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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Reference has been made in business questions to terminal 5, in which I have a direct constituency interest. Both the previous Speaker and you have made it clear to the Government that any announcements about major decisions should be made on the Floor of the House. Will you express your view that an announcement on such a major issue as this should be made on the Floor of the House rather than during the recess?
Mr. Speaker: My view is that at all times when Parliament is in Session Ministers should endeavour to get to the House to make statements. However, we are talking about a three-month recess and it would be unfair of me to say that no statement should be made by any Minister during the recess.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you take a look at the question of ministerial accountability in the context of answering for London Underground? I fear that, come the autumn, Ministers will not answer questions or appear at the Dispatch Box in respect of London Underground, but will say instead that the private infrastructure companies that they set up are responsible for maintenance, London Underground is responsible for operations and Transport for London is responsible for policy, yet their fingerprints will be all over
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The better regulation task force today issued a report condemning the role of the regulatory system, but that report is available in neither the Vote Office nor the Library. Will you look into the omission?
It is important that we conduct the debate on the future of the AS-level in a way that does not leave the young people involved feeling that the qualifications that they have received are in any sense to be discounted. It is also vital that the Government, working with higher education institutions, ensure that the problems surrounding those examinations do not impact on the future academic opportunities and careers of those students.
AS-levels and key skills were introduced with the best of intentions: to broaden the curriculum offered to young people post-16. However, there was too little time for their introduction. Examinations boards complained that they did not have enough time to prepare the syllabus or materials; schools did not have enough time to prepare; timetabling was a nightmare.
Most schools did not receive any extra funding for AS-levels. The Government announced more money, but schools said that local education authorities did not pass it on. LEAs said that the Government had not given them any extra money. Without the clarity of a national funding formula, who knows? All that most schools know is that they did not receive any extra funding. At a time of teacher shortages, more teaching hours were needed. In addition, of course, we still do not know how universities will view AS-level results.
Far from broadening the experience of students at such an important time of development in their lives, the extra work load of the AS-level means that the very extra-curricular activities that used to provide breadth of experience, such as sports, drama, music and voluntary work, are being written out of school life in year 12 owing to lack of time.
At last week's Education questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), quoted some head teachers as saying that they agreed with the AS-level. The quotations were from that day's edition of The Times, but he quoted somewhat selectively. He failed to quote, for example, Elspeth Insch, head teacher of King Edward VI Handsworth school in Birmingham
There is no doubt that the Government's rush to get the reforms through is at the heart of all the problems. Young people, parents and teachers have suffered because the Government simply did not think things through or provide enough time for proper preparation. As John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
We shall of course wait for the full Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report that will appear towards the end of the year, but I was concerned about the Secretary of State's attitude when she talked about the matter in her interview on the "Today" programme. Despite the fact that students interviewed before her said that the main problem facing them was the increased work load throughout the year, she insisted to John Humphrys that the key issue was the timetabling of exams.
We are used to a Government who are out of touch with what happens in schools and refuse to listen properly to what teachers and others are telling them. I had hoped for the sake of young people that this Secretary of State would be different; sadly, it seems she is not. It is vital that the Government do not regard the recommendations of the first report as a panacea for all the problems encountered in the new system; indeed, there may be further problems.
Yesterday, the Leader of the House said that he was not in a position to give a guarantee to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that all AS-level results would be published as intended on 16 August. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), refused to answer the same question a week ago. With some estimates suggesting that exam boards are short of 1,000 exam markers, that is causing concern to parents and students. I hope that, in her response this afternoon, the Secretary of State will give the House a guarantee that all AS-level results will be published on 16 August. But we need to go further, as the question is not simply about how many exam papers the students should sit at one go, which is what the Government have addressed so far. The real question is whether the interim exam is needed or whether it is an exam too far.
For a long time, I have been a strong advocate of the gold standard of A-levels. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] So are some of my hon. Friends, from the sound of it. In a world where young people will be expected to be more flexible in their working lives, we need to look at whether further breadth is necessary. Whatever the exam structure, maintaining standards of academic excellence and rigour is important, and we should be able to point to those
I hope that the Secretary of State is willing to initiate a proper national debate on our post-14 examination and qualification system, as we need to consider more than just AS-level exams. As well as AS-levels, we now have the new vocational GCSEsGNVQs are now vocational A-levelsA2s, the new advanced extension awards or AEAs, world class tests, key skills and S-levels. A document provided by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tries to explain the AS-levels. It explains that AS and A-levels will be graded and says: