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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 August, 2003, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
A Levels discussed
On Sunday, 17 August 2003, Breakfast with Frost featured an interview with the Schools Minister, David Miliband MP and Graham Able, Headmaster Dulwich College.

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

PETER SISSONS: Now this week more pupils passed more A levels at higher grades than ever before. Next week it's the turn of GCSE students to have their work scrutinised, not only by the examiners, but also by the experts and analysts who say that the national exam system is in serious trouble.

It's suffering from a crisis of confidence. In a moment I'll be talking to the man responsible for educational standards in schools, David Miliband. But first I'm joined by the head master of one of our leading public schools and the current chairman of the Head Masters conference, Graham Able. Graham welcome. Do you believe Ministers when they present this year's A-level results as a triumph for pupils and for teachers?

GRAHAM ABLE: Yes I do. I think over time more people have done better at A-level. The main reasons for that is that students are undoubtedly working much harder today than they did in my day, I'm ashamed to say. And teaching has got (a) better and (b) more focused on producing exam results. Our teachers today are working harder and more efficiently than ever.

There are other reasons too, more titles have come in, that has allowed people with different talents to take A-level and succeed in them. Maybe not all of those titles should have come in, that's another issue. But I am convinced that we have got real improvement. That doesn't mean A-levels are perfect, there is a problem at the top end. A-levels no longer discriminate highly enough at the top end for our main select to universities and that needs to be adjusted.

PETER SISSONS: Is that the only problem you have with A-levels, that more people should fail and that at the top end the top grades should be more rigorously given out to the universities.

GRAHAM ABLE: I didn't say more people should fail. I'm actually quite happy with the pass-fail borderline. In the 1950s two A-levels got you to university, now two A-level passes get you to university, so there fits the purpose. It's at the top end where I think the purpose is no longer fulfilled.

I would like to see changes to A-levels. I would like to see a broadening of the 6th form curriculum, that would require three years of advance work and not two, with people doing perhaps six or seven subjects in the first two years and then the three in the third. But the basic A-level pass standard I think is fine.

PETER SISSONS: The Head Master of Eton, turning to GCSEs, thinks they've become a bit of a joke. I mean, I don't think he used those words, but he said it was like collecting Boy Scout badges. How many more independent schools think like that?

GRAHAM ABLE: I think a lot of us would like to see GCSE phased out in its current form. It's an examination system that has undoubtedly moved forward educational standards for 16-year-olds in the UK. I would argue it's now past its sell-by date. I would like to see it, at the very least, downgraded to a Year ten exam with perhaps only national tests in maths and English. I think it's time we trusted the teachers otherwise and we reduce the examination load on our pupils, so we can get on with a more exciting curriculum.

PETER SISSONS: There's talk now of course, there's always talk isn't there, of the system being recast yet again. And Mike Tomlinson is going to report - the former Chief Inspector is going to report later in the year with the second part of his review. What do you hope for and what do you fear from any fresh interference with our examination system?

GRAHAM ABLE: I hope for a reasoned and gradual introduction of the system we all move to and I expect that will happen. I don't think we need any precipitous changes because they're always difficult to handle.

I would hope for the downgrading of the importance of a 16-plus national exam system as more and more people stay on at school beyond that level. And to give us the flexibility to have a three year 6th form in that I applaud what Tony Little said. He didn't actually say Eton are getting rid of GCSEs, he said he is considering it and I hope that Mike Tomlinson will give us the ability to do just that.

PETER SISSONS: Will your school, Dulwich College, bin GCSEs?

GRAHAM ABLE: I think that it is likely when we see the Tomlinson Report that that will give us the flexibility to move towards that position. Yes, I wouldn't bin them as of today because we still are in a era when university applications go in before A-level results are known, and if our students didn't have good GCSEs they might not get university offers. So it's in their interests to take them, even though they get in the way of an ideal curriculum.

PETER SISSONS: Thank you, Graham. David Miliband, the Schools Minister, is with us, as indicated. This time last year, David, it was Armageddon for A-levels after the regrading fiasco. All the commentators will say that goal standard has been debased. Now you're banging the drum as if there were no greater test known to man.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I think that there are two important messages that come out of last week with the A-level results and this week with the GCSE results.

First, that our pupils are working hard, that our teachers deserve congratulations and the pupils we should say to them well done, rather than engage in the national sport of carping every time educational standards rise. After all OFSTED, the independent inspectorate do say we have the highest standards of teaching ever. So in a way it's logical that you'd have better exam results.

The second thing though, that's important, is that the system is properly run and that not just teachers and pupils, but parents and the wider community can have real confidence that papers are set, marked and graded in an appropriate way. And obviously there were real problems last year, but I'm encouraged by the independent reports from the QCA, the body responsible for the exams. But also from members of Graham's association who've sat in on these key meetings, that the system has been properly run this year.

PETER SISSONS: But if everything's working well why change anything.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I would never say everything is working well in a system where 50% of young people don't get five good GCSEs. And after all, where two-thirds of young people don't actually sit the A-levels.

And we've got to strike the right balance between ensuring stability in our system so that parents and pupils and teachers have real confidence in the exams. But over the long term also seeking to achieve reform, and after all it is actually embarrassing that we are 25th out of 29 countries for participation in full-time education at age 17, that's something that any responsible government has to address.

