HC Deb 19 December 1989 vol 164 cc186-7
8. Mr. Forman

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what steps he has taken to devise a coherent curriculum for 16 to 18-year-olds.

Mr. MacGregor

The most recent step is that I wrote to the School Examinations and Assessment Council on 28 November, asking it to develop proposals to enable young people to switch more easily between academic and vocational courses. I have also asked SEAC and the National Curriculum Council to work with other appropriate bodies on the incorporation within advanced-level courses of knowledge, skills and understanding relevant to working life.

Mr. Forman

I welcome that constructive step in Government education policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an overriding need to raise the lamentably low staying-on rate for 16 to 18-year-olds? Does he further agree that we could well examine the international baccalaureate and the modular approach to courses? Would that not make it more attractive to pupils of all ranges of ability to stay on at school?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree that more young people should stay on at school. However, the rate has been improving in recent years and about 42 per cent. of young people aged 16 and 17 are now staying on in full-time education. A further considerable number are staying on part time. But we are still not doing as well as our major overseas competitors, and I am anxious for an improvement. I am glad to say that the GCSE is already being shown to motivate more 16-year-olds to stay on at school. My hon. Friend raises in his second point a number of bodies which are developing vocational courses, and I have asked SEAC to consider whether we have the right mix.

Dr. Thomas

The Secretary of State will recollect that he shares responsibility for the work of SEAC with the Secretary of State for Wales. Is he satisfied with the co-ordination with the Welsh Office on this issue, and is the Welsh dimension of SEAC's work being sufficiently addressed by the council?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I am satisfied about that. I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I know that SEAC pays particular attention to Welsh interests.

Mr. Latham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the A-level is an increasingly lonely examination—an all-or-nothing one-day pass or fail exercise—and will he compare it with the approach that is now being given to the GCSE to see whether more continuous assessment could be introduced?

Mr. MacGregor

No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend's first point. It is important to maintain the strengths and excellence of A-levels, and that is what we aim to do. But, given the numbers of extra young people now staying on after the age of 16 as a result of the GCSE, there will be some for whom the academic rigours of the A-level will not be appropriate as they stay on. That is why I have asked SEAC to look at the possibility of developing what technically are called credit transfers—to enable people, once they are in the A-level stream, to switch to vocational courses, if to do so suits them better.

Mr. Fatchett

The Secretary of State's answer to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) suggests that there is need to reform the A-level. When industry, through the CBI, and higher education, through the university vice-chancellors and polytechnic directors are asking for the reform of the A-level, and when the Government's own committee chaired by the vice-chancellor of Southampton, Professor Higginson, has asked for the reform of the A-level, is it not about time that the Government got the message and recognised that a broader examination at the age of 18 is the key to a broad curriculum between the ages of 16 and 18?

Mr. MacGregor

My answer to my hon. Friend did not imply what the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is important in this context to broaden the range of subjects that young people take when they move into the A-level stream. We are developing the AS-level to give that broader range. It has started comparatively well. It always takes time for an innovation to settle down. There are some problems that I have asked the advisory bodies to consider, but it has started well, and in my view that is the right course to pursue.