§ The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris)
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on A-level grading.
As the House will know, following the publication of examination results in summer this year, there have been concerns about the grading of A-level and AS-level examinations and about the way in which exam standards are set and maintained. I recognise the anxiety and uncertainty that that has caused. Students have been left unsure whether their grades in A-levels and AS-levels this year accurately reflect the standard of their work. On behalf of the education service, I repeat my apology to all the students who have been affected. My responsibility throughout has been to ensure that the concerns are carefully and thoroughly investigated, that the recommendations are acted on as rapidly as possible and that clear action is taken to avoid this situation ever arising again.
Early last month, headteachers' representatives and some examiners expressed concerns about the grading of the work of some students in this year's A-level and AS-level examinations. The complaints focused in particular on changes that had been made to grade boundaries in some of the papers. Given the seriousness of the allegations, on 19 September I set up an independent inquiry under Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. His interim report, which was published on 27 September, identified weaknesses in the way in which the exams had been assessed this year, and recommended a process of regrading. That work has now been completed. Letters went last night from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to all students on its records whose grades had been revised. Since 10 o'clock this morning, a UCAS helpline has been in operation.
Mike Tomlinson announced this morning that a total of 9,800 candidate entries have had unit grades raised. All the adjustments relate to the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations Board. In the majority of cases, they have not resulted in a change to overall grades, but 1,945 candidates have had their overall grades raised—733 for AS-levels and 1,212 for A2 results.
UCAS holds a record on 1,089 of those students, of whom 689 are already in their first-choice university, although a small number are not on their first-choice course. A further 232 had no offer from their first or second-choice universities and are therefore unlikely to be affected by a grade change. On current UCAS estimates, that leaves about 168 students who may be eligible to transfer university. UCAS has told us today that there are no more than eight possible new students for any single university.
May I briefly outline the action that the 168 students need to take? Students who think that they may be eligible to move institution are being advised to contact their preferred university or college. Universities have been advised by their representative body, Universities UK, to honour all offers made to students before the publication of A-level results in August, and I am confident that they will do that. As I said on 27 September, the fact that institutions have already 208 admitted their full quota of students for this year may mean that students who wish to transfer will be offered places for next year rather than this year. Clearly, the fact that the numbers are much lower than some speculated will make matters much more manageable. Universities and colleges have agreed to make final decisions no later than 31 October. Universities and students will not be disadvantaged financially if the latter move university due to regrading.
In his report of 27 September, Mike Tomlinson also gave his preliminary views on what had gone wrong. In particular, the QCA had not issued guidance on the attainment expected for a specific grade in individual papers. It had not provided a clear, consistent view of the standard required to ensure the maintenance of the overall GCE A-level standard. In addition, although AS units were piloted, A2 units were not.
I also asked Mike Tomlinson to investigate allegations that external pressure had been put on examining boards to lower the number of passes to protect against the allegation of lowering standards. Mike Tomlinson concluded that Ministers and the Department had applied no such pressure. He further concluded that officers at QCA had acted within their guidelines, but went on to say thaton the evidence available, the actions of the boards during the grading exercise arose from the pressure they perceived that they were under from the QCA both to maintain the standard and achieve an outcome which was more or less in line with the results in 2001".On 27 September, I decided that the confidence of the examining boards and the headteacher representatives in the QCA's leadership was damaged and that its future would be best served by a new chairman. We shall shortly announce the name of a new interim chair.
I recognise that a major task for the QCA and my Department is rebuilding confidence in the QCA and our examination system. Ken Boston. the new chief executive of the QCA, has announced a timetable for implementing the recommendations in Mike Tomlinson's report. By the end of October, there will be additional guidance on AS and A2 standards. By mid-November, further work on the statistical issues that underlie assessment and a revised code of practice for the conduct of the process will be completed. The QCA will also put in place improved communications with all partners. Current students on AS and A2 courses can be reassured by those actions that marking and grading standards in 2003 will be robust.
Ken Boston has also announced that he will set up an examinations taskforce. Its job will be to oversee the effective delivery of the AS and A2 exams in January and July 2003. It meets for the first time on Friday and will comprise representatives of headteachers as well as the exam boards. I welcome that decisive action.
Mike Tomlinson's report also provided wider lessons for the way in which the Government plan and implement such major changes. The Department will act on those lessons. Mike Tomlinson will now tackle the second part of his remit: to review more generally the arrangements for setting, maintaining and judging A-level standards. He will report to me and the QCA in November.
209 Today's announcements are supported by the headteacher and teacher organisations, including those who raised the original concerns. All students who took examinations this year can be confident that the regrading process has been independent and fair.
I recognise the importance of exams as a means of measuring achievement and giving young people a currency for higher education and the world of work. It is therefore especially important that our assessment system is fair, transparent and efficient.
Although it is important to acknowledge this year's difficulties, it is also important to remember that the principles behind Curriculum 2000 were wholeheartedly endorsed. That must not be lost.
Mike Tomlinson has given us a clear way forward for re-establishing confidence in the A-level system, and for ensuring that standards are clear. I hope that this will enable us to avoid the sterile annual debate about exam standards, when better results should be a cause of celebration for young people and their teachers.
I want to put on record my thanks to all those in the education service who brought the original concerns to our attention. Their co-operation in and approval of the process that we have undergone have been crucial. I am also grateful to UCAS and Universities UK for their helpful and constructive approach. Finally, I would like to thank Mike Tomlinson and his team for the speed of their actions, their thoroughness and their integrity.
§ Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of her statement, and I add my thanks to Mike Tomlinson for the work that he has had to do.
Today's announcement of the A-level regradings represents one more step in what has been the worst crisis ever to affect the exam system in this country—a crisis made worse by the staggeringly inept way in which it has been handled by the Secretary of State and her Department. Tens of thousands of students have had months of not knowing whether their grades were mis-marked. Two thousand families now know that they were fiddled out of the proper marks, and 88,000 others have been severely disappointed today, all because Ministers insisted, against the advice of their officials, on introducing the new A-level system too fast and too soon. Mike Tomlinson described that system as an "accident waiting to happen". The accident happened, and the Secretary of State is still trying to evade responsibility.
The root of this fiasco has been political interference in the exam system. I am afraid that nothing in the Secretary of State's statement suggests that she is prepared to reduce the degree of political meddling in the details of education, which are best left to heads, teachers and examiners. In her statement, she confirms that officers at the QCA had acted within their guidelines. If she believes that, why did she sack the QCA's chairman, Sir William Stubbs? Will she admit to the House now that he was a convenient scapegoat, used to take the pressure off Ministers? Will she also tell us why Sir William would have put pressure on exam boards to downgrade the marks if he did not believe that he was serving the interests of his political masters? It is not in the interests of the exam boards or of the QCA to 210 depress the grades. It might, however, be in the interests of Ministers to do so, if they were worried about accusations of dumbing down.
So let us have the Secretary of State's explanation of why Sir William acted as she has accused him of doing. Interestingly, the Secretary of State said in her statement that she had sacked Sir William not because he had put pressure on the exam boards, but because the boards perceived that they were under pressure from the QCA. Might it have been possible that Sir William perceived that he was under pressure from Ministers?
While we are on the subject of the QCA, will the Secretary of State finally commit to making it fully independent of the Government? The main job for her, or her successor, is to restore confidence in the exam system. That will not be achieved until it is completely taken away from political interference. If the Government were to introduce legislation in the next Session to achieve that, we would give it a fair wind.
On the exam boards, why does the Secretary of State think that only one board has been implicated in this problem? What did OCR do, under this perceived pressure from the QCA, that the other boards failed to do? How does she propose to deal with the 2,000 students who have suffered? She says that students will not be financially disadvantaged. Will she tell the House what the compensation package will cover? Will she also make it clear what she will do for the other 88,000 students who will be feeling angry and disappointed today because they have not been regraded? [Interruption.] Ministers say that those students got the right grades. I would recommend that they find the time later to visit the BBC website and read the comments of some of the students who have been affected. The words "whitewash" and "sham" appear frequently. Many of those students may want their papers re-marked, not regraded, but their schools will be put off by the cost. Will the Government do the decent thing and pay for any re-marking that is demanded by those students?
