HL Deb 24 May 1976 vol 371 cc93-114

7 p.m.

Lord BELSTEAD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have made any judgment on the report of the Joint Examinations Sub-Committee of the Schools Council which proposes a common system of examining at 16+ to replace the G.C.E. 0-level and C.S.E. examinations. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in September 1975 the Joint Examination Sub-Committee of the Schools Council issued a report which recommended that a common system of examining at the age of 16-plus should replace the G.C.E. 0-level and C.S.E. examinations. This recommendation obviously has wide implications. It is of concern to institutions of higher education, to the professions, to employers, local education authorities and those who administer examinations as well as to the teaching profession and, of course, to the pupils themselves. From many sources have come criticism and concern.

The position of the Secretary of State is that he is required to give a decision only if this recommendation becomes a firm proposal from the Schools Council. However, when the report was issued, it w as sent to the Department and in the preface, the joint chairman, Miss Sheila Wood, wrote:

"This is a discussion document designed for wide circulation,"

and she expressed the hope that the report would be used as a basis for judgment. It is, therefore, 1 think right to use the opportunity which this House provides to add to the comments which have already been made and to ask the Government for their judgment on some of the broad issues which arise from the report, and which are of great concern to many people. I should like to thank the other noble Lords who will be taking part in the debate on this Unstarred Question, not least the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who, at some personal inconvenience, I know, has come to the House, and who can give us the views especially of the universities in this matter, as well as other views. I would also thank the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who will be giving the views of the Liberal Party.

In Part 2 of the report the Committee put forward reasons for their proposal. The large number of examination boards, the early decisions which have to be taken about choice of examination, and the need for clarification of the meaning of the different grades within the two exams, are among their reasons. But the Committee obviously placed most weight upon the argument that in the continuous process of education it is undesirable to divide pupils into those suitable for one examination and not for another. Well, I have considerable sympathy for those reservations, but I confess that 1 have a great deal of scepticism about the conclusions which the Committee have reached. For on two fundamental issues the report reaches conclusions which appear to be contradictory.

The first of these issues is, what is the function of examination? The second is, would the system which is being recommended be more, or less, desirable than the existing system? When the Central Advisory Council for Education, under the chairmanship of the late Lord Crowther, reported in 1959 it concluded that school examinations

" certainly play a useful part in assessing progress and stimulating effort."

Not only does that put the function of school examinations very succinctly, but it also very clearly shows the link which exists between examinations and curriculum development, because when some measurement of the progress of a boy or girl has been made, then the teacher concerned can plan the future education of that pupil to better advantage. Of course, it is for this reason that it is the hallmark of good teaching for the progress of the pupils to be continuously assessed by one method or another, and I am sure that my honourable friend Mr. St. John-Stevas had this consideration very much in mind when some time ago he recommended that we really ought to have national standards for pupils embarking on their secondary school courses.

However, when a public examination is taken at the end of a five-year secondary course, I would suggest that there is an additional function which the Crowther Committee recognised when they referred to

" the strength of the pressure coming from the pupils themselves and their parents for examinations which result in the awarding of a certificate of some public validity."

My reading of the Joint Examination Sub-Committee's report is that the Committee agrees with the Crowther estimate of the value of examinations, and I should like to ask whether this is the view also of Her Majesty's Government. In particular, I think it is necessary to ask whether the Government attach importance to the accuracy with which examiners are able to make their assessments.

It is precisely because education is a continuous process that higher education institutions, employers and the professions need to know what progress a boy or girl has been able to make at school, if the individual is going to pursue a particular course, employment or profession with reasonable prospect of success and fulfilment. Yet I regret to say that the recommendation of the Joint Examination Sub-Committee is controversial, to say the least, among those who are teaching, employing, or further validating pupils after the age of 16. I believe that this widespread concern derives from the second issue I mentioned; namely, would a new examining system be more, or would it be less, desirable than the existing one?

For the last five years the Joint Examination Sub-Committee have been carrying out feasibility studies. There is no doubt that a great deal of the work done has been worth while, but I think it is a matter of considerable regret that all but two of the feasibility studies have concentrated solely upon introducing a common examination. Why this has been done is not entirely clear. It is in direct contradiction to the views of the Joint GCE/CSE Committee which looked into precisely this issue ten years ago. It does not reflect even the wording of the title of the report, said to be, " On a Common System of Examining at 16-Plus."

