Education: 14-19 Reform

– in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 18th October 2004.

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Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions) 3:45 pm, 18th October 2004

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on the department's response to the report of the Tomlinson working group on 14 to 19 reform.

"I should like to make a Statement on the reform of education and training for 14 to 19 year-olds on the occasion of the publication of the final report from Mike Tomlinson's working group on 14 to 19 reform.

"I welcome the working group's report and commend it wholeheartedly to the House. I am extremely grateful to Mr Tomlinson and his colleagues for their hard work over the past 21 months. They have consulted widely and openly and they have now produced a cogently argued, challenging and compelling vision of the future. Through their regular engagement with the many stakeholders—including schools, colleges, universities and employers—I believe that they have laid the basis for the development of a broad consensus on the best way forward. I believe that it is important that this consensus extends across the whole House, and so I have encouraged Mr Tomlinson to keep in touch with the main opposition parties and have authorised the Minister of State to give early briefing to their spokespeople.

"I appointed Mr Tomlinson with the view that the status quo is not sustainable. Doing nothing is not an option. Under the current system, many of our young people achieve very high standards, whether in schools, colleges or work-based training, and move on to higher education or employment. But too many drop entirely out of education or training by the age of 17. Some do not have sufficient grasp of the core skills that they need for work and life. Others cannot find a straightforward path to meet their vocational ambitions. Some are simply not stretched enough to enable them to fulfil their potential.

"When we published our policy document 14 to 19: opportunity and excellence, at the beginning of last year, we concluded that these problems could not be solved simply by short-term measures, important though they are. Longer-term reform is also necessary. We therefore asked the working group to advise on a framework for qualifications that would enable all our young people to achieve their full potential, which would motivate them to stay in learning after the age of 16, and which would also reduce the burden of assessment on students, their teachers and the examinations system.

"The working group's report covers all aspects of the curriculum and qualifications framework for the 14 to 19 phase. Its recommendations have far-reaching implications for the structure of education and training. They include: proposals to introduce the study of core skills in literacy, numeracy, communication and ICT for all 14 to 19 year-olds; direct employer engagement in the development of vocational programmes; provision of coherent routes to fulfil vocational aspirations; the introduction of an extended project to replace coursework; and a more academically stretching system of assessment.

"Each of these will require short and medium-term reforms. On that basis, the report recommends development of the diploma, with the recommendation that over time all existing academic and vocational qualifications would be brought within its framework. The report argues that this approach has many advantages. It would establish a single coherent, understood qualifications framework for the first time. It would put vocational and academic qualifications on a common footing, again for the first time. It would promote greater personalisation of the curriculum to meet the needs of individuals and greater choice for young people. The report also argues that a diploma would stretch our most able young people while re-engaging with those who currently drop out of learning. Such an approach would, of course, bring great challenges, as the working group acknowledges. It would be the biggest single reform of qualifications in any of our lifetimes.

"Mr Tomlinson's report states that there is a need for further work by the Department for Education and Skills and its partner organisations before there is a blueprint for reform, and that the reforms would take at least 10 years to introduce. I agree with the careful, deliberate, approach to reform the working group has adopted, and accept that approach. Above all, in this complex area, we owe it to our young people to ensure that the stability of the qualification system is paramount in our thinking, and that reform is based on consensus, evolution, careful planning and the rigorous piloting of any change.

"For those reasons I shall of course be considering the report carefully. My intention is to make positive and detailed proposals in the form of a White Paper early in the new year. The White Paper will include my assessment of how the working group report measures up to the five tests that I set when the interim report was published, which are as follows.

"Excellence—will it stretch the most able? Vocational—will it address the historic failure to provide a high quality vocational offer that motivates young people? Employability—will it prepare all young people for the world of work? Assessment—will it reduce the burden of assessment? Disengagement—will it stop our high drop-out rate at 16?

"In preparing the White Paper I shall of course work with my colleagues with responsibility for education and training in Wales and Northern Ireland, who share our qualifications framework, and with our statutory partners. I am writing today to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ask it to undertake the necessary work to enable us to develop our detailed proposals for the White Paper.

