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A-level Reform

Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2013

Today we have announced changes to A-level qualifications. As the key qualification for progression to higher education, it is clear that we need A-levels that are robust and rigorous. A-levels need to provide students with qualifications that match the world’s best and that keep pace with the demands of universities and employers. Reports from the Royal Society, SCORE—Science Community Representing Education—the Nuffield Foundation, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and many others, have identified significant problems with A-levels. I urge Members to read a blog by Fields medallist Professor Tim Gowers at Cambridge on some problems with maths A-level—problems that the Cambridge university maths project will address.

The Government inherited a system in which students start A-levels in September and immediately start preparing for exams in January. Pupils spend too much time thinking about exams and resits of exams, which encourages a “learn and forget” approach to studying. We want to end the treadmill of repeated exams that do not properly test advanced skills such as extended writing and mathematical problem solving. We want questions that encourage students to think and prepare for university study, not a sat-nav series of exams. The way that the Labour party repeatedly calls such skills “old fashioned” shows how totally out of touch it is with universities and businesses. Does it think that silicon valley wants people who can understand calculus and linear algebra, or students who turn up saying, “Don’t worry, we can Google everything”?

The Secretary of State has written to Ofqual chief executive, Glenys Stacey, setting out plans for changes to A-levels, and I will make copies of the letter available in the Library. In future, A-levels will be linear—taken over two years with students sitting their exams at the end of the course. That will lead to students developing deeper subject knowledge and greater intellectual maturity over two years of study. Ofqual, the exams regulator, has already announced its decision to remove the January exams from September 2013. The AS-level qualification will remain but will be redesigned as a stand-alone qualification. It will be as demanding as an A-level, but cover half the content. We expect that it will be delivered over either one or two years, so institutions can decide what is best for their students.

The Government will be stepping back from the future development of A-levels. All students should have access to qualifications that are highly respected and valued by leading universities. Universities will now have a greater role in how A-levels are developed. Leading academics have been clear that there are real problems with current A-levels, which they say do not equip students with the skills and knowledge needed for degree courses, including extended writing and research skills. We are pleased that the Russell Group—24 of the UK’s leading universities—has agreed to lead that process. The group has welcomed the opportunity to be involved and is considering how best to provide advice to Ofqual on both the content and the assessment of A-levels. The group will focus on those A-level subjects that are most commonly required for entry to our leading universities— the facilitating subjects: maths and further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and modern and classical languages.

We expect that the first new A-levels in facilitating subjects will be developed for first teaching in September 2015, with first exams sat in 2017. The Russell Group will seek the views of other universities as well as engaging with the relevant learned societies. Ofqual will lead a post-qualification review process each year, which will also involve the Russell Group.

The Department for Education is now stepping back from A-levels. A-levels had a global reputation before politicians took control. The Government are giving control back to universities. Furthermore, there is what the head of Stanford has called a “tsunami” heading towards the education world—the tsunami of the world’s best universities putting their best content and new online courses free on the web. This is a revolution that the DFE cannot, and should not seek to, control. The tsunami will raise the importance of advanced skills tested in rigorous A-levels, which the Labour party simply does not understand.

May I thank the Minister for her statement and for advance sight of it? I understand that the Secretary of State is rather busy today, which is why we have her and not him, and why I am speaking rather than my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—[Interruption.] I am not being patronising. I have welcomed the Minister’s statement.

It is somewhat ironic that the cause of the Secretary of State’s busy afternoon is that he has been summoned before the Procedure Committee to account for his Department’s failure to answer parliamentary questions. In effect, he is not here for his examination because he is in the headmaster’s study for failing to do his homework. As the part-time Minister for Schools does not do exams, the hon. Lady has made the statement, and I am glad she did so.

The Secretary of State first announced his plans to scrap AS-levels in July 2010. He now says that AS-levels will not be scrapped as such, but just rendered irrelevant by the fact that they will not count towards a final A-level grade. To describe that as a dog’s dinner would be an insult to the pet food industry. It is no wonder that leading universities are opposed to the change.

