HC Deb 25 April 1995 vol 258 cc647-8
4. Mr. Fabricant

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans she has to broaden the education base for sixth formers, and others, currently taking A-levels for entry to university; and if she will make a statement. [19171]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

I have asked Sir Ron Dearing to review the qualifications framework to see whether there is scope to achieve greater coherence and breadth of study post-16 without compromising standards.

Mr. Fabricant

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. With one in three students going into further and higher education, which is a huge contrast to the appalling record of the Opposition under whom fewer than one in eight did so, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a broader-based curriculum for those studying for A-level and planning to enter university? Does she agree that we need more articulate engineers and more numerate arts graduates and—dare I say it?—Members of Parliament?

Mrs. Shephard

I expect that my hon. Friend will dare to say it. I know that he has taken a particular interest in the range of courses available to 16 to 19-year-olds. The new qualifications framework offers the opportunity to mix and match qualifications—A-levels, AS levels, general national vocational qualifications and so on—so that learning programmes can be suited to individual needs. However, we want Sir Ron Dearing to advise on what more we can do to extend the benefits of that framework to make it easier for young people to mix and match so that they will satisfy the needs of admission tutors and employers or be fitted for further training, but, of course, always without compromising standards.

Mr. Gunnell

What study has the Secretary of State made of the international baccalaureate, especially two aspects of it that relate directly to this question—the fact that more subjects are studied and that studies are undertaken at two different academic levels, with half the subjects being taken at a higher level than the other half?

Mrs. Shephard

I am aware of the nature of the international baccalaureate and of its popularity in certain quarters. There are those who say that the standard A-level course is too narrow but, of course, it is open to young people to enhance A-levels with AS levels or GNVQs. We want Sir Ron to look at ways to extend the benefits of mixing qualifications. I am sure that he will take into account the lessons of the baccalaureate, and I dare say that the hon. Gentleman will draw its advantages to Sir Ron's attention, which he is most welcome to do.

Mr. Jenkin

Is my right hon. Friend aware of some public concern that public examinations are not as rigorous as they used to be? What assurance can she give that not only will the A-level remain the gold standard in the education system but that other public examinations, especially GCSEs, will be toughened to ensure that people are tested on what they should be tested on and that we are not aiming simply for large numbers of examination passes?

Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I could reassure my hon. Friend immediately. We certainly have no intention of scrapping A-levels. GCSE A-level standards are of paramount importance and have to be protected. A-levels have been tried and tested and are internationally respected, but a number of questions have to be tackled in Sir Ron's review. One is the 26 per cent. drop-out rate among A-level students. Clearly, that must be examined because it is a waste of young people and resources. Sir Ron will also examine the standard of all the qualifications that have already been studied by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and Ofsted, and the effect of increasing modularisation. Given Sir Ron Dearing's reputation, I do not think that my hon. Friend need have any fear.