HC Deb 26 October 1976 vol 918 cc102-7W
Mr. Willey

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she has responded to the proposals from the Schools Council for a common system of examining to replace the GCE O level and CSE, and for a new examination leading to the Certificate of Extended Education.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Yes. I saw the Chairman of the Schools Council yesterday and told him how I wished to proceed. I have asked for the co-operation of the Schools Council in a further period of study of the proposal for a common system of examining and have indicated that consultations with other interests, including employers, trade unions and further education, will be needed before a decision can be taken on the Certificate of Extended Education. My response is set out in detail in the following letter to the chairman from myself:

Elizabeth House,

York Road,

London SE1 7PH

01–928 9222


Sir Alex Smith MA PhD,


The Schools Council

25th October 1976

Dear Sir Alex, 1. The Schools Council made two proposals earlier this year for changes in our national system of school examinations. The first was that a new examination, the Certificate of Extended Education, should be established as soon as possible. The second was that a common system of examining should replace the present Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and the General Certificate of Education (GCE) O-level. I know that much time and effort has been given by the Council and by many teachers in preparing these recommendations and I would like to thank all those who have contributed. The recommendations put forward relate of course to both England and Wales. As such they are of concern to the Secretary of State for Wales by reason of his responsibility for schools in the Principality. I should therefore make it clear that Mr. John Morris is in agreement with the views expressed in this letter. 2. It may be helpful if I first set out the background against which decisions must be taken. The examinations which young people take at around the ages of 16 to 18, whether in schools or further education, are an essential part of our educational system. They offer an incentive for the great majority of pupils. They provide the most important evidence of educational standards in general. They give essential information to parents, employers and colleges and universities who need to know what individual pupils have achieved. Young people depend on their examination results when they are looking for jobs or further education opportunities and in the present difficult situation it is vital that we do nothing to hinder their move from education into employment or from one stage of education to another. I believe that the public has confidence in the standards of the existing examinations and their consistency across the country. This confidence is too valuable to be put at risk. 3. Inside the schools, examinations are also important because they reflect and influence what is taught. Major change in the examination system makes heavy demands on schools, the teachers and the examining bodies which have to plan and administer new examinations. The education service, like those outside, cannot be expected to make frequent adjustments to the system. We must be reasonably sure that a big change now can be followed by a period of stability lasting at least for the remainder of this century. 4. Because of the importance of these issues and the Council's wish to see their proposals implemented as soon as possible, I have given priority to a very careful review of the recommendations during my first few weeks as Secretary of State.

A Common System of Examining at 16+ 5. This is the more important of the two proposals since it involves a far greater number of pupils and will have a profound influence on the secondary school curriculum. The case for replacing CSE and O-levels with a single common system is, I believe, widely understood and supported by many teachers. The existence of separate examinations means that schools cannot always adopt the classroom organisation which is best suited to their needs and aims and which makes the most economic use of staff. It can also create problems for teachers in helping pupils to choose between examination courses. These difficulties could of course be reduced by making the two present examinations more consistent. The Council have decided, however, that more could be achieved under the common system—although even then these difficulties would by no means disappear. 6. I know that some supporters of the change link it with comprehensive re-organisation. The Government's policy on comprehensive schools is now well on the way to full implementation and I believe it commands the sup- port of the great majority of teachers and parents. I recognise that a single system of examining would provide in a tidy way for a fully comprehensive system of secondary schools. But there are two distinct issues here that need to be judged separately. Comprehensive schools are needed to provide genuine equality of opportunity, but they have to continue to meet the educational needs of all pupils who will have widely differing abilities and interests. The examination system must continue to be able to reflect these differences. 7. I share the view of the Council and of most educationists that a common system of examining at 16+ is desirable and could reduce the problems arising from a dual system. That is not the point at issue, but rather whether it is practicable to introduce a common system given the requirements of a national examination system which I have described. I know that you and other members of the Council are aware of the difficulties inherent in the proposal and which have been drawn to my attention by many other interests concealed. There will be no difference between us on the point that much further work remains to be done on both the educational and administrative problems of introducing a common system. Indeed there was a substantial number of bodies, within and outside the educational service, which commented on the Council's proposals and urged that more time should be spent on preparatory work before any recommendation was made to me. The Council decided, however, to recommend that I should take a decision now in favour of a common system because it felt confident that the remaining difficulties could be overcome before its introduction. 8. As the Minister answerable to Parliament and public opinion I must bear in mind my responsibilities both for the maintenance and improvement of educational standards and for the examinations related to these standards. I have to take account of the doubts that have been expressed and have the firmest possible assurances that a common system of examining could in fact be introduced without encountering major educational difficulties. I must be certain that a common system can cater for young people with a very wide range of ability without impairing the reliability and usefulness of the examination results, not least their rôle in qualifying young people for employment or for further education. I have reached this view in the light of the points made in the Appendix to this letter. 9. I shall have to consider further some practical matters. Before a new system could be established decisions about its administration must be taken. This will not necessarily be easy because the present examining boards are controlled and financed in very different ways and undertake different tasks. At a time of economic stringency it is essential to estimate what extra cost could be involved in a change-over and in operating a new system, both directly for the examining boards and indirectly in the demands made on the time of teachers in the schools. These matters have of course been considered by the Council, but they have given me no firm advice, agreed with the boards, on which to base my decision. These questions are also discussed in more detail in the Appendix. 10. I have concluded that while a common system of examining has considerable advantages, the proposals as they stand at present remain subject to major uncertainties which must be resolved before I take a decision. Having recognised that the present dual system has its drawbacks, I do not wish to reject the proposals unless I am convinced that I have no alternative. Rather I should like to establish a constructive way forward which will make use of the great amount of effort which has been put into their preparation. I believe that such a way forward does exist, given continued goodwill on all sides, and I hope that I can enlist the co-operation of the Council in adopting it. 11. The proposals will therefore remain before me until they can be brought to the point where there is enough firm information for me to take a decision. I shall arrange for the Department and the Inspectorate to conduct an intensive and systematic study of the outstanding problems: this study will extend well into 1977. I would hope that this exercise might be undertaken by the Department and the Inspectorate with the co-operation and assistance of the Schools Council. Some kind of steering group to which working par ties would report will be required and I would like this to draw on the experience of members of the Schools Council. At working level we should obviously want to make full use of the studies already completed by the Council and to enlist the services of the Council's Officers. 12. I am sure that members of the Schools Council will accept that this is a matter in which it is more important to make the right decision than a quick decision. I do, however, wish to move as rapidly as possible and would like to begin discussing the detailed steps necessary very shortly indeed. I expect that you will want to arrange for the Governing Council to discuss my response to the proposals. I hope that this can be soon and that the Council's agreement can be given, where necessary, to the co-operation of their staff with my Department. Subject to a completely satisfactory resolution of these various issues raised by the proposal, I consider that it should then be possible to move towards its introduction on something like the five year timescale envisaged in the Council's recommendations.

