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16-Plus Examinations

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 14 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations she has received in support of the indefinite retention of separate GCE O-level and CSE examinations.


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what further representations she has received from the GCE examining boards about proposals to introduce anew system of examinations.


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a statement about her proposals for a common examination system at 16-plus.


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations she has so far received in connection with her proposals to merge the GCE O-level examination with the CSE examination.


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what reaction she has had to the proposed reform of the General Certificate of Education examinations.

The White Paper of 23rd October announced the Government's decision that a single system of examinations leading to the award of a General Certificate of Secondary Education should replace the present GCE O-level and CSE examinations from the mid-1980s. The White Paper was preceded by and generally endorses the findings of the report of Sir James Waddell's steering committee—Cmnd. 7281. Interested parties were invited to comment on that report during the summer and reactions showed there to be widespread support in principle for the introduction of a single system of examining. No major organisation contended then or since that as a matter of principle two separate systems of examining at 16 should be retained indefinitely. Many bodies have expressed their concern about the need to maintain standards in the new system. The Government share this concern and are satisfied that standards can be fully maintained and indeed improved under the new system.

Does not the right hon. Lady regard the Conservative Front Bench as a major organisation, or is she taking account of the fact that after their very sharp initial reaction, they came to the conclusion that it really was not acceptable that these two exams should continue indefinitely to be separate, however much they prevaricated? Does the right hon. Lady accept that the way to proceed is to ensure that clearly recognisable O-level standards are maintained in the new system and that it is clearly accepted that mixed ability teaching does not have to be an accompaniment of this reform?

I have found it impossible to discover what the Conservative Party, which I accept is a major organisation, actually thinks. I know that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has supported a seven-graded system, which is implicit, has supported an eventual single examination system, which is implicit, has supported the idea of grades which reflect the standards in O-level and in CSE, which indeed is part of the Government's policy, has supported the idea of a national co-ordinating body, which is the Government's policy—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] The Opposition may not like to hear this, but I intend that they shall hear it. Therefore, it is almost impossible to discover to what the hon. Member for Chelmsford objects.

In response to the second supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I may say that we are satisfied that the level of achievement between different O-level boards, of which there are now 22 together with CSE boards, will be guaranteed by a national co-ordinating body in a way that has not been the case up until now.

I shall call first those whose Questions are being answered. I must remind the House that this is not debating time.

On the specifics of Question No. 14, since the White Paper states that the Department will be entering into discussions with the examining boards about the composition and functioning of the proposed central co-ordinating body, will the right hon. Lady confirm that when the GCE and CSE boards are reconstituted, there will be no attempt by the Department to reduce or interfere in their present autonomy?

The boards will, of course, retain their present autonomous setting of standards, but will be subject to a new national co-ordinating body which has the responsibility of monitoring standards throughout the examination system. Because of this body, we shall for the first time have a national system of monitoring standards which we do not now have.

Will the right hon. Lady admit that there are many in the teaching profession who strongly oppose her proposals because of concern about the maintenance of standards? Could not this step be a forward march to mediocrity? What representations has she received from the Association of British Correspondence Colleges, because there is no mention in the White Paper of the private student?

As the hon. Gentleman appeared rather unwilling to listen to my last answer, I am not sure how anxious he is to have information about the examination. There are now 64,000 boys and girls who are doubly entered for CSE and GCE, who take two syllabuses and undergo two different sets of studies instead of one, and who are harming their own opportunities to achieve high grades by this dual system. I profoundly believe that a single system equated at each point with the standards and grades currently offered—again the hon. Gentleman is indicating dissent without even listening to the reply—will go a long way to maintain standards in our system.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I must tell him that my broad observation is that the teaching profession is strongly in favour of such a change and that every official representation made to me on its behalf has favoured this alteration.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a great deal of support on the Labour Benches for this report, which will mean that children are no longer faced with unnecessarily rigid categories at such an early stage in their career? Therefore, will she ignore the nit-pickers on the Tory Benches and press ahead with reform as quickly as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I propose to do what he asks. Conservative Members are always talking about parents. One of the greatest concerns to parents lies in their being unsure whether to enter their children for the CSE or GCE. We shall now remove that painful choice from them and let the child achieve what he is capable of achieving.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the argument between CSE and O-level should not be about examinations but about syllabuses? I believe that the CSE is a very much better syllabus in a number of subjects for intellects in the middle of the range than has been given credit for in talking the whole time about examinations.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I wish to emphasise, because this is a matter of central concern in education, that at a time when we have more than 60 syllabuses in mathematics alone between O-level and CSE, we must, whatever are our views about the single system, do something to clarify and rationalise what is becoming a chaotic situation.

Irrespective of any merits or the form of the future proposed examination, will my right hon. Friend confirm that notionally it is designed for 60 per cent. of school leavers? What effects is it likely to have on the 40 per cent. who are likely not to take the examination, and can she say what studies she has initiated in this respect?

We have at present a system that is supposed to cover the spectrum of 60 per cent. of our school- children at 16, but 86 per cent. take an examination and 84 per cent. get one or more passes in it. Therefore, my concern is especially with the 20 per cent. who do not enter such examinations. We are studying the subject of school profiles and reports to give an assessment of every child in our education system whether or not he or she takes an examination.

Is there not the other side of the coin, which must be emphasised this afternoon? It may be a minority view, but there is a view among secondary modern school teachers that, although the right hon. Lady says that standards can be maintained and even improved, this may be to the disadvantage of those who value the CSE certificate now.

I understand that point. There are many aspects of the CSE syllabus, especially the devotion to practicalities and vocational slants, which we could usefully embrace in the joint common system, Indeed, my hope for the common system is that we can take the best of both worlds and make a better examination system than either of the current bifurcated systems.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the local education authority associations and the CBI, in common with the Opposition, are in favour of the retention of O-levels or O-level-type examinations? Since that is the point of difference between herself and these organisations and ourselves, would it not be in the best interests of all the children concerned, since we are all agreed on the merits of a common examination system, for the right hon. Lady to call a round table conference of all the parties interested in this subject to see whether we can reach an agreed approach on this vital matter?

I am always happy to engage in consultations; indeed, there have been further consultations recently. However, the hon. Gentleman will see that we are talking essentially about semantics. It has already been made clear that the first three grades in the common system will be equivalent to A, B and C at O-level. Therefore, the question is not a question of whether one wants to retain the wording. The boards will have to be reorganised, because nobody wants to see 22 boards. The serious point to which the hon. Gentleman should address himself is that we should not force children into having to make a choice which, because the syllabuses are all so different, means that, however fast a youngster develops, he or she cannot easily move from CSE to GCE, or vice versa, at any age after the age of 14.