When the debate on universities was held in this House on 31st March the noble Lord, Lord Boyle of Handsworth, said that a common 16-plus examination —and I quote:

" could be too difficult for some of the least academic pupils yet … would not sufficiently stretch the others ".—[Official Report. col. 1185.]

One has only to turn to page 33 of the report to find it recorded that a number of teachers share precisely this reservation. When one comes to read the individual reports of the feasibility studies contained in Appendix F, this reservation is voiced again and again.

I would ask the Government to take the opportunity of this Unstarred Question to state unequivocally in reply that at all times the Secretary of State will be concerned with the opportunities of all pupils, and not least those who are not able to tackle GCE papers. Do not let us forget that the Beloe Committee in 1961 had good reasons for making their recommendations which were to lead to the establishment of the CSE in 1965. The members of that committee were anxious to give pupils, who in increasing numbers were showing their wish to take examinations, the chance of doing so and the chance to succeed. That committee had the sense and the humanity to understand that boys and girls do not want to compete with the chance of only coming, halfway up the list, and they rejected the idea of establishing a single examination.

But if the feasibility studies have revealed the problems of trying to fit all candidates within the scope of one examination. surely the corollary, which is equally worrying, is whether standards can be set within a single examination which have any chance of being accepted as being certificates of some public validity. The difficulties are obvious. While increasing the number and variety of candidates, examining techniques inevitably become less refined. If the Working Parties who conducted the feasibility studies had only seen that their task was to make comparisons between examining techniques and to compare the work they were doing with the work done by the GCE and CSE Boards, this fear might have been allayed; but/they did not. They set and they marked trial papers, and they took subjective judgments as being evidence of feasibility, and the results, although they are interesting, are not research.

But there is a further problem in this. The CSE boards, and indeed the GCE boards to some extent, depend in different degrees upon mode three examinations, that is where the syllabuses are set and the papers are marked by the teachers. It is. I believe, the invariable practice for these syllabuses to be scrutinised and the examinations to be moderated, and I accept absolutely that everything possible is done to ensure reasonable consistency, although whether there are wide variations in standards between different examining boards is not known. But I find it difficult to accept that mode three would be appropriate for the wide spread of ability and the enormously increased number of candidates who would be included in a single examination.

I asked the East Anglia CSE board, which is the second largest user of mode three in the country, for some statistics. This year that board will have 187,000 subject entries at mode one doing 78 different syllabuses and 94,000 subject entries at mode three doing 1,613 different syllabuses. In the event of a common 16-plus examination, boards will be faced either with a bewildering proliferation of mode three or using mixed methods across a very wide range. There is no evidence that I know of that the former option would be reliable or satisfactory in its extended form, and it would certainly be enormously expensive. Mixed methods could, of course, be included in one examination system, but that is not the course upon which the Joint Examinations Sub-Committee appears to have set its heart. I would like to hear the Government's views on the general subject of the setting of standards for the whole range of candidates. Have the Government turned their thoughts to how a single pass rate would be set in such an examination? Do the Government believe that it is important for higher education, employers and the professions to accept the validity of examination grades? If the Government do take that view, will the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, give me an undertaking this evening that if the Secretary of State were to receive a firm proposal from the Schools Council along the lines of this report, his right honourable friend will take seriously into account the views of those who are responsible for young people after they have taken their examinations?

Finally, I should like to ask two questions about administration. First, may I ask whether the Government take the view that the administration of any public exam really has got to be costed? The Committee asserts that a changeover from the existing system of examination boards to a two-tier system of provincial and regional hoards, or to a federation of boards, would be no more expensive than the existing system. These assertions, unsupported by any real evidence, should be treated with deep suspicion. It is known that mode three is expensive to run, and yet the Joint Examinations Sub-Committee envisage an increase in mode three. A new exam covering a wide range would inevitably generate its own extra costs. l gather that this has already become evident in some of the experimental exams carried out for the feasibility studies.