"I shall also discuss my proposals with a wide range of stakeholders, including schools, colleges, universities and employers, and I look forward to hearing the views of the Education and Skills Select Committee in due course. I expect this to be the first of many opportunities to consider those crucial issues in this House.

"I am determined that any evolution of the system must increase public confidence in it. Therefore my approach will be to build on all that is good in the current system, including the real and great strengths of A-levels and GCSEs.

"The Tomlinson report rightly confirms their place in the system and seeks to build on them. They would stay as the building blocks of any new system. As Mike Tomlinson's report makes clear, assessment must and will continue at all levels on the basis of rigorous, trusted and externally marked examinations. But, again, as the report proposes, we will need to consider the number and nature of those exams.

"We also believe that it is essential that full public accountability for results is maintained, including the publication nationally of exam results, school by school, at 16 and 19.

"The Government have made tremendous strides in taking action to raise standards in primary and secondary schools. We have also addressed both the challenges of higher education and the development of the nation's skills base. We now have to move on the reforms of 14 to 19 education and training. A number of the most pressing problems are already being addressed. For example, this September saw the first 1,000 pupils on young apprenticeships start their programmes, and the introduction into the national curriculum of work-related learning for all 14 to 16 year-olds, with an increased take-up of vocational qualifications. The increased flexibility programme allows 14 to 16-year-olds to spend time out of school in colleges or work-based learning. Currently, approximately 90,000 pupils at 2,000 schools are involved.

"The working group's proposals now give us an opportunity to consider more far-reaching reforms that will shape 14 to 19 education for decades to come. Its proposals have implications for every single young person in school, college or workplace, and for those who work with them. It is a great opportunity, but with that opportunity comes the heavy responsibility to turn Mike Tomlinson's vision of a 14 to 19 system that meets the needs and aspirations of all our young people into a practical reality. I hope that all sides of the House will share that objective".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Deputy Chief Whip, Parliament, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Education 4:53 pm, 18th October 2004

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place.

First, perhaps I should make it clear that I have not had time to read the Tomlinson report in detail. It is a report that we shall want to study very carefully. It will be an important contribution to the debate on raising standards in education, which is something that remains even more urgent than it was seven years ago. Indeed, in many respects, we appear to have gone backwards over the past few years.

I add my thanks to Mike Tomlinson and his team on the work that they have done. At first sight, there is much in their report to commend, much to reflect on, but also elements that to my mind do not point in the right direction.

It is my fundamental belief that there has been too much messing about over the past two generations with examinations, assessment and the content of education. Many of the changes that have been made, which often carry the broadest possible consensus across the ranks of educational experts, have not always served us well.

That is why we on these Benches believe that we must build on what works, and not yet again start from scratch. We must be cautious about anything which, in the laudable and universally agreed aim of improving vocational education, weakens what benchmarks of excellence remain.

My right honourable friend Michael Howard has outlined areas where we think policy on examinations and assessment requires reform, and that speech, as well as our reflections on what Tomlinson says, will inform the approach of a future Conservative government. It is essential that this report is examined carefully before further radical change is imposed, and we shall play our part in that. As the proposed 10-year programme in the report will stretch across three Parliaments, it is important to reach cross-party consensus, at least on the major issues. I was glad to hear that the Minister undertook to involve opposition parties in the period up until next May.

We accept the Tomlinson objectives to raise core skills of literacy, numeracy and computer technology, improve vocational education from the age of 14 and to challenge and differentiate the most able more clearly. But it is a matter of some concern that the Government's programmes on literacy and numeracy are not working as we all hoped.

How does the Minister react to the recent CBI survey showing that more than a third of all employers thought that standards were inadequate and getting worse? How will the report help specifically in that area? And what changes will the government make? Does the Minister agree with the CBI when it says that an attempt to scrap all existing exams would be an unwelcome and unnecessary diversion from this urgent impasse in standards?

In debates on the recent Bill on higher education there were calls on all sides for higher quality vocational training. I agree. Vocational education has not had the attention that it deserves—not only from one party but across all parties for generations. It is against that background that we shall study Tomlinson positively. It is not just the name that we give to a programme of study that counts but what that programme contains and how rigorously and independently it is assessed.

The Tomlinson recommendations on vocational education go to the heart of an abiding weakness in British education that we all have a duty to address. Whether they are the right solution will be a matter for consideration in the months ahead, and I hope that your Lordships' House will have an early opportunity for a debate.

I must ask for clarification on a few points of detail. Does the Minister agree with the implication of Tomlinson, and of some recent research, that there has been grade inflation? Is he content that more than 20 per cent of all A-level students should have the highest grade? Tomlinson recommends that only 5 per cent should get his proposed A** grade. The fact that an A-grade has to be further differentiated may suggest it is too widely offered. Does the noble Lord agree in principle that fewer sixth formers would get the very highest grade?

Do the Government now intend to scrap the revised AS-levels that they recently introduced? If so, do they have any idea of returning to the old AS or half A-level, or of liberalising the regime in education so that schools can choose other examinations and qualifications that are currently banned?

Will the Minister confirm that, as the Prime Minister himself has argued, school league tables have been a valuable and useful tool for parents? Does he agree that external assessment at 16 is an essential condition not only for those league tables, but for employers, as argued by the British Chamber of Commerce? Will the Minister please inform this House whether he supports that view?

There may well be benefits in a diploma which combines academic and vocational achievements. Surely that should not replace but include GCSEs and A-levels. Will the Minister make it clear that Her Majesty's Government will not abolish the GCSE and A-level examinations, but will instead act to increase the rigour and proportion of external assessment?

As I said at the beginning, this report offers us a great opportunity and a real chance for progress in an area that is of great concern to us all. We cannot afford to waste time debating the abolition of a well understood and respected system of GCSEs and A-levels. Our duty is to work to raise standards for all pupils, not water them down to the cost of our children, employers and future society.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Shadow Minister, Education & Skills

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place; I also thank Michael Tomlinson for the final version of his report which fleshes out some of the earlier proposals that he made in his interim report.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said that over the past two decades we have had too much messing about with the examinations system. My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, the right honourable leader of my party, reminded me that 25 years ago she put forward proposals for the reform of the A-level examination. We have, indeed, waited a very long time for such reforms.

Broadly speaking, we on these Benches very much welcome the proposals that have been made by Mr Tomlinson. In particular we welcome the recognition in the wider diploma not just of exam results but also of other achievements at school, particularly achievements in the field of leadership, in such areas as community studies and in sports, and that these merit recognition when a student leaves school.

We welcome the key emphasis on literacy, numeracy and ICT maintained from the primary curriculum through to the secondary curriculum. As I understand it, all levels of the diploma, even the entry level, will require some acknowledgement of achievement in basic skills. What I am not clear about is whether that achievement is to be at level 2, which would imply at least a C pass in GCSE today, whether an entry level diploma requires such a pass, and, indeed, whether the foundation level diploma requires in mathematics, English and ICT the equivalent of a C pass in GCSE. It is not clear to me whether that is the case.

We also welcome the proposed shift from taking examinations at specific ages to taking examinations when students are ready for them. We have for a long time advocated what I call the "music grade" system of examinations in these more specialised areas so that a student could, for example, mix a grade 3 in French with a grade 8 in physics and chemistry. It seems to us very sensible that one should have this modular, unitised system. Indeed, we are pleased to see it emerging here. It mixes very well with the kind of proposals that we have made in relation to higher education where we want to see what we call our "climbing frame" for learning extended so that the modularity can be built on from 14 onwards through not only to 19 but also into the higher education sector.

We welcome the proposed integration for the academic and vocational streams of learning so that those leaving school and pursuing vocationally based courses slot into the same system. You can have grade 8 based qualifications in plumbing or in joinery as much as in physics or in chemistry. Allowing young people from 14 onwards to study vocational subjects both in FE colleges and, on occasion, on work based courses, could help to motivate them and make the maths, English and ICT that they will be studying more relevant, and give greater prominence to vocational routes to qualifications at levels 2, 3 and 4 which many parents and teachers do not know about and underestimate the value of.

