Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  Q260  Stephen Williams: Let us take a practical example. In either institution, I am sure that there is a subject you could cite—perhaps 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 at?

  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 attractive—what 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 work—over two years often—with 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 the syllabus.

  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 that issue.

  Q263  Stephen Williams: One final question—we 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 terms.

  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 from?

  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 tin—that 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 candidate.

  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 outline—what 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 announcements—somewhat disparaging in some cases—about 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 problem—this is a common problem in business, where we are spending about £33 billion on training every year—is 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 Diplomas—although the extended project will be extremely helpful there—means 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 in place.

  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 those competencies.

  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 it?

  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 at university.

  Fiona Mactaggart: May I ask Susan Anderson that question?

  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 leavers?

  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 everyone—employers, universities, colleges and schools—being 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 far—it is still early days for the Diplomas—some 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. Thank you.

  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 programme—that question is to all on the panel?

  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 department—I 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 employers—engineering is a good example—we 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.

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