But if the report is suspect with regard to running costs, I find it incredible that no estimate has been made about capital expenditure. Are we to believe that no new administrative structure for new syllabuses and draft question papers would be needed, no new training for examiners, no new staff, and all this while the existing exams continue and have to be paid for? 1 would ask the Government whether they have any intention of making additional resources available for examinations in these straitened times and at a period when all sectors of education are crying out for more money. I would ask for the position of the local education authorities to be borne in mind in all this. Teachers already willingly devote many hours to what is misleadingly called extra-curricula work. A heavy increase in examination duties is really not going to be covered by the bland statement which is contained in the report that,

" it would seem logical for schools to plan for a certain level of absence and for local education authorities to make provision accordingly."

That could be an invitation for the Secretary of State to commit the ultimate crime so far as authorities are concerned: namely, to lay additional responsibilities upon them without providing the necessary resources.

The other question I should like to ask the noble Lord is whether the Government accept that it would be perilous to introduce a new 16-plus exam in isolation before decisions have been reached concerning sixth form exams. I realise that there are many people, including Members of this House, who wish to see less earls specialisation and a broadening of work within the sixth form. But the proposals of the Committee really are not designed to deal with that issue, and, if they were. surely it is contrary to the concept of the continuum of education for a decision to be taken in isolation which must affect work within sixth forms. I would suggest that examining in the sixth form should be built upon examining at the age of 16-plus, and the administration of both ought to be linked. Apart from the danger of jeopardising first degree courses in higher education if standards within the new exam were to be altered, surely this decision should be taken as an integral part of the exam system, on which, after all, work is currently proceeding within the Schools Council.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the research into teaching in primary schools by Dr. Neville Bennett of Lancaster University which was published recently, it is that some external assessment is a valuable element for an education system. In this country the right to teach as someone thinks best is a freedom which is guarded, and rightly so, but Dr. Bennett's research shows that it is in the interests of the child for academic freedom to be subject from time to time to some objective assessment. Although there is widespread recognition that some changes in the dual system of examinations would be desirable, the comments which have been received, I know, by the Schools Council, from both inside and outside the education service, show that there is widespread belief that a single 16-plus exam would not provide an objective assessment of ability or attainment. I think it is very much to be hoped that the Schools Council will take a further look at the administrative, financial and educational implications of this proposal, and the the Government will recognise that the central issue in all this is the education of the young people upon horn the future of this country depends.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to make a short, and I hope almost completely destructive, intervention in this debate on the Unstarred Question. But I would like to say that I do think it is very worthwhile, and we should be very grateful to the noble Lord, lord Belstead, for asking this Question, because it is only here that Parliament really has a good opportunity to discuss these very important matters.

The questions as to whether there should he a single examination or two different examinations, and, if so, how the single examination should be conducted, seem to me rather like discussing whether we should go be rail or road to Sheffield when what we want to find is in Penzance. One of the troubles with the present discussion, and with this report, is that it does not really look at the whole problem as to what exams are for. There is a great deal of interesting discussion and work on what exams are for, but I think that we can put two main objects high on the list. One is to discover what children have learned, and one is to discover what they are able to do in the future. It is almost impossible to use one exam to judge both these matters, because what they have learned in the past will very much depend on what their teachers wanted to teach them. In our devolved educational system— and to my mind rightly devolved educational system—this w ill not be the same all across the board.

I think it is probably worth while that teachers should want to know how well they have taught and how well their pupils have learned. I certainly do not reject the idea that it is useful, as a spur, to have exam results; but I totally fail to see why there is this demand for an externally-set exam at this stage in education. I think I am right in saying that no other country in Europe has it. It is, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said: that is, expensive and likely to become more expensive the more you muck around with it and the more changes you make. It does not seem to me to serve much purpose to have it externally set or externally validated. Of course we ought to have a simple school-leaving certificate; of course we ought to see that our schools are efficient. But there is no need for such an exam, unless you say that there is a need for the second purpose that I mentioned, so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said, the employers, the universities and the professions should be able to make a judgment as to what the children are able to do in the future.