Why, when the Secretary of State says he wants to consult Russell Group universities on exam reform, has he completely ignored its opposition to this emasculation of AS-levels? Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge university, has said:

“We are worried…if AS-level disappears we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade.”

He warns—Government Members should listen to this—that:

“We are convinced that a large part of this success derives from the confidence engendered in students from non-traditional backgrounds when they achieve high examination grades at the end of year 12”.

The question the Opposition want the answer to is this: why are the Government treating the views of admissions tutors on what helps state schools pupils to gain Oxbridge admission with such total contempt? That view is shared across the university sector—it is the view not just of Cambridge university, but of the million+ group and Universities UK.

In addition, the Secretary of State says he wants to create “facilitating subjects” in A-level that are ready for teaching in 2015, but they will only be in the EBacc subjects. Yet again, there is no value for creative subjects or computing and engineering. What has he got against those subjects? His plan means there will be two types of A-levels: one designed, blessed and endorsed by him; and another that is seen as less valuable—once again, that is a two-tier system from the past.

Anyway, what is the Secretary of State doing designing exams? Is he going to write the questions and mark the papers too? Is he overstepping his powers? Is that what the Minister meant in her statement by “stepping back” from the design of A-levels? Are the plans an order from the Secretary of State or just an expression of preference? Given the widespread opposition to his plans, we need to know their status.

Today’s statement, as so often, is backward looking, and for the few and not the many. Let us have exams that open up life chances rather than reforms that will slam the door of opportunity in the face of the many.

It is absolutely no surprise that the Labour party opposes any change to our system: they are the educational reactionaries; we are looking to the future. We are looking to compete in the modern world, which is why we have leading universities, such as Cambridge and Imperial, helping us to develop the new curriculum. The Opposition oppose any change; they want students to be on an exam treadmill at age 16, 17 and 18. We want students to have the opportunity to think, to learn, and to study subjects in depth; they just want constant exams.

We have discussed these changes with the Russell Group, which is bringing forward proposals and leading these reforms. I have also been in conversation with Universities UK and the 1994 Group, as they want to be involved too. I suggest that the Opposition get with the programme, otherwise they will be left behind even further. Let us not forget what happened under Labour Governments. Let us not forget Curriculum 2000, which saw a drastic reduction in the number of students doing maths A-level—down 20% in two years. We are now the country with the lowest number of students who are studying that important subject in the entire OECD.

My feeling has always been that our children are over-examined, and I had a certain prejudice against AS-level as we go from GCSE to AS-level to A-level, but I was struck, talking to schools in my area and elsewhere, by head teachers saying that the confidence the AS-level brought to some pupils was a benefit. We should, therefore, be careful about any reforms and make sure that we can carry everyone forward. We should encourage as many pupils as we can to think deeply, but make sure that we keep everyone on board. Will the Minister tell us what assessment she has made of those risks?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. One thing I would point out to him is that 75% of universities offer places based on predicted grades at A-level, rather than on AS-level results. The big increase in participation at A-level took place in the 1990s, before Curriculum 2000 was introduced. That was when we saw a massive increase in the number of students going to universities, particularly from low-income backgrounds.

If the Russell Group universities tell the Minister that exams at year 12 encourage state school pupils to go on to apply and attend those universities, will she change her mind?

The Russell Group universities are keen to lead and be involved in this process, because they recognise, as do many academics I have spoken to at all kinds of universities, that A-levels are not fit for purpose in relation to the deep study that students need to do. The whole problem with AS, and then A2 following on, is that students are constantly examined, rather than having the opportunity to study subjects in depth. It is absolutely amazing that the party that complains about too many exams is opposing a move to enable students to have more time to study. All the university academics I have spoken to like the idea of having an extra term where students can be studying and not doing exams.

