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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this Adjournment debate. I thank him for his kind and generous remarks about my new position. I suspect that those generous and kind remarks will not continue in the months ahead, but we shall see.

I respect the contribution made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), on the basis that he has direct experience, having been a classroom teacher before entering this place.

It is important that I begin my response by reminding hon. Members of the background to the introduction of A-level reforms. The need for the reforms was identified by the Conservative Government in 1996. The excellent principles underlining the changes that the Labour Government introduced are as relevant today as they were in 1996. Those principles of increased flexibility, breadth and relevance of learning for young people must not be cast aside in a rush to judgment or in an atmosphere of cheap party political point scoring.

Indeed, there is nothing on the record to demonstrate that either of the Opposition parties, whose Members have contributed to the debate, raised those concerns in advance of the implementation of the reforms. So it is a bit rich of them, at this stage and with hindsight, to suggest that things should have been done differently. That is not to say that the Government are complacent or dismissive of the difficulties that young people and teachers have experienced during the first year of reform implementation. Indeed, I have spoken to young people and their parents in my constituency who have articulated concerns that I take very seriously indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has acted decisively in responding to general concerns by asking the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to undertake an immediate review of the reforms, including the new AS-level qualifications. The authority will consult a wide range of institutions, organisations and students to establish a true picture of how all the reforms of advanced level qualifications have worked out in reality. It will focus on both the strengths and the weaknesses of implementation in year 1.

The QCA's report will be in two stages. The first, due by the middle of July, will identify the key issues and make recommendations for immediate action that schools and colleges can implement. The second stage, which the QCA will present at the end of this year, will be more comprehensive, covering the full range of issues associated with the "qualifying for success" reforms, including the experience and outcomes of this summer's examinations. It will also make recommendations on improving delivery of the key skills qualification. We will then work with all organisations concerned to ensure that our A-level examinations continue to meet the needs of our students, employers and higher education, and remain the best of their kind in the world.

I can assure hon. Members that the review will address all the issues that they have raised this evening. It is true that a significant number, but not all, of students have

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complained of overload. On the other hand, recent independent surveys have shown the positive effect of augmented programmes in reducing the drop-out rate among college students. It is essential that we do not lose sight of the value for young people of greater flexibility. The chance to gain qualifications after one year of advanced study provides them with a better basis for decisions about the future--a real choice between using their qualifications to enter the world of work immediately or staying on and completing A-levels as a passport to higher education.

We also acknowledge the need to evaluate the impact of the reform on teachers. It is important that the new qualifications maintain their rigour without placing unreasonable burdens of assessment on teachers. We expect the review to identify steps that can be taken to reduce burdens associated with the teaching and administration of the new system.

I am acutely aware of the specific concerns that have been expressed about this year's exam timetable, but any delay of AS or A-level exams would have had a knock-on effect on the release of results. Conversely, had we brought forward exams, that would have resulted in less

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teaching and revision time for students. The review will consider ways of ensuring that next year's exam timetable better meets students' needs.

The review will also cover all aspects of the key skills element of the reforms, including assessment arrangements, whether level 3 and above add value for students, the use of proxy qualifications to replace all or part of a particular key skill and the scope for their extension from September 2001. Guidance on individual key skills will be revised in accordance with the review's findings. I assure the hon. Member for Hertsmere that we will act speedily to implement necessary changes as identified by the QCA review, and I shall consider his request that the remit letter be put in the public domain.

A willingness to acknowledge difficulties and to move swiftly to secure remedies is the sign of a listening and mature Government who give the greater priority to the best interests of students and teachers than the froth of short-term party political expediency.

Question put and agreed to.

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