Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Sir William, can I welcome you to this session of the Select Committee. Although I was corrected by a Clerk that when we were looking at earlier years there was a part of a session when we did meet members of your staff, in terms of a regular consultation with QCA we have not had one for some time and I am determined that this becomes an annual event as fixed in the calendar as meetings with others are. Welcome indeed and I hope we can make up for lost time. May I also welcome Beverley Evans, Keith Weller and Chris Jones. We have a reasonably formal style but with a lot of informality within those bounds. In other words we do tend to use people's full names. The whole purpose of this thinking is getting information and knowledge. I want to ask you, Sir William, to say a few words to open the meeting.

  (Sir William Stubbs) Thank you, Chairman. As you said, this is the first occasion on which we have had to account for ourselves before you given that you are in fact our parent committee. This session I hope will be an opportunity for us to impart a sense of what QCA is about. I hope we can show that how we view our responsibilities in the role of education and training to a very wide range of people. Most importantly, our work has a key contribution to make to the lives of children and young people in our schools and many young people who are taking qualifications, and also many adults who are continuing as learners in lots of different ways. What we do also matters to teachers and educators, to employers and businesses and institutions of further and higher education. We sent you some material which provides an introduction to QCA and you will have seen our aims and main objectives and goals and our mission and examples of what we see as our achievements. You can see that we take responsibility for a very broad range of curricula. We are still a relatively young organisation. Perhaps that is why we have not appeared before you, Chairman. We come from a forced marriage so to speak between two earlier organisations in 1997. That merger brought together under one roof responsibilities for vocationally orientated qualifications and the more traditional or general qualifications as well as the curriculum and assessment in schools. In many ways our efforts in the first few years of our existence have focused on unifying the organisation, joining one body that had been mainly dealing with schools with another body that dealt primarily with employers and training organisations. That phase is now complete. At the heart of QCA is a mission to guard standards in education and training. We work with many others to maintain and develop the curriculum in our schools and associated assessments. We also accredit and monitor a wide range of qualifications in schools, colleges and the work place. You will be aware of course that we are not the only organisation with an interest in standards. Ofsted and Her Majesty's Inspectorate amongst others also have a key role. Naturally we work closely with colleagues in Ofsted and elsewhere as we seek to carry out our duties. We put guarding standards at the heart of QCA's mission because we need to ensure the integrity of the school curriculum, its assessments and the qualifications system. It is important that all young people, children and adults who participate in the education and training system in this country can have full confidence in its value and quality. We have a key role of ensuring that the qualifications we accredit are needed and are of high quality and that the awarding bodies assess people's achievements accurately and make awards effectively. We also need to ensure that the national curriculum in our schools sets clear national standards and meets the needs of all pupils and helps to raise attainment. The assessment of what pupils learn at schools means that teachers and parents know how well pupils are achieving against these national standards. Above all we seek to guarantee the standards against which assessments and examinations are made are consistent from one year to another. As a closing remark, Chairman, it is worth noting that we have a system that deals with around eight million general or vocational qualification awards each year. Notwithstanding high profile reports in the media that appear from time to time, there is generally very high confidence in the curriculum assessment and qualifications we have in this country. No doubt you and your colleagues may have slightly different views about that but we will be pleased to answer questions.

  2. No, I would not accept that rather defensive last sentence. Many members of this Committee would agree that we very much appreciate the effort that QCA makes in terms of maintaining standards and we always bear in mind that the time when qualifications are most vulnerable to criticism are in the dog days of summer when there is little news about. We do take a balanced view but on the other hand it is our responsibility to probe you on the fact that there is a concern with constituents when they feel that when they went to school standards were higher, it was more difficult to reach high grades and they see a proliferation of children meeting very much higher grades and they worry because it is not just the newspapers or the Today programme that suggests that there is a weakening of standards or a dilution of the currency; it is eminent professors as well, some of whom wrote to the Committee when they knew you were coming before us. What do I say? What do members of this Committee say to the parent, to the teacher, to the professor, who says that as you expand the number of children reaching a certain standard you are doing that partly by diluting the currency? What do you say to that criticism?
  (Sir William Stubbs) It partly depends on the audience and who exactly you are talking to, who the constituent is, whether they are talking about formal qualifications that have been achieved post-16 as one comes towards that significant period, or whether you are talking about the assessments for young people in school. The language will be slightly different because the procedures and the methods are different. In both instances you will be able to rely on the fact that there is in place throughout the country a national system that systematically and professionally takes care to guard standards, to compare standards with not only the previous year but with previous years and to do that in a systematic way, and to use experts to help us. We do not rely on ourselves on many of these matters. We bring in, as you have already referred to, distinguished professors and others from the world of industry, employment and education in order to assist us in this task. The track record is that in the main these qualifications are accepted for the purpose for which young people have expected them to be used.