As a former comprehensive school pupil who was lucky enough to study A-levels and go to one of the world’s leading universities, I know how important it is to make sure these opportunities are open for all. We have some of the finest professors and universities in the world teaching physics, engineering and maths, and they tell us that they simply cannot get the quality of British children in to study those qualifications. Will the Minister assure us that she is talking to those universities, and that these changes will ensure we have more home-grown mathematicians, engineers and entrepreneurs in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right: we have some fantastic universities. That is why we are so excited that they are getting involved in developing new qualifications. Not only are they helping us with new qualifications—[Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) should actually speak to some of these academics and maybe he will get a slightly less biased picture.

Well, I do not know who he was talking to. The point is that not only are we developing new A-levels, we are also developing a new mid-level maths qualification with Mathematics in Education and Industry and Tim Gowers, which I am very glad the Opposition support.

May I say to the Minister that, as someone who is very interested in education and has been in this House for some years, I have never heard a statement so aggressively and unpleasantly delivered? Of course we need to reform our qualifications and there were some criticisms of A-levels. However, if she looks at the record, she will see that, historically, the way to do that is to base it on evidence from leading people, not just picking bits from people to quote in support of one’s position. We could have had a cross-party, bipartisan approach to this issue, led by someone such as Ken Baker, but we will not get it from this sort of aggressive attitude.

What I would say in response to that is that I did not see much consultation taking place when Labour introduced Curriculum 2000, which saw a massive reduction in the number of students studying maths. Comprehensive students are now half as likely to do A-level maths as their independent school counterparts, mainly as a result of the Opposition’s opposition.

Having listened to the Minister’s statement, I hope she will ensure that all universities have a place in the process and not just the Russell groupers, which, as she has outlined, will be leading it, and that, in setting the overall framework for a qualification, the Government will not seek to micro-manage how it is assessed, to ensure that there is room for things such as properly assessed coursework, which will prepare students for university, where they will be expected to do more extended work.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have spoken to a number of universities, both in the Russell Group and outside, as well as the 1994 group and Universities UK, and I am absolutely clear that we need subject experts from across all the universities to be involved in the process, so that we get A-levels that reflect the broad consensus across universities. He is absolutely right that in subjects where it may be appropriate to have different methods of examination—for example, art—we should look at that, too. We will be flexible according to the subject and we are certainly very interested in getting all universities on board.

I was interested to hear the Minister say that she wanted questions that encouraged students to think. I am afraid that that is what is already going on in our schools and colleges: students are thinking. Comments such as hers denigrate the excellent work that young people and the people working with them are doing now. Does she accept that A-levels are about more than preparation for Russell Group universities? She is in real danger if she models her curriculum change only on the direction of Russell Group universities, not on the panoply of need of all our young people.

I am afraid that, according to academics in universities, too many of the questions set in today’s A-levels do not allow long responses. In mathematics and physics they do not have multi-step problems that encourage students to think through answers and are very much more laid out than they were in the past. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at past papers and also leading countries—

I do not know if that is entirely true if the hon. Gentleman does not acknowledge the changes that have been made.

We also need to ensure that examiners are able to exercise judgment in the way they mark questions. That is important as well.

Could I just say to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that if my hon. Friend the Minister had been a man, he would not have criticised her for making this statement?

Too many top universities have become too elitist; therefore, top professions have become the same—through no fault of their own, but through the subjects that people are guided to study. I welcome this statement. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that it will result in more disadvantaged young people going to our top universities, which is the acid test of whether it has been successful?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on his work with the fair access to university group, which encourages students to study the rigorous subjects that will help them to get into top universities. One of the things we are also looking at is the accountability system and how we show what subjects students are studying, to encourage more students from different backgrounds to study subjects such as modern foreign languages, sciences and maths, where there is a particular gap in participation between those students and students at independent and grammar schools.

My constituency is way down the bottom of the league table when it comes to participation in higher education. How will today’s statement help to address that?

Today’s statement will encourage students to take up subjects by giving them much more in-depth knowledge of those subjects and more time to study and learn, rather than having them feel that they are constantly examined between the ages of 16 and 18. At the moment in our examination system, we have tests at 11 and examinations at 16, 17 and 18. That is a very unbalanced system. I think that a system that encourages teaching, learning and in-depth study will be really attractive to students.

