aware of this problem. There are proposals to
reduce significantly the ability to retake too many things. I
would personally welcome that, although it is not as easy as it
sounds at first. Clearly, it is good to allow students to improve
their grades by increasing the work load and retaking exams. I
think that there is a difficult balance to find on this issue.
Q272 Mr. Heppell: I have a brief
question. There is a big demand for students studying STEM subjects,
and particularly for science graduates. You seem to be saying
that we should tackle the problem earlier on in school, with more
people taking triple science and so on. Could this be part of
the problem? I think that this is more of an issue for the CBI
than the universities. Perhaps employers do not give enough status
and reward to people in those jobs. If they were getting more
rewards, those jobs would be more attractive. At some stage, people
are making choices. Would they be more likely to make choices
towards science if they thought that the rewards were better?
Susan Anderson: Can I answer that
question in two parts? First, the starting salary for someone
going into the City is about £38,000. The sorts of people
who can work for large investment banks or large accountancy firms
are engineers and physicists. We need physicists and engineers
in manufacturing, but they are also in demand in occupations and
professions that need highly numerate people. On average, the
starting salary of an engineer is about £24,000. Compare
that with the starting salary of somebody with a general arts
degree. They could not do those jobs. They might get very good
jobs, but they will be in sectors such as retail, which ask for
general graduates. Graduates in physics and chemistry are getting
very good starting salaries. The problem is that there are not
enough of them, so employers in the engineering sector see a number
of potential recruits going off to investment banking. I do not
think that that is a bad thing. It tells us that we need more
STEM graduates, not that people in engineering ought to pay them
more. Secondly, you are absolutely right that we in business need
to get those sorts of facts out to young people so that they are
aware, when making their choices at 14, 16 or 18, of the very
well-paid jobs that are open to those who do STEM degrees. Employers
must convince students that they offer good jobs and convince
able students that they might like to do an apprentice programme
rather than a degree.
Chairman: I will make myself very unpopular
because we only have two more sections. We have covered some parts
of the other sections, but we must move on. I take your point
about needing good mathematics to go into the City; I understand
that you have to count in French up to 4 billion, at least, to
qualify these days. Dawn, you are going to ask some leader questions
on the knowledge and skills deficit.
Q273 Ms Butler: Some of this might
have been answered in the first section, but, in the CBI report,
you have said that too many people leave school without necessary
literacy and numeracy skills. Does the current qualifications
system for school leavers provide sufficient opportunities for
candidates to equip themselves with the skills and attributes
that business people or universities are looking for?
Susan Anderson: As we have said,
we have sought to feed into the design of qualifications by defining
what literacy and numeracy means in an employment situation. We
think that a basic level of literacy and numeracy probably equates
to a Level 1. So, the new functional skills elements of the Diplomas,
GCSEs, and A-levels will help employers to have some confidence
that young people are coming out with basic literacy and numeracy
skills. However, that is not enough. We must have, as employers,
the equivalent of a grade C in English and maths. We must have
much higher standards of literacy and numeracy than the very basic
levels that we have talked about. I think that we have seen progress
over the last 10 to 20 years in improving literacy and numeracy
levels, but we are saying that they are not anywhere near where
we would want them to be. When 54% of school leavers do not have
5 A*-C in both English and maths, we cannot afford to be at all
complacent in looking at what is happening with literacy and numeracy.
There are improvements, but it is the rate of progress that we
have more concerns about.
Q274 Ms Butler: Do you think that
the current plans will improve the rate of progress for school
Susan Anderson: It is very important
that we are measuring what is happening so that we know how many
children get A to C grades in English and maths. It is important
that we measure schools according to that key target. The literacy
and numeracy modules for the new Diplomas will help, and the fact
that they are being delivered in an applied way will help more
young people to see the value of those essential skills.
Q275 Ms Butler: Professor Smith,
I see that you are agreeing?
Professor Smith: Absolutely. Diplomas
provide a great opportunity of another route to attain those skills,
which appeals to students who might be put off by the "academic
route". Diplomas are a very good attempt to deal with that,
because they are designed with the involvement of employers, so
skills are relevant. It is another way of trying to deal with
the 54% of school leavers who do not leave at 16 with five GCSEs
at grade A to C including Maths and English. As the Leitch review
pointed out, the jobs for those people will simply not be there
by 2020. I see Diplomas as a very good way of creating parity
of esteem, but by a different route.
Q276 Ms Butler: You talked earlier,
Professor, about those people who have A*s being able to develop
personal and study skills further. Do you think that Diplomas
will also help young people to develop them?
Professor Smith: The truthful
answer is that we have to wait and see. The good news is that
with everyoneemployers, universities, colleges and schoolsbeing
involved in the design of the Diplomas, there is a good opportunity
for awareness of those matters. The skills modules and sections
of the Diplomas offer a clear indication that that is on the agenda
from the start. So, with regard to design, it is hopeful that
those people have been involved from day one and are trying to
achieve those ends. Clearly, we will not know whether they have
succeeded until the first people complete the Diplomas, but they
are being designed very much with meeting that deficit in mind.
Q277 Ms Butler: Do you think that
anything could be added to the design to make us feel more secure
that we are equipping young people with those study skills?
Professor Atkins: From what we
have seen so farit is still early days for the Diplomassome
of the Diplomas have got the mathematics right. The engineering
Diploma is an example of that, as is the manufacturing Diploma
that is coming through at the moment. I am not sure how widespread
that will be in the other Diplomas as they are developed. The
point that I would make on the IT side is the one that I made
earlier: it is not that young people need greater facility with
IT, but that being able to appraise IT sources critically will
be increasingly important, whether in employment or higher education.
I am not sure that the Diplomas have quite pinpointed that skill
as important for the future.
Q278 Ms Butler: That is interesting.
My final question relates to the CBI's report,
which states that employers often find that they need to remedy
deficits in the basics. Do you engage in any remedial activity
to bring school leavers up to the necessary standards after entering
university or a programmethat question is to all on the
Chairman: One from each group, because
we are running a bit late.
Richard Wainer: Our surveys show
that around 15% of our members have to provide remedial basic
skills training. Although that is probably through skills for
life courses, which the Government provide, there is certainly
a lot of frustration among our members about having to provide
that sort of training.
Professor Atkins: Yes.
Professor Smith: Yes.
Chairman: As I listen to this, I am thinking
about how some of your members go to the media and say that children
who have not got A to C in mathematics and English are illiterate.
It is not true, is it? I sometimes think that members of this
Committee should sit down to take the tests to see what our levels
are and bring us back to reality. I would be interested to know
what my own skills are in that departmentI was never any
good at maths.
Q279 Annette Brooke: Picking up on
that point, could you please clarify whether the CBI's members
are still concerned about the literacy and numeracy skills of
those who have A to C in maths and English, and will they have
what you require if they have their five A to Cs?
Susan Anderson: Generally, the
answer would be yes, but perhaps it is a bit similar to what we
are saying about engineering. For some employersengineering
is a good examplewe might well find that they need more
depth when it comes to particular engineering applications. That
sort of issue can arise. The other thing that I would say from
the employer community is that employers are already always training
people, whether on or off the job. Therefore, it is not that you
have put those skills in a box and never used them, but they are
always being applied by people in their work places.