HL Deb 23 January 2002 vol 630 cc1464-6

3.4 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government: What proposals they have to introduce an A* grade for A-levels.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no such proposals at present.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and for the reassurance it

gives that the DfES is running education policy and not No. 10. Nevertheless, does not the Minister feel that at present—with AS-levels still, to put it mildly, suffering from teething troubles and the proposed advanced extension award coming on stream next September—this area is already suffering from too many initiatives? Does the Minister agree that, with the proposals for the 14 to 19 agenda due at any moment, it is important to look forward to a school-leaving examination that comprehends both academic and vocational awards?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that it is, indeed, the DfES which is running education. I can state categorically that there is no truth whatever in a claim of any rift between No. 10 and the department. Far from that being the case, there has been a very constructive dialogue on our proposals for the future of A-levels.

I agree that the 14 to 19 strategy will be an important part of how we develop the future for our young people. It may be useful if I spell out what will be covered in the consultation paper on the grounds of giving as much information as possible to Parliament. We shall be looking for the recognition of achievement in both academic and vocational subjects and considering an overarching award. We wish to create space in the curriculum to allow students to pursue their talents and aspirations. We wish to make high quality vocational options available to all students, to provide systematic, high quality advice and guidance and to remove existing barriers to collaboration. The reasons behind the proposals will be both social and economic.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, given the difficulties that we are now having with examinations, does not my noble friend feel that the time has come to scrap completely the British A-level and go over to the international baccalaureate?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I said, within the 14 to 19 strategy there will be many opportunities to look at the best way forward. Most noble Lords will feel that this will be of enormous value. I am happy to discuss in your Lordships' House problems within the education system in terms of examinations.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, why does the English state have to have three examinations between 16 and 18 whereas in the whole of continental Europe they have examinations such as the Abitur and the baccalaureate at 18, and the system seems to work? Why is it that we have to examine our children so extensively?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I said, within the 14 to 19 strategy—which I look forward to discussing in your Lordships' House—there will be opportunities to look at these issues in detail. However, we know that the universities are finding the AS-level—which has settled down considerably—of value. Indeed, I understand that some universities in the Russell Group are starting to make unconditional offers to students on the basis of AS results. We also know that it is an opportunity for students who may not complete a course to attain some qualification. Inevitably there are pros and cons.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the view expressed by Mr David Dunn, the head teacher at Yarm School who first blew the whistle on Edexcel and the lamentable performance of that company, that the real problem is that we have become the most over-examined country in Europe?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I said, part of the purpose behind the 14 to 19 strategy is to examine these issues. The noble Lord raised the issue of Edexcel. As noble Lords will be aware, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has asked the QCA to look at the issues surrounding Edexcel.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, does not the introduction of the advanced extension award and the possible future introduction of an A*grade at A-level demonstrate that, at long last, the Government are admitting that the gold standard. A-level has deteriorated and no longer has academic rigour?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, Professor Eva Baker, the chair of the independent panel which was set up by the QCA—who, as noble Lords may be aware, is the co-director of the US National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing—said that students are performing better. This examination process is among the best in the world.