Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
MONDAY 28 JANUARY 2008
Q280 Annette Brooke: Do you have
particular concerns about the lower grades of GCSEs, which is
a qualification that you want to carry on with? Are we not providing
what would be best for the individuals who are going to get Fs
Susan Anderson: As Professor Smith
said, many of those individuals might find that a Diploma is a
much more appropriate and engaging type of qualification. At the
end of the day, however, literacy is literacy and numeracy is
numeracy. They have not changed much over the last 20 years. IT
has changed considerably, but I do not think that employers demand
the same skills for IT. In some cases, employers' demands are
going up because, as Steve has said, there will be fewer jobs
for people with very poor literacy and numeracy skills. Employers'
expectations are rising, but they do not necessarily think that
standards have been slipping or that qualifications are not now
worth what they were 20 years ago. Certainly, expectations are
Q281 Annette Brooke: I think that
that is a really important point, which I will come back to in
a moment. I just wanted to look at the table that was in your
paper, which shows employers' dissatisfaction with school leavers'
key skills. In fact, self-management scores more highly than dissatisfaction
with basic literacy and numeracy. What is wrong with our current
examination system that leads employers to be dissatisfied with
Susan Anderson: I have to say
that self-management skills can be sorted out pretty easily in
the workplace. Employers do not see basic literacy and numeracy
as their responsibility, however, and they are rather harder to
fix. Helping someone manage their tasks on a weekly or daily basis
is something that employers can pretty readily fix. It is rather
hard to retro-fix when it comes to literacy and numeracy.
Q282 Annette Brooke: I am a bit surprised
that it is highlighted so much in this table. It seems as if we
are saying that these young people cannot do this, that and the
other and you are saying, "Well, of course that is the case."
Perhaps we could apply that same point at university level. I
suppose that self-management is also very important. How do you
take that on board when you are assessing to whom to make your
Professor Atkins: When we look
at the personal statement and the reference we get some idea of
whether the applicant has those skills. On the whole, we find
that references from schools give a slightly more authoritative
view of the young person than those from colleges. School teachers
seem to know their sixth formers slightly better. When we go through
induction and the first month of the first year we spend a lot
of time with all our new entrants going through self-management,
study skills, balance of activities and so on. We regard that
as part of our responsibility and it is important to do that.
I do not think that we regard it as hugely problematic, but we
do think there is a transition from school sixth forms particularly,
where most of the day is divided up on a timetable and there is
very little choice for the students in what they do, to a university
setting, which is very different. There is a transition that has
to be worked through there, but we think it is our responsibility
to help young people to do that.
Q283 Annette Brooke: When examination
results come out we celebrate rising standards and the achievements
of our young people, but immediately the cold water is poured
on it by claims that things are easier and that standards are
not really rising. Could I ask both halves what comment you would
make about standards 20 years ago? In things like the self-management
aspect, has there been a change over that period in that we are
perpetually testing our young people in school and not leaving
them to their own devices so much? I am slightly answering the
Professor Smith: I think the answer
is mixed. There is some evidence in the public domain that in
many of the sciences the amount "learnt" is of a different
order, and there is some work coming out saying that a grade D
20 years ago would get a grade B now. That has to be balanced
by the fact that people come along with a different skill set
and the ability to apply knowledge. In that way we now know what
they come with in terms of deficits. We offer them subject-based
teaching. We also offer every student a series of study skills
programmes and individualised support, if necessary. As long as
we know, we can deal with it. It is not as simple as saying better
or worse. The content has changed and it certainly is the case
that more students are getting As. The number is rising by about
1% a year. That is in part because they can retake, and in part
because the teaching in schools is probably now more linked to
exams. It is a complicated issue and a genuinely mixed picture.
Q284 Annette Brooke: May I ask the
CBI whether that has had any impact on self-management and independent
Susan Anderson: Students are right
to celebrate because they work very hard. The vast majority achieve
very good results. That said, employers' expectations are rising.
We have to recognise that there will be less demand for people
with very poor literacy and numeracy skills. Similarly, there
will be a growing demand for people with high-quality STEM skills.
We can over-obsess about self-management, but it is an important
employability skill. However, as my colleagues from the university
have said and as I would say, these skills can be learned relatively
easily. They are not as fundamental as not having enough physicists,
chemists or, indeed, students with high levels of literacy and
Q285 Annette Brooke: I have one final
question. To return to a point you made, Professor Smith, you
did not appear terribly enthusiastic about A*s and PQA in relation
to widening access. Hard-working pupils from independent and grammar
schools feel quite hard done by when somebody from a comprehensive
school has a place that they might have had? How do you get the
right balance between widening access and being fair?
Professor Smith: That is a very
difficult issue and I do not think there is a technical solution.
Admissions tutors make judgments. There is some stunning evidence
from a report in 2004 that shows that of a cohort of 76,000 students
tested, students from independent schools who got 3Bs are outperformed
at final degree result by state school students who got 3Bs on
entry, so much so that you would predict that the students from
the state school system came in with two As and a B. For us, it
is a difficult one. A-level grades are a given, but we have to
take into context the situation in which the student has acquired
those grades. For universities, it is a constant battle to try,
first, to work with schools to encourage students from poorer
backgrounds to apply and then to try to do what we can to ensure
that there is a level playing field at the margins in terms of
taking into account school performance. I do not think we will
ever get it right but clearly we cannot say, on the one hand,
that aspiration is the key because we have A-level results to
contend with and, on the other, that A-level results are very
highly correlated with social class. It is the job of universities
at the margins to try and find a way through this so that people
who can benefit most from going to university get offered the
place. I do not think we ever get it right; we never will, but
there is no nice, neat rule that we can use to say, "Well,
it's just A-levels or just the school type."
Chairman: Lynda, I think you have a quick
question on 14-19 performance.
Q286 Lynda Waltho: Wish-list time.
We have heard from many witnesses about the reforms they would
like to see. What about you?
Professor Atkins: We would like
to see less testing through GCSE and the sixth form or college
years 1 and 2, more synoptic testing and opportunities in those
subjects that do not have it at A2 for a more extended piece of
work that enables the students to engage in more complex areas
of the subject than perhaps they do now. We wish the Diplomas
well; we hope that the mathematics and numeracy content remains
strong across the piece and that they do not become too atomised
as they go through the design phase.
Susan Anderson: Raising literacy
and numeracy must be the key and running that a very close second
would be increasing the number of STEM graduates, which we recognise
must be addressed at school level. It is not just about what the
university is doing; primarily, action at the school level is
Professor Smith: Overwhelmingly,
I want to support the Government's raising of the target for five
GCSE A-Cs, including maths and English. The last 10 years have
seen a very healthy improvement of about 10% in those figures.
But still, comparatively, it does not put the UK in a very good
place. It is 24th out of 29 on OECD figures for the number of
kids still in school at 17. That is the issue. Remember, 92% of
students who get two A-levels go to university and 39% of 18-year-olds
take A-levels. You cannot get that much higher when only 46% get
five GCSEs A to C including maths and English. For me, that is
the No. 1 requirement of the system in order to have social equity,
which is precisely why Diplomas have the support of organisations
such as the CBI and the universities.
Chairman: This has been a very good session.
I would like it to go on as there are many more questions that
we would like to ask such a good group of witnesses, but the Division
did rather disturb the pattern of questioning and answering, and
we have to go on to the second section. I thank you, but please
keep in contact with the Committee. If there are issues that you
think were not covered sufficiently in the oral session, will
you write to us? Often the best answers are the ones that you
might think of as you are going home on the train or on the bus.