HC Deb 03 December 2002 vol 395 cc771-81 4.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the inquiry into A-level standards.

My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), invited Mike Tomlinson to carry out an independent inquiry into the concerns raised in September by headteachers' representatives and some examiners about the grading of students' work in this year's AS and A2-level examinations.

I would like to begin by thanking Mike Tomlinson for the substantial work that he has done. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.

The initial inquiry investigated allegations about the setting of standards for A-level grades this year, in particular, ensuring that the conversion from marks to grades was determined according to proper standards and procedures. Mr. Tomlinson's report of 27 September identified weaknesses in the way that the exams had been assessed this year and recommended a process of regrading. The outcomes of the regrading process were announced to Parliament on 15 October.

Mr. Tomlinson's final report, which is published today, states in paragraph 2: I remain convinced that my interim report and the subsequent review of grade boundaries dealt effectively with the major concerns and allegations about manipulation of the grading process. That is a strong statement which I wholeheartedly endorse, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley for setting in motion the important process that has given rise to that statement, which gives confidence.

In paragraph 3 of the report published today, Mr. Tomlinson goes on to say: Action by the QCA and the other regulatory bodies on my earlier recommendations, allied to further proposals made in this final report will, in my view, secure the standards and integrity of next year's examinations. Again, I endorse that view and express my confidence in the commitment of Sir Anthony Greener and Ken Boston at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, working with my Department, to implement the necessary steps set out by Mr. Tomlinson.

I turn first to actions to secure the 2003 examinations. The QCA has already followed the recommendations given in Mr. Tomlinson's first report, working together with the examination boards, the regulatory authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland and the headteacher associations. As a further short-term measure to help restore confidence in the system, Mike Tomlinson has recommended that, for the January and summer 2003 examinations only, an appropriately qualified individual should observe and report publicly to the QCA board on the awarding process.

I agree with that recommendation and believe that Mr. Tomlinson is best qualified to fill that role. Therefore, after discussion with the QCA, I have invited Mr. Tomlinson to carry out that responsibility and I am pleased to say that he has accepted.

I have also accepted Mr. Tomlinson's other short-term recommendations, set out in paragraph 69 of his report, for further strengthening of the system for 2003. In addition, I have received from the QCA separate advice on the extra resources needed to deliver the 2003 exams securely. I can announce today that I am prepared to make available up to £6 million once detailed costing work has been completed by the QCA. That money will mainly be spent on steps to ensure that the necessary markers can be recruited.

Separately, the QCA has advised the Government that in order to ensure timely delivery of English results at both GCSE and AS/A2-level in summer 2003, the GCSE English literature examination should be moved prior to the 26 May bank holiday, to relieve pressure on markers. The Government have accepted that recommendation for this year only.

The second major part of Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations are his medium-term recommendations, to which I now turn. Mr. Tomlinson has gone about his task thoroughly and it follows extensive consultation. His proposals are designed to ensure maintenance of the A-level standard in future years.

Mr. Tomlinson's first recommendation is for the systematic reform of the administrative requirements for the AS and A2 examinations, in order to reduce the demands placed on schools and colleges by the awarding bodies' differing requirements and practices. I strongly agree with that recommendation, and I have asked the QCA to take that forward urgently with the awarding bodies.

Secondly, Mr. Tomlinson calls for the professionalisation of examining, to include high-quality training for examiners and examination officers, linked to career development. We welcome those suggestions and will take them forward jointly with the QCA.

Thirdly, Mr. Tomlinson recommends clarifying and making more transparent the relationships between my Department, the QCA and the awarding bodies, through a memorandum of understanding. I accept that recommendation, and can tell the House that work is in hand to draw up just such a memorandum. In addition, I will consider carefully the points made at paragraph 96 of his report, about the varied responsibilities of the QCA and how they can best be addressed.