Can the Secretary of State now clear up why an AS-level is worth 50 per cent of the marks when the exam board says that it constitutes less than half the work? The authorities said that the schools misunderstood the situation, which is a real insult to thousands of heads and teachers. Can she understand why two exams, each of which received 50 per cent. of the marks, might be regarded by reasonable people as being of equal weight?
The Secretary of State said that she has asked Mike Tomlinson to produce another report by next month. Will she now agree to a fuller review, completely independent of the Government, to look into the whole future of A-levels? Without that, the system will continue to fall under suspicion. The QCA's own task force will not be enough because by her actions the QCA has been proved to be simply an arm of Government.
The Secretary of State eventually apologised for the damage that the scandal has caused. For 50 years, A-levels served young people well, with all concerned regarding them as the gold standard for exams. Her place in history is secure as the Minister who destroyed that gold standard. No one doubts her integrity, her decency and her good intentions—but with that integrity and decency she has set up a system that has not worked, she has obstinately ignored advice that it would not work, she has tried to evade personal 211 responsibility for the fiasco and she has failed to take the first step towards restoring confidence in the exam system, which is for her to resign.
§ Estelle Morris
I cannot believe that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) has just said that he wished that more students had received incorrect results. [Interruption.] That is essentially what he said. All those students who now know that the results they received in August were accurate should be pleased by that. The hon. Gentleman said that he wished that more had found out today that they had been given inaccurate results in August. That is not my view. The hon. Gentleman has spent so much time jumping on every passing bandwagon in the past few weeks that he has forgotten to read the reports that Mike Tomlinson has produced.
Let us be clear about what Mike Tomlinson said. Political interference in the exam system is a serious allegation. I said when I gave my first statement on the issue that not only had no political interference ever taken place under Labour Ministers but that I believed that it had never taken place under any Conservative Minister. Even if the Liberal Democrats were ever to get to be Education Ministers—[Interruption.] That is going too far and I withdraw that comment. Seriously, I believe that politicians are unanimous on the issue and not one of us—we are all committed to the education of our children—would dream of instructing the chief executive or the chairman of the QCA to fiddle the results. We did not. I had the decency to say that the hon. Gentleman and his party would not have done that, but he did not have the decency to say that we did not. Mike Tomlinson, who is impartial, has said that. Nobody accused us of doing so—not the Headmasters and Mistresses Conference, the Secondary Heads Association, or any of the other head teachers associations. Bill Stubbs said that there was no political interference. The allegations came from elsewhere, but Mike Tomlinson said, in any form of words that he could find, that there was no evidence, written or verbal, and no allegation that Ministers interfered. He concluded that there was no interference.
The problem now is not that you do not believe us or the integrity of our profession, but that you do not believe Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. On that you rest, and it is up to you to justify it—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)
Order. The Secretary of State has forgotten herself for a moment. She must use the correct parliamentary language.
§ Estelle Morris
Only from A up to A*.
The hon. Member for Ashford spoke of an accident waiting to happen. Mike Tomlinson did say that in the press conference on 27 September. The position was that there were no subject-specific grade criteria and no clear, consistent view about the standard required. The statistical and practical issues had not been fully worked through. All those are responsibilities of the QCA. 212 Because that infrastructure was not in place, it was, as Mike Tomlinson said, an accident waiting to happen. He also said that the chief executives of the three examining bodies believed that they were being put under further pressure. The three inadequacies in the infrastructure and the perceived pressure that I have described account for what went wrong this year.
I come now to the matter of timing. Mike Tomlinson said that the structure had been introduced too quickly, and I have said all along that I accept every one of his recommendations. I shall act on them, but I want to clarify the record in respect of the timing.