But no system of exam which is at present envisaged does anything like this. Even A-levels are the most notoriously had predictor of results, as study after has shown. And 0-levels, whether GCE or CSE, have little bearing at all. They are a convenient, I agree, and a timesaving way for employers and other people to take on trust, or to cut corners, and to find out what a child is said to he capable of. Even so, I believe that they are wholly evil, because they cut too many corners and they stop the universities, the professions, and the employers doing the work they ought to be doing for themselves in discovering whether these children really are capable of taking advantage of a university education, or of doing the job that they are meant to do. To take on a person merely because he has five 0-levels, or whatever it is, is no substitute whatsoever for finding out whether he is able to do the job for which you are hiring him.

I know that this will mean a lot more work for a lot more people. At the end of it it will mean a great deal more efficiency in people who do the jobs, for instance, in industry, and it will mean a much better education service. I suggest that we stop fiddling about with these exams at this level, and do some deep thinking on what exams are really for. When we have decided what exams are really for, then we can start working out what we need. I suspect that we shall find, as most other European countries have found, that you do not need at this time an expensive and highly involved externally set exam at this particular age.

7.24 p.m.


My Lords, I think it was last March that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, criticised the universities in the debate then for not concerning themselves about what went on in the schools. Perhaps the noble Viscount would not totally disagree if I observed that where schools are concerned, the universities can never win. If they do not express a view they are criticised for being aloof, and if they express a view they are criticised for being élitist. If, as is usually the case, there is not one but many conflicting views held in the universities on a particular subject, they then get stick from both sides. But on the matter which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has raised this evening let no one doubt that the universities are deeply concerned, and have been involved in every stage of the negotiations. They are more united on this issue than I have ever known them on a great many. But I think I ought to say that I hope to be able to show tonight that universities, so far from being solely concerned with their own interests, are as much concerned for the children who not only will never go to a university but are likely to leave school with the very lowest qualifications, as they are concerned for those who are likely to get a university place.

I hope, therefore, that none of your Lordships and the Minister tonight is going to compare the universities to ostriches. They are not ostriches burying their heads in the sand. They are giraffes trying to peer into the future. They very well understand that difficult decisions have to be made in schools. Teachers at present have to decide as early as the third year whether a pupil should be selected to do a GCE or a CSE course, and we know that in many schools it is difficult to provide the necessary teaching groups for both GCE and CSE courses, Universities recognise that two examinations with different administrative procedures add to the workload of the school. Worse still, a double examination timetable means that most of the summer term is taken up with examinations, and what then happens to teaching?

So clearly there is a case for a new deal, and that is why the Schools Council has put forward new proposals. But having sympathy for the objectives which lie behind the proposals does not mean that all the proposals ought to be accepted en bloc. I want to tell your Lordships tonight what the universities would be very willing to see modified, but I also want to make clear what matters seem to them vital, and on which they will take a very great deal of persuading to change their view. The one thing that universities are not prepared to accept is a common examination at 16-plus. The feasibility studies carried out in 1974–75 have now been evaluated, and they show that in most subjects a common examination is impracticable. It cannot stretch the able children, set them a goal, and differentiate between them. But it would equally produce total disaster for those who today are judged to be of CSE grade four ability. In other words, it would humiliate the weak and handicap the strong. So if there is to be a new system, the more able children must be able to gain qualifications which enable them to continue to A-level (or to N or F if 17 and 18-plus changes are made in the curriculum). Similarly, the less able children, those who have earned a 40 percentile in CSE, must he given the chance to demonstrate their ability, however limited it may be. That is why the universities insist that if a change is to he made it must be in the form of a common system rather than of a common examination.

Now the feasibility studies showed that in only a very few cases, such as English language, a common examination based on a common syllabus was possible. But in any subject in which mathematics was needed it was totally inadequate. In these subjects it was essential to have a system where the less able candidates could get a limited grade by taking, say, papers 1 and 2, while the more able candidates were able to take, say, papers 2 and 3. Or there is another scenario, if you like. Take the case of French. There, there was another possibility. In that subject all the pupils took a multiple choice paper 1 which sorted out those who then could take papers 2 and 3.

In the vast majority of subjects the teachers would have to decide which papers their pupils should take, and here I would break a lance with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I do not believe that it is true and proved by endless studies that A-levels are inadequate as predictors. Certainly I would say that an A-level is not an adequate predictor for anybody who is going to make a success of a legal career, but in any subject in which mathematics is concerned—in any scientific subject, in physics, in chemistry and in any of the geological sciences—one would find that A-levels were an extraordinarily good predictor, and this the studies have shown. Therefore I do not accept the answer that examinations are of no predictive value about future performance in an academic sphere, but I will come to that later.

