My Lords, following Mike Tomlinson's initial report, regrading is now in progress. Affected students should be advised of changes by 15th October. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is considering how to implement his other recommendations and will make further announcements shortly. As a second phase of his review, Mike Tomlinson will review arrangements for setting, maintaining and judging A-level standards, and ensuring their consistency over time.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the damage done to the credibility of our national examination system as a result of the A-level debacle this summer? With so many students now staying on to A-level and its equivalent—level 3 national vocational qualification—in schools and colleges, not just thousands but hundreds of thousands of young people are affected by what happened this summer. It is vital that such an examination, which sets a national standard, should be beyond any possibility—even a perception—of ministerial influence. Can the Minister assure us that in any changes made post-Tomlinson, the QCA or its successor, will be made clearly and genuinely independent of any possible ministerial influence?
My Lords, to respond to the final point made by the noble Baroness, it is absolutely clear from the work that Mike Tomlinson has already done that there has been no ministerial interference. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said, the QCA is a statutory, independent body set up to maintain the standards and integrity of the examination system. It is a fundamental principle that the Government have no role in that; nor should we. I am sure that noble Lords who were members of previous governments would agree with that.
The A-level is the gold standard of our system. If there is any doubt about that standard being devalued, we must act. We have acted. The Tomlinson report will ensure that we can have full confidence in the system in future.
My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as the grandparent of a student who took her A-levels this summer. Does the Minister accept that the hasty introduction of AS-levels and the lack of testing of the A2 part of the A-level has been a contributory factor to the present chaos? Will she now take full responsibility for that scandalous situation?
My Lords, I have always hesitated to use language such as "scandalous" in your Lordships' House. I accept, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has accepted, that we have lessons to learn. Indeed, Mike Tomlinson has made clear that within the introduction of the AS-level—which was fully piloted and tested—we should perhaps have done more piloting of the A2-level. That is a lesson we have taken on board and accept.
I make clear that we must keep the matter in context, recognising that it is important that the affected students are dealt with speedily, properly and with strong resolution. But, as last year, 92 per cent of students with a confirmed place in higher education were accepted at their first choice institution.
My Lords, perhaps we may hear first from the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and then from the noble Lord, Lord Quirk.
My Lords, as I have made clear, the QCA is responsible as a statutory, independent body. We intend to ensure that that position continues. The department's role has been to ensure that the independent system works fairly and efficiently in the interests of all of our young people. We all agree that our young people have the right to expect that at the end of their course their examination papers are marked fairly and consistently. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that.
My Lords, in our 14 to 19 strategy, we have laid out the issues that we believe to be part of the debate. In the current context, we want to make clear that we have full confidence in ensuring that our A-level system works efficiently. But we always want to have a continuing debate—noble Lords have been part of this process for many years—about the breadth of subjects that students should study. Indeed, it is on that basis that we introduced the AS-level. Noble Lords will want to be part of that debate, but I do not want to detract from the current situation by entering into it now.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that failure to predict a higher percentage of high grades in the A2 this year suggests that the department does not have its ear to the ground? Many schools were fully aware that only the more able students were continuing to the A2; many less able students stopped after the AS. Was the Department for Education and Skills not aware of that?
My Lords, if we consider the history of the introduction of the AS and the A2-level, the assumption was that students would have an opportunity to review the subjects in which they continued after AS-levels. It is not a question of what the department predicted. The issue is what were the consequences for examining boards in their relationship to the QCA and in what they believed to be the situation. In this case, the department played its part absolutely correctly in linking with the QCA.
My Lords, what will happen to those students who failed to get to their first choice university if, after regrading, they are found to have the necessary qualifications?
My Lords, the first thing to say is that no student will lose any place as a result. We want to ensure that we carefully examine the impact and, after 15th October, we will have a clear idea of the number of students affected. We have worked closely with Universities UK, which has been extremely supportive, and with individual universities to ensure that several things happen. First, we have asked the universities to consider honouring propositions put to students before August this year; secondly, we have considered those universities that may take students who may be able to join their courses; thirdly, we shall ensure that students are not financially disadvantaged; and, fourthly, we shall support universities if they need it to ensure a proper transition for students.