Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Valerie Davey: Can we formally welcome you, in the context of one of the rooms used by this Select Committee, in fact, we are most often in this particular room hearing evidence, and we are delighted to have you here today. I have heard an expression of concern that the four of you here at the table, if we are not careful, will be joined by others, who would very much like to have taken part; and we have got a format today, we have four people, and at another time I hope that others of you will come and be able to have your voices heard as well. I am just grateful that we did have the opportunity earlier to hear many others of you make your contributions; so thank you for that, but at this stage we have the four members who it was agreed would represent you on this occasion. I would like to start by asking Meg, who is very keen, very involved in this, to ask the first question.

Ms Munn

  1. I want to talk about involving young people and young people's voices, and we have talked a bit, earlier, before, about the Schools Councils and the UK Youth Parliament; but what I am really interested in is that young people should have a voice all the time in what they are doing. So what I would like to know from you is, in terms of your experience particularly perhaps at school, what sorts of things do you think you should be asked about?
  (Mr McCluskey) Obviously, there are certain issues that apply to every young person, education and transport being quite predominant, and then you have got, not so minor, but drugs and so-called sex education; our views on all of these, these will probably be the most predominant subjects, if you ask young people what they would like to be asked about, those subjects.
  (Mr Davis) As well as what Jonathon was saying, I think also that perhaps young people should be asked about the problems in their local areas, by the local councils; because, as they are living in the area, it can affect them most, so perhaps it would be a good idea if local councils went round and met with people at the schools and actually said, "Look, this is the problem area, and we would like your input to help with it." Because I do not think councillors actually do that; though they may speak to one or two, they do not go and speak to the vast majority of young children, or young people, about it.
  (Miss Mortimer) I think it is not just about being asked what young people would like, I think it is also the education, of political matters, perhaps. The younger years in the School Council, when they are represented, they talk about they want trousers in school rather than skirts, they talk about things that would apply in school on the smaller level, rather than perhaps key political debates. I have found, in the Medway Youth Parliament, people mainly have talked about transport, it has been a key issue, because it is not fantastic, and stuff like drugs. And, unfortunately, I have found that the older people come up with the more political arguments, so perhaps there needs to be a deeper education into political issues, that perhaps the Government look at, at a lower level, but incorporate it into some kind of fun activity, maybe, so that they do not get totally bored by it.

  2. Perhaps I can just follow up on that, because I think it is interesting, what you said about being asked about whether you should wear trousers or skirts, or whatever. I actually went to a secondary school where we were asked about those kinds of issues, and because we were asked about that I think it led us to think that we could ask about other things. Do you think perhaps it is important to start with the basic, day-to-day way that the school is run, and, if you are involved in that, that can then lead on to other, more political, wider issues about the world?
  (Miss Mortimer) I think that is a good idea, because it starts up debate and people talking. But one problem that I found with the School Council, when I was in one of the lower years, was that we brought up many issues, such as the trouser issue, that has been brought since I was in Year 7, and many years ago, and it has only just been brought in. And I think the main problem is that the smaller issues that we have brought up have been listened to, and the headteacher and other teachers have turned round and said that they are not viable; so the voice that we have been given feels like it is just hitting against a brick wall. So I think, perhaps, if we were given the choice and then actually saw something coming from it then it would make people have a greater voice.
  (Miss Fuller) You say that not many young people vote at general elections. I think that apathy can actually start at school, because you will go to see the School Council and you will say, "Oh, will it be possible to have this?" and more often than not they will come back and say, "No," and then give you a reason, but you will think, no, that is not a very good reason. And after being knocked back several times people just think, "Well, what's the point; we're not going to change anything anyway," and that attitude is a problem that has really got to be addressed.

Jeff Ennis

  3. Can I just cover the point to do with representation, from the UK MYP, Chair, because some people say, for example, that Parliament is not really representative of the people, because there are too many ex-solicitors, ex-teachers, ex-social workers, you have only got to look at the composition of this Committee to find that out, so it is not representative of the people. Do you think that the UK Youth Parliament is representative of the average student in schools, or could it be made more representative?
  (Mr Davis) I think, although we do try to be representative, as we are elected democratically by votes, because we are still in our early stages, people are not aware of what is actually going on; although nowadays they are, because more people are becoming aware, but when we first started up that was the major problem we faced, publicity. So, I think, originally, although we were asking people that knew about it, there was not everyone voting, and nowadays we have been tackling that issue and we have got more people to vote. So I think, gradually, as it is going on, it is becoming more representative.