Let me reassure your Lordships on one point. It would be quite wrong to suggest that the universities and the Joint Examination Sub-Committee, who have been examining these experiments, are in total disagreement. They are not. They both agree that the new examinations should be single-subject examinations. They both agree that not only schoolchildren but students in colleges of further education or any privately-entered person could be candidates. Even in grading there has been substantial agreement. Nor do the universities dissent from the view that there should be no upper age limit. Indeed, it would have been very hard for them to do so since in 1975 the oldest GCE candidate was 94 years old; she passed, very appropriately, in religious knowledge.

Examinations are not solely an educational or academic matter. They pose fearful administrative problems and the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, alluded to these. For example, no public examination is worth a straw unless everyone who takes it is marked by the same method and with common standards. In GCE this is achieved by the fact that practically all the papers are written and are sent in batches to an examiner which each board appoints. The marks of these individual examiners and a sample of the scripts they read are then subjected to statistical scrutiny and are moderated by an awarding board. As a result, if one examiner is too lenient and another in the same subject exceptionally severe, the variations can be eliminated by scaling their marks up or down. The numbers examined are so large that statistical norms for candidates of different quality can be established.

What the universities frankly fear is the extension of the practice which is now widespread in the CSE boards, but mainly in the North of England where CSE is examined solely by mode three. Under that mode, teachers grade their own pupils by internal examination in the school itself, and here we run into difficulties. It is not that universities do not trust teachers in the schools to do what they themselves do in university examinations; namely, mark their own pupils. It is that the numbers taking the examinations in any one school are so small that it is exceedingly difficult to ensure that the standard used in one school is the same as the standard used in any other. If this new examination is going to be an exam which forms an integral part of entrance to higher education, its results must be credible and variations of standards all over the country would in the end cause such an outcry that people would call for the exam to be abolished.

There is another problem. The cost of examining in mode three is considerably more expensive in both time and money. It is conceded that, as now, there would have to be a winter examination as well as a summer one. Yet already headmasters complain that in the summer many of their staff are absent for long periods because they are attempting to moderate Mode 3 examining in other schools, while similarly in their own schools the place is full of alien teachers engaged in examining. And there is an even greater problem. The Working Party on Administration, which was set up to consider a new structure for the examination, has put forward four administrative models. Three of these envisage a total break with the present GCE examining boards. If that break took place, the boards which would examine at 16-plus would be quite distinct from those which would examine at 18-plus. How long could A-levels survive separation from 16-plus examinations? They would be strangled financially.

The financial operations of the GCE boards make no distinction between 0 and A-level. ff 0-levels were abolished, A-levels would not be financially viable, or the fees charged would have to be so high that there would be an outcry from the local authorities. What is more, a clean break with the GCE boards would mean a wholesale revision of practically all the syllabuses and examinations. These revisions normally take place roughly once every five years and it may surprise your Lordships to hear that if any 0-level syllabus is revised, the cost amounts to something like £5,000. The cost of revising the whole of the 16-plus and the total abolition of 0-levels and the GCE would probably amount to about £3 million. These are only the direct costs. There would be capital costs and other non-recurrent costs—that is, redundancy payments—which again would amount to several million pounds.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the universities favour the fourth administrative model, which was put forward by all the GCE boards? This model approaches the problems of creating a new system as a matter for evolution. Moreover, it envisages that the examination would eventually be conducted regionally, as it is now by some GCE boards. What a good example Wales sets the country; there, the CSE and GCE boards are in the same office and under the control of the same authority.

There are very good reasons why the regional structure of the GCE boards should be developed. I have said that it is important that the results of any public examination should be credible. There should be no widespread doubt that a candidate who passes with good results is at that moment in time better trained intellectually than one who obtains poor results. Nevertheless, we all know that some parts of the country are better equipped educationally than are others. It would be a sad matter, and would add even more fuel to the flames for devolution, if one great national examination led to a particular region, or two or more regions, in the United Kingdom, year in and year out, being progressively less favourably treated than the other regions. That is why a regional model is so important, If the GCE boards disappeared, the loss of experience would be tremendous and the examining link on which standards depend—for it is here that the don and the school teacher meet and work together—would be snapped irrevocably.