Fourthly, Mr. Tomlinson's report calls for arrangements to ensure and reinforce confidence that standards over time are being safeguarded. He recommends that the QCA should establish an independent committee, whose role would be to review and, if necessary, advise publicly on whether standards are being maintained. The Government agree and will put that into effect.

Fifthly, Mr. Tomlinson recommends simplification to the rules governing resits and "cashing-in" of AS units. I accept that recommendation and I am asking the QCA to consider that urgently with the awarding bodies and with other partners.

Sixthly, the report recommends changes to the timetable for publication of A-level results, to give more time for marking and awarding. We will consult the QCA and other interests concerned, in particular university interests, colleges and schools, to see whether such a desirable change can be achieved.

Finally in the medium term, Mr. Tomlinson recommends increasing the use of information and communications technology in the administration and marking of public examinations and eventually in the examination process. We agree that this issue needs to be addressed, and I am asking the QCA to put forward fully costed options, which I will consider positively.

In the longer term, Mr. Tomlinson has identified two further issues for consideration. The first is the decoupling of AS and A2 examinations, to create two free-standing qualifications as part of the 14-to-19 policy developments. Mr. Tomlinson suggests that consideration should be given at the same time to other changes in the design of A-level assessment. We agree that these issues are important, and we will consider them as part of the 14-to-19 reforms in the next steps document on this matter to be published early in the new year.

Secondly, Mr. Tomlinson calls for further work on the practicality of introducing a post-qualifications admission system for entry to higher education. Together with the QCA, universities, colleges and schools, we will explore the practicality of moving to such a system.

The AS/A2 examination is a fundamentally sound system. It will become a better system as a result of Mr. Tomlinson's work. But, as he says, The standard has not been lowered if an increased proportion of students meet it as a consequence of improved teaching and hard work by students". I invite hon. Members on both sides of the House to join me today in paying tribute to Mike Tomlinson's first class work in carrying through the issues that now need to be tackled, and I today commit the Government to carrying through the recommendations of his report.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I thank the Secretary of State for the early sight of his statement and I echo his thanks to Mike Tomlinson and his team for their work in preparing the two reports that he has produced.

This summer's A-level fiasco was the worst crisis in the history of public exams in this country. Tens of thousands of young people and their parents were left uncertain about the A-level marks awarded for a period of weeks. Those students and their parents owe a vote of thanks to the head teachers who insisted, against the assurances of those running the exam system, that there was indeed something fishy going on.

What today's announcement needs to mark is a fresh start for the exam system. The Tomlinson report and the Secretary of State's response will be judged against five criteria. Has the exam system been freed from the suspicion of political interference? Will exam standards be maintained over time? Will the marking system cope with the number of exams? Are young people being asked to take too many exams? Does the exam system work efficiently with the university admissions system? Today's report and the Secretary of State's response meet some of those tests, but not all of them; and will therefore, sadly, fail to give schools and their pupils the exam system that they deserve.

Some of the Tomlinson findings are sensible, and I am glad that the Secretary of State is acting on them. First, I welcome the announcement that he will set up an independent committee to advise on whether standards are being maintained year by year. We called for an independent inquiry into this subject back in August, and the Minister for School Standards was particularly diligent in repeatedly rejecting that idea. Today, the Secretary of State has rejected the Government's previous policy. That is a welcome U-turn, and we look forward to many more from him.

Secondly, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to be more positive in welcoming Tomlinson's desire to separate the AS and A2 exams, as a first step towards a serious review of exams post-GCSE and, indeed, including GCSE. Again, we have been calling for that review and a cut in the number of exams for some time, and the Government have so far rejected it. I do not expect the full damascene conversion yet, but an indication that he is turning towards the light would be welcome today.

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether running the current system effectively would take an additional 50,000 examiners? That was one of the figures mentioned at the press conference this morning. If so, does he acknowledge that radical surgery is required to keep the system running efficiently?

