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AS-levels and A-levels

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2013

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

I wish to point out that, because of a technical problem, the clocks on the wall are one hour behind, although the clock on my desk is accurate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to raise a matter of great concern in schools, colleges and universities throughout the country. I thank my hon. Friends who have provided so much support for this debate. Some are here today, but others could not make it. I initiated this debate on the proposed changes to AS and A-levels following a letter that I received from the chairman of Hounslow secondary head teachers and signed by all secondary head teachers in my constituency. They are baffled and concerned about the proposed changes announced earlier this year.

I am sure we all want the very best education for the young people of Britain and the highest levels of participation and attainment possible for each child. However, I am greatly concerned that the proposals announced by the Government in January will be a regressive step, with participation and attainment going backwards. Under the proposals, A-levels will be linear and taken over two years, with students sitting exams at the end of the course. AS-levels will apparently remain, but will be redesigned as stand-alone qualifications, with a slightly confused proposal that they could be delivered over one year or two. AS-levels will not contribute to A-level grades.

Head teachers in my constituency of Feltham and Heston at Feltham community college, Lampton school, St Mark’s Catholic school, Rivers academy, Heston community college, Cranford community college and other schools throughout Hounslow have written to me in an unprecedented way with their concerns. They say:

“We are baffled and concerned by the proposal to shift the AS level to a standalone qualification. In its present format, the one year course leading to a more challenging A2 course enables schools to raise standards. A-level students are more seriously motivated in year 12 when they know that they are going to be externally examined at the end of the year. In our view we are going to lose that motivation from students if we have to return to internal exams at the end of year 12.”

My head teachers are not alone. The changes have been opposed by the 24 Russell Group universities and the Association of School and College Leaders, an organisation that represents more than 80% of school heads in public and private schools and which oversees an estimated 90% of A-level entries. ASCL-affiliated organisations include the Girls Schools Association and the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference. In addition, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of Colleges, the Science Council, which is made up of 39 member bodies, and the Labour party have all voiced concerns about the Government’s proposed changes to AS and A-levels.

From my discussions with the education sector, it is clear that concerns about the proposals fall within a range of areas. The first is education. Let us be clear that AS-levels are a success story. According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, the take-up of AS and A-levels has shown an upward trajectory since 2003 with more than 500,000 more AS-level certificates awarded and more than 100,000 more A-level certificates awarded last year.

My schools believe that that stepping-stone approach to building on educational attainment with choice, diversity and flexibility has kept up a love of learning, and for those who may never have expected to do A-levels or to go to university it has opened a door. They have also said to me that, instead of forcing specialisation early, keeping options open and enabling a later choice of A-level subjects has kept many pupils in post-16 education when they might otherwise have opted out.

I am following the hon. Lady’s argument closely. She referred to the increased uptake of AS and A2-levels since 2003. Will she acknowledge that the average cost to the average secondary school roughly doubled over that same period to close to £100,000 just on exam entries?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will certainly come back to cost, which has been raised as a concern about the changes. There is a suggestion of possible increased costs for schools trying to provide A-levels alongside AS-levels in a way that is not coherent.

I was talking about education reasons. We have seen increased uptake, and anecdotal evidence suggests that a contribution to the increase in A-levels being attained has been made by AS-levels being a stepping stone. Those who choose not to go on to A-levels have an option to leave at the end of the first year with an advanced qualification. It has arguably also increased the uptake of subjects such as maths, which are perceived to be tougher, because of the option to try a subject and see how it develops.

There is a strong argument for social mobility in keeping the current system. Divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is not only a poor education policy, but a poor social policy due to the removal of that stepping stone, which often gives confidence to talented pupils from poorer backgrounds to apply to a more highly selective university, helping to widen participation.

The Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference—the organisation representing leading private schools—has described the proposals as “rushed and incoherent”. The Russell Group of leading research universities said that it was “not convinced” that the change was necessary, and that it would make it harder to identify bright pupils from working-class homes. Even the Conservative Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), has questioned the proposals, suggesting that some young people could be left behind.

Leading universities oppose the Government’s plans because they will reduce confidence among young people who get good results in year 12 but may not have the confidence to go on to apply for the top universities after year 13.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is she aware that a decision has been made in Wales to retain AS-levels as a stepping stone to A-level? The vice-chancellor of Cambridge university wrote to the Welsh Education Minister on 19 March, saying:

“Your intention to retain AS examinations at the end of year 12 in Wales will put strong Welsh applicants in a good position. Year 12 exams have been shown to be a good predictor of Cambridge academic success and are taken very seriously by our selectors.”

I welcome that. Cambridge university has perhaps been one of the most prominent universities to raise concerns vocally at every level. Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge university, said:

“We are worried… that 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.”

Dr Parks warns:

“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”.

Those concerns are shared across the university sector. The Million+ group of universities said that

“this will create a two tier system”

and Universities UK said that it will affect their “ability to widen participation”.

Even more worrying is the research evidence provided by Cambridge university, which the Secretary of State for Education has chosen to ignore. In a research paper, its general admissions research working party said that AS-level grades were easily the best predictors for degree performance, proving to be a

“sound test verging on excellent”

in every subject except maths. I will return to that.

It is worrying that the Secretary of State has chosen to emasculate an exam that a top Russell Group university says provides it with the best way to judge how well a state school pupil is likely to do at university, at a time when he says he wants more state school pupils to be successful in applying. Therein lies a paradox that I hope we will be able to understand further today.

A further challenge has been put forward by the Government relating to criticisms of structure and quality. I would like to address that. There have been criticisms from the Government that exams do not have rigour. Rightly, concerns have been raised by some universities about particular subjects, such as maths, where first-year studies may well have been modified as a result to cater for the level of understanding that undergraduates are showing. However, I am told that that has been partly due to the selection of modules within the current framework, and nobody has said that it is due to the framework itself. There is no reason why we cannot have, and indeed do have, tougher modules and synoptic assessment at the end of A-levels—at the end of someone’s A2 year—which requires an understanding of earlier levels in order to do the examination. There is a lot of room for improvement if we choose to go down that road, and a wholesale change of the system would not be required.

There is a debate, which the sector has told me it is open to, about a change to the weighting of AS-levels as part of A-levels. The weighting is currently 50% and there is some discussion as to whether that could be, for example, 40/60. With the sector so open and willing to have such a conversation, it is indeed a shame that the Government have not shown willingness to work in partnership and with the expertise of those who teach our children, day in and day out. They are seasoned professionals who are keen to see our young people develop a passion for learning and leave our education system as smart young adults prepared for the world of work.