When this Government were elected in 1997, A and AS examinations had been consulted on already by the previous Administration. Those examinations derived from a report by Ron Dearing—an excellent man, and the report was not bad either. In those days, the Tories were committed to AS-levels. They want to withdraw them now, but that is a different matter.
We decided in 1997 to consult further on the matter. The previous Conservative Government might have introduced their proposals in 1997, but we delayed until 1999. We then consulted further. After that further consultation, we postponed the implementation of A and AS-level exams for a further year, to 2000. By that time, four years had passed since the publication of Ron Dearing's report on the wider curriculum for 16 to 18-year-olds.
I accept Mike Tomlinson's contention that a delay of three years rather than two might have prevented some problems. We intend to learn from that, but I want to say two things in that regard. We delayed introduction for two years after 1997 because of the results of consultation. No plea to delay introduction by another year was made to us, either in papers or correspondence from the QCA or as part of the consultation, and neither was any such plea made to us by any organisation representing head teachers. However, I accept Mike Tomlinson's report and, as I said in my statement, I believe that it is something of which Government should take note.
I come now to the important questions of compensation for students, and the QCA. Some students have been inconvenienced financially and made poorer by the extra accommodation, tuition and travel costs incurred when they chose to change universities. They will be reimbursed by a special fund being set up by my Department.
As for the QCA, the House should recall that it was set up by the previous Administration. Its impartiality has served the country well, but I accept that the time may have come when the public—and, more importantly, teachers, parents and students—want added safeguards to ensure that impartiality. That is why I welcome the decision by Ken Boston, in whom I have the greatest confidence, to establish what I might call a stakeholder body, involving head teachers and their representatives, to oversee the examinations to be held next January and June. Mike Tomlinson will monitor that body's work overall, and it will provide an added safeguard for next year's results.
However, Mike Tomlinson may say in November that further safeguards are needed, and he might make proposals to that effect. If so, we will adopt them. The Government have no interest in doing anything 213 other than ensuring that the increased standards achieved by pupils, students and teachers over the past five years are supported by a robust examination system.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which she has responded to a problem that has been very difficult for the Government. However, will she confirm that the staff at OCR has been completely absolved from any blame? That is important for me, as many of them are my constituents, and OCR is based in my constituency.
§ Estelle Morris
I appreciate my hon. Friend's constituency interest in that. Of course, OCR is an independent body, and it is for its members to read and absorb Mike Tomlinson's report. However, that report went no further than to examine the actions of OCR's chief executive and senior examiners. I hope that my hon. Friend can take some assurance from that, although I leave that to her sound judgment.
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sighting of her statement and for her courage in coming to the House to deliver it.
Liberal Democrats remain committed to the A and AS process, although we accept Mike Tomlinson's comment that it was rushed and that the extra year would have made a significant difference. We also believe that it is essential that the QCA is not simply reformed but abolished in its current form and that we have an examination watchdog that is totally independent of the Department for Education and Skills. Without that, everything else will be considered a fudge.
We have had two months of sheer hell affecting tens of thousands of young people who were subjected to experimentation at every level of their school life, their teachers, their further education college lecturers and their parents. In that time, our examination system has become the laughing stock of Europe and, indeed, the world. Yet now it appears that nothing happened and that all is well. It appears that either the shy and retiring Sir William Stubbs panicked when he discovered that this year's results were 0.3 per cent. out of line with his predictions and forced the exam boards to redraw the grade boundaries or that this year's students at AS and A2-level had a universal dip in performance, not when they sat their exams, handed in their course work or when their work was marked, but when their papers were graded. That is the sum comment of the Secretary of State today.
Far from restoring confidence, today's statement merely adds to the belief that the dead hand of Government was behind this déâcle. We are delighted that 1,953 students have received positive regradings today, but tens of thousands have been left wondering "what if?" Is the Secretary of State prepared to publish the numbers of students who would have gained different grades on the original grade boundaries? That set of statistics is crucial in determining where the fiddling went on.
At the heart of this fiasco is the question of standards, particularly that of maintaining the gold standard at A-level. Does the Secretary of State accept that simply 214 using the word "standards" again and again without defining what it means has contributed in large part to the chaos? Does she agree with the QCA, which clearly thought that it meant limiting the number of students achieving certain grades, or does she agree with the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who told the QCA last week that this definitionplaces a block on talent and ambition"?
The Government are right to maintain standards vigorously but they have no right whatever to determine how many students meet those standards. However, that is the impression that is abroad this year.
This statement speaks volumes. It speaks of a Secretary of State who panics every time bad news arrives and does not have the guts to say to No. 10 that running scared of criticism is no way to run a Government. Does she accept that No. 10 would not sanction charges of grade inflation, and that is what really lies behind this sorry saga? Will she confirm that in her Department's media plan, agreed with No. 10, deflecting accusations of grade inflation came near the top of the list of priorities for July and August? Will she confirm that the press releases issued on 14 August by QCA and 15 August by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), along with numerous articles about gold standards, were all planned in advance to head off criticism of grade inflation? Will she admit that her Department created such a climate of paranoia over maintaining the gold standard that this year's fiasco became inevitable?
In short, the Secretary of State is responsible for this year's A-level fiasco and she must apologise to the 90,000 students who feel that they have cheated.
§ Estelle Morris
I suppose that one of the advantages, or disadvantages, of being in perpetual opposition is that one can change one's mind about six times a day. To be honest, in the past few weeks, the hon. Gentleman has been changing his mind between the "Today" programme and "World at One", but so be it.
On the grading question, I am a mite cross with the hon. Gentleman at this point in time. Let us just think about it. In August, we were accused of grade inflation. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who speaks for the Conservatives, went on the "Today" programme followed by "World at One" to say the same thing, unlike the Liberal Democrats, and I grant him that—that given that A-level grades had improved, we must immediately have a thorough inquiry into the exam system. He did not congratulate the students and teachers on working harder and learning more effectively; he said that there must be something wrong with the system because the results had improved. Mike Tomlinson actually reports that at the root of the problem, at every level of society, is an unwillingness to believe that, year on year, our children can learn more effectively, students can get better and teachers can teach more effectively. Having heard that in August, in September the Government were accused of grade deflation. All of a sudden, rather than making the exams easier, to get better results, we had made the exams more difficult to get the grades lower. That is the complexity of the situation.
215 The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is usually generous of spirit and, with Labour Members, he usually gives due recognition to the achievements of youngsters in August when the results are announced. He always does so. He will know, therefore, that maintaining that their grades are due to the fact that they had worked harder and achieved more is a pretty difficult task. That is why we are prepared to assure the nation that there has been no political interference in the setting of grade boundaries or anything else; it is no more and no less than the result of the hard work of our teachers and pupils.
What is sad about what the Opposition spokesman and the hon. Gentleman have been saying today is that we set up an independent inquiry and, in effect, they have both said that they do not trust its results. They must think about the message that that gives to head teachers, parents and students. Both the hon. Gentlemen are still saying that there has been political interference in the setting of exam grades this year. There has not been—no evidence of that has been found—and while the Labour party is in power, there never will be. I also repeat that I do not believe that there ever would be were any other party in power.
Opposition Members have a choice. They can continue to play politics with that accusation or they can think carefully about the implications that it has for teachers and the students who are now studying for next year's examinations. No matter whether hon. Members believe us or Mike Tomlinson, the key thing about the report today is that every single organisation of head teachers that brought the original complaint, both from the maintained and the independent sectors, has signed up to say that the process undergone during the past few weeks has been robust, that they trust it, that it is fair, that they think that students now have the right grades and that they want to get on with teaching and learning. I back them. I certainly do not back the hon. Member for Ashford.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must inform the House that many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Could we please have shorter questions and, hopefully, shorter answers too? I call the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller).
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Does my right hon. Friend yet have enough information at her disposal to determine whether the papers that were wrongly marked were in one geographical area, or were spread about? Has she been able to draw any conclusions from that data yet?
