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Universities: A-levels

Volume 698: debated on Monday 4 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have assessed the extent to which universities retain confidence in A-levels.

My Lords, A-levels remain the best single indicator of success at undergraduate level and continue to be central to the admissions process. The recent report by the 1994 Group of universities shows widespread welcome for changes being made to A-levels to ensure that they provide the right level of stretch and challenge for those going on to higher education. The same report was also positive about the use that universities would make of the new diplomas in admissions.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind Answer. I hope that he will not think me discourteous if I say that he is being overoptimistic. Increasingly, large numbers of senior academics have questioned the value of A-levels, especially for the more demanding academic courses. Further, many schools are changing to alternatives to A-levels; that is, the international baccalaureate and the Pre-U course. Will the Minister reassure me that my anxieties are groundless?

My Lords, all I can do is quote from the report by the universities, to which I referred in my Answer. The report was by the 1994 Group of universities, which includes Exeter, Durham, Essex, Reading, Warwick and York. In a statement at the launch of the report, Professor Steve Smith, who is vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chairman of the 1994 Group, said:

“The 1994 Group welcomes the significant steps the government has taken to reform the 14-19 curriculum. The centre-piece of this package of reform is the launch in September 2008 of the 14-19 Diplomas, alongside the introduction of the Extended Project and changes to the structure and grading of GCE A-level courses … We recognise the strong potential the diplomas offer, coupled with A-level reform and the Extended Project, to provide the stretch that is needed to demonstrate the quality of school leavers at the highest level of achievement”.

We see no reason to believe that the universities lack confidence in the current system.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the immediate needs is for the QCA and the awarding bodies to review a number of the applied A-levels so that they provide relevant, challenging and motivating courses for young people?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced in October that, based on the advice of the expert advisory group that he appointed at that time, we would bring forward for consultation our 14-to-19 qualification strategy early this year, which will include consideration of applied A-levels within the overall A-level offer.

My Lords, while I welcome what the Minister said about stretch and challenge, may I ask him all the same whether he agrees that A-levels should never have been termed the “gold standard”? Is he aware that many, good sixth-form teachers have always considered that teaching to the A-level syllabus involves a dumbing-down of sixth-form education and that, for far too many young people, the struggle to obtain, let us say, a D and an E at A-level represents a travesty of what their education might have been?

My Lords, neither I nor the current Government started calling A-levels the “gold standard”. The issue here is whether universities have confidence in them. All the evidence that we have shows that they have confidence in the existing A-level and also welcome the changes that we are making, which include reducing the number of units in A-level from six to four, the introduction of the extended projects and a new A* grade to reward best performance. We are mindful of the need to continue improving the A-level, but do not see any lack of confidence in them on the part of universities.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that great confusion exists about the wide range of school-based qualifications? There is a danger of that getting worse when the new diplomas get under way. What are the Government doing to ensure that people understand the value of the new diplomas? Will they not consider a more integrated system that can easily be understood by students, universities and employers, and will avoid closing any doors too early on any young student?

My Lords, the introduction of the diplomas will involve a rationalisation of a very large number of current qualifications. Part of the reason for bringing them in is to avoid the confusion, complexity and duplication which exist at present. The noble Baroness is right that young people need to be given the right advice in schools, which is why the role of careers and Connexions advisers is vital. However, as the diplomas are introduced—they are being introduced progressively for only a small number of students from September—we will ensure that advice on them is made available, too.

My Lords, what discussions are going on within the universities about the possibility of introducing a requirement for a qualification in a foreign language, irrespective of the degree subject to be pursued? This might be an addition to the current offers, based on A-level achievement. Would the Minister welcome such an additional requirement?

My Lords, the matriculation requirements for universities are, rightly, a matter for the universities themselves. They are not a matter for the Government.

My Lords, I think everybody understands what A-levels are and the qualifications necessary to achieve them. Does the Minister agree that we want to make sure that the general public understand any new qualification that is brought forward? Public confidence is very necessary.

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Baroness. That is precisely why, in respect of the new diploma—the substantial reform taking place in this area—the introduction is progressive and will take place over the next few years. It goes hand in hand with a big extension of careers advice and public information on the diplomas, as well as engagement with employers and the higher education world. It is vital that employers support these qualifications.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, I have long been concerned that A-levels force students into far too narrow a path. It is clear that many noble Lords agree. The majority of students getting into our top universities to study science and engineering are essentially required to study only science and maths subjects if they are to be successful in their admission. They can clearly benefit from a much broader range of subjects. Will the Minister take on board what a lot of noble Lords have said today and introduce an alternative to A-levels, and be clear about the recommendations for those alternatives, so that students have a much wider choice of subjects?

My Lords, the international baccalaureate is already available. This provides a more broadly based post-16 qualification, meeting the criteria that the noble Lord has set out. That is available at the moment in an increasing number of state schools and colleges, and within the private school sector. It is the Government’s policy that it should be available from at least one provider, be it a college or a school, in each local authority area. However, we do not believe that it is right to deprive young people of the ability to choose to study A-levels, as they can at the moment. As the noble Lord, with his immense experience of the university world, will be only too well aware, opinions in the maths and science community are by no means unanimous on this subject. There are many admissions tutors and teaching professors, including some in our top universities, who would not welcome any dilution of the concentration which sixth-form students are currently able to give to give to maths and science. That is part of the reason why there is at the moment no consensus about the move towards a more broadly based baccalaureate system post-16.