I would like to put four questions to the Minister. First, if teacher assessment is to replace external assessment at the GCSE age 16 exams—these would be in the specialist areas where, as I say, in the future I believe that we are looking to what I call the "music grade" exams—are we going to professionalise internal assessment by, for example, picking up the Secondary Heads Association proposals that some teachers should become effectively chartered examiners? Secondly, is the aim ultimately that all young people should aspire towards the advanced diploma at level 3 at age 19 rather than just the level 2? At the moment on the whole the aim is that everyone should achieve at least level 2. Is the ultimate aim that we should move towards level 3?

Thirdly, implementation requires collaboration between schools and the FE sector and, for that matter, the world of work. As the Minister will know, there is a major problem at the moment in that pay scales in schools and the FE sector differ fairly substantially so that those teaching A-levels in the two sectors can have pay scales that differ substantially. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Government intend as a matter of urgency to address those differentials in pay scales so that individuals may attain the basic right to equal pay for equal work?

Fourthly, if young people are to benefit from this more personalised approach to learning, enabling each of them to a degree to pick and mix courses according to abilities and preferences, they will need better information, guidance and counselling on careers than they receive at the moment. Can the Minister give us an assurance that high on his list of priorities is bringing careers guidance and the Connexions service within this framework?

We on these Benches think that these proposals are very exciting. They look forward to the kind of framework that we think is needed in the 21st century using constructively the e-learning framework and, for that matter, e-examining. Equally, we are aware that we cannot jump from here to there overnight. There will be a long, 10-year process of evolution. To our mind the greatest danger lies in taking only half the loaf. These proposals make sense as a whole; there is little point in implementing a few and leaving others aside.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, in rising to thank both Front Benches for the generally warm welcome—albeit tinged by perhaps a different emphasis in terms of the questioning that both noble Baronesses gave to this extremely important report—I shall slightly irritate the Front Benches and the House as I shall not be drawn too much into what we specifically think or what we specifically do for the very good reason that I indicated earlier; namely, that we shall put out our considered response in a White Paper in early 2005.

That is not just a stalling mechanism; it is for the good reason that we think that the importance of the issues and the quality of the work in the Tomlinson report is such that it merits reflection at this stage rather than instantaneous reaction by Ministers and, I suspect, by any of us as politicians. It matters to us all to get this right rather than to go for a quick sound bite. Therefore, I hope that the House will bear with me if I am less than crisp in my responses compared with what I would normally wish to be; it is for good reason.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, remarked that it was important to reach cross-party consensus on these issues. She is right in principle. That was mentioned by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education in the Statement that he gave in another place. I refer to the serious attempt to brief opposition Front Benches on those issues.

We want to try to achieve a broad measure of support on where we are moving forward because one does not want such an important agenda to be disturbed by the twists and turns of political chance. If—as we believe—these agendas are enormously important, we must be able to move forward on them, whichever party is in government. Noble Lords will be surprised to hear that I hope that my party is in government for many years to come! However, we should not be so hubristic that we do not countenance the possibility of an alternative. Of course, that does not mean that any of us have an absolute veto on every issue. It is not a case of the lowest common denominator consensus; we are trying to reach a consensus on why these issues matter—I think that there is a broad consensus on that—and how we then make real seizure on closing the gap between where we are at on some of these problems now and what we need to do to address them. I position it in that way and I am sure that the discussions that have been characterised so far will not stop at this point.

The noble Baroness asked if we agree with the CBI that too many people enter the world of work with inadequate basic skills. Yes we do. It is incredibly important that people have good functional English, mathematics, ICT skills and communication skills. As well as knowing trigonometry they should understand how many sevens make seven-eighths. These are practical considerations for the world of work. Part of the challenge that the Tomlinson report has been asked to address is how to do that and it is clear on this matter.

I will not now go into the hoary old chestnut of grade inflation. Most of us recognise that the A-levels we took in the past are different from those that students take now. They are different in the form and thrust of the evaluation. We commend those students who have reached the highest grades, but we also agree that the universities have difficulty identifying the very highest achievers in that context.

We want to provide stretch and challenge to the very highest achievers too, as we do not want any of our young people to coast when they could be stimulated by a higher standard to go further.

School league tables have been valuable and we believe that they will continue to be so, both as information to parents and as a mechanism for stimulating schools to raise their educational attainments. Both parents and schools have a right to know this information. It bears on the question of the degree and form of external validation and assessment to make sure that there is a robust ability to compare performance between schools. Those are issues for the White Paper.

