A-levels and GCSEs

– in the House of Lords at 2:48 pm on 5th July 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Platt of Writtle Baroness Platt of Writtle Conservative 2:48 pm, 5th July 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there has been grade inflation in A-levels and GCSEs in recent years.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we do not believe so. The 1995 study by Ofsted and the curriculum authority on examination standards over time concluded that the overall standards required of public examinations remained broadly the same between 1975 and 1995.

Since 1997, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's reviews of individual subject requirements have found no evidence of a reduction in standards at either GCSE or A-level.

Photo of Baroness Platt of Writtle Baroness Platt of Writtle Conservative

My Lords, I do not entirely share the Minister's confidence, although I thank him very much for his Answer. Do the Government have plans to encourage the development of the international baccalaureate or to enable universities more accurately to choose students by allowing optional, more challenging papers so as to reduce the number of drop-outs, which is such a tragedy for the student and a waste of public money?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, state schools as well as private schools are free to adopt the international baccalaureate and an increasing number of schools in the state system—about 50—are currently doing so. It is also open to universities to have tests of the kind referred to by the noble Baroness and some do.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, is it possible that the gap between some subjects at GCSE and A-level is so great—I have in mind modern foreign languages, mathematics and double general science—such that the take-up of those subjects at A-level is discouraged? May it be that some schools are inclined to encourage the less than first-rate students to take subjects which they consider will more easily improve their position in the league tables?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, since the current AS and A-level system was introduced three years ago, the number of students taking science and modern foreign language courses has remained roughly constant. However, the noble Lord makes a good point in respect of mathematics, where the number has reduced by about 25 per cent. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has advised us that there was too great a content in the AS mathematics course to be mastered in the first year of study. Revised criteria were introduced last September with the core content being distributed over four AS units rather than three. We are confident that this will rectify matters. I also point out that the number studying mathematics in universities continues to rise.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what proposals there are to introduce an extra grade at A-level, an A* grade? Does he agree that the very introduction of such a grade implies some inflation of grades?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we have no proposals to introduce such a grade. However, we have said in the 14–19 Education and Skills White Paper, published earlier this year, that from 2007 we shall make available to universities, through UCAS, the individual module marks that comprise AS and A2. That will give universities more information on which to base their offers.

Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Bishop

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Church of England's commitment to education for the whole child? Will he join me, with the Church of England, in congratulating the teaching profession on its contribution to the raising of standards?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I am well aware of the contribution made by the Church of England. I readily pay tribute to it and to the work of our teachers. Since the current inspection regime was established 13 years ago, the proportion of secondary schools where poor teaching is observed has halved. The proportion where good teaching for GCSEs is observed has risen from 43 per cent to 74 per cent. That is a very great tribute to the work of our teachers. I am sure that the whole House wishes to pay tribute to the teaching profession.

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench

My Lords, at GCSE, around 50 per cent of pupils achieve A to C grades, but in the core and required subject of maths, English and science, the figure is closer to 33 per cent. Will the Minister comment on the significance of that discrepancy in performance and on what it suggests about the selection of subjects by pupils, their schools and their parents to achieve better grade profiles?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, it tends to suggest that the more able students are being attracted to those subjects, as the noble Baroness would expect me to say. However, of course, the very fact that the A-grade proportion in those subjects is so much higher than in many other subjects shows that the examination system is working well in ensuring that grades are awarded according to achievement in those subjects.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Spokespersons In the Lords, Education, Shadow Minister (Education)

My Lords, does the Minister accept that since 2000 so much of the focus has been on targets and exams and not on education, that education has become so prescriptive and geared to passing exams and modules, and that pupils are not learning history, for example, but they are learning to pass history exams?

Photo of Lord Walton of Detchant Lord Walton of Detchant Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 1993 the Hamlyn Foundation carried out an inquiry into education in the UK—I had the privilege of chairing the inquiry—which criticised A-levels as being narrow, a criticism recently echoed by the Prime Minister? It also recommended an over-arching diploma, which would include GCSEs and A-levels, which would give additional breadth and an opportunity to pupils to study not only vocational but a combination of vocational and academic qualifications. Is the Minister totally opposed to the recent proposals of the former chief inspector of schools, and supported by a large number of schools, recommending very firmly such a diploma?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we are certainly not totally opposed to the proposals by Sir Mike Tomlinson, to which the noble Lord referred. Indeed, we are implementing a high proportion of the recommendations in his report, including the development of specialised diplomas beyond the age of 14 in more vocational subjects to meet precisely the demands to which the noble Lord referred.

Since the noble Lord's very distinguished report, in which he and the noble Lord, Lord Moser, played such an important part, in 1993, we have introduced vocational GCSEs and vocational A-levels. We have also introduced the new AS system, which has had many criticisms made of it, particularly in respect of the weight of the examination system which it brought in its train, but it has had the effect of broadening the number of subjects for candidates beyond the age of 16.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Spokespersons In the Lords, Wales

My Lords, is the noble Lord away of industry's extreme dissatisfaction with the quality of examinees who come into its care? Is he in particular aware of a report by the CBI last year on 500 companies, 37 per cent of which expressed dissatisfaction with the standards of numeracy and literacy of 16 year-olds that they had employed? What is he really going to do to restore confidence in the examination system?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we engaged in extensive discussions with the CBI in preparing our White Paper 14–19 Education and Skills. A significant number of the proposals in that paper relate to the strengthening of literacy and numeracy in secondary schools, including a reform of, for example, the school performance tables, so that in future they will contain the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, which was a particular reform asked for by the CBI that we believe will strengthen the teaching of those subjects in secondary schools.