There is one group of people whom I fear, I admit, I cannot satisfy tonight. They are the people who say that there should be no examinations at all. The National Association of Teachers for Further and Higher Education is reported as arguing that general education should be social rather than academic and that there should be no formal assessment. Arguments such as these can be heard all through the educational system. Indeed, there are even a handful in the universities themselves who oppose public examinations. It is all too easy to assume that those who speak in favour of retaining an examination system which discriminates between school children—which publicly states in the results that at 16-plus one child is further advanced than another—are examination mad. I do not believe that the majority of my colleagues in the universities are mad. Indeed, I applaud Mr. Patrick Martin, President of the H MA, who recently said that the only four subjects which he Would really like to see compulsory for those under 16 were the English language, mathematics, a modern foreign language and a scientific subject and that only half the week should be spent on this educational core.

We should all remember that examinations are only a rough guide at a particular moment in time of a man or woman's life. Examination marks do not mark a man for life. I look not merely at the Benches opposite, remembering who is usually there on them every day of the week, nor do I look particularly at the Government Benches when I say that, when reflecting on examinations, I think very often of those who at school were idle, unruly, agreeable ruffians, the despair of their teachers; those for whom school meant little but larks. And yet some of those same boys and girls did great things when they grew up and revealed depths of character and originality which those among their contemporaries who succeed in formal education and rise to great places in universities do not often achieve.

It may well be that one of the administrative mistakes we have made in school education in recent years has been the compulsory extension of the school leaving age to 16, the postponement of which caused the noble Earl, Lord Longford, to resign from the Government. Perhaps it was a step in the wrong direction. Perhaps we should have been making it possible, with very strict safeguards, for some children to be able to leave school even as early as 14. Perhaps we should have done better to spend public money on day release training and on providing a trapeze net of further education which would enable children who could no longer endure school to recoup at a later stage in life what they had lost by leaving school early.

I am sure that the Minister will not doubt that I and many of my colleagues in the universities think that the priorities of higher education ought to be to provide more places for day release at 16-plus, diploma qualifications and part-time degrees. We should concentrate less than at present on providing yet more places for full-time degree students in the polytechnics and further education colleges. Indeed, the universities ought to follow the excellent example of London University and offer more places for part-time degree students. But let there be no doubt that we in universities still believe that there must be a school-leaving examination. We also believe that that examination must be the prelude to a further exam which qualifies those adolescents who stay on to apply for a place in different institutions of higher education. There is only one thing in the whole matter of 16-plus and 18-plus examinations of which I am sure. If the present system were so destroyed that A-levels or their equivalent disappeared, the universities themselves would impose a university entrance examination. That, of course, is the very last thing that the universities want to do.


My Lords, it may be the last thing that the universities want, but I am quite certain that it is the best thing that could possibly happen.


My Lords, I very much hope that the Minister can give us a complete reassurance that the present piecemeal reform of the 16-plus and 17-plus examination system will not lead to the abandonment of A-levels—or N and F levels—examined by the GCE Boards. Let me be frank. Some of us in the universities are worried that it is the policy of some educational politicians —and by that I mean politicians who are in the education system of the country, not politicians who are sitting in either House of Parliament—to do precisely that and to abolish an 18-plus examination by the GCE Boards. As the Minister knows, a recommendation on CEEan exam to be taken at 17-plus by those who have obtained CSE grades 2 to 4—has already gone to the Secretary of State. The next move by these educational politicians would be to get a common examination at 16-plus. It would then be explained that there was really no need for the GCE Boards to set A-levels because the higher examination at 18 could be fitted in to the CSE and CEE system of examination. Those who are working to this end blandly ignore the fact that an examination does exist for able children at 17-plus; namely, something that is called A/0 level at GCE. What the universities fear is that a skilful campaign is being conducted to downgrade all public examinations to the CSE and CEE level. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Secretary of State is well advised of the necessity for an examination at 18-plus which is capable of being used as an examination which qualifies people for being considered for entrance to universities and many other walks of life.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, the Question was a very limited one, but the debate has been agreeably wide. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, has opened an enormous number of subjects. However, if one asks a Question in this House before it has been asked officially, one will not get an awful lot of answers. I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, knew that quite well, and I believe that everybody else knows it quite well, too. Not only are my hands tied, my views are fluid. My Secretary of State has not formally received the Question, so I have had no chance of hearing what he thinks. However, there are a few points upon which I can be reassuring by the time I shall have finished, or so I think and hope.