Until the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, reminded me, I had not realised that the case for A-level reform had been so mature in its genesis. As ever, it is good to be reminded of those things.

I appreciate her welcome for the emphasis on achievement of basic entry skills. I note her question about whether basic level 2 is required for basic skills at the entry grade. My recollection is that it is level 1. If I am wrong I will come back to her on that.

The noble Baroness asked challenging and difficult questions. Most of those are in the nature of our subsequent response. It would be wonderful if we thought that all pupils could ultimately achieve advanced level 3. Whether that is too utopian is a subject for reflection.

The noble Baroness will not be surprised that I will not be drawn at the Dispatch Box on the subject of increased pay to schools and FE colleges.

She made an interesting and important point on information and guidance. I will take that away to discuss with officials. If there is to be a richer system of offers there must be good information to help people navigate their way through it with an understanding of the implications it has for their career path.

While I have disappointed the House in not giving decimal point answers, I hope that noble Lords can bear impatience until early 2005 when we make our full response. We look forward to further discussion and debate then.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome the report by Mike Tomlinson and his colleagues.

With all the conviction that is only possible for someone who has to consult nobody and is accountable to nobody, I say that there will be relief and rejoicing throughout the education profession that there is a good chance of consensus on a way forward. The last thing we want to do to our teachers and learners is to march them up to the top of the hill and then to march them down again in a few years. This is very great news and I welcome the Minister opening the opportunity for consensus. From the comments of the noble Baronesses, Lady Seccombe and Lady Sharp, I can see that it lies there.

I come to this matter with some baggage. The previous Government invited me to do a report on 16 to 19 qualifications in 1996. One of my recommendations was that, instead of the present two levels of achievement—GCSE and A-levels—there should be four: entry level, foundation, intermediate and advanced. I am delighted that I might have got that bit right.

I am also delighted that there is an emphasis on the core skills. When I was doing my job, employers made that point again and again. They have been saying for the past 100 years that the standards in English, functional mathematics and nowadays ICT are not adequate. There is not a lot of grumbling about the third, but there is about the first two.

One of the main justifications for the diplomas is that to get them it is mandatory that people achieve the required standards for each of the appropriate levels in the core skills. That is the only way of making them happen. People have to do them. I recommended that there should be an AS in the core skills. It never happened because there was not the demand from admissions tutors or from industry. That has to be embedded. It is important to have this, but there is no point having it unless the elements in it have been agreed in advance with employers and the universities.

One of the very good things about Mike Tomlinson's recommendations is that he says that we should not rush. We should do the detailed research, validate it, run pilots and so and on. We have all said how important these things are but continually employers say that they are not happy. Let us get them in.

I also welcome the emphasis Tomlinson places on a much better approach to vocational qualifications. If we are to solve the problems of getting more and more people into learning, then we must use vocational qualifications and these must have standing, relevance and progression paths. These do no not exist at the moment.

My last point concerns the examination of diplomas. If we are going to move away from external assessment at intermediate and entry levels to assessment within the schools, let us proceed carefully and cautiously, first establishing the institute of assessment, getting it going and having chartered examiners. If we mess that up we shall do great damage. Proceed with care and caution.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. I had forgotten that he had in many ways already made these recommendations in 1996. I commend him for his foresight.

He touched on the importance of ensuring that the detail of this is tested with both universities and employers to make sure that we get it right. I totally agree with him on that.

He is absolutely right that one of the fundamental tests of these changes—depending on how we respond when we come back to them—is whether they address the historical tendency of our system not to give an appropriate set of opportunities and stimuli for vocational education, but simply to focus on academic excellence. I do not wish to belittle the importance of academic excellence, but we have a greater challenge in our education system than just that.

On his wise words about proceeding with care on a school-based assessment system, again I nod in support. On this agenda we have made clear that we wish to strengthen the confidence in the world outside on the quality and value of educational attainments rather than to weaken it in any respect. That will be the test we bring to any proposed changes, so people will have greater confidence that these qualifications have meaning, validity and relevance.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, I add a general welcome to the report before us. The involvement of the Church of England in secondary education is growing markedly. It is also strong in primary education. However, egged on by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, there is the prospect of up to 100 new secondary schools having a Church of England character about them. Most of them are situated in areas of general deprivation. We are happy to accept that together with the recommendations in that context.