There is also a great challenge before us on coherence. Education planning needs coherence and some predictability so that standards do not suffer. The Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference called the proposals “rushed and incoherent”. It is concerned that the proposals are being driven by a

“timetable based on electoral politics rather than principles of sound implementation.”

Neil Carberry, the CBI’s director of employment and skills, said:

“Businesses want more rigorous exams but we’re concerned that these changes aren’t being linked up with other reforms… We need a more coherent overall system.”

I have had the question of costs raised with me, and perhaps the Government can respond to these points today. The changes will clearly have a cost on the sector and have hidden costs for schools. It would be helpful to know whether the Government have factored in costs for schools, whether they expect A-levels to get more expensive, and whether they expect the overall costs to be higher if schools are providing AS-levels delivered over one year and two years, and A-levels, and where the demand for that is. If providing 16-to-18 education becomes more expensive, will extra funding be provided?

Schools and colleges have raised concerns about the proposed speed of change. Many organisations have said that they are extremely concerned that the changes are going on in parallel to GCSE changes in such a short time and without any real evidence of the need for change presented. Will the Minister confirm which universities are in favour of the changes and of reducing opportunity and narrowing the range of post-16 study, and will he respond to the challenges raised by the Russell Group and Cambridge university in particular?

There is agreement about the need to change on some fronts. A mature dialogue is taking place on the need to reform, and on that, both the education sector and the Government always have to be in a mindset of continuous improvement. My head teachers write, for example:

“We accept the move for eliminating retakes at A-level.”

Prior to January’s oral statement, Ofqual had announced its decision to remove the January exams from September 2013.

Divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is poor education policy, as it is likely to reduce standards and achievement in education. It will narrow the options available to young people and undermine the value of creative subjects at a time when we should be strengthening them. Head teachers in Feltham and Heston have told me how a proposed return to the study of three A-level subjects in a very linear and constrained way will almost certainly diminish the provision and position of minority subjects, such as languages and music. For many pupils, the opportunity to study four or five subjects at AS-level broadens their learning and provides a challenge that they relish. I heard on Friday in my local area how Hounslow pupils benefit from the breadth of learning different AS-levels, even if they decide against pursuing certain subjects in year 13 or beyond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has said that evidence of what works should be what informs Government education policy. That is sound advice that the Government should listen to. It is beyond the understanding of my head teachers and many professionals why the Government are pushing through a universally unwanted change that will take our education system backwards. There is grave concern that the proposal is based on ministerial opinion and preferences, rather than solid evidence of the need to change.

At a time when we need to ensure that young people get a broad and balanced education to prepare them for the modern world of work, it is worrying that the Secretary of State is planning to narrow the education available to students. Although students currently have the option to take a subject at AS-level that contrasts with their main subjects, the Secretary of State instead wants to shackle pupils to a two-year programme, which would constrain them and their learning at an extremely formative stage of their development.

We know that we must reform our education system, but it must be the right reform. Labour supports reforms to 14-to-19 education that would deliver a curriculum and qualification system that equipped young people with the skills and knowledge to play their part in society and the economy, but these proposals will not achieve that. Labour has commissioned a review of 14-19 education to focus on raising aspirations for those who want to go to university and for the forgotten 50% who do not. Labour plans to introduce a gold-standard technical baccalaureate at age 18. As the Government’s proposed changes stand, they will take our education system backwards, not forwards. The Government’s proposals undermine the value and status of our AS-level and A-level qualifications.

I hope that the Government have the courage and wisdom to listen to the experts who oppose their proposed reforms. If the Government go that way, the changes will come into effect on the same day as their changes to exams at 16. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that for schools? What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on widening participation? Are the Government concerned that a two-tier A-level system will limit aspiration for young people in deprived areas? How will universities assess admissions? The Government claim that AS-levels are not considered, but that is not supported by many universities. What would the Government recommend as future admissions criteria? Would that include GCSEs? However, if they are to be scrapped or reformed, what next?

I close simply by saying that I and my constituents look forward to the Government’s response and to, I hope, a change of direction.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Dobbin. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to take part in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing it.

As a member of the Education Committee, I have seen the Government’s ill-thought-through and dogmatic reforms hit the brick wall of reality too many times to count, so I am not surprised that we are here again debating a set of proposed reforms that have managed to unite Cambridge university, the CBI and the teaching unions in opposition to them. I do not know whether that is a first, but it is certainly important.

Just a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Education had the good sense to ditch his ill-thought-out proposals to replace GCSEs, after realising that, apart from himself and a few Conservatives who were loyal to him, no one in the world of teaching supported what he was trying to impose on our beleaguered education system. I was pleased that the Education Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), a Conservative, could collate the evidence and demonstrate to the Secretary of State that he needed to back off.

As an aside, let me say that it would be remiss of me not to place on record my hope that the Committee’s Chairman makes a quick recovery from his skiing injuries and can soon continue his work of scrutinising the Department for Education. I am sure he is watching our proceedings on the internet as I speak, and he will know that our good wishes go to him.

There are several problems with the Government’s proposals. First, the changes will undermine the value and status of the A-level as a qualification, and it is not just me and other Opposition Members saying that. According to Cambridge university, the changes will

“jeopardise over a decade of progress towards fairer access”

to higher education—quite an indictment for any Secretary of State. Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders has been quoted as saying that his organisation is

“not convinced by the case for wholesale reform of this exam, which is a very successful qualification”.

It gets worse for the Secretary of State, with the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference calling the proposals “rushed and incoherent”.

It is worth re-emphasising some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston. My single biggest concern about the reforms relates to the loss of a system in which students can take four or even five subjects, decide which they wish to take to the higher level and ditch the others, while banking the learning they have already done. If that opportunity is taken away, we will deprive the student of choice and bind young people to decisions that they may feel were wrong. That will leave them with the option of completing work that is no longer of any use to them or, in some cases, dropping out and walking away from further education. Surely, no one wants young people to waste their precious time and the resources the state has invested in them.

I do not see how creating a two-tier system for those aged 16 to 19 helps to bring about rigour, which is supposedly the Education Secretary’s guiding mission. The director of admissions at Cambridge university is on record as saying:

“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… 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”.

Those who benefit from the existing system—particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds—tend to be from the lower end of the income scale. It is those students who will be disadvantaged by these reforms—students from deprived areas such as my constituency. I would be interested to hear what assessment has been made of the potential impact of the reforms on widening participation in higher education and whether the Minister is concerned that a two-tier A-level system will limit aspiration for young people in deprived areas.