§ Estelle Morris
No, I have not. The list of units—we must remember that they are units and not full subjects—were published and have again been published today for anyone who wishes to look at them. It would depend on which schools in which geographical areas tended to choose OCR as an examining body. I 216 cannot give my hon. Friend a geographical make-up, but all the units that were regraded were from OCR, not from the other two examining bodies.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
Does the Secretary of State now accept with the benefit of hindsight that, despite the delay and the consultation, this problem had its origins in the way in which AS-levels were introduced, when the first warnings of grading problems were issued? Obviously, she has only a few weeks to ensure the credibility of next year's system, but when she considers her longer term duty of restoring the reputation and status of A-levels will she no longer rule out abandoning the AS experiment, which has contributed to this problem and caused endless other problems inside schools too?
§ Estelle Morris
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is clearly well versed in the matter given his former post. For the record, AS-levels, which used to be a 40:60 not a 50:50 split, emanated from the discussion document published by the Conservative Government and Ron Dearing. When we took power, we consulted. At the time, it was a 40:60 split, but it was to count for 50 per cent. of the marks. During the consultation, people thought that that system was too complicated and we came up with a 50:50 split. Interestingly, that was widely accepted by schools.
I accept that the technical implementation of that 50:50 split has caused difficulties. One thing that Mike Tomlinson said was that he would have expected the QCA to study a number of different ways to ensure that the statistical processes for getting that split were robust. He did not say—I specifically asked him this because of course, I would want to consider it—that inherent in a 50:50 split is an inability to get it right. He said that more statistical modelling needed to take place. The new chief executive of the QCA has agreed to undertake that.
What schools need now is certainty. Whatever is for the long term, I want to give them an assurance that no further changes will be made to the syllabuses—to what pupils learn and what they teach—without timely consideration and due warning—that is, not in the foreseeable future.
§ Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that parents, teachers and students will contrast the dignified, decisive and, today, feisty way in which she has responded with the squalid and childish response of those on the Opposition Front Bench? When she is considering these matters further, will she give some thought to whether the introduction of an international baccalaureate, or something similar, might in the long term help to overcome some of the problems?
§ Estelle Morris
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. An interesting debate has been going on in education circles for as long as I can remember about the baccalaureate and it has now been put in the public domain, and rightly so. It is important to give assurances, as I told the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I do not want schools or teachers to go away from any debate in the House thinking that the system is about to change again. If my hon. Friend means by a baccalaureate some sort of 217 overarching qualification in which we can recognise both the study of some subjects in depths, which are A-levels, and that broader curriculum, that is something in which I personally and the Government have been interested. I put on the record that that is for the long term, not the immediate term. What schools want to know most of all now is that there will be no immediate changes. I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution, however. That is a debate that the education service and this House should continue.
§ Estelle Morris
There are six modules in an A-level: three at AS-level and three at A2. AS-levels count for half an A-level. They are recorded in the performance tables as such. Due to the linear nature of some subjects, it was deemed that the first year six, usually the AS-levels, would be marginally easier than the old A-level standard. To maintain that standard, therefore, the second year had to be marginally more difficult than the A-level standard. That is where the difficulty lies. What is clear is that the overall standard of AS and A2 is the same as previous A-level standards.
§ Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)
I thank my right hon. Friend for the apology that she has issued to students this evening—a refreshing change, to which Opposition Members are obviously not used. I have had inquiries from only two students in my constituency. Given the hype raised by the battle cry of "political interference" and "interfering" from the Opposition parties, I would have expected more. Is it not the case that those battle cries do not undermine the Government in the way that Opposition parties clearly intend, but undermine those students who are now facing difficulties? Should we not now focus on how to ensure that the students affected get the help that they need quickly and how to announce a robust system to the House in the next eight weeks, so that we can have clarity for next year's exam results?
§ Estelle Morris
My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the details that I have been able to give the House today about the students—just under 200—who are eligible to change university, the procedures for this year's examinations, the changes we shall make and the support we shall give reassure her.