Fourthly, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate what his plans are on changing the timing of the exams or the university year? Does he recognise that taking and marking A-levels earlier in the school year would allow the university admissions process to be smoother, more considered and less stressful for all concerned?

Fifthly and most importantly, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to reject Tomlinson's view that no radical change is needed in the relationship between the QCA and the Government. A watchdog whose chairman can be summarily fired by a Minister is a watchdog with no real teeth. The suspicion that exam results are being manipulated for ministerial convenience is not only damaging for the exam system, but insulting to hundreds of thousands of young people who work hard on those exams.

The marks must be not only independent and fair; they must be seen to be independent and fair, so the QCA itself must be independent. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to that goal? He has a huge task to restore confidence in our exams. That will take more than a short-term fix. Everyone who will take A-levels in the next few years deserves a simpler, better and fairer system. The shambles of this summer must never be repeated.

Mr. Clarke

Well, I completely agree with one thing that the hon. Gentleman said: there is a need to mark a fresh start in this approach. Unfortunately, his statement simply did not do that and took a series of misleading and wrong paths. Let me deal with the points of substance.

The first and most important thing that we have to do—it was the core of Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations—is to establish stability in our examinations system. Stability is very important for the immediate future. Pupils, teachers and the parents of those starting or contemplating AS and A2 exams should know that we will retain AS and A2-levels for the foreseeable future. Although we will continue to debate future improvements in the context of our Green Paper on education for 14 to 19-year-olds, including the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, it is important for us to state that no change will be made without timely and effective consultation and consensus across the education system.

Our immediate priority—I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not share it—must be to rebuild confidence in the system and ensure that this year's problems are not repeated. I repeat that Mr. Tomlinson's report provides a very sound basis for ensuring that they are not.

Mr. Tomlinson has said that a period of about five years needs to elapse before we begin to make substantive changes in these areas, for precisely the reason that I have just given. It is therefore striking that the Opposition spokesman should call for immediate changes in the AS and A2 examination systems, immediate changes in timings in relation to the university year, immediate changes in the burden of school assessment, and immediate changes in terms of the process at issue with universities—[Interruption.]The hon. Member for Ashford says from a sedentary position that he did not say that, but his statement specifically called for precisely those things. That is a key point for him to identify.

The Leader of the Opposition said that A-levels were not worth the paper on which they were written. The Opposition education spokesman needs to make his party's position absolutely clear. A straight choice exists: join us in putting stability and confidence into our examination system; or pursue what he calls a radical review by tearing it all up, starting again, and demolishing the confidence that people up and down the country have, and should have, in our education system.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement? I also join the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) in thanking Mike Tomlinson for his report; indeed, I thank him for both his reports. It is interesting that his recommendation in paragraph 69 was the first on which action was taken—I am sure that that was the swiftest action on a recommendation ever. It is welcome that Mike Tomlinson will do that job, too, over the next 18 months, and we are grateful to the Secretary of State for that.

There are many reasons for us to be grateful for the Tomlinson report. The administration of three different boards, in which Mike Tomlinson has clearly identified enormous room for errors, must be sorted out immediately—I hope that the Secretary of State did not have a long time scale in mind when he responded to the hon. Member for Ashford. I recommend that the Secretary of State look to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to perform that role. All the exam boards have assured me that they do not want to be involved with the entry and administrative system, and giving that role to UCAS, for example, would be a sensible way forward.

I also urge the Secretary of State to introduce an individual tracking system for every student's work during the process, as one of the most frustrating elements this year was that no one could find out where they were within the system and how to deal with it. We welcome post-A-level entry to university, which is a sensible way forward. We also support the decoupling of AS and A2 examinations, and the ending of commercial conflicts of interest within the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, an element hidden in the report but a very important one. We recognise, too, that AS and A2 results should not be compared directly with the old A-levels. That was at the root of one of the problems.