Certificate of Extended Education 13. The proposed Certificate of Extended Education would be a completely new examination. The recommendation comes at a time when there are no additional resources available to the education service and its cost could only be met by savings elsewhere. I have therefore looked for convincing evidence that the introduction of a CEE should have high priority. There is a pressing need to do more for the less academic 16–19 year olds and I accept, of course, that those who stay at school after 16 need to have suitable courses open to them, and that some of those who are not aiming at 'A' levels may need other examination targets. But the extent of the demand for examination courses in addition to those already available is uncertain and I consider that the estimates made by the Council are over-optimistic. I note that up to the last stage there was a significant difference of opinion within the Council as to the group, in terms of ability, for whom the examination is intended. 14. But in whatever way the target group is defined, most of the young people likely to be interested in CEE will be those intending to seek employment, or possibly a place on a vocational course in further education, on leaving school. I have therefore looked for a demonstration that a CEE would in fact help these young people to find jobs or give them credit when entering further education. The necessary evidence is lacking from the Council's submission and indeed there are clear indications that further education and employment interests do not believe that these matters have been sufficiently well worked out. It is essential that a much clearer definition be given to the possible role of a CEE as a qualification for employment and to its relationship with further education courses. This will take time and more consultation and co-operation with employers in the public and private sectors, the trade unions and further education interests. 15. It also seems to me that not enough account has been taken of the difficulty in reaching a decision on CEE in isolation from changes in examinations at 16 and 18+. If a common system of examining at 16+ is eventually introduced, that in itself may make it easier to satisfy the educational requirements of the "new sixth formers". Furthermore a decision to introduce the CEE might well pre-empt future decisions about changes at A-level which the Council is now considering. I have been much concerned at the fact that many of the young people who took the experimental CEE examinations were not those in the intended target group but pupils going on to take A-levels. I have noted that a good many teachers and schools think that the CEE target group should be enlarged to include abler pupils than those for whom the Council say the examination is intended. If the target group was accordingly enlarged the examination would be correspondingly less useful to the young people who ought to benefit most from it and could be positively harmful for those going on to A-level who could then find themselves taking external examinations every year at 16, 17 and 18. 16. I have therefore decided that I should not be justified in making an immediate decision in favour of establishing a CEE examination. It would be fruitless to launch a new examination which is not fully accept able to employers and further education, this would only waste the time of teachers and pupils alike and end in frustration. Nevertheless I recognise the educational appeal of a new examination for sixth formers who do not aspire to A-levels. I therefore do not intend to approve or reject the CEE proposal until I have had further discussions with interested bodies, including the teachers. Mean while young people in the sixth form will be able to take the experimental CEE papers in 1977, leading to the award of a CSE with endorsement to show that it is based on sixth year work and with grades expressed in GCE O-level or CSE terms. (There may, of course, need to be a review of the practice of issuing letters of credit associated with the experimental CEE in relation to any examinations in 1978 and thereafter.) In addition students can take the A/O papers and there are a range of other possibilities for those who enter further education rather than remain at school. 17. The importance of these matters makes it desirable that we should release this letter and the memorandum to a wider public. I should like to make it available to Parliament immediately before it is given any other circulation. The Department will make arrangements for this and I should be grateful if you could liaise with them so that the Council can be informed immediately afterwards.

Copies of this letter and its appendix, which discusses a common system of examining, have been placed in the Library.