The report seems to chase after that Holy Grail, which many before have chased, for a system which encourages all teenagers to reach their optimum in a recognised level of attainment in those key teenage years. Our rate for the drop-out of teenagers from education has been terrible in recent decades.

I noted that the Minister was shy in some of his answers, but I want to tempt him to comment further on two issues. First, on glancing through the report there seems a need particularly to recognise the professional status of teachers in new ways. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned that pay scales do not uniformly contribute to that.

Teacher pay has increased well in recent years, which is a considerable achievement, but there must be a commitment at least to maintain that level. However, as additional responsibility must be placed upon teachers in the assessment regime, the dignity and honour which often surrounds teachers on the continent must be developed. One of the differences between the systems of education on the continent and in this country is that the teaching profession is regarded differently.

Will the Minister comment further on the development of the A+ and A++ grades? At first sight, that seems to answer the question whether there is grade inflation or whether the sheer numbers who are achieving the present A grade are doing so well; it is beside the point. However, the more A+ and A++ grades are awarded and allow on the record of attainment the fact that people have undertaken modules of first-year undergraduate character at level 4, the more there is a danger that some schools will be better at delivering those grades than other schools.

There has always been a problem that ultimately schools which are more academic seem to have an advantage on the playing field. The dilemma of the Government's policy is that more one emphasises choice in education the more one ends up with winners and losers. There is a danger that those schools which are for whatever reason lower down the league tables will find it hard to compete with schools which have a more established track record of delivering A+, A++ and the other achievements on the record of attainment. There is therefore a need to build in checks and balances.

When I was an admissions tutor at Durham University, for popular subjects such as English and law we often had applicants who were predicted three As and we had to choose between them. We interviewed them. I know that there are many problems with interviews but something was set against the paper predictions. Does the Minister therefore agree that alongside the A-level proposals there is a need for checks and balances to maintain a level playing field for all applicants to university?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I am pleased to receive the broad support of the Church for these changes. The right reverend Prelate speaks for the Church and as a serious educationalist in our society.

On his first question of recognising the qualifications and professionalism of teachers, that story has become stronger in recent years. Teachers have felt more valued and their recognition in society is greater than it may have been some years ago. The Government have certainly been pleased to be part of the process of strengthening the confidence of the profession.

I shall not make pay statements or even reply on the agenda from the Dispatch Box. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester will not be surprised by that in the slightest. Pay is always an issue, but other things are also important to the confidence and the capacity of the profession to engage. I pay tribute to the way in which the teaching profession has in many ways rebuilt its confidence and power to raise itself to some serious educational challenges we have put in place.

The right reverend Prelate is right to raise the anxiety about the A+ and A++, but he is not right to imply that we should not have a system that tests the most able. We should be testing the most able and trying to have a system of evaluation which draws them to work harder and to raise their standards. To believe that we should suppress them just because there may be difficulties of competitiveness seems to be wrong.

Nevertheless, the right reverend Prelate is right that there is an issue for employers and to a greater extent for universities in recognising that different environments lead to the potential for equally bright students to attain different results. We have engaged on that issue in this House in a number of recent debates. In focusing on it, we must try to ensure that regard is paid to the different environments rather than say that we should not stimulate the most able to be more stretched by our current examination systems. We must want both.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Other Whip, People With Disabilities, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that this is a golden opportunity to get rid of one of the great bores of the summer by scrapping the name "A-level"? It is an almost universally accepted fact that A-levels were most difficult "when we did them". They have changed—they are no longer the one-off examination designed for entrance to a degree course where the final paper indicated what had gone before and did not involve a great amount of course work, as with degrees. They have become course-work modular-based projects to send students on to course-work and modular-based degrees.

