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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that I responded to the question of a condominium as robustly as I possibly could on behalf of the Government, with whose authority I speak. I am grateful for the support from a sedentary position from the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. I agree with him, and as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, that most people in Northern Ireland would support devolution. I wish to say as strongly as I can that devolution is not abandoned. This is a setback. But I hope that the commitment demonstrated by Dr Reid,

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and in particular the Prime Minister, over many years is powerful evidence that we want to see a devolved solution.

As Dr Reid said on 24th July, and later, you cannot ride two horses if one is democracy and one is violence. The recent events brought him inevitably, although sadly as he said in the Statement, to the conclusion that there must be a suspension for a time. However, I hope and pray that devolution will be the opportunity that offers itself, and that in the historical context it will be seen as an aberration, not a defeat.

Lord Laird: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement and for his undertaking that there will be a continuance not just of government in Northern Ireland on a care and maintenance basis but also of hard work on many programmes.

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his point about dismissing the concept of a condominium. Perhaps he will consider this irony. We are brought to today's situation by the inactivity of Sinn Fein, the republican party. Yet this House and another place now have a responsibility for and an ability to look into some aspects of policy in the Irish Republic. I am the chairman of a cross-border body. We receive our mandate, funding and direction from the Dail in Dublin and the assembly in Northern Ireland. If the assembly is done away with, we shall receive our funding and direction from this Parliament. So it is interesting to note that, after 80 years, some aspects of policy which are looked after in the cross-border bodies will be answered here by British Ministers at British Dispatch Boxes.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point: that irony is not a commodity in short supply in the recent history of Northern Ireland. I cannot gainsay what the noble Lord said. From my experience of him I know he realises that there is a wider dimension which involves co-operation with the Government of the Republic or possibly institutions in the Republic. I pay tribute to him for that and for the many efforts of the noble Lord and his colleagues who sit in this Chamber. I repeat: this is a disappointment but it is not a fatal blemish.


7.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The Statement is as follows:

    "Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on A-level grading.

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    "As the House will know, following the publication of examination results in the summer of this year there have been concerns about the grading of A and AS level examinations and about the way exam standards are set and maintained.

    "I recognise the anxiety and uncertainty that this has caused. Students have been left unsure about whether their grades in A and AS-levels this year accurately reflect the standard of their work. On behalf of the education service, I apologise to all those students who have been affected.

    "My responsibility has been to make sure that the concerns have been carefully and thoroughly investigated, the recommendations acted on as rapidly as possible and clear action taken to avoid the situation ever happening again.

"Early last month, head teachers' representatives and some examiners raised concerns about the grading of some students' work in this year's A and AS-level examinations. The complaints focused, in particular, on changes that had been made to grade boundaries in some of the papers.

    "Given the seriousness of the allegations, on 19th September, I set up an independent inquiry under Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools.

    "Mike Tomlinson's interim report, published on 27th September, identified weaknesses in the way the exams had been assessed this year and recommended a process of re-grading.

    "This work has now been completed. Letters went from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) last night to all students on their records whose grades had been revised, and, since 10 o'clock this morning, a UCAS helpline has been in operation.

    "Mike Tomlinson announced this morning that a total of 9,800 candidate entries had had unit grades raised. All the adjustments relate to the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA board. In the majority of cases, this has not resulted in a change to overall grades, but 1,945 candidates have had their overall grades raised: 733 for AS-levels and 1,212 for A2-levels.

    "UCAS holds a record on 1,089 of these students. Of these, 689 are already in their first-choice university, although a small number are not on their first-choice course. A further 232 had no offer from their first or second-choice universities, so they are unlikely to be affected by a grade change. This leaves, on the current UCAS estimates, around 168 students who may be eligible to transfer university. UCAS has told us that there are no more than eight possible new students for any single university.

    "I shall briefly outline what action these 168 students now need to take. Students who think they may be eligible to move institution are being advised to contact their preferred university or college. Universities have been advised by their own representative body, Universities UK, to honour all offers made to students prior to the publication of

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    A-level results in August, and I am confident that they will do so. As I said on 27th September, the fact that institutions have already admitted their full number of students for this year may well mean that students wishing to transfer will be offered places for next year, rather than this. Clearly, the fact that the numbers are much lower than some have speculated will make things more manageable. Universities and colleges have agreed to make final decisions no later than 31st October. Universities and students will not be disadvantaged financially if students move university due to re-grading.

    "In his report of 27th September, Mike Tomlinson also gave his preliminary views on what had gone wrong. In particular, the QCA had not issued guidance on the level of attainment expected for a particular grade in individual papers; nor had it provided a clear, consistent view about the standard required to make sure that the overall GCE A-level standard was maintained. In addition, although AS units were piloted, A2 units were not.

    "I also asked Mike Tomlinson to investigate the allegations that external pressure had been put on the examining boards to lower the number of A-level passes to protect against the allegation of lowering standards. Mike Tomlinson concluded that no pressure had been applied by Ministers or the department. He concluded that officers at QCA had acted within their guidelines but went on to say that,

    'on the evidence available, the actions of the boards during the grading exercise arose from the pressure they perceived that they were under from the QCA both to maintain the standard and achieve an outcome which was more or less in line with the results in 2001'.