There is also concern about which organisations will have a role in developing A-levels, with the 1994 Group of universities already feeling excluded. In a briefing note, its director of research says his group wants clarity about the role of the Russell Group in overseeing A-levels in key subjects. He says:

“Many of the leading Universities in these subjects—including some of our members—are not members of the Russell Group, and we believe that in linking excellence with one self-selecting group of Universities, DfE Ministers are perpetuating a false and damaging misperception of the sector.”

I hope the Minister will provide that clarity and confirm that development will be inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Even if these latest ideas were the right ones, there are also concerns about timing. Will the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of bringing in these reforms side by side with the many other so-called radical reforms that the Secretary of State is imposing on our schools? Glenys Stacey, the head of Ofqual has criticised the plans on the grounds that the Government’s proposed timetable is “challenging”—I think she was trying to be kind in her use of word, and I suspect she may have considered more robust language. However, she did say that introducing changes to A-levels at the same time as changes to GCSEs will

“place a considerable burden on schools”,

and my hon. Friend talked about the need for resources to help schools deal with some of that burden.

Glenys Stacey said the timetable proposed

“means that qualifications need to be in schools and colleges by autumn next year.”

I am not sure whether schools, with all the other reforms being foisted on them by the Government, are in a position to implement a second set of difficult changes in that short time scale.

We have seen before the dangers of the Education Secretary going too far and too fast with his reforms, and I would again urge caution about trying to reinvent the educational wheel. Do the Government intend to turn their back on fair admissions and widening participation? Do they want people from communities such as mine to get the same opportunities for higher education, or do they really want to revert to higher education for those from public schools and the most affluent communities, where young people get a much better start in life than they do in inner city wards such as those in my constituency? I am sure that that is not true, but the Secretary of State must realise that just as he got things badly wrong with his planned reform of GCSEs. He has gone down the wrong road with A-levels. He has failed to listen to what the professional world is saying to him, and it is time for another of his spectacular U-turns before he is caused even more embarrassment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate.

I shall not speak at length—I am sure hon. Members will be pleased. I have concerns about the separation of AS and A-levels, and about the Government’s proposals, but I would refer those issues to the voices of those who know more about those things than I do. I understand that in the recent Government consultation 77% of those who responded were against the proposals. The 24 Russell Group universities, college and school lecturers, and teachers and head teachers are all warning about not only the proposals but the time scale. My concerns are about the changes, but also their implementation in 2015 at the same time as proposed changes to GCSEs and to the school accountability system. That will put pressure not only on exam boards, teachers and colleges, but, most importantly, on young people—the students.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned about jeopardising fair access and the progress, however limited, that has been made with that, about undermining the progress of the most able students and about risks to the integrity of curriculum development from key stage 2 up to key stages 4 and 5, and beyond. However, in the short remarks that I will make today, I want to draw on the work of the Select Committee on Education. We recently carried out a quite detailed inquiry into what happened with the changes to GCSE English in 2012. I shall not go into the details today, because a report may be published in due course, but I want to take the opportunity to impress on the Minister the importance of learning lessons from what happened.

The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) probably made the most useful contribution to the inquiry when he said that we do our young people no favours when we refuse to listen to the voices of warning. Those voices were crying out to us long before the changes in 2012; we simply did not listen. Because they were not what politicians wanted to hear, they were ignored. We therefore reached the awful situation in which hundreds of thousands of young people did exactly what they were told they needed to do to get the qualifications that were so important to them, but failed to gain what was promised to them.

The proposals have been called rushed and incoherent by those whom the Government should listen to. I accept that there is a need for regular change and reform in the education system—I endorse that view. We need constant reform and change, not least because, whatever we put in place, teachers are very clever and will find a way to game it. The Department must constantly move, change and reform. However, we very often hear the Secretary of State telling us that he believes in the changes. He talks about his belief, and no one can deny that he has conviction; but such important changes should be based not on belief but on evidence, and, so far, whether in the debate or in any of the papers that I have looked at, I have found no sound evidence to serve as a basis for the Secretary of State’s proposals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this important and timely debate.

Following the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), the issue in question is how we provide a framework to support schools and colleges to get the best for our young people. Everyone would sign up to that aim; the dispute is about how. I want to focus on the Government’s intention to divorce AS-levels from A-levels. Having worked in post-16 education for 30 years, I fear that that would be a very retrograde step and would do lasting damage to the education of students in key stage 5. I am not surprised that, as my hon. Friend said, the Government’s extensive consultation showed that 77% of consultees were against going down that route. The people who were consulted know what they are talking about. Their responses were driven by experience and evidence, rather than dogma and belief.

If the divorce goes ahead, we are likely to return to the worst aspects of A-levels prior to 2000: a much narrower curriculum, where a significant number of students committed to a two-year programme, but came away with nothing. That was a scandal. Since 2000, there has been much progress in the right direction. That does not mean, as my hon. Friend said, that there is no need for continued change and reform; it means that it needs to happen in a framework of stability if we are to get the best for our young people from what those who work in education can provide.

Young people are very fluid in their choices. One of the traditional features of our post-16 education compared with that of some of our most successful global competitors is its narrowness. Asking a young person to focus on just three subjects at A-level means they must specialise early and jettison areas of interest.

I talked yesterday to a teacher whose son, Joseph, went to a state school. Had the current proposals been in place he would have taken English as his AS-level rather than A-level, but he is now studying English at Oxford. That never would have happened if the choices had been narrowed, as is suggested, at the age of 16.

It is difficult for us to understand how young people are at 16, and how much they are exploring their way in the world. That is a good thing, and one of the things that we should do is to provide a framework that helps them to make the right choices. Sometimes, allowing them a little more choice and flexibility—25% more subjects post-16—enables them to choose differently according to their experience. At 17, they are much more mature than at 16. People mature at different rates, too. I am not surprised by the story about someone taking A-level English as the fourth choice—English in that example could be replaced by any subject—and at the end of the period of post-16 study going on to study it, or a subject that it significantly underpins, at university, or indeed going into employment related to it. That is not unusual in my experience of working day in, day out, for 30-odd years, with 16 to 19-year-olds. It has been a familiar story since 2000.

