HC Deb 04 March 1986 vol 93 cc139-41
9. Mr. Gregory

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether all schools will be in a position to commence courses for the general certificate of secondary education in September, as originally planned.

10. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the present position in regard to the state of preparation of the proposed general certificate of secondary education examination; and if he is satisfied that this examination course will be prepared by September.

Mr. Chris Patten

Preparations for the GCSE, under the national training programme, are substantial and thorough. Centrally produced materials, including videos and teachers' guides, have been made available to teachers and supplemented in many cases by further materials produced by the examining groups and the local education authorities. The training seminars for subject representatives from each school are being mounted and approved syllabuses distributed to schools. The onus is now on teachers to play their part.

Mr. Gregory

I welcome the amount of preparation that my hon. Friend has put into the timetable for the GCSE. Will he join me in deploring the fact that the militants of the National Union of Teachers have tried to prevent the introduction of these courses from September? Are they not at poles with the rest of their educational colleagues?

Mr. Patten

I agree with my hon. Friend. The NUT, along with other unions, pressed us to introduce this examination. It represents a major and important reform. I am sure that it will not want to scupper it at the same time as it is picking up the money which has been negotiated under the auspices of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

Mr. Hardy

Are not the Minister and his right hon. Friend flying in the face of reality and disregarding the assessments of those closest to the situation? Is it not now clear that no valid new examination system will be ready by September this year?

Mr. Patten

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view. I know that he has a considerable concern in this matter, not least because I think that he has a child, as I have, who will be affected by it. We have made it clear that we are prepared to consider sympathetically any realistic proposals for adding to the literally unprecedented preparations which have been made for this examination. That remains the position, and we shall consider further any realistic proposals.

Mr. Rowe

Does my hon. Friend accept that in Kent we are grappling nobly with school rolls falling by some 30,000 places? The GCSE may benefit from teachers' training courses, but it also requires a range of new books and other equipment. Will the Minister give some assurance that the education authorities will be helped in their provision of those things?

Mr. Patten

We are considering the matter of resources. It is a matter which has been raised with us by many people.

Mr. Jack Thompson

Is the Minister aware of the extreme concern expressed by the Secondary Heads Association in the north of England, area 17, in a letter that it has sent to me expressing concern about the introduction of the GCSE? It supports the examination itself, but is concerned about the introduction in September and thinks that it is wholly unrealistic. The association has suggested that instead of schools starting the summer holidays in July, they should start a week earlier to allow teachers to have an in-service course.

Mr. Patten

I am hoping to meet representatives of the Secondary Heads Association shortly to talk about allowing training days at the end of the summer term. That is one of the suggestions that we are considering sympathetically.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Is my hon. Friend aware that as recently as 25 September, as far as heads in Devon were aware only the history syllabus had been authorised by his Department? None of the other syllabuses had been authorised. Unless syllabuses are known, teacher training courses cannot be planned and children cannot be advised on the courses they should take. That is why it is impossible for this examination to go ahead in two years' time without sacrificing one year's input of school children.

Mr. Patten

On a point of detail, it is the Secondary Examinations Council rather than my Department which approves syllabuses, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows. At the latest count, the SEC had approved 100 syllabuses. It is still on course to approve all the syllabuses by the end of April, so that they can be in schools by May.

Teachers already have available to them both the national criteria and the draft syllabuses. It is possible to talk to parents or children about options on the basis of those draft syllabuses and the national criteria. I do not think that that point has been disputed by those to whom I have put it.

Mr. Freud

In view of the enormous logistical difficulties, quite apart from the dispute, does the hon. Gentleman accept that it would not be seen as a sign of weakness to postpone the examination for a year? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he does not want to do that it would make sense to close secondary schools for two days in the very near future, to give teachers a chance to catch up a bit?

Mr. Patten

The point about training days refers to phase 3 of the training, which is next summer rather than this term. We have looked at the position carefully, but I do not think that there is any option other than pressing ahead to make a success of this examination. Running O-levels and the CSE at the same time as we were trying to introduce the examination would not be possible.

Mr. Watson

Will my hon. Friend confirm that hardly any of the examination boards in England and Wales are in favour of any postponement of this examination? Will he confirm that work on preparing the syllabuses is virtually complete and that in most examination boards the training is well under way?

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend is right on all those points, but I still concede that the timetable is tight and that the job of introducing the new examination is tough. However, I think that it is perfectly within our resources to manage that job.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there are four basic criteria by which the new examination has to be measured? It must be workable for the teachers, credible to the parents, fair to the pupils and must win a high level of public acceptance from employers. At present, the Government are on course to fail all those tests. Is it not essential that the Government take urgent action to get a grip on this new examination and to turn it into a success rather than the failure it is turning out to be?

Mr. Patten

That is what we are intent on doing. I am not sure from the tone of the hon. Gentleman's remarks that that is his objective.