I should like to begin by doing something which will bore everybody who has spoken today because they all know the background. However, I feel it essential that in the account of our discussion there should be some record of the build-up to this Question. The GCE 0-level examination came in in 1951 to replace the school certificate which had gone on since 1917. CSE came in in 1965. The two examinations were designed to meet the needs of the top 60 per cent. of the ability range of the 16-plus age group. This was not intended to be entirely in two separate groups, but roughly speaking on a scale from 0/100: the bottom 0-level was expected to draw its candidates from the 60 to 100 range and the CSE from 40 to 80.

This arrangement quickly gave rise to reservations among some teachers. As early as 1966, a Committee of the Schools Council which had been looking at the O-level and CSE examinations commented:

There are now two separate systems of examining the educational attainment of pupils aged about 16. Yet the distribution of attainment is continuous. The two groups of pupils do not meet at a clearly defined dividing line; they merge, shift and overlap in a manner which makes it quite impossible to be confident about the allocation of border zone pupils to one group or the other. By 1969, representations were being made to the Schools Council that the continued existence of the two examinations was causing problems in secondary schools. One can see why. There is a difficulty in choosing syllabuses and settling which child should go to what examination at what stage. In 1970, the Governing Council of the Schools Council, having heard the arguments, concluded that there should be a single examination for pupils at the age of 16-plus. A Working Party was set up. Its terms of reference were:

To demonstrate possible ways of implementing the decision for a common examination system at 16-plus and to indicate the implications which flow from them. The Working Party reported in 1971, setting out in broad terms the idea of a common examination system. In March, the Schools Council set up the Joint Examinations Sub-Committee whose report is the subject of this debate. This was to be responsible for the planning and co-ordination of feasibility and development studies related to the new system.

I believe everybody is aware of the proposals which were put forward. I do not feel that we need go through them again. However, I think it worth saying —and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred to this—that there is a difference between a common system of examining, which is what is proposed in the Schools Council report, and what is usually called a " common examination ". A common examination normally involves a single examination paper taken by all candidates following a similar syllabus. A common system might permit candidates to take a range of papers of differing levels of difficulty. A common system, therefore, could mean that candidates would take rather different approaches to their examinations involving, for ex, ample, a degree of choice in the syllabus. Such choices at the start of a course could have the effect of debarring some candidates from the highest grades. But the trials which the Schools Council have have tried to test both approaches—both the common examination and the common system—and there has been some criticism of the feasibility system, as voiced this evening. This is the kind of thing that has yet to be looked at.

The noble Lord's Question asked whether the Government had made a judgment on the 16-plus proposals. The Schools Council's relationship to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, as everybody in the Chamber knows, in the matter of policy on secondary schools examinations, is an advisory one. The Secretary of State, not the Schools Council, takes decisions on questions of major examination policy. My right honourable friend has already said in another place that he must wait for the council's formal submission of proposals before he can feel free to comment on them, which I think is fair enough. For one thing, they are not, as far as we know, yet in a final form and they may change quite a lot. The Schools Council has already had the question of examining at 16 under consideration for 10 years. Much thought and money has gone into feasibility studies for a new system. It would be absurd if my right honourable friend did less than treat the proposals with the greatest care and attention. He will also pay heed to the comments made on the proposals by numerous interested parties. I understand that over 1,000 such comments have been received by the Council and a few more will he added to the list from the comments we have heard tonight, which is one reason why both my right honourable friend and I welcomed this short debate.

My right honourable friend is not precluded from embarking on further consultations if he wants any more after all this; it is up to him. But I must stress that others are in a position only to give advice; the final decision rests firmly with the Secretary of State. This is a very complicated situation, and the advice, coming from every direction, is always different. Anybody trying to decide on this matter must be worried by certain things, all of which have been mentioned here. The first worry is that the proposals, if implemented, will lower existing examination standards. The Secretary of State will want to make sure that this will not happen and that the value of examinations to pupils and others, such as employers and institutions of further and higher education, is maintained. This is a matter to which he will he giving the closest attention, and your Lordships will deduce from what I have said that the Secretary of State is not in agreement with the point of view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley; nor am I.

