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IGCSEs and A-Levels

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

6. When he last met university vice-chancellors to discuss the value of IGCSE and A-level qualifications. (187373)

I meet many vice-chancellors to discuss issues of importance and interest to them, including reforms of our national qualification system. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is for higher education institutions to decide what use they make of all qualifications in their admissions procedures. The recent report undertaken by the 1994 group of universities shows a widespread welcome of the changes being made to A-levels to ensure that they provide the right level of stretch and challenge for those going on to higher education.

Does the Minister accept that universities regard IGCSEs as having more academic rigour than GCSEs? Can he explain to my 15-year-old son, who just got an A* in his IGCSE maths, why the Government regard that achievement as being of no value?

The qualification is not accredited. Let us look at the facts. IGCSEs are not compatible with the national curriculum. For example, the English language IGCSE does not include compulsory study of Shakespeare or any other author, unlike the GCSE, and an assessment of speaking and listening is optional, whereas it is compulsory for GCSE. Furthermore, there is no non-calculator paper in the maths IGCSE. Those are the concerns. The IGCSE is not an approved qualification for funding, and as it has not been accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, there is no regularised mechanism to ensure comparability with GCSEs.

In respect of the research-intensive universities, has the Minister considered the impact of the introduction of the A* grade at A-level? Specifically, does he think that the A* grade will increase or decrease the proportion of students from state schools in research-intensive universities?

We need to monitor that issue. The latest modelling shows a very marginal change, not the kind of change that my hon. Friend suggests, but I accept that as we move towards an A* qualification, we need to keep the issue under close review.

May I tell the Minister that he is living in cloud cuckoo land if he does not realise that public confidence in the quality and rigour of public examinations is falling, as evidenced this week by the announcement that students of modern foreign languages will no longer undergo an examination, merely a continual assessment by the teacher? Does he also appreciate that his Government’s failure to accept the IGCSE as a proper qualification, when the market clearly believes that it is one, merely adds to the lack of public confidence in the Government’s willingness to maintain standards in our public examinations?

There is a real and ongoing problem of Members of the House seeking to run down the qualifications gained by young people in this country. When the director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education branch examined our A-level system a couple of years ago, he identified that no similar qualification anywhere in the world was as rigorously and regularly tested. It is instructive that Opposition Members talk of the IGCSE, a qualification undertaken predominantly in independent schools. I urge them to concentrate on the needs and interests of the vast majority of children in their constituencies, who do not attend independent schools.