Before 2000, people did not have that flexibility and choice. The curriculum was far less able to get the best out of young people. The dramatic change brought about by Curriculum 2000 allowed youngsters to continue with a broader programme and delay the final specialisation until the end of year 12. That meant that those advising students could encourage them to take more risks—to stick with physics as well as music alongside their maths and geography, keeping their options open longer, or encouraging them to do a modern foreign language for another year. What students would chose to focus on at the end of year 12 was often different from what they might have focused on at the end of year 11. People who have not worked with 16 to 18-year-olds, as I have for many years, might be surprised at how much young people mature in their first year of post-16 education, and how much their focus can change after they have been informed by another year’s study and another year’s consideration of what they intend to do next.

The current system allows students to choose four subjects at AS-level before specialising in three at A-level or taking all four through to full A-levels. There is a significant jump in difficulty from GCSE to A-level, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has indicated, and the AS has assisted students so that they can choose a broader range of subjects before specialising in year 13. Denying students that choice risks denying them the opportunity to discover a particular aptitude or passion for subject areas in which they previously had less confidence and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has indicated, it is liable most negatively to affect students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are most likely to be less confident.

My understanding of the Government’s current plans—and they are fluid, rather like a young person’s—is that although they will allow the content of the AS to be within the A-level initially, they intend, once the change is embedded, that A-levels and AS-levels will have distinct content, as they did pre-2000. If that is the case, it will be uneconomical for AS-levels to be taught and they will wither on the vine, because it will no longer be possible to co-teach them in the same class as A-levels. That is significant, because the pre-2000 history of AS-levels shows they never really got much traction.

The removal of AS as a stepping-stone qualification will almost certainly reduce the uptake of subjects that are regarded as relatively harder at A-level than at GCSE, and I suspect that there will be an impact on languages and mathematics in particular. Without validation at the stepping stone point, less confident students are likely to be discouraged from embarking on the A-level. With validation, there is less risk to the individual, who can always bank an AS at the end of one year and focus on their other three subjects at A-level.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, extremely experienced in and knowledgeable about these matters, but does he know of evidence that suggests that the fourth AS-level tends to be a hard subject rather than one of the subjects that some people would consider to be less hard? Or is it the opposite?

For a start, when we are dealing with young people, we are dealing with a collection of individual choices. In my experience, as someone who has spent a lot of time advising young people and encouraging them to make choices, if they are focusing on three subjects, languages are often vulnerable to not being tried. What turns out to be someone’s fourth subject—the one they drop down to AS—might not have been their fourth subject when they picked it. We can play around with statistics, but what is important is the impact on the young person at the point of choice, when they decide on their post-16 programme. Being able to do four AS-levels and then either take all four through to full A-levels or to bank one, increases the flexibility of choice, minimises risk and encourages people to take subjects that would be beneficial to them—mathematics, for instance.

My hon. Friend knows what he is talking about, and the Association of Colleges backs what he says. In the briefing for this debate the association states that

“the removal of the AS as a stepping-stone may well reduce the take-up of subjects which are regarded as significantly harder at A-level than at GCSE,”

in particular,

“maths and modern languages.”

The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is nothing if not persistent in asking questions that it is right and proper to ask and to answer, but evidence in this area is complex, as I hope I have illustrated.

When the Secretary of State says that he will divorce AS-levels from A-levels, but will retain AS-levels because he is “keen to preserve” breadth, he demonstrates that he is a master of irony. All the evidence of the past—and of the present—is that that will do exactly the opposite. The change will map on to the narrowing of the curriculum being driven forward by the EBacc in key stage 4, and with the focus on facilitating subjects post-16, it will ensure that the UK moves backwards, to pursue a narrow curriculum prescribed by a nanny-state Government who know best. The Minister shakes his head, but in reality the proposal is about the imposition of a centralised curriculum, compared with the move towards the personalisation of the curriculum over the past few years, which takes the individual forward, within a proper framework, in a direction that drives achievement and progression. It is a personalised curriculum that has been building the success fit for competing in the modern world, and that is what we really need.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a narrowing of opportunity would have an impact on the life chances of many of our young people? It would, I am sure, be unintended, but it would be a consequence of the proposed changes.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and therein lies the real risk. My fear is that we have a series of changes—and divorcing the AS from the A-level is a significant one—that will increase student failure and make the UK less ready to compete globally. We will rue the day if the Government do not think carefully and consider the evidence that is presented to them. For example, David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, wrote to the Secretary of State:

“Our curriculum leaders, and the clear majority of teaching professionals and college and school leaders believe that the AS qualification should be retained in its current form. We also believe AS has the support of a very large number of academics and admission tutors”.

Of 780,000 A-level entries, 439,000 were in sixth-form colleges, so such people know what they are talking about.

The Secretary of State rightly sets great store by the needs of the Russell Group universities. They are great universities, of which we are rightly proud, but they hardly struggle to recruit or compete. That is a good thing, but focusing on their needs to the detriment of everyone else’s might not only be flattering—and embarrassing —to them but might be trying to fix a problem that does not exist. Out of more than 300 institutions listed by UCAS, only 24 are Russell Group universities, and all those institutions and their students matter to UK plc.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the meetings that he, I, and others in the Chamber attended, in which we met representatives of some of those universities who did not seem to think that there was a problem that did not exist?

I do not recall their outlining a problem that does exist, and certainly not one that would be solved by the proposal. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has already mentioned the serious concerns of Cambridge university about the impact of the change.

I thank my hon. Friend for being extremely generous in giving way again. Does he agree that the Secretary of State’s original claim that the university of Cambridge backed his reform plans backfired when a petition was handed in to his Department, signed by 1,600 students and faculty members who were saying no to the proposals and disputing the fact that they had supported him? When students and faculty send the same message, it is a strong message.

My hon. Friend makes the point for me. Indeed, all those students and staff related to the university of Cambridge make the point for her and for themselves. I think that the Minister is listening today, and I hope that it is active listening so that we can get a better outcome for young people.

If my hon. Friend is right that the Secretary of State has claimed that, it is very odd, because Cambridge university, in a letter from Dr Geoff Parks, the director of admissions, wrote to him on 12 July 2010:

“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.”

That was in July 2010.

Cambridge university’s points are very much on the record. I am sure that we are all listening and will want to take them into account as policy is driven forward.

Universities UK has drawn attention to the importance of AS-level grades as criteria in the admissions process, and stated that that is particularly important for the most selective institutions and for courses with a large proportion of applicants with very similar predicted A-level grades, which is a practical reason for AS-levels to remain. It has concerns about the impact on widening participation, both because without AS-level grades an increased emphasis on more subjective measures is likely—such as predicted grades and school references that might disadvantage some applicant groups—and because AS-level grades can boost confidence in candidates from low participation backgrounds. I have certainly seen the impact of grades boosting confidence and aspiration at the end of the first year, so I think that Universities UK is on to something. It also thinks that the removal of AS-levels as a stepping stone towards full A-levels may result in students being less likely to take risks with subjects that are perceived to be hard. It lists sciences, in addition to languages and maths, which I have already mentioned, so it is on the same page as me.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has said a great deal about the changes to GCSEs and to AS and A-levels coming in at the same time in 2015. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) drew attention to Glenys Stacey’s letter, in which she says that that will be

“challenging for exam boards and for Ofqual.”

