Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 286)



  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 and Gs?

  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 rising.

  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 self-management skills?

  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 offers?

  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 question myself.

  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 thought?

  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 numeracy.

  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 needed.

  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. Thank you.

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