Having attended one of the poorest-performing schools in one of the poorest-performing authorities in the country, before going on to study A-level and then teaching the subject that I studied at A-level at both AS and A-level, I can confirm that there was certainly a diminishing of that qualification over the time I went from studying to teaching it. However, there is still a place for AS-levels and I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend acknowledge that. Can she tell us a little more about her vision for the AS-level qualification?

We are keen to encourage more breadth at A-level. We want to see the development of high-quality AS-levels that students can study over one or two years. They will have the same content level as A-levels, but half the breadth. We are also developing new qualifications—we are asking other people to look at those—such as a mid-level maths qualification, which will enable students who do not want to do a full maths A-level to go on to do that instead. In addition, we are encouraging extended project qualifications, so that students in sciences and arts can demonstrate extended writing as well. It is part of our intention to encourage greater breadth, particularly so that students doing sciences get more opportunities to do extended writing and students doing arts and social sciences are able to study maths.

As a former teacher and an A-level chief examiner, I recognise many of the criticisms that the Minister has made of the exam system and I would be broadly supportive of the views she has expressed. Given that there is a big movement of students between Northern Ireland and England and between England and Northern Ireland, and given that Northern Ireland has its own exam board, what arrangements has she put in place for the consultation involving the universities to include schools and educational decision makers in Northern Ireland?

For many of us, the first year in the sixth form was one of the best years of our lives. Apart from The Who and The Rolling Stones, it was also a year without examinations, the first time in our lives that we were able to study a comparatively small number of subjects and a good year to learn how to study. For the life of me, I fail to see how it is progressive to expect students simply to take examinations every year. Why should the first year of the sixth form not be a year in which pupils have the opportunity to spread their wings, start to study a small range of subjects and do so with some skill?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the things about moving up to A-level is that it is a new level and an opportunity for students to study independently and be able to think. I remember from when I studied for my A-levels that it sometimes takes time for the penny to drop in more challenging subjects such as physics and maths. Constantly measuring students during that process has put them off. In my view, one of the failings of Curriculum 2000 was that many students dropped out of subjects such as maths after a year because they had not yet reached the point—the “Eureka!” moment—when the subject had sunk in.

The Minister kindly appeared before the Select Committee on Science and Technology and gave evidence in our inquiry into engineering skills, which will be published shortly. In taking that evidence, we covered some of the ground being explored today. Will she now give a commitment that before she closes her mind to the methodology applied to science and engineering practicals, she will take the widest view from across the learned societies, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, as well as engaging with the universities sector?

Yes, I would like to do that. We are working on the plans to make sure that more students study maths at the 16 to 18 level, as this has been one of our historic problems in failing to get more students into engineering. I am very committed, and I would be delighted to talk to the hon. Gentleman about it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her compelling statement, and I advise her to ignore the ridiculous remarks of the former Chairman of the Education Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Is the Minister aware that universities across the country will welcome this statement because it means a restoration of integrity to the system and a return to the gold standard? Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make sure that we get schools on side? Given that we share a borough, will she join me in a programme of visits to secondary schools in west Norfolk?

My hon. Norfolk Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to restore the link between universities and schools, which I think has been lost. It has meant that our school exams have not necessarily caught up with the latest research in the universities. It is so important to keep up with the cutting edge because we are competing against countries that are rising in the world. We need to make sure that we are linking to our leading educational institutions such as Cambridge university, which is not too far from us. I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in a programme of visits; I am starting with Downham Market high school on Friday.

Evidence-based policy making is something we can all support, so will the Minister provide us with the hard evidence that these plans will widen participation, particularly in constituencies such as my own in Hull?

At the moment, the evidence suggests that the reforms undertaken by the previous Government did not have a big impact on participation. What that meant was that students were studying fewer of the rigorous subjects such as maths, physics and modern languages.

