HC Deb 10 January 2002 vol 377 cc663-4
8. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

What recent assessment she has made of the attainment rates of GCSEs grade A* to C.[23838]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

The results published on 20 November show that 50 per cent. of 15-year-olds gained at least five good GCSEs this year, compared with 49.2 per cent. last year—an increase of 3.7 percentage points since the targets were set in 1997. We are delighted that the 50 per cent. mark has been reached a year early.

Roger Casale

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating Wimbledon college in my constituency on increasing the number of students who received a grade between A and C at GCSE from 46 per cent. to 57 per cent? Does he agree that the individual variations in schools' performance scupper the argument that improved standards are achieved through easier exams? If that were the case, the impact would be the same on all schools. We should recognise that improvements in schools occur as a result of the dedication and hard work of teachers, students, support staff and parents. We should reward best practice in schools such as Wimbledon college and ensure that it spreads to other schools.

Mr. Timms

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am glad to join him in paying tribute to the achievements of Wimbledon college. Each year, as improvements occur, some people claim that they are the result of easier examinations. That is not the case. We have an extensive monitoring programme through the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It shows that the difficulty of the syllabus and the performance of GCSE examination candidates have been broadly maintained not only in the past few years but over decades. Standards in public exams are more rigorously scrutinised today than in the past. It is right to commend the achievements of young people and schools that have enabled important and welcome progress.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

The Minister will clearly be aware of the Department's recently commissioned research, which shows that attainment rates at GCSE level in coalfield communities lag considerably behind the national average. The Government have adopted a targeted approach to educational underachievement in urban areas; will they consider a similar approach to those problems in coalfield communities? Will the Secretary of State consider holding a joint ministerial summit with her colleagues in Wales and Scotland, where there is a similar pattern of underachievement in coalfield communities?

Mr. Timms

We are adopting a targeted approach across the country. We have introduced floor targets so that every school, wherever it is based, will be supported to secure at least 20 per cent. of students with five good GCSEs by 2004, rising to 25 per cent. by 2006. Wherever those schools are located, they will be supported to increase their achievement levels to that of the floor target, which will rise with time.

Our excellent clusters approach targets parts of the country that are outside urban areas, for which excellence in cities is available, to tackle disadvantage and deprivation in rural communities.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I think that I am right in saying that the range of grades for GCSEs runs from A to G. Unfortunately, a lot of children get grades E, F or G, for which they do not think it is even worth bothering to turn up to the presentation ceremonies to receive their certificates. Can my hon. Friend assure me that we will consider a broader range of options for young people at 14, so that they are not forced into doing subjects that they do not feel motivated to do, ending up with qualifications that they do not feel will serve any purpose? I am talking about options on the more vocational routes, which I hope will keep young people learning and may lead them to keep learning beyond the age of 16.

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I would not want to denigrate the achievements of some youngsters in obtaining E, F and G passes at GCSE, and we have seen the number of children with no qualifications fall again this summer, which I welcome. But my hon. Friend is right in saying that we need to extend opportunities to young people beyond the age of 14. That is the intention that we set out in the White Paper and we are debating the matter in the Education Bill Committee at the moment. We shall shortly give further details of our proposals to extend opportunities and raise standards for young people beyond 14.