We particularly welcome the call for an end to annual arguments about grade inflation, as paranoia rather than wrongdoing was at the root of this year's fiasco. Far from putting robust new structures in place, however, the report simply asks the Government, the QCA and the boards to hatch a way of working that suits them best. Schools, employers and universities will not be involved. What is the point of a memorandum of understanding between the Department for Education and Skills and the QCA when the Secretary of State retains the power to hire and fire the chief executive and to second members of his Department to senior QCA positions? Surely the Secretary of State should order the break-up of the QCA and establish an independent examination regulator, with that sole task, which would be directly accountable to Parliament and not to his Department.

Today's statement does not go far enough in preventing any repetition of this year's events. Changes made to grade boundaries should be published as a matter of course, not hidden, as they have been this year. Examiners from other boards should be present during the awarding process to make it less incestuous. Adjusting candidates' grades without reference to their scripts—which was identified as a problem by Nick Tate, of the then School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, in 1997—should be ruled out. Will the Secretary of State rule out that practice now?

Where in the statement is there any satisfaction for the thousands of students robbed of their legitimate grades this summer? The report says that any remaining concerns are being "dealt with". Peter Chapman, the head of the Knights Templar school, does not think that they are being dealt with, and Mike Tomlinson agrees. In a recent letter to the head teacher, Mr. Tomlinson says: I am not at all surprised by your continuing pursuit of the above concerns … I have to be honest and say I cannot personally see anything that can be done". That is an outrageous statement to make about examination grades for this year. Peter Chapman's psychology students are now preparing for their resits in January, but they have had their scripts back from the examination board without a single mark on them. There is nothing to show where they went wrong, and there is nothing in the statement that will sort that out.

Will the Secretary of House tell the House whether an AS grade from January 2003 will be half an A-level? Will it have that credibility when students take it, or does he expect another change to take place? Finally, can he put his hand on the Dispatch Box and tell the thousands of students who took their exams this summer that they all have the grades that they deserve and that they are accurate?

Mr. Clarke

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his relatively constructive approach to the statement. I want to highlight the point that he made when he called for an end to annual arguments about grade inflation. He is absolutely right to do that, and I associate myself completely with his remarks. It is shameful that, summer after summer, the work of teachers and students in improving their education performance is demeaned by commentators in the press and in other areas. If the hon. Gentleman and I can make common cause on at least one thing, it is that we should try to deal with that problem in the future. He was right to say what he said.

On the specifics, I confirm that we regard getting a common administrative approach in the three examination boards as a top and immediate priority. I have committed myself to that and do so again now. I confirm that an individual tracking system is a worthwhile and positive idea. That is why I am asking the QCA to make recommendations to me about the communications and information technology that will be an important element of making such a suggestion happen.

I can say that we will consider the question of the post-A-level qualification and decoupling in the context of the inquiry of my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards into 14-to-19 education. We will see where we go. However, I want to make it clear that we are not proposing any immediate change in the balance between the examinations. That would be wrong and destabilising. However, if the hon. Gentleman asks me whether we are prepared to look at a different relationship in the future, the answer is yes, through the vehicle of my hon. Friend's report which will appear in a couple of months.