It will also be challenging for schools, colleges, teachers and young people themselves. It may well be best for the Government to think about the students taking the new A-level for the first time who, after all, will have done the old GCSE. It is important to see curriculum progression so that one qualification leads to another. Where there is a dislocation in qualifications, there is a real danger that young people will fall through the gaps, and nobody wishes that to happen.

The points about bringing all the changes in at the same time have been well made. I know, from having led a college for many years, that the need to use resources to prepare new courses, teaching methods and the curriculum is a massive ask of institutions. It is an appropriate ask of institutions, but for all that to happen at exactly the same time would mean that the challenge was at its highest. It is what we might wish, but not how we would normally plan future programmes to get the best out project: this is really a project planning issue.

I have mentioned most of the things I wished to mention, but I want to come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, who alluded to the fact that the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) had said that it is important to listen to the siren voices. It is better to listen to them when they are there than to hit the rocks, frankly, and I hope that the Minister and the Government are so listening.

I will close by quoting Toni Pearce, the newly elected president of the National Union of Students. She will be the first NUS president from a further education rather than a higher education background, so I am sure everyone here wants to congratulate her. We will answer want to listen to her voice, because she comes from the sector that is experiencing the post-16 environment. She said that the Secretary of State’s

“proposed AS-Level and A Level reforms are entirely misguided, and would risk greatly undermining fair access to A Levels, to higher education and to other further education qualifications. The idea that the Russell Group which represents a small group of very particular universities should be given particular prominence in determining the make-up of these qualifications is nonsensical, and is opposed even by institutions that they represent. When it comes to these muddled proposals, Michael Gove could really benefit from a re-sit.”

Let us hope that he is re-sitting and listening, and that he does not hit the rocks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate. You pointed out at the beginning that the clock is an hour behind, and it is probably appropriate to our debate on education policy that the clock has been turned back, because that is exactly what is happening in what we are discussing. [Interruption.] I remind the Minister for Schools that the best humour is always recycled.

As someone who sat A-levels, like most people in this room, and who has taught and marked A-levels and set an A-level examination syllabus, I could say a lot of things and make many general points about A-levels and their history. Those points include those made today about the Government’s reforms, such as the speed of change and the political timetable—that was the phrase of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, I think, not mine—that they are being driven to.

There is the point about not reforming all A-levels at the same time, which is a ludicrous thing to do. The Government should take the time to do it properly and in all subjects, not have a two-tier approach to reform. Ofqual has leavened that a little by introducing a few more subjects, including one of the two subjects that I used to teach at A-level—economics—in which the Minister for Schools has a double first from Cambridge university. They have been added to the list, but nevertheless there is still a two-tier process in the reforms of A-levels, which is ludicrous.

There is the fixation on core subjects, and the lack of focus in the proposals on those not progressing to university. The Government seem to assume that A-levels exist only for the purpose of getting into university, which is of course a parody of the reality. That may be the experience of 100% of Ministers, but not the experience of 100% of youngsters sitting A-levels in the country, to which we might have thought that Ministers would pay some attention.

There is the elbowing out of non-Russell Group universities. It seems to me that the Government are almost trying to create a tier of polytechnics—ironically, since the Conservatives abolished them, they now seem to be absolutely determined to have a first division red-brick and sandstone university sector and a polytechnic sector. Why do they not just rename them polytechnics, if that is the Government’s real intention and what they are about?

There is the silly attitude towards methods of assessment. It is an absolutely daft attitude to think that all the different subjects, knowledge and skills—believe it or not—that are required to pass A-levels can be assessed in final examinations. There is the silly interference with question design by Ministers, which is absolutely ludicrous. Anyone who had taught in a classroom for one minute, even at A-level, would know that there is a wide range of mixed abilities among students taking A-levels. Getting them into the exam so that they can show what they know is also important: as well as supplying stretch to the most able, a way into the examination has to be supplied for many students.

There are also all the resulting timetabling issues—obviously, none of the Ministers has tried to write or put together a timetable—and the proposals are absolutely ludicrous. Everybody in the profession is telling them that, but they are not listening. I could go on and on, but I want to focus on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), once I have congratulated my hon. Friends the Member for Feltham and Heston, for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on their speeches, and congratulated the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who did not venture a speech, but has made some intelligent interjections to help us along in the debate.

I want to focus on the AS-level. It is only fair at the outset to make it clear that we regard the decision to divorce AS-levels from A-levels as one of the least evidence-based, most captious and casually damaging decisions that the Secretary of State for Education has taken so far. It is therefore only fair clearly to signal to everyone here and to the education world that we will not implement it. We will re-couple AS-levels and A-levels in September 2015, after the next general election.

Nobody outside the bunker in Sanctuary buildings thinks that divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is a good idea. I doubt whether even the part-time Minister for Schools—he does not have exams or the curriculum on his list of responsibilities but is here today because the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is away on a foreign trip—thinks that it is a good idea, although he will tell us that it is because he has to perform his role as the Secretary of State’s flexible friend. I cannot really believe that he genuinely thinks that that is the case, but while we have him here, I ask him to listen and to look again at the decision that has been taken.

When the Under-Secretary announced the measure in the House, she tried to give the impression that she had support for the divorce. When I pointed out to her that she did not, she grandstanded, and tried to give the impression that she had the support of the Russell Group universities. Let me remind Members what the group actually said:

“The current AS-level provides a useful indicator of progress, which is invaluable for university admissions. We worry that without these results universities will have to place more emphasis on A-level predicted grades—of which more than half are wrong— school references or older GCSE grades. From our experience these are less reliable and would unduly prejudice disadvantaged students who receive less help when applying to university.”

Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that that is exactly what the 1994 Group and Universities UK have said. As I pointed out to the Under-Secretary at the time, the most trenchant opposition to these proposals came from not the Labour party, the National Union of Teachers or even from the “The Blob”, as the Secretary of State likes to refer to those educationists who study these subjects and spend their time doing research into education matters, but the admissions tutors in the university of Cambridge.

