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AS and A-levels

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the examination regime for AS-levels and A-levels. (250612)

Changes to AS and A-levels that have been introduced this year will maintain them as highly valued and internationally recognised qualifications. We are establishing Ofqual as a fully independent regulator to ensure continued confidence in the examinations regime. We are also establishing advanced diplomas as a genuine alternative for young people who want a different learning experience.

The Minister talked about “highly valued” and “internationally recognised” qualifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said, however, that the coursework for AS-level modules was “laughable”. Even more risible is the fact that if a pupil does not do particularly well, they can take them again and again until they get a good result, and that contributes to their A-level result. Please will the Minister explain why so many top private schools are starting to leave the A-level system because they do not believe A-levels give a satisfactory result, and are choosing the international baccalaureate instead? Charterhouse has done just that this weekend.

I noted Charterhouse’s advocacy of the pre-U, which is an international qualification with a global dimension. It is an interesting qualification, but far and away the majority of schools are still doing the A-level and they should continue to do so. It is also still an extremely popular export from this country, and we should be proud of it. We should note, too, the reforms that are taking place to the A-level, such as its moving from six to four modules, the use of the extended project, and the introduction of the A* and more open-ended synoptic questions with longer written answers—of which I am sure that, during an examination, even the hon. Gentleman might approve.

Is the Minister as worried as we are about the growing divide in achievement at A-level and beyond? In 2007, 264 comprehensive schools failed to enter a single pupil for A-level geography, denying today’s pupils the opportunity the Minister had when he was a sixth-former. Also, 47 per cent. of the A* grades in GCSE French went to pupils in the independent sector, which educates just 7 per cent. of pupils, and 45 per cent. of children qualifying for free school meals failed to achieve a single GCSE above grade D. Are not the lack of direction in the Government’s education policy, the overloading of initiatives and the Government’s failure to understand the core problems in our weaker secondary schools letting down the most disadvantaged children in our society and failing to ensure that education for these children is a ladder out of poverty?

I got a grade A. At that time, the A-level was an elite qualification, taken by a very small proportion of the population. It was taken, disproportionately, by far more people such as myself, who came from private schools rather than the maintained sector. That has radically changed as we have opened up access to education and made the system much fairer. I am proud of the improvement in A-level results that has taken place over the past 11 years. I am particularly pleased to see the increase in the number of entrants for maths, further maths and physics. We have a really good record on A-levels, and I do not want to indulge the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) too much longer in his attempt to rubbish those achievements.