Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her remarks about the work of Mike Tomlinson. We believe that it will enhance A-levels and make sure that the cohort of students going through the system this year can have full confidence. The issue of post-qualification

3 Dec 2002 : Column 1072

applications is an important but difficult one. I am delighted that Universities UK will be, and have been, involved in looking very carefully at this matter.

The logic behind the position would be that students would know the results of their A-levels before they applied to university. But the implications for the way in which we design the university year and so forth are immense. This is one of the areas—there are many within the document—where we shall be consulting with colleagues in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Tomlinson report heralds an opportunity to discuss these issues and see where they might take us.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, the report is an example of expeditious and authoritative dealing with an unfortunate situation. I join with other noble Lords in welcoming it.

I have a question involving the unpacking of the expression, "perceived pressure", which occurred in the earlier report, but there is too a general point to be made. The crisis has been waiting to happen. It arises from the annual ritual by which examination results are subjected to massive distrust. It is one thing to want to make sure, if someone is attempting a four-minute mile, that the stopwatch and tape measure are accurate; it is quite another to greet every announcement of a four-minute mile with a suspicion that the watch was wrong and the tape was not correct. We see every year those of predominantly middle-age and beyond, like myself, assuming that it was much better when we were young, that it was tougher, that the teaching had to be much better, and that the exams must have been more difficult. Does the Minister agree that we all need to encourage some self-restraint?

There is a reluctance on the part of preceding generations to admire, affirm and welcome the achievements of the rising generation. I am staggered at what that generation is required to know, learn, study and achieve. Does the Minister agree that the language of perceived pressure must be elucidated to the general population so that we all understand that exam results have first to be received in a spirit of affirmation and welcome rather than be subjected to the annual ritual of suspicion that lies at the root of this year's crisis?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an important point: to admire, affirm and welcome the fantastic work that our students, their families and teachers do year upon year. I agree with him that we must be cautious and careful in our assumptions about the next generation of bright young people who are able to perform to their best. I quote again Mike Tomlinson:

    "The standard has not been lowered if an increased proportion of students meet it as a consequence of improved teaching and hard work".

Whatever we do with the system, I wholeheartedly endorse that our objective is to ensure that we celebrate success and recognise it for what it is.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, within the Statement is a suggestion that there was lack of guidance from the

3 Dec 2002 : Column 1073

Department for Education and Skills. Will the Minister comment on the lack of guidance in association with the exams? Why were the exam boards unaware of what was expected of them?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the issues of lack of guidance and lack of expectations rest in the main on the relationship between QCA and the exam boards. That does not mean that the department does not have a role to play. The issue seems to be how detailed information and assumptions could be made about what was an appropriate level. The QCA and examining boards are now fully geared up to address that and to make sure that they have clear guidance and understanding of what is required. I believe that in the previous year that was not done to best effect. Mike Tomlinson has been clear about that issue and it has now been dealt with.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, would the introduction of PQA have major implications for the new universities and indeed in certain conditions be damaging to them?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not sure precisely to which implications my noble friend refers. I have no doubt that in any discussion about whether such a system was possible or feasible we would wish to take on board all concerns about the impact. There is no commitment on the Government's part to introduce PQA, but as Mike Tomlinson has raised the issue we will explore it thoroughly.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I too welcome Mr Tomlinson's report and pay tribute to him and his team for their work. I particularly welcome anything that will restore confidence in A-levels, with the caveat expressed by noble friend Lady Sharp. However, I am most concerned about the young people who have been let down this year.

Despite Mr Tomlinson's best endeavours, there is still a great lack of confidence that all the young people who took their A-levels this year have the grades they deserve. One of the situations that brought forward the crisis was the difference between the AS-level results and the poorer quality A2 results of some students; in particular, the discrepancy between the coursework for the A2 exam and the number of students who achieved an A grade in their AS level the previous year.

There is some concern about teachers' ability to understand what is required from the coursework. What is being done to address that? Unless it is addressed, there will be a continued lack of confidence in the A-level in coming years.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her kind words about Mike Tomlinson's work. I thought noble Lords would be interested to know, in case they have not seen the latest press releases, that 16 students have negotiated a change from universities or colleges where they had originally been accepted. That is the latest information we have.

3 Dec 2002 : Column 1074

In addition, 12 students will start at a new institution in autumn 2003. The noble Baroness raises an important point about communication. It is well covered in Mike Tomlinson's report. To save me reading out all of it, I refer her to paragraphs 74, 75 and 76 where he discusses misunderstandings, quality of communication and feedback—the important points to which the noble Baroness referred. They have been picked up in both the first and second reports.

Mike Tomlinson is saying that these problems are separate from the original allegations and therefore the terms of reference but that they need to be dealt with thoroughly. One of the threads running through everything he has said, including at his press conference, is that communication is fundamental. He has kindly agreed to oversee this year's work and communication will be fundamental to the programme's success. He will be keen to watch over it, as indeed will the department.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Blatch asked specific questions about the dismissal of Sir William Stubbs. The Minister made no reference to them. Will she do so now?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I realised that I had not responded as I sat down. I have nothing to add to the comments I made before. My right honourable friend the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills—I am not sure how to address her formally in your Lordships' House—made it clear that it was her view, in the light of all the issues presented to her, that the QCA should have new leadership. On that basis she sacked Sir William Stubbs.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, if I understood the Statement correctly, we are to have a QCA which will ensure the quality and consistency of examinations, and nothing else. That seems a thoroughly good step forward. The Minister knows that I have an interest to declare as editor of The Good Schools Guide. I would therefore see great benefit to parents in having examination results in which we can all believe carrying on from year to year.

Would the new structure also promise great benefit in allowing the examination boards to innovate much more than they have done to date? The physics syllabus has not changed since I took it 30 years ago; it is just as boring now as it was then. Many other subjects could do with a great deal of innovation. We could do with a history syllabus that had a great deal more breadth and interest to it than some of those currently on offer. If we concentrated on this business of quality and innovation, we could provide an opportunity for such courses to be developed.

Will the noble Baroness also ask her colleagues to ensure that they take this opportunity to do away with some of the old anomalies affecting various examinations at GCSE and A-level? Subjects such as French, for example, have consistently been more difficult—about one grade more difficult—than classical civilisation. As she will know from the

3 Dec 2002 : Column 1075

department's own statistics, such anomalies appear consistently and go back to when we finished with norm referencing. If we are having a thorough look at the relative difficulties of examinations as between boards, could we not do the same with the difficulties as between subjects?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page