  3. What sort of conversations do you have with people like Professor Peter Tymms at the University of Durham who is very concerned particularly about Key Stage 2 and the methodology that you use for checking standards year on year? Does that have some problems around it?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Professor Tymms, who is part of a company in Durham University which organises a series of tests and sells them to schools, does so for a very specific purpose. There are different ways of assessing. We are now talking about school based tests; we are not talking about formal qualifications. There are different methods of assessing that. His particular method relies on assessing the underlying abilities of young people and to do so with a test that is fairly unchanging from year to year. That is the main virtue as far as he is concerned. There are some minor changes but broadly speaking it is the same test of underlying abilities, roughly like an IQ test. It is because it is the same test each year that it is given not to the whole year group or the whole peer group; it is given to a sample and it is carried out under confidential terms inevitably. That is one view and he measures what he sees as underlying abilities. There is another view. Professor Dylan Wiliam at King's College here in London takes a different view and he says that the most reliable method is to rely on teachers themselves, that teachers know the young people, they are in touch with them regularly day after day, week after week, and that their assessment is more accurate. He looks at our tests and says that they are as good as tests can be, but tests cannot be as reliable as the individual judgements of teachers. Of course, that means that one is looking to rely on something like 20,000 teachers who will have their own views about standards. Our view, which is a third view, is that the assessments should be drawn on the national curriculum and that young people should be assessed against the standards of the subjects that they have been taught by the teachers. That test that we construct is rooted in the national curriculum subject which is specified, which is open, and teachers are advised about them and so forth. There is a new examination every year, new tests every year. That test, when it is constructed, is done on the basis of pre-tests that are given to children the previous year, anchor tests that remain the same over five years, and on the basis of that cumulative experience we construct a new test in English, maths and science each year. You mentioned Key Stage 2. We also do it at other different stages of a young person's school career. Therefore, the answer to Professor Tymms is yes, tests can measure different things. Our test measures progress on the national curriculum. I think that is a sound basis on which to go forward and provided there is an integrity about the way in which we do it, and it is open and transparent, then I think parents can have confidence in the outcome, as I said to you earlier.

  4. Thank you for that very full reply. I would very much appreciate if at a different time, later, you gave an even fuller reply to Professor Tymms' letter because he makes some specific technical points. What about the more general question of where people say of you or of the system that we now have in this country that by the time that children have been put to test at several occasions during their educational progress they have gone through all the qualification hurdles but in a sense the amount of testing and qualification we have, the number of exams, means that you are driving out of the curriculum the ability to actually teach, that the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom suffers because there is very little flexibility? We hear this when we visit schools. We are going to spend a whole week in Birmingham later this year to look at education in one city. I am sure one of the things we will find, as we have found elsewhere, is people saying, "We are over-examined, we are over-tested, so it does not give us a chance to teach and allow the children to learn". What do you say about that?
  (Sir William Stubbs) There are two dimensions to that. The first is the content of the national curriculum and how much flexibility it allows and so forth. Broadly speaking one can deliver the national curriculum in primary schools and have about 15-20 per cent of the school teaching time available to use in a way that the school sees fit. It broadly applies not only in primary school but secondary school as well. There is flexibility there. On the question of testing as such and how that influences the curriculum, then you need to rely not only on evidence from QCA but also from Ofsted because the experience of the child is what they observe in schools. You will see many reports that are critical about relatively narrow and unstimulating environments but you will also see many reports that report the very opposite, so I do not think the quality of the actual experience of the young person can be laid at the door of the content of the national curriculum. Indeed, we are anxious to make sure that it is a stimulating and rich diet. When one moves to the testing of achievement in the national curriculum, it is important to put it in context. A number of figures are quoted about the times that young people have to experience tests. As far as statutory schooling is concerned, up to Key Stage 2 or 3, say, then by law there are three subjects that have to be assessed: English and maths and, in the latter stages, science. There are eight subject assessments for young people in the course of their primary and secondary school career. That does not seem to me to be disproportionate. I know that those eight points break down into a number of different papers so that English is examined on the basis of reading and writing and separate papers, and Shakespeare too in Key Stage 3, and you may well have some questions on that, and in science there are also two papers and similarly in maths. But when you look at the amount of time that is required to assess a young person, and you mentioned Key Stage 2, at the end of Key Stage 2, the end of a primary school career, the assessment that is required nationally will take up about four and a half hours. To put that in context, Chairman, recent surveys of the amount of time that the average young person watches television and videos show that they watch for about three hours a day. I think it not unreasonable at the end of a primary school career to be spending some four hours in a systematic way assessing the attainments of young people versed in the national curriculum and then letting parents and schools know how their children have performed in a way in which they can have confidence. I think there is a good tale to tell and one that can give you confidence.

