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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Angela Smith.]

10.42 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise AS-levels. Before doing so, I must welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), as this is his first appearance at the Dispatch Box after a well-deserved promotion. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in wishing him well.

This subject is of great interest to pupils, parents and teachers--especially the thousands of pupils who have just taken AS-levels and the thousands who will commence studies later this year for next year's AS-level examinations. I declare something of an interest as the parent of a child who has just worked hard for her GCSE examinations and who is awaiting her results before, we hope, starting four AS-levels next year. Like many thousands of parents, I am waiting for my child to commence a course that will lead to examinations that have generated a wave of criticism from the pupils who have just taken them.

My key skills in technology do not go very far, but one does not have to go far on the internet to find out what this year's AS-level students have to say about the exams. For example, Carolyn Briars--a pupil who has just taken her AS-levels--placed her views on the electronic internet for schools via the electronic telegraph. I am sure that she spoke for many others when she said:

Her comments are echoed by many others, including the widely respected John Clare, who says:

Those sentiments are finding an echo in classrooms, staff rooms and households throughout the country, and they are widely held in my constituency, as revealed by a survey that I conducted of several schools in Hertsmere. There was significant criticism of the way in which AS-levels were administered in their first year--there were a number of teething troubles, to say the least--but the survey revealed that the criticism goes beyond the details of administration and introduction.

In schools' criticisms of AS-levels, some themes recur repeatedly. In particular, first, many heads feel that the introduction of AS-levels means that pupils will be over-assessed. Public examinations at ages 16, 17 and 18 are too much. Secondly, a common complaint--it figures in almost all the reports that one reads--is that AS-levels have been introduced at the expense of extra-curricular activities. Schools throughout the country, including those in my constituency, are saying that because, as we all know, the lower sixth is a particularly important year for the development of extra-curricular activities and in the life of the school; in many schools, school activities depend on the contribution of the lower

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sixth. In my constituency, schools have complained that pupils have given up valuable activities such as sport, Duke of Edinburgh award schemes, community work and choirs.

Thirdly, another common theme of schools' responses is that AS-levels were taken at the expense of breadth of approach in chosen subjects. An example that has been quoted to me is that the study of English texts that are not set texts has been curtailed. Not the least significant factor in the curtailment of wider study has been the fact that in this summer term time has been lost to study leave and examination time for AS-levels.

Fourthly, AS-levels are failing to meet their stated objective of broadening the sixth-form curriculum--an objective that many people support. That is an important issue, and it lies at the root of AS-levels. Interestingly, broadening the curriculum was the defence offered by the Secretary of State in the debate on the Gracious Speech last week.

Ministers must face the fact that evidence suggests that a broader approach and a broader curriculum is not being achieved by AS-levels. Heads in my constituency tell me that most students are taking only four subjects at AS-level. Perhaps the Minister will confirm in writing, if he cannot do so tonight, that the majority of pupils taking AS-levels take only four subjects. Moreover, in very many cases, those four subjects involve students staying within the confines of either science or the humanities, without crossing the divide so as to bring about greater breadth.

In all too many respects, what the Government have put in place with AS-levels resembles an unsatisfactory halfway house between the rigour and depth of the three A-levels of the past and the international baccalaureate, which requires pupils to study six subjects over two years, including both arts and sciences, and which also requires extra-curricular activities. AS-levels obviously do not approach that breadth. There are strong suggestions that many of the most academic schools believe that A-levels and AS-levels no longer involve the depth and rigour associated with A-levels in the past, and are considering a switch to the international baccalaureate.

Against that background, it is hardly surprising that the new Secretary of State announced a review of AS-levels as one of her first acts on taking office, although it is perhaps a little surprising that the Government announced the inquiry into AS-levels while children were still taking them. In announcing the review, the Secretary of State accepted that the key skills qualification has caused particular difficulty and has indeed been a source of additional complexity, as many teachers throughout the country would testify--but the problems with AS-level go much further than that.

It would certainly be a mistake to confine the inquiry to the key skills qualification only; it needs to go a great deal further. I hope that the review by the new head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will go further. The new head of the QCA could do worse than to consult the old head of the QCA, Dr Nick Tate, who has become a headmaster since leaving that body. He is quoted as saying:

an honest and honourable conclusion that might have been held by many of those who were on the other side of the fence in the first place.

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I want to put several requests to the Minister. I shall do so in short order, because I understand that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) is interested in this debate and, with permission, wants to make a brief contribution.

I ask the Minister to place the Secretary of State's remit letter to the QCA in the public domain and to tell us whether the review will be confined to the details of the implementation of AS-levels, or whether it can go wider and examine the case for having the AS-level at all.

I do not necessarily advocate the abolition of AS-levels, but it would be a good idea to consider the cases for and against them as part of the review, so that it could take a wide-ranging and full view of AS-levels. The QCA, and Ministers in particular, must face up to the wave of criticism that those exams have generated and the concerns of pupils and their parents who are about to undertake them. As matters stand, many would say that the introduction of the AS-level has been flawed and that it is an exam too far.

10.53 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): I thank the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister for allowing me to contribute briefly to the debate.

In my maiden speech on Friday, I said that as a teacher for 22 years, a head of a sixth form for the past 12 years and, until about seven weeks ago, a teacher of an AS-level course, I thought that AS-levels had been introduced far too quickly. They should have been introduced next September at the very earliest, rather than last September. There are various reasons why teachers, students and universities think that the experiment with AS-levels has been rushed and not properly thought out. Students have been over-worked and overloaded. They have had no time for the extra-curricular activities in which they used to participate in schools and to which they used to contribute so much.

The exam timetable has been very badly planned in recent weeks. On several occasions, students have had two or three exams on the same day, often necessitating staying overnight with teachers because exams clashed the next day. The whole thing should have been more carefully thought through from that point of view. Universities have made it clear that they are not interested in the key skills qualification, and they are even starting to say that they will not consider the AS-level qualifications but will wait for the full A-level results, as under the old system.

There has been no time for the sort of extra activities and the development of course work that normally took place in year 12 in sixth forms. Finally, planning has been far too rushed and there has been a lack of funding for the new courses. I had to scrap an innovative A-level course that had run very well for 20 years. I had to introduce a brand new one, with no extra money to buy new text books. The new text books were not even on the market because they had not yet been written for a course that had only just been introduced. The whole thing has been rushed, as the national curriculum was in the 1980s.

27 Jun 2001 : Column 756

10.55 pm

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