HL Deb 15 October 2002 vol 639 cc693-6

2.43 p.m.

Lord Naseby

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of governors of Bedford School.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the difficulties over A-level results, there have been any changes in the senior management or board of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

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

My Lords, in her Statement of 27th September, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced that she had removed Sir William Stubbs from his post as chairman of the QCA. Since then, there have been no further changes in the membership of the senior management or the board as a consequence of the difficulties over A-level results.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, should not the whole educational team of Ministers resign—in recognition of the trauma, heart-searching and career stunting that this fiasco has caused for over 90,000 young people? Is not the real truth that it was Ministers' insistence on a new, unproven and untrialed examination that caused the fiasco? Rather than "Education, education, education", ought not the epitaph of this Government in this area to be: "Failure, failure, failure"?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I do not recognise what the noble Lord has said. My answer is simply: no, they should not resign.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House on what grounds Sir William Stubbs was sacked?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in looking at what needed to be done to restore confidence in the A-level system, believed that it was appropriate to dismiss Sir William Stubbs.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that during last summer a senior civil servant was acting chief executive of the QCA and that, currently, 22 per cent of DfES civil servants are seconded to other organisations? Will she accept that under such circumstances it is inappropriate to claim that the QCA is completely independent? Does not the whole thing smack of micro-management of the system by her department? Will the Minister agree with me that, for the sake of future A-level students, the QCA should be seen to be entirely independent?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, in answering Questions in this House last week, I made it clear that the QCA is an independent statutory body. No doubt noble Lords will look forward to the Statement that I shall repeat later today, when we shall discuss the issues that have arisen. It is common practice for secondments to take place both from the DfES and to the DfES. We believe—and previous governments employed this practice—that it is the best way of ensuring that we have the best possible knowledge. Mike Tomlinson's review was quite clear: there has not been government interference by any Minister.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, is the Minister confident that her officials and experts can produce an examination system—designed to deal with about 20 per cent of the ability range, now designed to deal with 50 per cent of the ability range—that will not give rise to the anomalies produced by the present system?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I do not believe that the system that the noble Lord is looking for would produce the anomalies that he describes in these circumstances—the very particular circumstances, as the noble Lord will be aware from Mike Tomlinson's work, which arose in this case. It is the desire of government to make sure that students who are able to go to university have the opportunity to do so. We believe that it is important that students are given those opportunities. It is for the health and benefit not only of the students but of the economic life of this country.

Earl Russell

My Lords, what leads the Government to suppose that academic standards in A-levels or anywhere else are a matter within their competence to judge?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the Government do not necessarily believe that. We have academic institutions whose job it is to judge the academic standards of our students. I think that noble Lords will join me in supporting and congratulating the students who this year have done so well in their academic life.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I, like many other parents, have children who are about to enter upon the A-level curriculum. What confident actions will the Government take to ensure that those students who are about to embark on a two-year preparation for an examination will not undergo the same fiasco as that suffered by students this year?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, Mike Tomlinson is continuing his work to ensure that we address the issue of standards for next year. In addition, Ken Boston has announced that he is setting up a task force. I have great confidence that, between the work of these two eminent gentlemen, we shall have in place a robust system in which we can all have the sense of security that the noble Lord has every right to expect for his children.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us find it difficult to understand why Sir William Stubbs was dismissed before the Tomlinson inquiry had reported—the full consequences of which are apparent only today? While the Secretary of State seems to have acted speedily over that, she seems to have been extremely slow to take action over the clearance of staff for recruitment. There was considerable delay in reaching the obvious sensible decision to leave the matter to head teachers if they took on staff as yet uncleared. What is the number of staff still awaiting appointment to schools who have not yet been cleared?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord will understand that, as I am answering questions on the QCA, I do not have the precise figures. I shall be delighted to write to him with the exact figures for those still awaiting clearance. We were dealing with two entirely different situations. The noble Lord will recognise that, in the case of schools that were waiting for clearance, we took the decision that in the interests of all the children, we would allow those staff to be in schools. But that is always in the context of child protection, which, I am sure, is paramount to all noble Lords. I have already stressed that my right honourable friend took the decision that she did on Sir William Stubbs because she believed that, as there had been a loss of confidence, it was appropriate to make sure that it was restored. On that basis she dismissed him.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, let us suppose that schools continue to produce more and more highly successful A-level students. Does the Minister anticipate any difficulty in reconciling the number of students who get very good A-level results with the number of funded places available at universities?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is a problem that I would look forward to and relish, and it demonstrates the ability of our young people. We work very closely with Universities UK and universities in general to address the issues. The noble Baroness will be aware that many discussions on higher education are ongoing in order to ensure that we can accommodate students in a variety of ways, at different institutions and on different degree-level and other courses that they wish to take.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, can the noble Baroness give an assurance that the Government will bear any additional costs incurred by universities as a result of revised grades and the movement of students between universities or to different subjects?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I shall say more about that in the Statement on A-level results later today. However, I assure the noble Lord that we are working with universities to ensure that no student suffers financial hardship and that every student goes to university. The Government will make sure that the appropriate finances are available.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, resignation, which the Minister ruled out, is a subjective matter. But, what is her response to the point by my noble friend Lord Naseby that the introduction of the new examination system was flawed in its conduct?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I said in your Lordships' House last week, there is evidence that perhaps we should have looked more carefully at the piloting of the A2. We are looking at what we can do to make sure that we learn from that. My right honourable friend has been very clear about accepting responsibilities and about learning from this. I shall leave the matter there.