  Jeff Ennis: Do you have, for example, many representatives from Education Action Zone schools; are any of you people from Education Action Zone schools, or is there anywhere in the UK you have found a representative from an EAZ school?

  Valerie Davey: We will ask the body that, we will ask the official that, as it were.[1]


Jeff Ennis

  4. Because I think that is obviously something that it will probably need to look at, to increase representation. Moving on to the issue to do with drugs in school, what attitude do you think not just the Government but school governing bodies should adopt when students are found with drugs in school? And do you think it ought to lead to an automatic suspension, or expulsion, of a student, if they are caught with drugs, particularly if they are dealing in drugs?
  (Mr Davis) If they are caught dealing, that is a completely different matter from having possession. If you have got possession of drugs, I think you should be spoken to, I do not think it should be made public to the school, because on this sort of issue they may actually have a problem, which the school should take into account before punishing you; and, instead of automatically saying, "Right, you're suspended for the maximum time for having drugs," they say, "Right, we recognise that you have a problem and let's deal with that." They should bring in counsellors, or people like that, to help you with the problem and get you through it, rather than just straight-line punishing you. If you are caught dealing in drugs, it is completely different. I think, again, they are going to have a problem, which the schools need to help you with. I think that should be dealt with on a person-to-person basis, depending on what they are dealing in, because if you deal in cannabis it is completely different from if you deal in cocaine, because cannabis is a slightly softer drug. So I think they should be dealt with on a person-to-person basis, on what their school record is like.

Mr Simmonds

  5. Can I come in on that point, following on what I was asking earlier. Do you feel that there is enough evidence and support, among the people that you represent, actually to loosen the law, particularly on soft drugs like cannabis; or what are your individual views on that?
  (Miss Mortimer) On cannabis, for example, I think that perhaps you need to relax the law on that, because then you can perhaps keep tabs on it better; you get all the underground, as you might call it, kind of trafficking of the drugs if perhaps the Government do not intervene in it. Whether it is legalised or not, it is going to carry on, people are going to take the drugs, because they are going to find them from somewhere, somebody will supply them. But I think, the hard drugs, I do not think that needs to be relaxed at all, but I do not know what everybody else thinks.
  (Mr Davis) I would not say soft on any drugs, apart from cannabis; the majority of people whom I have spoken to know people that have tried it or do do it. I think it is a problem, it is kind of like smoking, it is not something that is going to go away if you ban it, so it might be better if you legalise it, then you can tax it and you can tell more people more about it. It may put people off the appeal, because if it is legalised it is no longer illegal, and that might be part of the thrill behind it.
  (Mr McCluskey) I totally agree. Going on from that, it will also give police more time and more resources to go and tackle issues surrounding more serious drugs and serious drug dealers, which are affecting young people's lives, not only young people's lives but adults' lives as well, in a much more severe way.
  (Miss Fuller) I agree with what the others have said.

  Valerie Davey: Interestingly enough, we had the MP for Lambeth speak in the House only this afternoon, where it has been, of course, relaxed, not at all in favour of what has happened; so there is a good dialogue going on here.

Mr Baron

  6. What importance do you attach to the view of Government about this, because would you agree, or not, that if the Government were to relax the rules, and, for example, legalise cannabis, this could encourage the use of the drug, which would not necessarily benefit society? I will declare my interest, I do not believe cannabis should be legalised, but what I am interested in is, if you do legalise it, do you think that would encourage the use of the drug; what are your personal views?
  (Miss Mortimer) Unfortunately, I do not think you can predict an outcome, because it could go either way. I think, as was mentioned before, if it were legalised it would stop some people, because there is not the thrill perhaps of getting caught, the fact that it is illegal; but then again it might encourage people, because, if there are tabs on it, it might seem safer, in some ways, because it is not mixed with other things, maybe, if it has got some restrictions on it. So I think it is one of those issues that you could not really put any stats on as to which way you think it might go, but I think possibly it might go more towards encouraging it.
  (Mr Davis) If you legalise it, the fact is, it is probably not going to make a lot of difference from what it does already. So, I mean, do you go round and do you talk to people who go to school, and they are asked what cannabis is, they will be able to tell you, because they have already been told about it, about the problems, and they could already be encouraged to take it. So, with regard to legalising it or not, it is not really going to make a lot of difference, compared with the amount of people that take it, because people already know about it, they already know about the risks; if they are going to take it then they are going to try it whether it is legal or illegal, that is not really going to stop them.