The Minister will be aware that, as long ago as July 2010, Cambridge university’s director of admissions, Geoff Parks, wrote to the Secretary of State, warning him that he could lose many gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that had been made in the past decade. He went on to add that it was no coincidence that

“our utilisation of AS scores as a core component of admissions decisions has been accompanied by a noticeable reduction in the number of complaints we have received from schools and colleges about the fairness of our selection process. The same period has also seen marked improvement in Cambridge examination performance.”

So it is good for students; good for fair access and good for Cambridge university, according to the admissions tutors, but what do they know?

The Minister will also be aware of the research that was undertaken by the Cambridge university general admission research working party, which found that AS-level grades were easily the best predictions for degree performance, proving to be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston said, “sound verging on excellent”, and that was in every subject, bar maths, where the sixth term examination paper was better.

It is not surprising that 40 Cambridge admissions tutors signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph, which was published on 30 January, a week after the announcement was made, calling for the reversal of the decision. In their letter, they said:

“Good results give students from all backgrounds the confidence to compete for a place at highly selective universities, including our own. They reduce reliance upon grade predictions and enable schools to hold the line in the face of pressure to raise predicted grades unrealistically.”

Anyone who has ever taught in a sixth form or college will be aware of the pressure from pupils and parents to raise A-level grade predictions. It is sometimes difficult for teachers to hold the line, which might be why those predictions are not always particularly accurate, as the Government’s own studies have shown. They are particularly inaccurate about those from less affluent backgrounds or ethnic minorities. Heavy pressure is often put on teachers in relation to predicted grades. With the AS-level, there is no argument. There is a public examination, which is externally assessed, marked and a grade awarded.

The admissions tutors finished that letter to The Daily Telegraph by saying:

“If AS levels disappear, university entry will become less fair.”

They were referring to the divorcing of the AS-level from the A-level.

Given that my hon. Friend has stated so clearly the value of this benchmark, can he see any reason for getting rid of it?

Apart from the strange explanations that we get from Ministers about trying to free up some time for people to do other things in year 12, the only reason that I have heard is that it relates to the experience of the Ministers in the Department and that they want to go back to the good old days when four out of five of them were in private school doing their A-levels. Perhaps they think, “It was good enough for me; why shouldn’t it be good enough for everyone else?” If that is what they are doing, they are ignoring the evidence.

I challenge the Minister today as someone who says that he is committed to fairness, who is a Liberal Democrat Minister, who has enjoyed the privilege of a fee-paying education and a Cambridge university education and who claims to be committed to social justice. How can he defend this policy in the light of the clear and thoroughly researched evidence that it will result in university entry becoming less fair?

We must be a little bit careful with this widening participation and access argument. Although it is undeniably true that many more young people have gone to university in the past 10 years, the figures show that the intake of the most selective universities has changed very little by comparison. Of course it is a very good thing that more young people have gone to those universities, but we must not confuse the two things and say that AS-levels have been a force that has made Cambridge university much more open.

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Cambridge has been the university that has most used AS-levels to bring about widening access. It can show that it has widened access as a result of them in the past 10 years. If he wants to challenge the admissions tutors on the claim that they have successfully widened access through the use of AS-levels, he is free to do so. They are absolutely clear about it and say that if AS-levels disappear, university entry will become less fair. The Minister must answer that point. So far, Ministers have failed to answer it, or to explain why they are persisting with the policy.

In any case, the Government accept that Cambridge is right, and presumably that the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the National Union of Students, the teachers and head teachers associations and we, God forbid, are right about the usefulness of AS-levels. Nevertheless, the Government will proceed with the damaging and unnecessary divorce of AS-levels from A-levels. Like the EBacc certificates, no one supports the move. The Government quite rightly abandoned their proposals on the EBacc. The Minister might well have had an influence on that decision. Who knows? It happened to coincide with his appointment to the Department. As I said earlier, we will not proceed with the divorce of the AS-level from the A-level, and everyone should be aware of that.

We have had people with huge expertise coming to us and saying that this is the wrong thing to do. The only other area where we have seen such an overwhelming objection has been to the proposed changes to GCSEs. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, because the Government ultimately took the right decision in that area.

My hon. Friend is right. The Secretary of State has had to issue a direction to Ofqual in relation to this proposal, because everyone thinks that it is nonsense, and it was confirmed in parliamentary answers to me that he had to issue a direction. On 31 January, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask what assessment Ministers had made of the recent Cambridge university admissions research working party study of AS-level as a predictor, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk, said that she had “reflected on” the study. So, she had reflected on it and she agreed that AS-levels were

“a useful aid for university admissions”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 887W.]

So the Government agree with everybody that AS-levels are a “useful aid” for admissions. They know what the research is, and they have reflected on it.

In the spirit of reflection, I was reflecting myself on the list of organisations that my hon. Friend gave that are opposed to these changes. Does he agree that it is quite staggering and quite concerning that no real evidence has been put forward for this change?

I might have found it staggering some time ago; I am afraid that I no longer find it staggering when the Department for Education proposes major changes for which there is no evidence. However, I should retain my surprise at its happening, because it is staggering when something is introduced simply because the Secretary of State believes—on a whim—that it ought to happen and when there is no evidence that it should happen, despite the fact that I am sure that he has layers and layers of submissions from his civil servants that point out the opposition to the proposals. But he does not listen to his civil servants; I am afraid that he only listens to his odious special advisers on education policy, and that is possibly the reason why the Government are proceeding with this change.

The Minister for Schools has a chance to do what is right, to go to the Secretary of State and to reflect a little himself on these proposals; he should speak to the Secretary of State and try to make him listen to the evidence and see reason. If the Secretary of State will not listen to that evidence or to the Minister, perhaps the only person that he will listen to is himself, because back in 2010 he made it clear to Ofqual that, to quote from Ofqual’s briefing, he wanted A-levels to serve their purpose as

“one of the selection tools used by HE”—

that is, by higher education—

“to identify the most suitable and best students for their courses”.

We know that the AS-level is the best exam tool to serve that purpose; at least, that is what the evidence shows. It should be used more, not less, for that purpose and yet the Secretary of State is determined to discard it. We will not discard it, and he should not discard it.

Before I call the Minister, I inform Members who have just joined us that we will finish this debate at 4.25 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate and on putting her case so clearly and in such a measured way. I am also pleased that we have had useful and helpful contributions from a number of other Members, including members of the Education Committee.

