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Breakfast with Frost
Mike Tomlinson, chairman A-level inquiry
Mike Tomlinson, chairman A-level inquiry
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: MIKE TOMLINSON, CHAIRMAN A-LEVEL INQUIRY OCTOBER 6th, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Well the full scale of what's been called the A-level fiasco is now emerging. It seems according to yesterday's papers that some 90,000 pupils, a third of the total candidates, are to have their records checked as a result of the downgrading debacle. Many students say their university and career prospects have been damaged, indeed the Mail on Sunday has a story today about the first student who may sue, a teenager from Oxfordshire apparently claiming 100,000 compensation from an exam board after failing to get a place at the university of his choice, due, he believes, to their incompetence. Now Mike Tomlinson is heading up the independent inquiry into this year's A-levels grades and he's here, I'm delighted to welcome, Mike. Could we just start with what is the figure - a quote in the papers yesterday, how many pupils papers are affected?

MIKE TOMLINSON: There are just over 90,000 candidates who are going over the next week to have their work re-examined in the sense of looking at whether or not the right grade boundaries were ...

DAVID FROST: So this is, it's just the grading, it's not going back and remarking the papers?

MIKE TOMLINSON: No, absolutely not. No. There is some misunderstanding here, of course. It's not remarking. The concern that was expressed that led to this inquiry was about the translation of those marks into grades. So it's about the grading process only.

DAVID FROST: And are you going to hit the target of October 15th?

MIKE TOMLINSON: Yes. We have to for the sake of the students and their parents, who have been having a considerably difficult time over the last two or three weeks.

DAVID FROST: And on the basis of what's been done so far. Obviously this can't be taken down and used in evidence or anything, but how many of those 90,000 are going to be upgraded? Between what and what would you guess?

MIKE TOMLINSON: I really don't know. The process is only going to be starting tomorrow with the board and the panels that are being brought together. I have really no idea and it would, I think, rather foolish of me to try and speculate at this point in time.

DAVID FROST: In terms of students, I mean I suppose with gap years, the students there are 90,000, maybe half of them were going to go up to university this year and half next year, something like that, the gap year is increasingly popular.

MIKE TOMLINSON: Yes.

DAVID FROST: How many could the universities accommodate this year? I mean they've got their full complement - can they jam in 10,000, which is quite a lot, or what?

MIKE TOMLINSON: I don't know. I mean that's obviously a matter for the universities but what they have said is that once the regrading is done, they will do their best to accommodate as many as the individual universities can manage. But I think there has been the realistic statement that they're unlikely, dependant on the number, to be able to secure that for all of them and therefore they're honouring the offers for the following year.

DAVID FROST: So that, so that in fact, I mean for instance in terms of the ones who have to be accommodated next year, that is slightly bad luck on the people who are sitting exams next year because there will be fewer places for them.

MIKE TOMLINSON: Well I believe the Secretary of State has said that additional money is going to be made available and the universities have indicated that that will allow them, hopefully, to take the extra number. In other words they would expect that there would be a bulge next year and hopefully that resource is there to help them do that.

DAVID FROST: Could this be prevented - can this be prevented next year? I mean or are we going to get the same fiasco next year?

MIKE TOMLINSON: Well I very much hope not. Part of the inquiry that I'm conducting, in the second part at least, is trying to put in place by late November arrangements that will hopefully prevent this from being repeated, and those arrangements will impact upon assessments that start in January through to June of next year. We have to try to ensure that this never happens again and I'll do my best to try and accommodate that.

DAVID FROST: You described it as an accident that was waiting to happen. What did you have in mind there? Was it the fact that there were warnings in advance that since students now could retake unsuccessful modules that there was always going to be a grade inflation this year and that people should have been prepared for it?

MIKE TOMLINSON: Well yes. I mean I was thinking of two things, one that the structure of what was proposed inevitably, almost, meant that more students would be successful than normally, because, as you say, they can re-sit and of course they've already, by the end of their first year in the sixth form, banked up to three units, so they know where they are with that. And I think part of the problem stemmed from misunderstandings of the difference between a student meeting a standard, the A-level standard, and the proportion that meet that standard. Once you've set that standard, you've got to maintain it and then you have to accept that if people meet the standard, they should get the credit that that deserves - and we sometimes confuse the two.

DAVID FROST: And in fact as you look at this, people say, probably AS-levels and things were hurried a bit and it would have been better if a year or two more had been taken before they came in.

MIKE TOMLINSON: Well certainly that was one of the conclusions I came to, at the end of the preliminary part of the inquiry, was that things had been slightly rushed. The A2, the second year units, had not been piloted, and they really ought to have been. Plus the fact that there were problems that were heralded by some people that clearly had not been resolved as fully as they needed to be, and that was the basis of me talking about an accident waiting to happen.

DAVID FROST: And in fact, do the A-levels now have to fight to get back their gold standard image? Obviously confidence in them has been shaken.

MIKE TOMLINSON: Yes I think they do, confidence and credibility have been seriously shaken, that's for sure. I think that it's a process in which first of all we've got to ensure that the arrangements in place for coming year are seen to be absolutely proper and going, in their own way, to avoid this situation. I think then we've all got a job to do, throughout the system, to convince people that A-levels remain a very important examination and that they can rely upon the process that gives them the grades.

DAVID FROST: When Estelle Morris was here a couple of weeks ago, she indicated that they were still considering, they were always considering, they had not ruled out the international baccalaureate. Is that a possibility?

MIKE TOMLINSON: I think some form of baccalaureate is a possibility, that was heralded of course in the government paper on 14-19 education. I think it's a question of what sort of baccalaureate, and of course more importantly about the timescale for its introduction. But that of course is, at the end of the day, a decision of the government.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the government, Tony Blair said sorry, a slightly reluctant sorry this week, and so on but I mean, in the end, the things we're talking about, accidents waiting to happen and so on, in the end does the buck stop at the Ministry of Education or before the Ministry of Education?

MIKE TOMLINSON: Oh I think it's very difficult to know where the buck stops. As I said, I think there are a lot of things that could have been done prior to, and in the early stages of the implementation of this reform, which could possibly have prevented it from happening. Clearly the things associated with, as I said with DFEE decisions, things associated with the QCA, the Qualification & Curriculum Authority, decision-making.

DAVID FROST: And what about these threats of legal action? They seem rather high sums if people have just been delayed a year or something like that, is that really worth 50,000 or 100,000 pounds when they've probably not earned anything yet?

MIKE TOMLINSON: I wouldn't know, and I think that I've got to leave that to the lawyers. I have no view on it, my main task at the moment is to ensure that by the 15th, when any regraded results are at the schools concerned, that's my concern, to get the students the grades that their work over the last year has deserved.

DAVID FROST: But the thought of lawyers getting into the act, in terms of education, it's a sad fact that we've come to that.

MIKE TOMLINSON: It is, and of course it's not the first time that lawyers and legal matters have been brought into the education system - I can think of a number of cases over recent years where they're, it is but I think one has to reflect that it's now part and parcel of almost every bit of our everyday life, isn't it? That in some way, shape or form, the lawyers get in on the act.

DAVID FROST: Well thank you very much Mike for being here today, we appreciate it and we wish you well with your repair exercise and that you - you are confident of hitting the 15th because you've got to.

MIKE TOMLINSON: I'm determined to hit the 15th.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed. Mike Tomlinson.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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