Criticisms were made today about acting precipitately—acting too quickly or too slowly are both accusations that have been made over the past few weeks. What I have tried to do during the past few weeks was actually to deal with the problem that arose at the start of September. This is the first occasion on which I have made any political comment, either party or otherwise, or attacked anybody. While others have been doing that over the past few weeks, I have been busy getting on with solving the problem that arose. I hope that today I have been able to lay it to rest.
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
I am surprised that the Secretary of State should conspicuously have failed to recognise the work of many individual staff at the OCR, many of whom may be my constituents who work in Cambridge, or those of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). If the 218 Secretary of State persists in scapegoating the QCA and the OCR, they will recollect that she and Ministers were responsible for insisting that 40 per cent. of the work at AS-level should be counted as half an A-level, for the botched implementation of the AS-level in the first level and for the ill-advised assessment review in 2001.
§ Estelle Morris
I think that I have already answered the latter points. I am certain that, as regards the hon. Gentleman's constituency, he misheard, rather than deliberately misunderstood; none of the comments that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) were meant to imply any criticism of staff at OCR. I said, and I say again, that OCR will read the report. I reassured my hon. Friend that Mike Tomlinson's comments had been at chief executive and senior adviser level. To reassure the hon. Gentleman about his constituents who work at OCR in whatever capacity, I have made no comments about what they have done; 1 have referred them to Mike Tomlinson's report and I am happy to say that again.
§ Tony Cunningham (Workington)
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is the cloud that has hung over all A-level results, so will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the tens of thousands of successful A-level students and pay tribute to the work of their teachers and schools?
§ Estelle Morris
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) talked about the generation that had been experimented on, but they have also achieved more than any previous generation at each of their examination stages. I congratulate them and their teachers, parents and families for supporting them. Like my hon. Friend, I am delighted that the number of students who were today notified of changes in their results was lower than we might have expected.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)
Does the Minister understand that one of the reasons why her whitewash today will not wash is that too many of us have direct personal experience of this fiasco? My daughter, whose AS-level grades were affected, rang me today from her school to express the anger felt by her teachers and friends about the totally inadequate response comprised by the report and the Minister's statement today. It ducks the major issue. Does she not understand that only comprehensive re-marking of the relevant papers will suffice? Will she go back to her office and immediately order that re-marking, and offer to pay for it as well?
§ Estelle Morris
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should distrust Mike Tomlinson's report and the word of the HMC, the Secondary Heads Association, the National Association of Head Teachers and all the teacher representatives. It is a good report, with good work over the past three to four weeks, and I am sorry that so far not one Opposition Member has chosen to support Mike Tomlinson and his recommendations.
As regards marking, the exercise undertaken by Mike Tomlinson has been wholly unusual. Never before has anyone had to look at the way in which grade boundaries were set. There is a well-established process 219 for any school that wants remarking to take place. By the time the inquiry was set up the number of schools that had asked for re-marking rather than regrading was roughly the same as in previous years, except at OCR where the number was significantly higher. That led me to say that it looked on the face of things as if there was a problem at OCR. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that when any school which applies for remarking—the boards have extended the period during which that can take place—and re-marking takes place, the fee is sent back to the school.
§ Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)
What will my right hon. Friend say to the 17 pupils at Horsforth school in my constituency where English literature marks were changed to the extent that some of those pupils received 91 out of 120, rather than 21 out of 120, and others received 102 out of 120? Would it surprise her to learn that the examination board involved offered no apology for its mistakes and all the trauma that was caused? What reassurance will she give pupils, parents and the school not only that we shall learn the lessons from this fiasco but that in future examination boards will have a much more human face?
§ Estelle Morris
I know that my hon. Friend will take back the comments that I have made to the House today, expressing our understanding of the distress that the students must have gone through. His comments only serve to remind us that we were absolutely right to act as we did in setting up an independent inquiry, letting it do its work and reporting to the House when it had completed its tasks.
As regards any points that hon. Members raise on the future of examination boards or the impartiality or robustness of the examination system, it is good to have the debate, but I am determined to wait for part two of Mike Tomlinson's report. At that point we shall no doubt have the opportunity to discuss and debate it further.
§ Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)
Given that Ministers introduced the AS-level, given that Ministers approved the increase in repeatable coursework and given that Ministers had sight of the draft QCA guidance on grading, how does it follow that Ministers had no responsibility at all for the accident about to happen? Discuss.
§ Estelle Morris
Grade E, bordering on U.
Given the hon. Gentleman's previous post, I should have thought that he would understand that the setting of grades, sending out subject specifications or anything to do with the marking assessment system is hands off for politicians. I do not question for a minute that the situation was not the same in his day. It is hands off for politicians and it is important that that remain the case. The QCA is responsible for setting out subject-specific guidance and for all the implementation and mechanics of the system.
I am responsible for the policy. I am responsible for making sure that when something goes wrong it is put right. I am responsible for Curriculum 2000 and I am 220 happy to be held accountable for that. I cannot be held responsible—nor can any politician—for interfering in the exam system because politicians should not do so. We did not do that and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not either.
§ James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the root cause of the problem is that some people just will not believe that A-level results are improving? They do not believe that more than a minority of people should be allowed to take A-levels and go to university. Should those people not be pointed in the direction of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development research that found that we now have the eighth best education system in the world? We should be complimenting pupils rather than running them down the whole time.
§ Estelle Morris
My hon. Friend is, of course, exactly right. We have an excellent education system in which standards have increased at every key stage, at seven, 11, 14, 16 and 18. We should be proud of it.
I say again that we cannot be proud of the events that led to the statement. I acknowledge that. No one would want to pretend otherwise. However, each Member of the House, from all parties, has to make a personal decision: whether to accept what has come from the report, to learn from it and move on and to congratulate our students and teachers on their achievements, or whether to continue to make political capital over it—I think some have already made that decision.
I have dealt with the problems that arose during the past few weeks. We shall now move on and that will include recognising the achievements of the generation of children who are in our schools at present.
§ Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)
The grading problems came to light through the starkly contrasting results of children who had been awarded previous A grades but final U grades in their modules. Anyone who has been a teacher knows that that is almost impossible and very unlikely in large numbers. However, C and D grades followed by mistaken U grades may be more difficult to identify. Has the Secretary of State satisfied herself that young people across the grading system—not merely those with As and Bs initially—have been treated fairly?
§ Estelle Morris
Absolutely. I did not know this two months ago, but I can now tell the hon. Lady that in order to set the grade boundaries, what first happens is that the A pass rate is set and the E pass grade is set, and then the grades in between are calibrated, presumably, within that framework. When that process was gone through again, every single grade would have been affected, so I want to offer the assurance that the process that has just been undergone has not just been about whether people who got an A or an E or a U got the correct grade; it has been about every single grade. Indeed, some of the young people who have been notified of grade changes today will find, for example, that they have a C that goes up to a B. It has been done effectively.
I again give the hon. Lady an assurance, because I do understand the seriousness of the matter; many Members of the House, not only as constituency MPs 221 but as parents, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) said, know the importance of this and I note his concerns. But every single person who complained about the grading of this year's examination results has signed up today and said that they think that the process has been fair, that they are happy with the results and that they want to move on. I hope that we can do so as well.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Does the Secretary of State realise that the stridency of her statement and the brazen lack of contrition that she has displayed this afternoon make us all comprehend why she so regularly gets the bird at teachers' conferences? She keeps on citing the judgment of Mr. Tomlinson. Are not parents, teachers, the universities and, not least, students entitled to have a Secretary of State in whose judgment they can trust?
§ Estelle Morris
I think that, as I said before, the role of the Secretary of State in this is, on hearing of concerns, to look at the evidence, take action and ensure that the matter is put right. I set up this inquiry some three-and-a-half to four weeks ago. Within a relatively short period, a great deal has happened. I have been responsible for ensuring that the inquiry has been carried out effectively. I have been responsible for ensuring that it has been brought to a timely conclusion. I have been responsible for ensuring that at every single stage of that inquiry, those whose concerns brought the matter to our attention in the first place, were satisfied with the procedures that were being used. I believe that that is the sort of Secretary of State that teachers and the nation want.