On the memorandum of understanding and the question of independence, all I can say is that the hon. Gentleman has a serious point, as does Mr. Tomlinson. Mr. Tomlinson's specific recommendation to deal with the immediate situation was that we should remove the uncertainties now, and that is why he recommended clarifying and making more transparent the relationships between my Department, the QCA and the awarding bodies through a memorandum of understanding. I am implementing what he recommended to get the answers right. However, as I pointed out in my statement, paragraph 96 of Mr. Tomlinson's report says: I share the misgivings expressed in the Quinquennial Review about QCA's responsibilities for delivery of the key and basic skills qualifications and Key Stage tests, and recommend that these should be separated from QCA's other responsibilities and placed in the hands of a separate body. QCA should retain its regulatory oversight of these activities. In making that recommendation, he highlighted precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman made. I can confirm from the Dispatch Box that the issue needs to be properly considered with all the organisations to see where we go.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point—in fairness to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), he made it too—that it is exceptionally important to have a system that is seen to be independent and effective. The focus of Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations was quite correctly on putting the current situation in order by dealing with the problem in the best way that we can.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could rewrite history, and the short answer is I cannot. However, I can try to ensure that we understand what happened and that we take the steps that will ensure that history does not repeat itself. We are doing that in accepting this report. It is the right way for us to go.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Does the Secretary of State agree that part of the difficulty last summer was the lack of understanding of the process by those involved and, perhaps more significantly, by the education media? Clarity must be established. What will the Department do to ensure that students, parents, schools and the media fully understand the process?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend, whose comments are perceptive. The Tomlinson report makes a series of recommendations on clarifying relationships so that confusions cannot recur. I announced my acceptance of the recommendations and confirm that it will be part of our responsibility to ensure that heads, and through them, parents, fully understand the processes. I hope that that will ensure that the misunderstandings will not take place again.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Secretary of State cannot deny that the fiasco happened under a Labour Government's watch of five years in office. It is not acceptable to blame everyone else.

The right hon. Gentleman says that he anticipates major changes in five years. What does he have to say to all those young people who will take A and AS-levels in the next three to four years? Is it that their exams are inadequate and that he intends to make substantial changes to them? If so, that will be very demotivating.

Mr. Clarke

I am not going to say that the exams over the next three or four years are not worth the paper they are written on, because it would not be true. Indeed, it is damaging to public and political debate that a key Opposition party takes that stance. It is also striking that the hon. Gentleman supports his Front-Bench spokesman who proposes major changes in the next two or three years and wants to rip up the current A and AS system. As I said, that is not the right approach. We need to get confidence and stability in the system that we have and to ensure that it works in the way that it can. That is what we will do. We will not go around trying out fancy ideas here, there and everywhere and rip up the system in the way that the Conservatives advocate.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about securing a supply of examiners and providing them with career development. Does he recognise, however, that many will have to be recruited from serving teachers? As part of his review, will he consider ways in which acting as an examiner can be a key part of a teacher's career development and appropriately rewarded as such? Will he discuss that with the teacher unions?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why Mr. Tomlinson's recommendations about professionalisation—not a nice word, I know—is the right way to go. I can confirm that we will deal with the matter as she suggests. I can also confirm that the extra resources will be designed to ensure that we get a more professional system that works in the best way possible. Marking an assessment should be an important part of a teacher's experience and should help to enable them to teach in various ways. The more we can help that to happen, the better it will be.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The Secretary of State will recall that Mr. Tomlinson's initial report said that the examining boards were not able to aggregate AS and A2-level results in a way that set an acceptable and commonly understood standard, which was one of the problems. What does he intend to do about that? Judging from his answer to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), he is proposing to keep 40 per cent. of the demands on students, which will represent 50 per cent. of the marks at AS-level. How do Mr. Tomlinson or the Secretary of State propose to set a standard against which subsequent results can be judged?

Mr. Clarke

As I think I said, the QCA has acted on Mr. Tomlinson's initial report. For example, it sent out exemplar material on precisely how to do that. I am surprised that the discussion has come to this. The choice is simple: do we try to make the existing AS and A2-level system work for children who go through schools in the next few years and give them the confidence that it works; or do we try to rebalance the system fundamentally and change the system yet again? It is clear from all the representations that I receive from teachers and others that there has been too much change and they want a period of stability. That is Mr. Tomlinson's recommendation and I think it is the right way to proceed. If the Opposition want to make all the changes in the next year or so, they should come out and say so, but I am not sure many educationists would agree with them.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I welcome the Government's positive response to the recommendations in the report, particularly the review of the QCA's varied responsibilities. However, are not the difficulties that we have experienced over the past few months largely due to the fact that we still do not have a properly criterion-referenced marking system, so we face the annual review of grade boundaries? In addition, is it not the case that our young people, particularly in the 14-to-19 phase, are massively over-examined and that we still place too much emphasis on external assessment? Does Mr. Tomlinson's report say anything about that, and do the Government have a view on those points?