A lot of the contributions have pointed out that some of the proposals that we are discussing are controversial, and clearly they are. We are aware of a lot of the feedback that has come in from different organisations. Sometimes when Governments go out to consultation on particular proposals, they realise that they have made mistakes and they change the proposals. As a number of Members have indicated, we did that on the reforms to GCSEs that we had proposed, but I should say to those Members who have at times today suggested that popularity is the benchmark for introducing policies and the ultimate test that there are many other examples of changes in education and in other Government policy areas where proposals were extremely controversial at the time—I am thinking of key stage 2 national tests, the introduction of Ofsted and sponsored academies—and not welcomed by many in the relevant sector when they were introduced that have proven to be generally very successful and which are now welcomed. The consensus changes.

If we wanted an example of what happens when policy is introduced just on the basis of what is popular with the sector, we have Wales to look at. Wales has introduced, over time, many policies that were extremely popular in the sector, but which have proven, in many cases, to do huge damage to the quality of education in Wales. That is now widely and internationally recognised.

Does the Minister accept that although those controversial reforms that he mentioned, such as the introduction of Ofsted and key stage 2 tests, may have been unpopular with some people working in education, there was nevertheless a body of evidence to support their introduction? Therefore, although they were perhaps controversial, there was huge evidence behind them, and they have subsequently proven the evidence.

That was not said by many of the opponents of those proposals at the time. Actually, many opponents, including to sponsored academies, continue to maintain today that there is no evidence to show the success of those policies, so I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the issue is as simple as that.

If I may, I will make a little progress and then give way to the hon. Lady. I want to ensure that I get my speech under way.

As the key qualification for progression to university and as a key end-of-school qualification in and of its own right, A-levels have to be robust and to be rigorous, as was pointed out earlier. They need to compare well with the best qualifications internationally; they need to help our young people to compete with students from other countries for university places in the UK and abroad; they need to give pupils the best possible preparation for further study, teaching the core knowledge and skills that young people need to make the most of an undergraduate course; and they need to be—as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the shadow Schools Minister, indicated earlier—strong qualifications in their own right, providing test and challenge at the end of the school or college experience.

Our reforms for 16-to-18 education build on the reforms that we are making to the national curriculum, secondary accountability and GCSEs. Our proposals in those areas, which are out for consultation until 1 May, are to publish an average point score measure and a value-added progress measure covering English and mathematics, three of the EBacc subjects and three additional slots for other subjects that can be academic, arts or vocational qualifications. As the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston will know, the progress measure will be part of the floor standard. Those reforms will place a strong focus on English and maths while ensuring that students have a rounded knowledge of sciences, languages, humanities and the arts. There will also be a stronger emphasis on computer science and programming.

Our reforms of A-levels are designed to build on that strong base. We want to give students a better experience of post-16 study, ensuring they are studying for rigorous qualifications that will provide them with the right skills and knowledge to allow them to progress. Students currently start A-levels in September and then they immediately start preparing for examinations in January. They and their teachers have spent too much time thinking about exams and re-sitting them, encouraging in some cases a “learn and forget” approach. A student taking A-level maths would need to sit six exams: three papers for their AS-level, and three for their A2. The old rules allowed multiple re-sitting of those papers, so a student might sit some papers in January, and if they wanted to improve their grades they could re-sit them in June and again the following year, while sitting and then re-sitting their A2 papers. In 2010, 74% of maths A-level students re-sat at least one paper.

During the past few years, too many students in our schools system have spent too long preparing for and taking tests in years 10, 11, 12 and 13. During the past decade, we have been in danger of creating an “exam factory” in our schools, particularly in the last four years of education, rather than creating places of deep learning where teachers and students are given the time and space to develop deep knowledge of subjects, rather than just preparing constantly for public examinations. That is one of the key reasons why the Government are making the changes that we are debating today.

The focus that there has been on exams in every one of those final four years of school education can lead to young people failing to deliver and develop that deep understanding of their subject, and to their failing to make connections between topics. Re-sits have also led to too much teaching time being sacrificed for assessment preparation. Research—hon. Members have said that they are keen on it—from Durham university and Cambridge Assessment suggests that repeated opportunities for students to re-sit exams have also risked a form of grade inflation. This is why our reforms to A-levels are so important. Ofqual announced the first stage of the reforms last autumn by removing the January exam window, which will reduce the number of re-sits, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston said.

The Minister makes some valid points, which I also referred to, about ways in which we might reform, such as reducing re-sits, which may have contributed to grade inflation, but does he not agree that those changes—those improvements—can take place within the current framework and that the de-coupling of AS-levels and A-levels is not required to achieve those improvements?

Some of those changes clearly could take place without the additional measures that we are taking, but we believe, for the reasons that I am giving, and will continue to give, that they would not by themselves go far enough. That is why we announced earlier this year that from 2015 we would return to linear A-levels, with examinations taking place at the end of the two-year course. Linear A-levels will free up time for teachers to focus on what teachers do best, which is providing high-quality teaching, developing their students’ deep understanding and love of a subject, and ensuring, therefore, that the final two years of education are about not simply public examinations and test preparation, but doing what our education system is designed to do, which is educating young people in these key subjects.

I would like to make more progress and then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Some have claimed that the introduction of linear A-levels will have a negative impact on the social mobility agenda. If that was going to be the case, this Government, and certainly my party, would have no truck with these changes. Creating a more socially mobile society and education system is crucial. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) made extremely well was that, listening to and talking about the criticisms from some in the education system, including from Cambridge university, people would think that we had an ideal system for social mobility today in universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. Actually, the proportion of young people from private schools and selective state schools in those institutions remains, in our view, unacceptably high. That model is not delivering social mobility.

Contrary to the claims I have mentioned, linear A-levels will allow young people to develop greater intellectual maturity through a two-year course. Some students may not have developed the skills that they need to excel in an exam in the first year of their A-level course, particularly those who may have had less support at school and home to develop independent study skills. A two-year course will allow all students progressively to develop the skills they need to be successful at university and to demonstrate their abilities through exams at the end of two years. We will also do more to target high-achieving sixth formers, in terms of the social mobility agenda, to ensure that they are fully aware of the higher education opportunities that should be open to them in all universities, including some of the best in the country. We will ensure that they are supported in exploring those options.

The crucial thing about a strategy for social mobility through the education system is not to think that we can solve the massive injustices in access to our education system through tweaking the admissions process at age 17 or 18. All the international evidence demonstrates that, in an education system with massive gaps between the outcomes for young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, which are already visible at ages five, 11 and 16, as we have had in this country for far too long, reducing those gaps through the measures that we are taking to intervene in weak schools—including policies such as the pupil premium, for example, which will target more money for the education of disadvantaged youngsters—will help us to make a step change in social mobility in this country. Those are far more important than the issues that we have been debating today.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I find his contribution somewhat naive and a little complacent. I am pleased that he recognises that teachers are doing what they do best in helping youngsters learn, but that is what they are doing now. They do not need changes to assist them in that job, which they are doing extremely well.

