HL Deb 12 December 1996 vol 576 cc1186-9

3.24 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they deem may be necessary following the report by Ofsted and SCAA (Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority) on Standards in Public Examinations 1975-1995.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the report makes a number of important recommendations, all of which the Secretary of State has already endorsed for urgent action by SCAA and Ofsted, working with the examination boards. My right honourable friend has also indicated that she intends to consult in January on proposals to rationalise the number of examining and awarding bodies in England in the interests of assuring consistent national standards.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. While we can surely congratulate ourselves on the two well-led bodies that produced this report, and congratulate ourselves too, on the massive increase in the number of candidates taking public examinations over the past 20 years, would the Minister agree that it might be premature to congratulate ourselves also on the almost equally dramatic increase in the percentage of candidates coming out with very good grades, in view of the misgivings that the report makes about, for example, excessive reliance on pocket calculators, the lack of rigour in testing basic mathematical and logical skills, the degree of dependence on course work, the increased use of open-text examinations, the shift from canonical literature to the more ephemeral writings of the present time, the declining emphasis on accurate usage and vocabulary—it is quite a list—and the fact that examination boards have not been keeping enough samples of scripts from the past to make such reports more authoritative? May the Government please respond?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I shall try to respond briefly. The noble Lord put forward quite a list. I join him in congratulating both SCAA and Ofsted on their work. I believe that it is also welcome that we have seen an increase in the number of candidates. But we should be wary of starting to knock the improved results of candidates which I believe reflect well on the schools, the teachers, the pupils and their parents.

The report does not say that standards have fallen. It has not found evidence for that. But the noble Lord gave quite a list, as he put it, of recommendations that the report makes. I shall not go into the response made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. However, she had quite a list of recommendations that she felt ought to be pursued. The list included the use of calculators in examinations, the use of canonical literature, and so on. No doubt those matters can be pursued, as I made clear in my earlier Answer.

Baroness David

My Lords, in the light of the report, will the Minister tell the House why, after 17; years, the Government have failed to reform A-levels? What progress has been made on that in the light of the proposals by Sir Ron Dearing, which he asked should be implemented some time ago?

Lord Henley

My Lords, Sir Ron Dearing made his report in the earlier part of this year. As I dare to say I believe the noble Baroness will welcome, we agreed to consult on that report. We have consulted throughout the remaining part of the year. Having done so, we are now agreed that a number of recommendations should be brought forward which will bring new rigour and various changes in A-levels.

The noble Baroness will accept that we cannot change A-levels overnight. Any lead-in period will take time. For that reason the noble Baroness will not see the changes to A-levels tomorrow or even next year. They will come in in due course.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it does not denigrate the efforts made by current students at A-level to say that there are these failings which have been identified? If professors of mathematics find that people coming to university cannot count, and professors in the humanities find people coming to universities who cannot write, there is clearly something wrong. Is not the correct answer to the noble Baroness, Lady David, that we are still suffering from the damnosa hereditas of Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I echo some of what my noble friend says. However, I must remind him that the report is quite clear. It does not say that standards have fallen. For that reason I believe that it is wrong to start to denigrate the efforts of individual students. From my experience of going round schools, many people are working very hard indeed. They are certainly working much harder—dare I say it?—than I and many noble Lords did when we were at school many years ago.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, speak to the House in Latin because he finds himself unable to speak in English?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not answer for my noble friend, much as I should like to.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that decline in literacy and numeracy is even more conspicuous in the United States than in this country? That cannot be explained as the legacy of any British Minister, however distinguished.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not accept that there is necessarily a decline in literacy and numeracy. I think it is very wrong of us in this House to look back to some mythical golden age, which usually happens to be roughly when we were at school, and imply that education has declined since then. I believe that what is taking place in the vast majority of schools is very good indeed.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, do the Government see any dangers in there being four separate examination boards, each producing a multiplicity of optional examination schemes?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as my right honourable friend made clear, there are a number of different examination boards and that is something that she would like to look at. However, we are not in favour of denying schools and colleges choice and innovation in looking at different possible syllabuses, particularly at A-level; nor are we necessarily in favour of nationalising all the examination boards to form one single body, which we think would be the wrong approach. As my right honourable friend made clear, there is scope for looking at the multiplicity of different examination and awards bodies.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, with regard to consultation on the Dearing Report, can the Minister give some indication of which way the Government currently lean between toughening up A-levels, with a smaller number of them, and a broader syllabus between the ages of 16 and 18?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I said, that is a matter for consultation. We have looked very carefully at what Sir Ron Dearing has said and I would not want to comment any further at this stage.