Does the Minister agree that there is a place at least for a percentage of regulated and properly moderated course work in A-level qualifications, so that young people disadvantaged through illness or disruption in other areas of their lives do not have to stake everything on one or two exams at the end of their courses?

The key point about the reforms we are announcing today is that students will be assessed at the end of their course. As for requirements such as coursework, I expect the Russell Group and other universities involved in the process to advise Ofqual on that.

The Secretary of State has criticised bite-sized units, but I have to tell the Minister that the reality is that people learn in bite-sized units and that the world of work is a series of bite-sized activities, so a bite-sized approach is entirely appropriate to the way we learn and to the way qualifications are designed. Is not the reality, then, that removing a modular element is a very retrograde step?

I do not think that is true. I think modularisation has encouraged a “learn and forget” culture, in which students study something, do the exam and then forget about it, moving on to the next chunk. Many of the subjects that students study at school build on previous elements, so it is an important discipline to be able to understand everything about the subject at the end of the course, rather than forget about something learned earlier. The other issue is the amount of time involved: we are spending a term of time doing exams rather than providing students with extra learning opportunities.

Recently, A-level students have had the daunting prospect of aiming not just for As but for A*s. Will the Minister tell us what impact she expects this reform to have on the grade inflation that has been experienced with A-levels and GCSEs?

By linking A-levels more closely to universities, their entrance requirements and the skills and knowledge they possess, we will see a better control on standards.

Many parents will have got the message that the Secretary of State is largely against assessments and in favour of exams. They may therefore be a little confused about the abolition of AS-levels, and will have to get over that. I was interested to note that in her statement, the Minister accepted that it was important for students to learn more, including about extended writing and research skills, which she saw as important for A-levels. Does the Minister expect there to be more assessments during those two years?

No, I do not expect that. We are talking about the extended project qualification, going alongside A-levels, but the point about A-levels is that there will be a terminal exam.

I welcome these reforms. We know that more universities have had to change their first-year course content or put on extra classes, especially in subjects such as maths. Are not universities best placed to design qualifications at the age of 18, as they will have to deal with the output?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The important point here is that the Russell Group has agreed to be part of this process; it wants to be involved. I think there is an increasing appetite for that among universities across the board. Universities UK has also expressed its interest because universities want to know that the students entering their institutions are well prepared. In certain subjects, academics have been very concerned about the level of preparation. They have quite often found that there is a difference between independent school students who get extra tuition and those currently doing A-levels in state schools.

Will the Minister confirm that an impact assessment has been done on this policy change? If so, what assessment has been made of the effect on children from low-income families and black and minority ethnic communities regarding their education and career choices? Will she clarify whether this is a policy steer or an order?

As I said earlier, when Curriculum 2000 was introduced, we saw a drop in the number of students from comprehensive schools doing rigorous subjects. [Interruption.] We can see the negative impact of Labour’s policy on participation in the top universities—despite the introduction of organisations such as the Office for Fair Access, which had a dreadful record on social mobility and on students from low-income backgrounds studying certain subjects. In 2004, for example, it abolished the language requirement for GCSE. [Interruption.]

Order. I live in hope that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), will aim for a demeanour of statesmanlike reserve, which I think would suit him well if he could cultivate it.

There are current alternatives to the A-level: the IB or international baccalaureate and the pre-U, which is being offered by a significantly increasing number of state and private schools. Does that not demonstrate that out there in the marketplace there is diminishing confidence in the A-level as a qualification?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It also indicates increasing competition. We are competing not just with other institutions in this country, but in the global marketplace with organisations and institutions that are developing new ideas and new qualifications all the time. There is also the online world, through which many of those things are going to become available. We need to make sure that our qualifications are keeping up at the highest level. My real fear is that if independent and other schools move towards the pre-U and our A-levels do not keep up, we really will damage social mobility.

The Minister is proposing a leading role for the Russell Group, but what about all those excellent universities that are not members of it? Why should they receive second-class treatment from this Government in an increasingly two-tier system?