Will the Minister focus on the key issue that has come up consistently in this debate—hon. Members agree with much of what he has already said—which is the significant detrimental effect of AS-levels being divorced from A-levels, which will result if the Government continue ploughing on with that ill-conceived policy?

I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point directly. May I first say, somewhat gently, that it is naive and complacent to think that the issue that we are discussing—whether universities rely on AS-level grades, predicted grades or GCSE grades—has any central role to play in challenging the massive inequalities of opportunity in our education system today. It is a tiny issue, compared with the huge gaps that are emerging at ages five, 11 and 16. All the evidence, which hon. Members have been urging the Government to use and pay attention to, demonstrates that our social mobility problems are about the inequalities of outcome at those ages, not what is happening with university admissions.

I will make more progress before giving way again to the hon. Lady.

Some critics of the linear A-level have cited a link between the introduction of modular A-levels as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West, the shadow Schools Minister, mentioned earlier, and widening participation in higher education. However, the major increase in HE participation took place in the early 1990s, before the introduction of modular A-levels in 2000. Universities continue to work hard to widen participation and ensure they are opening their doors to students from all backgrounds, and I am confident that they will keep doing so when the new linear A-levels are introduced. Indeed, in many cases they need to do much more to offer those opportunities to young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government intend to work in partnership with some of the universities, particularly those that have poor rates of access, to try to target those youngsters who should be gaining access to some of our best universities, but are not doing so.

Making the A-level linear does, of course, have implications—the hon. Gentleman raised this point earlier—for the current AS qualification. My ministerial colleagues and officials have been talking to and working with school and college leaders and universities to understand precisely the concerns that he set out so clearly to ensure that we can address them.

As we move to fully linear A-levels with exams at the end of the two-year course, the AS-level will remain as a qualification in its own right. It will continue to be available as a stand-alone qualification to be taught over either one year or two years, but the marks from it will obviously no longer count towards the A-level. Longer term, our ambition is to develop a brand new AS qualification that is at the same level of challenge as a full A-level, but for the time being that is for the future.

From 2015, the AS-level will be decoupled as a stand-alone, linear qualification and will remain at the same level of challenge as existing AS qualifications. That means that schools and colleges can decide whether to teach the AS-level over one year or two years. If schools and colleges decide to teach the AS in any given subject in one year, that would give them the opportunity, which I think the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was seeking—it is a valid concern—to co-teach the AS and the new A-level together, if that meets the needs of the students and if it is a sensible way for those institutions to ensure that they can deliver education for all young people who want to access both A-levels and the AS.

We want to preserve the AS so that students can study a fourth subject in addition to their full A-levels. We know that universities consider the AS a valuable qualification to provide that breadth, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. We also know that some universities use the AS in their admissions processes, although most place more emphasis on GCSE results and predicted A-level grades, as well as looking at a range of other information, including personal statements, academic references and, in some cases, admissions tests and interviews.

I will make this one point before giving way.

Most universities do not use AS results as the main basis for making those decisions. Indeed, in some subjects GCSE results can provide a better prediction of degree results across all universities than AS results. Students who have very good GCSE results from schools where the general pattern is for below-average GCSE attainment also have real potential to progress at university.

If the Minister continues with his proposals, AS-levels will be available for universities to use as evidence in only one subject, instead of all the subjects that the young person is studying. Although we could do with more research, he knows that there is powerful research evidence that suggests that AS-level is in fact the best predictor of how young people will do at university. [Interruption.] He can shake his head, but his own university’s research suggests that AS-levels are the best predictor—far better than GCSEs, and far better even than university admissions tests. I have the research here. I thought he had read it, but obviously he has not.

I repeat the point I have just made: the majority of universities do not use AS-levels as the main basis for making such decisions. Indeed, we know that, in some subjects, GCSE results provide a better prediction of degree results across all universities than AS results.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. He says that most universities do not use AS-level results as the main basis, but that does not mean that most do not use them as a key part of their decision making. Does he not agree that taking away AS-level results at that moment would take away something that is seen as a vital indicator of how well pupils are doing, particularly pupils from state schools or disadvantaged backgrounds?

No, our judgment is that, if we get education right earlier on, which is the critical stage for delivering the social mobility that the hon. Lady and I want, it should be perfectly possible for universities to make such judgments without a loss from the removal of the AS-level. Some universities may have to adjust how they handle admissions. A-levels, however, are not simply mechanisms to help universities to sort students. The most important priority is to develop A-levels that secure the best possible educational outcomes for young people. Earlier, the shadow Minister said that A-levels are not simply to be structured around the needs of university access. They form a far wider purpose than that.

It will continue to be as important as ever that students from all backgrounds have the information they need to make the right choices about higher education based on teachers’ assessments of their progress, as well as formal examination results. School is the best place to monitor students’ progress and to help them understand the attainment they are working at and aiming for.

A-levels must be high quality, and they must change over time to keep up with world standards. Universities, the bodies that once set up examination boards themselves, are not as core a part of the process of qualification development as they once were. A good way for A-levels to keep up with the challenges of the global marketplace in qualifications is to respond to what universities are looking for. Independent learning and critical thinking are vital skills that A-levels must continue to develop.

We believe that losing touch with universities has meant that A-levels have not always been a suitable preparation for those embarking on degrees in some subjects. Indeed, many private schools offer different courses, such as sixth-term examination papers and the Cambridge pre-U, for those purposes. A-level reform is vital to ensure that all students, whether in the state sector or the private sector, have the best possible skills and knowledge to enable them to compete effectively. That is why the Government are giving universities a greater role in the development of A-levels. Awarding organisations will work with universities to determine the content of the new A-levels, and we are delighted that the Russell Group will be part of that. We also welcome contributions from other universities, as a number of hon. Members have indicated. We expect that the first new A-levels will be developed for teaching to begin in September 2015, with the first exams to be sat in 2017. Each year, Ofqual will also lead a post-qualification review process involving the Russell Group.

We can be confident from the way Ofqual has exercised its functions over the past few years that it will give us the independent and impartial advice that we need to make the right decisions and to develop an A-level system that is fit for purpose—not just for university entry, but for educating young people in the critical years of their lives.