PETER SISSONS: Chris Woodhead, writing in today's Sunday Times, former Chief Inspector of Schools, says your private position is that the A-level must go. And that you are heading for basically a British baccalaureate, a much more widely-based examination

DAVID MILIBAND: Note just my position, but the government's position, which is perhaps more important than my position. We are ready to build reform on the strength of our existing system. Graham talked about a broader offer to young people, stronger vocational courses, which I think has been a long-standing problem in our country.

And we've said to Mike Tomlinson, the highly respected former chief inspector of schools, to spend a year and a half with a group of experts, looking at how we can have a 14-19 system that really does serve across the ability range, and helps every young person develop their talent to the full.

PETER SISSONS: The fear is that what you've just said, every young person develop their talent to the full, that you're devising another exam that nobody can fail.

DAVID MILIBAND: No, quite the opposite. The fact that less than one per cent of Cambridge under graduates failed to get a degree at Cambridge doesn't mean that a Cambridge degree isn't worth having.

It's absurd to judge the quality of an exam by the number of people who fail it. What I'm interested in is a system that really does stretch those at the top, but doesn't forget about everyone else. And that's historically been our problem in this country.

PETER SISSONS: Can we be absolutely certain that standards are not being eroded. Just tell us. You went to Oxford and you got a first in PPE. But you got three Bs at A-level.

DAVID MILIBAND: And a D in physics, not to be neglected.

PETER SISSONS: Yes, but these days people with five As are being turned down by Oxford. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that perhaps your three Bs were worth as much as, or more than, five As today.

DAVID MILIBAND: No, because the purpose of university entrance, since the Robbins report in 1963, is to say that people should enter higher education on the basis of their ability to benefit from the teaching and learning that's on offer there, and therefore on the basis of merit.

Now it's not right to get into my own personal circumstances. I would hardly set myself up as a load star for the whole system, but I think that I'm confident that independent studies both by respected people here and internationally, say that the rigour of the A-level has been maintained but that teaching standards have risen. And when teaching standards rise, as Graham says, when pupils work harder, we should expect exam standards to rise.

PETER SISSONS: But there's been a 20% improvement over 20 years in the numbers getting the top grade. The universities complain that they now can't pick out the people at the top of the top grade. And there's a report this morning that we're going to try out an American aptitude test on top of the A-levels to help universities pick the brightest candidates. How firm is that proposition?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I guess propositions being advanced by an independent or voluntary programme that's being sponsored by a private person.

PETER SISSONS: Does it strike a chord with you.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I think what's important is that we do stretch the brightest pupils as well as providing an offer for everyone else, and that's one of the things that I was encouraged with the discussion paper put out by the Tomlinson group last month. Basically, we want to ensure there's real stretch at the top to allow the brightest pupils to differentiate themselves, that's a good thing but we shouldn't think it's only at the top that people should be able to differentiate themselves. It should be across the ability range.

PETER SISSONS: If everyone's doing so well and getting all these high grades, why are employers and universities complaining that when they get a lot of people with these grades, on the face of it quite clever people, they've got to do remedial work. Their first year at university, their failures in grammar and literacy.

DAVID MILIBAND: Oh I see some very bright people recruited at the BBC as well as everywhere else. The BBC is a major employer. I haven't had that sort of complaint but, as I say, we've got a serious problem in this country.

That historically we've educated at the top the elite very well for about 25%, but the rest we've short-changed. And we've got to try and build a system where it's not 50% who fail to get five good GCSEs at 15, where we're not 25th out of 29 countries for participation - education at 17. Those are significant reforms and, if I could say, the government started out saying every child matters in our country for the economic future and the social future.

We started by saying that in the primary schools we really had to raise standards. I think that most people accept now, there are world class standards in primary schools. We now face the challenge in the early years of secondary education, when parents worry that their kids to a secondary school and they end up going off the rails. We're addressing that and we've got results coming out on Tuesday that will show progress in that area, to show how much progress is being made in that area. We've then got a long-term challenge to make sure that the 14-19 system is one appropriate to the needs of the time.

PETER SISSONS: I'll give you the final word briefly in a moment. Graham what would you say to what you've heard the Minister say this morning?

GRAHAM ABLE: I would agree with a lot of what David has said. I think traditionally in the UK we have concentrated on the top 20%. Yes we can improve those exams further, particularly at the top end. But it is time we concentrated on the other 80% and in particular produced a world class vocational educational system which sadly we don't have.

PETER SISSONS: We're short of skills David Miliband, we're short of plumbers and electricians and we're teaching people psychology and media studies.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, we're teaching some people psychology and media studies, and as I say, less than a third of people do the A-level system but let's not forget the other two-thirds. And after all we do need plumbers who can count and write and talk as well, ...

PETER SISSONS: Not who do psychology.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well not necessarily who do psychology A-level, but who have a broad and balanced education because specialist skills are vital but so is general education.

PETER SISSONS: But no new vocational qualifications are skills-based.

DAVID MILIBAND: No, there are new vocational qualifications in place, I mean this year we've got a very high take-up of engineering GCSE. For a long time I'm sure there've been people from business on this programme saying they're worried about the future of manufacturing in this country. Engineering GCSE is a good start in that direction.

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