The great mistake that governments made was to fail to change the name. Will the Government assure us that they will change the name and ensure that this illusory gold standard is removed? It will make the journalists work harder during the silly season because we are merely giving them the chance to compare apples with pears and chalk with cheese and to do some very sloppy work.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, Tomlinson says that while the name "A-level" would disappear in time after the diploma was introduced, much of the content of A-levels would continue as part of the diploma. Clearly, Tomlinson is saying that the name "A-level" will go but not the content. In answer to both points, my reply is that we will wait and reflect and issue our response to the White Paper early in the new year.

However, we shall not scrap anything until we are confident that we have something better in its place and a clear route of achieving that. We do not want to destabilise the system prematurely in advance of putting in place something better. That is why we will be resistant to implying that these changes will be made instantly or that we shall instantly put a gun to the head of any one part of the system until the time is right to put in place something better. Without giving the noble Lord a more detailed response, I repeat that we must be measured about the issue. We do not want to destabilise the system—we want to put in place a better one while recognising that much of the present system will be in place for many years to come during the transition period.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, these things should proceed deliberately and I am pleased that the Minister has decided that some time will be taken before the ultimate decisions are made. Has he had advice from those in the department who came up through the vocational route?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I am grateful for the wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. I think we used the rather ghastly phrase "planned devolution" as the process of change, but I think that hits what he was talking about on the head.

In truth, I do not know the specific answer to his question but I am sure that the answer must be "Yes", because it would be appalling if it were not so. I shall check.

Photo of Baroness Wall of New Barnet Baroness Wall of New Barnet Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Tomlinson report reinforces the Government's agenda on building skills that is already in place? In fact, as has already been suggested, the critical comment from the CBI this morning was that the priority for employers is building on basic skills. We are already trying to work together with business to do that, which is reinforced by Tomlinson.

I declare an interest, as I work as a consultant with DfES and the trade unions in this area. Does my noble friend agree that the Government's overall skills agenda focuses on the groups across industry that have shortfalls and does he welcome the fact that Tomlinson has emphasised the technical side of qualifications, to which my noble friends have referred? Young people should feel that it is just as credible to take vocational qualifications as it is to move into higher education.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her question. The CBI's position has been much flaunted in the media. Our understanding of the CBI's position is that the reforms proposed by Mike Tomlinson have been discussed in detail with it. Charles Clarke senses very strong support from Digby Jones. The CBI reflects the concerns of many of its members in its regions, which are held for good reasons, about whether adequate basic skills are in place to fit people for the world of work that they must enter. Both these issues are relevant to this agenda.

I agree with her that the historic undervaluing of the technical skills as being for those who are not quite so bright—and vocational skills are in danger of being viewed in the same way—has been one of the impediments that we have carried as a society. If we are to be a competitive society in an increasingly competitive world, we cannot afford to carry on like this.

Photo of Lord Walton of Detchant Lord Walton of Detchant Crossbench

My Lords, on this occasion I do not wish to make excessive use of the retrospectoscope, but in 1992 I had the privilege of chairing the Paul Hamlyn Foundation National Commission on Education, which published its report, Learning to Succeed, in 1993. Most of the principles in the Tomlinson proposals, which I welcome, were set out in that document.

I shall ask the Minister two questions. One of the principles of the diploma that we greatly favoured—we proposed it should be called the general education diploma, but the name does not matter—was that those who were following the vocational route might be able, through credit accumulation and transfer, to continue to acquire these qualifications, even in post-18 employment. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell me whether that is part of the Tomlinson proposals. The second question is whether, bearing in mind the variability between different schools, he is satisfied that the in-school assessment proposed for this diploma will be adequately validated between different educational establishments.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I pleased to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, on this report. I should mention to the House that I am taking the names of Peers who have spoken in support in this debate and, should there come a time when we wish to move forward in a White Paper and legislation, I shall be calling in this level of support and reminding noble Lords of their words.

On the first question about whether it will be possible to continue the diploma post-18, for example on the vocational route, he is absolutely right that that is what Mike Tomlinson is recommending. One can see why that should be so. I shall not repeat what I previously said on in-school assessment but we are alive to the importance of sustaining and improving the confidence of employers, universities and the world outside about the validity, comparability and standards of educational tests. In-school assessment is one of the issues that has to be looked at to see whether it can meet that test.