The noble Lord spoke about the question of mode three examining. What must be made clear is that the proposals of the Schools Council as at present known to us, do not insist on mode three examinations for everybody, but simply thatexaminations in all modes should be available in a common system. So any decision which is finally made by the Secretary of State can vary this position, as he thinks fit, and the proposals do not in any way attempt to bind him.

The noble Lord has spoken about the appropriateness and validity of mode three examining; the noble Lord, Lord Annan, spoke about this too. It is worth noting that the Schools Council. as part of its responsibility for examinations, has a continuing programme of evaluating mode three examining, but so far the evidence has not thrown doubt on the effectiveness of the moderating arrangements or on comparability between the examinations of one CSE board and another. One can see very clearly from what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said that that could easily happen. Incidentally, I find at quite a late stage in my life that this is the first time I have encountered the word " moderating " used in this sense, and I am delighted to find a new meaning for it, although the point in question could, I believe, have been perfectly well described by using the term " monitoring "—but that is by the way.

Most noble Lords have also spoken about resources, which is absolutely fundamental. If this is to cost a great deal of money it will not be done, however good it is. We all know that. This is what we are all up against today. On the other hand, education and its system must go on; it must not stop, just because we are hard up. If after ten years proposals are made, and after minute consideration, some, or all, are approved, I think there is room for certain things to be done, even if a certain amount of money has to be spent. The thing cannot stop absolutely dead. This will be one of the main points which my right honourable friend will have to look at. I must say again that in all these matters my right honourable friend has at present an open mind. When he finally gets the proposals they will be studied and considered with all the care appropriate to a matter of the greatest importance to the future of our young people, to their parents, to employers and to the institutions of further and higher education to which they may go, and to the future of the education service generally.

There are two other proposals which have been referred to. One of them has already reached my right honourable friend, and a third is still in an unformed state. It would probably be wrong to postpone a decision on this very important 16-plus question until all the proposals were firmly in. This is one of the alternatives which my right honourable friend could take. But I should have thought that he will feel that once the thing is presented to him, in due course and after proper consideration he will have to make a decision about it, and I believe that he will consider that that decision might include some reference to the other two possible schemes which have been put forward.

In conclusion, I must say that the general case for external examinations is something which my right honourable friend would have to be very strongly advised upon before he would move away from them. He has the view at this stage that to eliminate external examinations would not be something which, however strongly he was advised, he would be very keen to do. Of course he is not getting that advice; only a small section is giving that. I do not think that we need worry about this matter. So long as my right honourable friend is there—and long may that be so—the respect for the kind of testing which has been discussed today, with the kind of protection which can be given to the less effective members of the pupil room, so that one does not have to be humiliated in order to take an examination and one can get some benefit towards one's future employer, by different kinds of examination —I feel confident that this is the kind of answer that in the end the Secretary of State will extract from the very varied advice he is being given. Whether it will be a single examination or two examinations is the crucial question, and the only one which we have been asked to discuss tonight. But I have taken the liberty of going a little outside that matter, as have other noble Lords who have spoken.

Since Crowther there has been no really satisfactory alternative put up to examinations at 17 years, and a growing proportion of pupils take at least some examinations, even though, as was said in the report, it might be unsuitable for certain pupils to take any. But a growing number take some, and wide reliance is placed on them by employers and by institutions of further and higher education. This is what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, is asking for: that there should be some examination on which the universities can widely rely. In my view—and I speak here not for the Secretary of State, but for myself—it is an essential part of the educational system and it would be a very great pity if universities went back to setting their own entrance examinations. Of course, parents are deeply concerned with this. My right honourable friend really has no doubt that a system of external examinations which commands public confidence is an essential feature of our educational system.

My Lords, I have been rather careful not to answer any of your Lordships' questions, but I hope to have given a background of the kind of way the preliminary discussions are going in the mind of my right honourable friend and his colleagues. When he gets the final recommendations he will have to make up his mind, and then, of course, we shall be able to discuss the matter in a much more specific and concrete way.