HC Deb 12 December 1978 vol 960 cc211-3
5. Mr. Whitney

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science in any common examination system to replace GCE O-level and CSE, how many subjects are likely to require alternative papers.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science and Paymaster General (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

The Waddell report —Cmnd. 7281—concluded that on present evidence alternative papers would be needed in a number of important subjects such as mathematics and modern languages. The exact forms that examinations might take will depend on the further development work needed, which may produce additional evidence. The new central co-ordinating body will be expected to develop national criteria to ensure that alternative papers are used where necessary.

Mr. Whitney

I understand that six or seven alternative papers might be needed in the common system. If that is so, how can the Secretary of State defend the suggestion that the common system, which poses such a threat to education standards, will remove the problem of the 64,000 children, about whom the Secretary of State has spoken so often, who have the dilemma of choosing between the present O-levels and CSE?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Member knows more about the matter than I do, for the straightforward reason that no studies have taken place on the different subjects. Therefore, it is impossible for the hon. Member to state that there will be alternative papers for any given number of subjects. Even where there are alternative papers, the great advantages of a substantial part of the syllabus being in common will accrue to all children. That means that it will be more possible for teachers to teach to children's capacities rather than to a syllabus.

The hon. Member shakes his head, but he never listens closely to the evidence. I remind him that the County Councils Association has again made it clear that it supports this examination in principle. Only yesterday, the CBI told me that it had been misunderstood and that it was still in support of the examination in principle.

Mr. Christopher Price

When the studies progress and the new boards are formed, to whom will the amalgamated boards be responsible? Will they be responsible to the Secretary of State, the universities or the local authorities?

Mrs. Williams

The boards will remain independent. However, unlike the present position, there will be a monitoring body —the national co-ordinating body—on which employers, further education interests, teachers, parents and others will be represented. None of those representatives will have an overall majority.

Mr. Carlisle

Does the right hon. Lady agree that there is a great distinction between a common examination system and a common examination paper? Will she accept that in any changes that she might recommend there must be three clear essentials? First, there should be different papers to test the different abilities of different children. Secondly, the nationally recognised standard of the GCE O-level should not be reduced in any way. Thirdly, to achieve that end the papers must be tested externally.

Mrs. Williams

On all three counts I am sure that the hon. and learned Member will accept that our proposals are more satisfactory than the present situation. The Waddell committee found that in some subjects a common examination might be appropriate. It recommended not a common examination but a common examining system. I agree that those are two different matters.

The hon. and learned Member asked about GCE and CSE. The grades will be equivalent directly to the grades in the existing examinations. There is no question of standards being altered. It is an advance that we are to have a national co-ordinating body with responsibility for ensuring that the whole examination system is monitored. That is a substantial guarantee, which does not exist today.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key to the situation is that as far as possible there should be common syllabuses in the subjects, thus avoiding the segregation that takes place at an early age? Does she agree that there will be no real progress in this direction unless she is prepared to sort out the existing boards and impose her new structure on them?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend will be aware that I have said that each regional body will include a GCE board and a CSE board. I hope that we can gain the advantages of both systems for the whole examining system.

There is no doubt in my mind that we shall be able to pursue a common syllabus for many children. Children will not have to make the embarrassing choice of choosing one syllabus or another, thereby often damaging their prospects.