The Russell Group of universities and others to which I have spoken are all keen to participate in this process. It is a question of organisation. There will be members from all universities right across the university sector on each of the subject panels, making sure that there is a broad base from which to develop these qualifications.

I welcome the statement, and I particularly welcome the inspired involvement of the Russell Group. Does my hon. Friend agree that the involvement of that group will give us precisely the qualifications that we are after?

Absolutely. I think we should be proud that we have some of the best universities in the world, rather than continually damning them as elitist. We want to make sure that more students from all backgrounds are able to access the important material that these universities are providing. That is why we have Cambridge working on a project to expand the school curriculum and to give extra material to students so that they have a rich diet on which to feast rather than the paltry diet they have had in previous years.

I heard what the Minister said about what she and her Department would do for facilitating subjects, but we already know that arts subjects will be excluded from the Ebacc, which I think will be much to the detriment of the UK’s creative industries in the future. What will the Minister and the Department do for the very important creative subjects?

Many creative subjects are also facilitating subjects—I would argue that both maths and English are creative subjects—but we are thinking about the other subjects as well, and engaging in further discussions with universities and other organisations about them.

I congratulate the Minister on her strong and passionate delivery of a statement which I think will be broadly welcomed by students, universities and employers. Does she agree that allowing students to take the same exam three or even four times creates a distorted picture of their abilities which does not actually serve anyone?

I entirely agree. Our proposals have already been strongly supported by businesses as well as universities. The Institute of Directors has been very supportive, and, indeed, expressed its support this morning.

Life is not just about being able to sit exams; it is also about being able to demonstrate the ability to perform over a sustained period, and that is what employers want. Modular courses help young people to demonstrate such skills. Will the Minister tell us to what extent coursework and modular work feature in the Department’s plans? Will she also tell us on what evidence the proposed changes are based? She has not yet told us that, although she has explained her views on the previous system.

The hon. Lady says that she does not think constant exams should be part of life, but under Labour, constant exams were certainly part of students’ lives. Taking exams is all that they were doing between the ages of 16 and 18.

I welcome the statement. At a recent meeting of the Education Committee to discuss the national curriculum, we heard from various academics that there was a real interest in the upskilling of those who study physics, chemistry and biology before their arrival at university, and that it was important for there to be an academic input in the formation of A-level courses that lead to university. Does the Minister take comfort from that, and does she agree with Professor Alison Wolf’s observation—much applauded by the shadow Secretary of State—about the need to recognise that universities need catch-up courses?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Another point that Alison Wolf made in her report is that we need more maths students: at present, universities are 200,000 short of the number that they want.

There are real problems with our current system, which is why we need to reform it. We need a system with which universities and employers are happy, and which provides the important subject knowledge that students need.

I must tell the Minister, with respect, that I thought that the tone of her statement was wrong. It was a tad too aggressive, and unnecessarily so.

Is there not an anomaly at the heart of the Minister’s plans? She put a great deal of emphasis on the Russell Group. Does she not recognise that it is a self-selecting club and not a statutory body?

As my hon. Friend may know, there are various university bodies in operation. I have spoken to a lot of them, and also to a lot of vice-chancellors. We need a well-respected and rigorous organisation that will work with the other universities, but we also need an organisation that can hold the ring during the development of our reforms. Otherwise, confusion will be created.

I commend my hon. Friend’s proposals. They will benefit dyslexic A-level students, who are usually highly intelligent. However, will she assure me that the special arrangements governing, in particular, extra time in terminal examinations will remain?

I welcome the statement, especially its focus on rigour and the continued investment in science, technology, engineering and maths. Those subjects will be very important to Britain’s employers in the 21st century. Can the Minister reassure us, however, that as well as consulting universities on the reforms, she will consult businesses and the colleges that provide so many of the A-level courses to which she has referred?

We will certainly consult businesses. However, industries and businesses have made it clear that they respect the judgments of leading universities, because they have the academic expertise to understand what is leading-edge research and what students chiefly need to know. That is why it is so important for universities to lead this process.