HL Deb 15 November 1990 vol 523 cc442-5

3.12 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their plan for the future of A-levels.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to maintaining A-levels' standard of excellence.

Baroness David

My Lords, I cannot say that I am satisfied with the Minister's reply. Surely the need for reform has been brought forward not only since Higginson in 1986—a report which the Government turned down—but by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, by the School Examinations and Assessment Council, the National Curriculum Council and Her Majesty's Inspectorate. Therefore, does the noble Baroness agree with Professor Pring of Oxford University that before reform of examinations at 16 it would have been more sensible to reform the whole provision of education at 16, as the staying on rate is so very poor in this country? It would have been wiser to do that before the reform of A-levels. Is the whole provision being considered?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it must first be said that there has been considerable reform. Indeed, when the national curriculum changes work through the system the hope is—there is some evidence already—that the staying on rate will improve. We are committed to maintaining A-levels. That is not to say that we do not have concern about breadth and about introducing some changes. Indeed, the noble Baroness knows that SEAC is at present looking at that area of examinations. I can say with absolute assurance that we are not prepared to compromise standards at that level.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can my noble friend assist the House? It seems to me, as a father of one university child and one who has just left university, that we in this country specialise far too early. Is my noble friend aware that at American and French universities the level of specialisation is much lower? Specialisation forces children into choices at too early an age.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that with these reforms the Government have addressed that problem. All children will now study a range of subjects up to the age of 16 whereas hitherto many young children dropped sciences, languages and other subjects which are extremely important. That is one important change. Secondly, the Government have also addressed breadth at 16-plus with the introduction of AS-levels, which have half the content of A-levels but allow those taking A-levels to study other subjects to the same standard but with half the content.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, does the Minister accept that although AS-levels may have been well-intentioned, very few schools can afford to run A-level and AS-level courses in the same subject? They have different curricula, and as a result very few schools can offer more than two or three AS-levels. Consequently, they may offer 15 or 17 A-levels and the hope for breadth therefore is not being carried by AS- levels.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am aware that head teachers themselves are arguing for breadth. They would not be arguing for breadth if they could not deliver it. I am not sure about the schools with which the noble Baroness is familiar but I know that AS-levels are offered and many schools, where they believe it to be appropriate, are encouraging young people to take them up.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, will the Government make it easier for schools to offer vocational courses such as BTEC alongside A-levels? That is apparently rather difficult under the terms of the Education Act 1988.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is an important point. Certainly vocational courses and the extension of BTEC courses are actively being considered. For example, we know that Kingshurst CTC is applying vocational courses at 16-plus level with some success. We hope that SEAC will take that into account when it reports.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, while I welcome my noble friend's reply, can she take this occasion to inform my noble friend Lord Onslow and others that it is very unlikely that any government in the foreseeable future will have the financial resources to enable universities to extend three-year courses into four years and four-year courses into five years? That would be the inevitable result of a lowering of A-level standards.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. The inevitable consequence of any dilution of standards would be an extension of courses at university level. I believe that A-levels have served our brightest children very well. We should now be aiming to have more children in that percentage bracket actually taking and passing A-levels.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that there are other alternatives, such as the international baccalaureate which is already offered, and also BTEC and City and Guilds courses which are available in colleges of further education? They are often better options for many children in our schools than staying on at school.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend has also made a very important point. I believe that we should not he so hung up on where the children are educated at 16-plus but that they should be educated in the most appropriate place. Very recently my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in a press release that he will take into account the increasing recognition that. A-levels are not the only option and will give consideration to, for example, the international baccalaureate and BTEC courses.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is there not now overwhelming evidence that A-levels cause over-specialisation, and not only at certain ages as referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow'? That, in turn, causes under-education in other important fields, not least in science and technology.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not agree. I know that there is some evidence and that there is a strong body of opinion which believes that A-levels have served us well and should be retained but that we should be giving some consideration to breadth at A-level. I have given an assurance that that will be taken into account. There is also a minority opinion that for many years has been doing its level best to have A-levels taken out of the system.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is widespread concern over possible falling standards at GCSE level, particularly with the 100 per cent. course work? Therefore, will my noble friend reiterate her welcome and unequivocal assurance that A-level standards will not be compromised in any way?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have no difficulty in giving that assurance. A-level standards will not he compromised. When SEAC comes forward with its proposals it will have to prove and demonstrate that standards will not be compromised. Any changes that are proposed must be changes that do not compromise standards.

Lord Peston

My Lords, as a former chief examiner at A-level I believe that the noble Baroness exaggerates the quality of the standards, but we can leave that on one side. Will the noble Baroness take more seriously the remarks made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow? Is she not aware that pouring into our universities every year are, for example, students of science, engineering and (I regret to say this) economics, who know nothing about the history of their country, or who certainly do not retain such knowledge? They have no interest in literature, which is a subject they drop once they have done it at O-level.

Is the noble Baroness not aware of the disaster that is hitting our system, led, may I add, by our university teachers who go for narrowness of knowledge in education? Is she not aware that this constant reiteration of standards is damaging to the education of most of our children?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot agree with that statement. The rationale for the reforms that have been put on the statute book by the Government was that young people were coming out of the top end of school without an understanding of geography, history, a language and so forth. The national curriculum changes and those reforms, as they work through the system, will result in young people leaving school with a broader education. If one applies AS as well as A-levels and some consideration is given to BTEC and vocational courses, I believe that we shall serve our young people very well.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will my noble friend add to her consideration of the point made by my noble friend Lord Beloff this further consideration? In the sciences, which arc cumulative and growing subjects, the volume of knowledge to be acquired by those seeking degrees is constantly increasing. Scientists who return to university 25 years after having left, find not only that they could not answer, but also that they could not have asked a number of the questions on the final examination papers. Therefore, does the noble Baroness agree that there is an impending problem of national proportions on the length of courses for science degrees anyway?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend's remarks strengthen the reasons why we should keep some subjects to be studied in considerable depth as a preparation for university courses.