  7. But if the Government says it is okay, that is quite a powerful message, is it not?
  (Mr Davis) But the Government also says that smoking is okay, but now they say, "No; hang on a sec., there is harmful damage as well." Perhaps if it is legalised then we may make people aware of the positives and the negatives, it is going to be exactly the same as smoking, because people know about the damages but then people still do it, regardless of the damages. Providing they are aware of it then they can make an informed decision themselves.
  (Mr McCluskey) I agree completely, I could not agree more, that it will make no real difference either way, because it is so widely available at the moment that anybody can obtain it, really. I would think that, if it were, I think that the Government would probably say, "Okay, it's legal, but it's not okay," much the same as they do with tobacco and other products like that. More people die from alcohol and smoking-related diseases each year than they do from cannabis-related causes.

Mr Turner

  8. But would not the big tobacco companies start it, very heavily, as they do tobacco, in countries where advertising is not banned; would they not try to build up the market in that way?
  (Miss Fuller) Again, I do think that these things depend on the person, because I know that lots of people have the worry about moving on to harder drugs, when you start from cannabis; but, again, that does depend on the person, because one person will do that but then another one will not, and you cannot predict who is going to do what.

Valerie Davey

  9. Do you think you are going to have education on drugs in school?
  (Mr McCluskey) I think there is a lot of information going around, not specifically in schools. I think that the message getting across is that all drugs are wrong, especially from schools, because they do not want to be seen as schools that want to encourage drug-using, or having a drug culture within the school, but we know, in most schools, that one or two people, a bare minimum but one or two people, have actually tried hard drugs within the schools. I think there should be more education surrounding the effects of the drugs, so that the young people can make informed choices, the education should surround what effects there are, I was about to say where they can get it from, but that is not really what I want to target there; the effects, and the short-term and long-term causes and what can happen. And the education and the information given should target those specific areas, so the young people, especially regarding cannabis, should be able to make an informed choice and an informed decision of whether they think it is for them.
  (Miss Mortimer) I think education is adequate within the schools around my area; however, recently there have been peer drugs education by people from varying ages, I think it is about 13-19, and they have been learning about the drugs and then going around to schools and talking to people and youth groups, talking to people about that. And I think that has actually had a greater impact than, I do not mean to be insulting to anybody, but some middle-aged, old, boring bloke going into schools, with a great big box, saying, "This is this, this is bad." I think, by having it as peer education, it is more personal, in some ways, and people actually listen to it more and do not find it quite so boring.

  Valerie Davey: Well done.

  Mr Baron: Chairman, can I just suggest, I would like just to ask how representative we think, because we have had four views saying cannabis should be legalised, I am just intrigued, following up from Mark's exercise slightly earlier, as to whether it will be possible to draw a poll regarding everybody.

Valerie Davey

  10. We cannot now, unfortunately, but we will certainly ask. I think, what we would like to see facts on, from your Youth Parliament, I am sure, is how you debated this in the past?
  (Mr McCluskey) I believe it was debated last year at the National sitting.[2]


Mr Baron

  11. What were the findings; what was the conclusion?
  (Mr McCluskey) I will have to consult the report, I was not at the last sitting, I am afraid.

  Valerie Davey: I think we need to find out from the wider debate that they are having. I think now we should change the subject and bring in Paul on—back to the boring one—the subject of examinations.