    "On 27th September, I decided that the confidence of the examining boards and the head teacher representatives in the leadership of the QCA was damaged and the future of the QCA would be best served by a new chairman. We will shortly announce the name of a new interim chair.

    "I recognise that a major task for the QCA and my department now is to re-build confidence in QCA and our examinations system. Ken Boston, the new chief executive of the QCA has announced a timetable for implementing the recommendations in Mike Tomlinson's report. By the end of October, there will be additional guidance on AS and A2 standards. By mid-November, further work on the statistical issues underlying assessment and a revised code of practice for the conduct of the process will be completed. The QCA will also put in place improved communications with all partners. Current students on AS and A2 courses can be reassured by these actions that the marking and grading standards in 2003 will be robust.

    "Ken Boston has also announced that he is to set up an examinations task force whose job will be to oversee the effective delivery of the AS and A2 exams in January and July 2003. The task force meets for the first time this Friday and will have on it representatives of head teachers, as well as the exam boards. I welcome this decisive action.

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    "Mike Tomlinson's report also provided wider lessons for how government plan and implement major changes of this type. My department will act on these lessons.

    "Mike Tomlinson now turns to the second part of his remit, to review more generally the arrangements for setting, maintaining and judging A-level standards. He will report to me and to the QCA in November.

    "The announcements made today are supported by the head teacher and teacher organisations, including those who raised the original concerns. All students who have taken examinations this year can be confident that the re-grading process has been independent and fair.

    "I recognise the importance of exams as a means of measuring achievement and giving young people a currency for higher education and the world of work. It is therefore particularly important that our assessment system is fair, transparent and efficient.

    "While it is important that we acknowledge the difficulties this year, it is also important to remember that Mike Tomlinson reported that the principles behind Curriculum 2000 were wholeheartedly endorsed. That must not be lost.

    "Mike Tomlinson has given us a clear way forward for re-establishing confidence in the A-level system in future and for ensuring that standards are clear. I hope that this will enable us to avoid the sterile annual debate about exam standards, when better results should be a cause of celebration for young people and their teachers.

    "I put on record my thanks to all those in the education service who brought the original concerns to our attention. Their co-operation and approval for the process we have undergone have been crucial. I am also grateful to UCAS and to Universities UK for their helpful and constructive approach. Finally, I should like to thank Mike Tomlinson and his team for the speed of their actions, their thoroughness and their integrity".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

7.38 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement but, having listened to the Secretary of State in another place, one can only be impressed by the energy put into passing the blame for what happened to anyone other than the department, any Minister or the Secretary of State herself. At almost every criticism, the Secretary of State hid behind the Tomlinson report.

One recognises that, in the time allowed, Tomlinson performed well the task that he was given by the Secretary of State, as the Minister said. However, we were all witnesses to Mr Tomlinson's comment that the introduction of the AS-levels was,

    "an accident waiting to happen".

I shall return to his more extraordinary comments, reported today.

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We also know that the A2-level was not trialled at all. Students, teachers and parents believed that the two parts—AS and A2-levels—were equal and that 50 per cent of the marks would be given for each part. Certainly, they were of equal worth in that respect, but they were not equal in terms of the work that they represented. We now know that the A2 was subject to more stringent marking than the AS-level. In itself, that begs another question: does the Minister agree that students amassing points for university entry would find it easier to take only AS-levels, rather than complete the full A-level by taking the A2 examinations?

It was Ministers who introduced AS-levels—too fast and too soon. I do not accept, as the Secretary of State claimed in another place, that because the previous Conservative government were contemplating the introduction of AS-levels, as a result of findings in the Dearing report, the Government can speculate about what might have been. The Government are in their sixth year of office and must, therefore, accept responsibility for their own policies, their implementation and any resulting mistakes.

AS-levels, far from broadening the education of students, have resulted in an unacceptable proliferation of examinations and have reduced many of the rich non-examination activities, such as music, drama and sport. In my view it is now time to consider abolishing AS-levels.

I repeat a question that I asked earlier today: what exactly is the basis for the dismissal of Sir William Stubbs? I return to Mr. Tomlinson's reported remarks. He said today:

    "I think it is remarkable—and remarkably worrying—that we could have an examination system where AS and A2 standards, which are part of this new qualification, have not been adequately defined, not only for examiners but also for teachers and pupils".

He went on to say:

    "I do think it is amazing, yes".

He added:

    "I still don't know what the standard of AS and A2 is in terms of what QCA think it ought to be".

Is the Minister saying that the Secretary of State was completely unaware until last month that no one knew what the standard of AS-levels and A2-levels were in terms of what the QCA thought they should be? Were the Secretary of State, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools and the Minister for Schools all unaware of that? Where have they been for the past two years?

The Prime Minister is quoted in today's press as having said:

    "What's important is that we look forward and now start to rebuild confidence in the A-level system".

That is after more than five and a half years in office.

If the QCA was alleged to have created the perception of pressure on examination boards, why was only one board affected? The 2,000 students involved will welcome the news that their results have been upgraded—of course they will. But what about the uncertainty caused for the other 88,000 students,

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many of whom possibly delayed applying to have their papers re-marked because of this exercise? Even though the date for requesting the re-marking of papers has been extended to the end of this month, much valuable time has been lost.

Confidence will need to be restored. As part of that, will the Government make the QCA entirely independent? That includes an end to departmental secondments to the QCA—a point made earlier today from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

This has been a dreadful time for teachers, students and parents. The situation was made much worse by the dismissal of Sir William Stubbs even before the re-grading was complete.

Finally, what comfort is there for this year's students—for those starting AS-levels this term, but more particularly for those studying for the A2-level, who are already more than halfway through their course? We know that the Secretary of State was unaware of the standards expected—otherwise, she would have acted much sooner. We know that the former Chief Inspector of Schools, by his own admission, was unaware of the standards expected. How on earth could teachers and students know what standards were expected?

Apologies, however sincere—I have no doubt as to the Secretary of State's sincerity in this matter—are not enough. The Secretary of State and the Government should accept responsibility for this débacle. It has blighted the careers of many students and has created a serious loss of confidence in the sixth form education system.

7.44 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am glad to know that, after all the fuss, the numbers affected by the re-grading are relatively small, and in particular that only 168 students now settled in universities of their second choice may be involved in changes. I am glad that the number involved for any one university is eight—a manageable number. Having worked in a university, I know that it is possible to squeeze in "extras" at those sorts of numbers. It is good to know that, after all the uncertainties of the summer, not that many students are affected.

However, we should not forget the uncertainties that have arisen. I suspect that for many of the students involved it has been a "summer from hell". Ten-thousand papers were re-graded, but there were probably 100,000 students who were wondering and worrying about whether their results were to be re-graded and what that might mean. We now know that, of the 10,000 students whose papers have been re-graded, 2,000 have been upgraded. Nevertheless, for them it has been a summer of great uncertainty. I am glad that the Secretary of State has apologised on behalf of the education service for the problems caused.

In the longer term, it is clear that this fiasco has undermined the confidence that people have had in A-level. In particular, it has raised doubts about

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Curriculum 2000 and the new AS-levels and A-levels. It will take many years to restore that confidence. It is clear that the Secretary of State recognises that, and has to some extent set in train mechanisms by which confidence can be restored.

I am glad, too, that there is no question at present of abandoning Curriculum 2000. Schools have had enough change. Too many new initiatives have been poured upon them. The last thing they want now is for us to abandon the system of AS and A2-levels. It is, therefore, right and proper that we should carry on with this system but make sure that such a fiasco never occurs again.

The Tomlinson report begins to give us some idea of why the fiasco occurred. I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I find it extraordinary that the QCA did not, as the Secretary of State said, issue guidance on the level of attainment expected for a particular grading in terms of individual papers; nor did it provide a clear and consistent view of the standard required to make sure that the overall GCSE/A-level standard was maintained. Why do we have a QCA if it is not to do that job? Whether the blame lies with the QCA or with Ministers, I do not know. At the end of the day, in our system it is Ministers who take the rap. It is extraordinary that there was no previous recognition of that.

Above all, it is extraordinary that A2 was not piloted. We know that the QCA had been warned that it should be. I believe that that is one of the reasons why the fiasco occurred. Perhaps that is a lesson to be learnt for other occasions; namely, where such new initiatives are proposed, it is essential that they are carefully piloted.

A further aspect is the question of the examination boards "perceiving" there to be pressure upon them not to increase the proportion of those receiving A grades at A-level. Given that this was a cohort who had achieved very well at GCSE, partly perhaps because of some of the reforms that were coming through the system—we know that they were the guinea pigs—and, in addition, having taken AS-levels in a wider range of subjects and then dropped those that they were least good at, we all knew that they would do better. Yet no one seems to have taken that into account. That is extraordinary. Why was the board so paranoid about this? Why did it make what seems in retrospect to have been rather ham-fisted adjustments to the grading boundaries in order to cope with the situation?

A point was raised by Mr Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on education in the other place, about the ministry's issuing of press releases over the summer. He questioned Ministers running a press campaign in late July and early August stressing the importance of A-levels and the fact that the gold standard was not being eroded because they were so worried about what the tabloid press was saying. Did that merely feed the board's perceptions and add to its own trouble? It probably did, and Ministers need to think very hard about how they play their PR on such matters.

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I have two further questions for the Minister. So far, grade boundaries have been adjusted, but many of the original complaints came from students whose coursework had been given a "U" grade even though in other modules they had all gained very high grades. The coursework had been marked by teachers, who did not expect the students to gain a "U" grade. In these cases, will there be remarking of scripts as distinct from regrading or will normal complaint procedures be followed?

If we are to restore confidence in the examination system, the QCA must be seen to be totally independent of Ministers. Whether we like it or not, cronyism has influenced job appointments. That must stop, and people must be seen to be appointed as independent experts rather than because they happen to know the right people in the right places. Only if we get away from that will confidence in the system be restored.

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