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A-level Examinations

Volume 471: debated on Monday 4 February 2008

8. What plans he has for the future of the GCE A-level examination; and if he will make a statement. (183686)

A-levels are long-established and valued qualifications. Their future should be decided not by any pre-emptive Government decision, but by the demands of young people and schools. We have said that, in 2013, we will review the evidence and experience following the introduction of all 17 of the new diplomas to see how the range of post-16 qualifications meets the needs of young people and supports their progression into further study and employment. We will consider the future of A-levels in the light of that evidence.

Before going down the road of the Government-introduced A-level-style qualifications to be offered by companies such as McDonalds, Flybe and Network Rail, does not the Minister think that we should tackle the root problem of the failure of literacy and numeracy, particularly among school leavers? The problem was highlighted in a recent CBI survey.

We have made clear gains in literacy and numeracy, both at primary and secondary level, as I was saying to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) earlier. That does not mean that we should be complacent, however. We need to make further improvements pre-16 in order to make the post-16 options work, particularly as we introduce compulsion as part of the Education and Skills Bill. The accreditation of employers’ own training for qualifications has been welcomed by the Opposition as a sensible step forward in raising the value of employer-based training.

Does the Minister share our concern that too many sixth-formers in comprehensive schools are being poorly advised on their choice of A-levels, and that the admissions director at Cambridge university says that their opting for softer subjects “essentially rules them out” of Cambridge? If the Minister shares our ambition of getting more state sector pupils into Oxford and Cambridge, what measures is he taking to ensure that bright sixth-formers study the meatier academic subjects to prepare them for the top universities?

We simply do not accept that some A-levels are harder or softer than others. Indeed, in 2004 we commissioned the Independent Committee on Examination Standards—chaired by Dr. Barry McGaw, the director of education at the OECD—to look into A-levels. The committee’s report concluded that no examination system at school or any other level anywhere in the world was as tightly or carefully managed as the A-level. We are also establishing a new regulator, who will continue to monitor the standard of the A-level to ensure that it is well respected by all our higher education institutions.