Mr. Clarke

We cannot get to the position of having marking systems that are 100 per cent. criterion-referenced, although we can move in that direction. In fact, that is what Mr. Tomlinson recommends and what we need to do. There are serious issues about ensuring not only that the administration of the different boards is consistent but that we have a common approach in the areas mentioned by my hon. Friend, and those are matters for the future.

Mr. Tomlinson does have points to make about over-examination, and as I said in my statement, he raises the serious question of whether we have got right the balance between assessment and learning, and I take that seriously. To be blunt, if Mr. Tomlinson, a former chief inspector of schools, and Ken Boston, the chief executive of the QCA, are saying that there are issues to be addressed, we would be very foolish to take no account of that. However, the right way to do so is through the review of 14-to-19 education being conducted by the Minister for School Standards, which will involve consultation throughout the system. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater would be a mistake, but we have to look at the situation in the round and take account of points such as those expressed by my hon. Friend and of professional opinion.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does the Secretary of State understand that those of us who are parents of students who had the misfortune to be caught up in the Government's fiasco this summer with A2 and AS-levels genuinely believe that the qualifications that our sons and daughters received are not worth the paper they are written on because they significantly underestimate their achievements? Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the question that he tried to duck when it was asked by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough? Does he believe that all those students got the grades that they deserved? If not, will he take the one remedy that he has at his disposal and organise a full remarking of those exams?

Mr. Clarke

This is absolutely extraordinary. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, although I know that he did not accept my answer: I do not believe that it is possible to rewrite history. We have to follow the line set out by the hon. Member for Ashford and make a fresh start. I am genuinely surprised that Opposition Members seem to want to assert, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) did in his question, that A-levels and AS-levels are not worth the paper they are written on. That is simply not true, and it is not an acceptable way to proceed. I find it extraordinary that Conservative Member after Conservative Member continues to reinforce the statement of the Leader of the Opposition. Parents and teachers throughout the country—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman should not dwell too heavily on the policies of the Opposition; he is answering for the policies of the Government.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

The Education and Skills Select Committee has been considering this issue, and the three exam boards explained to us in some detail that they arrive at their gradings using different processes. Will consideration be given to the best way of ensuring that there is greater transparency in the awarding of grades, because we should not jump to the conclusion that two exam boards got it right and one got it wrong?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that point. We need to take precisely the considered approach that she suggests, making sure that the exam boards are working in sync. The implication of today's statement is that the QCA is working, with our support, to try to achieve precisely the result that my hon. Friend requests.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I wonder if I may try to elicit a response from the Minister, who seems to be under the impression that following a statement he does not have to answer our questions. This is a very straightforward one. Who was responsible this summer for what most parents, most teachers and most pupils affected was a great cock-up?

Mr. Clarke

Mr. Tomlinson was extremely clear about that, and I shall repeat his analysis. He said that three main factors contributed to the situation—first, the perceived pressure on exam boards from the QCA; secondly, the lack of guidance on the level of attainment expected for a particular grade in an individual paper; and thirdly, the lack of common understanding of the standard required to ensure that the overall A-level standard was maintained. That is a balanced judgment, and I accept it.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness)

Considering the contents of the Tomlinson inquiry and the previous Tomlinson report on the same subject, and bearing in mind Tomlinson's recommendation that the QCA should report directly to the Secretary of State's Department, could he explain why Sir William Stubbs was sacked?

Mr. Clarke

I have nothing further to add to what has been said previously. It is public knowledge that Sir William has taken, or is considering, legal action, so the matter will be resolved by the usual processes.

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