Paul Holmes

  12. There is a lot of comment that pupils in England, in particular, as opposed to some of the rest of the UK, are the most highly examined pupils in the world, in terms of the number of formal exams, from SATS right through to AS and AS2, and so forth. What observations have you got, from your experiences?
  (Mr Davis) I have actually just sat my As in the past month, and, although I know there were a lot of problems last year, there are still a lot of problems this year. I did three A levels, and I was made to do all my exams in a 36-hour period. I had about eight hours' sleep, because I was that worried and that stressed, because I did not have much of a break between them, because I went in one afternoon and had to go in the next morning and the following afternoon. I think you need to be aware that if you are going to put all the exams together there is going to be a lot of stress, and you need to spread these out.
  (Miss Mortimer) I am in the guinea-pig year, as it has been called, at the moment, I am in Year 13, and from my position and people in my year, it has been a lot of hard work; and, at the moment, I have actually got an exam tomorrow, and it seems that in the A2 part of it, and AS last year was quite hell, going through that, it was really horrible, because we did not know what precisely we had to do, so we just crammed in as much as possible. And, this year, it is not quite so bad, there is more work to do but it still feels like we are cramming as much information as possible, just to sit an exam that we might go in a completely different direction from, that we have not been taught about, because it has not been looked at, perhaps, in enough depth, and it just seems to be too much information to be cramming in at once. Because I have got all my exams in three weeks, which I suppose is not as bad as you said about yours being, like quite soon, but it still seems to be quite a lot, and perhaps if things were more coursework-assessed, in the bigger subjects, rather than, I think, travel and tourism, or something, they do coursework, and that is based mainly on coursework. I think perhaps we need an option, whether we want to do it mainly as coursework or mainly as exams, because there are some people that can be extremely intelligent and just not do well with exams, so I think perhaps maybe that issue needs to be looked into.
  (Miss Fuller) I have just done my AS levels, and I found there has been just so much stress, for the whole year, with what we were supposed to be doing, and having to cram what was once a year's course into nine months. And then, with the exams themselves, one day I had three hours of politics and did not get home until 5.30, and then the very next morning I had to sit three chemistry exams, all in a row, no breaks in-between. And it is just so much; how can you revise properly for both, if they are going to be just like that, and then with all three modules all stuck together, it is incredibly hard.
  (Mr Davis) I will just put it, the mistakes of Edexcel, and probably several mistakes in the exam papers. I actually sat politics as well, and in the last paper they actually made a mistake within our exam paper, which, fortunately, they were able to sort out, and they let us know. But do you not think the Government should actually do something to make sure that Edexcel is not making these mistakes, therefore we do not have the problems and the hassle of having to look through an exam paper just finding out what they are, or not being able to answer questions clearly that were worded wrongly?

  13. It is still fresh enough in your memory possibly to compare from; how would you compare the stress and strain of doing GCSEs with the stress and strain of doing AS levels and A2s?
  (Miss Mortimer) I think it is a lot worse, when you get to AS. But, looking back at GCSEs, I would look back and say that GCSEs are fairly easy, what I have been doing in the last two years. But also there was a lot of stress at GCSE, but I do not know if that is just the fact that I went to a grammar school, I might have been put under a bit more pressure, I do not know. But it has been a lot more work, I have found, in the last two years.
  (Mr Davis) I have actually just swapped, from going to a community college to do my GCSEs, to going to a grammar school to do my A levels. I found that the community college, although they did try for us to do well and there was a fair bit of pressure on us, GCSEs were not as stressful, because they were spread out, as my A levels, in which case I have just been put under a lot more pressure. I have been given as much to learn on nine subjects at GCSE as for three subjects at A level, in a shorter time, and which physically you just cannot do.
  (Mr McCluskey) Mine was the old system; that was stressful enough. I can only imagine what an exam in-between GCSEs and the final year must be like.
  (Miss Fuller) One thing that I found lots of my teachers have said is that the new A2 level is harder than the original A level, and they had two years without exams, without AS level in-between, to learn this. If it is going to be harder and with less time then I cannot help thinking that is just a bit unfair.

Mr Shaw

  14. A couple of questions. First of all, what do you think the reason for bringing in AS levels was for?
  (Miss Fuller) Lots of people drop a subject at the end of Year 12, I suppose that was to make sure you had something to show for it, which personally I thought was a good idea, but has not worked as well in practice, because it is so much stress.
  (Mr Davis) I would agree, that it is the same point; however, if it is for that reason then perhaps the people are going to drop it and perhaps they make you sit the ASs, and the people who are going to do the full A levels perhaps will not have to sit them, and do the original A level at the end, or have the S as an option for people are going to drop it. Perhaps that would relieve some of the stress on people who are going to do the full A level.
  (Miss Mortimer) I found it was a way of assessing ability, that some people doing ASs last year found it very hard, and then just dropped out from it, because they did not think that they could continue with A2s. So perhaps from the old A level system, instead of going the whole two years and perhaps not getting fantastic grades out of it, they only do one year and it does not feel so wasted, perhaps.

  15. My colleague mentioned Edexcel, earlier on, and they have produced ten exam tips to help pupils quell their nerves, and I expect that you might be able to come up with ten exam tips for Edexcel, one of them might be "Make sure you get the questions right." But one of them is "Remember, you can only do your best and even if you do not do as well as you hope, your parents will still love you just as much." How do you respond to that? If you were to read that, would you say, "Oh, that's better"?
  (Mr McCluskey) I am sorry, but that would just give them more stress, "My parents wont love me any more?" They will say, "I'm packing my bags and leaving." That would be awful; that just adds more pressure than anything.
  (Miss Mortimer) I do not think that would help, because it is the fact that your parents are not going to get you through life; of course, if they are really, really rich, they might give you money, or perhaps just a bit rich, they might give you some money to help you through life, but say you are in the poorer classes of society, if your parents love you, it is not going to make much of a difference to how you do in your life later, in the career field.
  (Mr McCluskey) Does it actually use the word "parents," if I can pick up on this point, does it actually use the word "parents"? Maybe it is a little bit discriminatory against the people that do not actually have parents, who are actually in foster homes, or have guardians.

  16. A very good point. Well, I suppose the point is that, correct me, but it is a reasonable thing to say, but I think perhaps, if you are talking about language, that is quite childish sort of language, is it not?
  (Mr McCluskey) It is very condescending, it really is, to the A level person.

Mr Chaytor

  17. On the exams question, given that an increasing number of young people are staying on beyond 16, either into sixth forms or colleges, do you think there is an argument for doing away with GCSEs altogether and skipping a stage of examination, and focusing on what comes at 18?
  (Mr McCluskey) Are you still suggesting that we keep the ASs as well?

  18. Doing away with GCSE and moving straight to AS and A level, or the vocational alternatives?
  (Miss Mortimer) I would not agree with that, because of the fact that you get to do quite a broad range of subjects at GCSE that you can do, then AS, A2, you narrow it down to about four, three, some places, maybe even two or one, if you do like a GNVQ that would just be one subject, so it is a broad range of subjects that develop skills that you might not look at otherwise. And if you do not do so well at AS or A2 because perhaps you cannot apply yourself so well at that level, at least you would have GCSEs which you can say, "I've done this, I've achieved this," and perhaps, in some ways, fall back on, perhaps to use to go into employment with training, or something, something like that.
  (Mr Davis) I think the GCSE is a good background for subjects you want to do at A level. Are you then going to increase the A levels and test people from the knowledge they learn through secondary school as well; otherwise, how are you going to find out if they have actually learned anything at secondary school? Because I would know people that if they did not have exams in Year 11 they would not have worked through Years 10 and 11, and therefore they would not know anything, they would go to the A levels completely cold, and they would completely mess them up. So I think you need some sort of check there actually to make sure that people are learning from what they are doing.
  (Miss Fuller) One exams is SATS. I find that lots of people actually feel it is a lot of stress even on young children, because you do SATS in Year 2, Year 6 and Year 9. And it has changed so much since I did my SATS in Year 2, it was just a little test that did not really matter at all, but now people are publishing revision guides for Year 6, and they are expected to do weeks of revision and do as well as they can in their SATS, and at that age I do not think it is right to be pressurising children on things; sometimes you are made to feel a bit of a failure if you do badly in SATS. But I think there is a lot of pressure there which is just unfair on people at such a young age.

  19. But is there a case, for example, to have, both for the SATS and for GCSE, only internal assessment, so it does not have the great pressure of all these examinations that have to be taken on a certain day and sent off to be dealt with by external examiners, and coming back weeks and weeks and weeks later?
  (Miss Fuller) One thing I notice about SATS is that the teachers have to grade you and say what they think you are going to get anyway, and then you go and do the exam.


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2   Ev 11. Back

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