  5. That is a reassuring answer, Sir William, but some of your critics say why do you not put your head above the parapet more often? Do you ever have real concerns about the curriculum and about the amount of testing or examining or about any other issue in your purview where you actually fall out with the Secretary of State and, say, bang the table, go on the Today programme and say, "There should be less Shakespeare, there should be more this". One gets the impression that you do not often do that. Do you do it in confidence quietly or do you not do it at all?
  (Sir William Stubbs) First of all, how do we find out about the concerns? We spend a lot of time and effort finding out about the real concerns of teachers and parents about testing each year. An agency on our behalf contacts 400 schools immediately after the tests, in other words when it is fresh in their minds: was the test relevant, was it unreasonable, did it invoke anxiety and stress, and then we get a report back on that. We go to considerable efforts in order to find out how it is received in schools and in the main we are very encouraged by what we find. Turning to your second point, does one bang the table with the Secretary of State, I do not think in my career I have ever banged the table at a Secretary of State, Chairman, and I hope to complete it without having achieved that. That is not the way in which we would seek to influence matters. The Secretary of State asks for advice from us regularly. Unprompted we give advice. As recently as yesterday I was giving advice to a minister (not the Secretary of State) on matters on which we have concerns, but we do that in an orderly way. As far as formal advice is concerned, we are required to keep that confidential, so one does not go on the Today programme and say,"This is what we are saying to the Secretary of State", but once the Secretary of State has made up her mind our advice is published and it is in the open, and if the Today programme wants to see it I will be happy to appear.

Mr Shaw

  6. You said, Sir William, back in September when your Chief Executive announced his retirement that he would be sorely missed. We are now in mid May and there is still no new chief executive. Why is that?
  (Sir William Stubbs) By the way, he is sorely missed. I would not be here this morning, I suspect, if we had a chief executive. We have gone through the process of appointing a replacement promptly. We have appointed a firm to help us in that. The trawl has taken place, the advertisements have taken place, we have had along listing session with appropriate advice, and moved on to short listing and the interviews take place next week, and I sincerely hope there will be a puff of white smoke next week.

  7. It is quite a long time, though, is it not?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Yes, it is a long time, I agree.

  8. Why is it such a long time? You have been guarding standards in education, as you have told the Committee this morning, since September. Do you think people do not want the position? Do you think you are attracting sufficient quality?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Having seen the short list, I have no doubt that we are attracting sufficient quality, very high quality. The procedure we have gone about is a standard procedure that is followed in other parts of Whitehall. Let me put it against the background, Chairman. We are not in crisis. We are not saying, "We have not got a chief executive" with a great wringing of hands. I was disappointed when the chief executive left. He had only been with us just over a year, so that was the disappointment I was expressing at that time but, quite sensibly, the Secretary of State then said that she wanted to secure the management and organisation of QCA and she asked would I become effectively full time. That, alongside Beverley Evans here as Accounting Officer, means that the senior management can move forward confidently and we are doing that. There is not a hiatus, there is not a crisis, and indeed much productive work has been done over the course of the last six months about which I know the Secretary of State is pleased and draws comfort from and I think generally you can draw comfort from.


  9. Who helps you with your executive search? Which company?
  (Sir William Stubbs) PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

  10. Most people in the private sector would be a little askance without a chief executive for six months.
  (Sir William Stubbs) They have not been without a chief executive.

  11. Did your chief executive give you any warning that he was going to go, or did he go overnight?
  (Sir William Stubbs) He did not go overnight, no. He gave us warning. He gave notice that he was going to go.

  12. Most organisations tend to want a seamless transition.
  (Sir William Stubbs) When you say "most organisations", we are not running a sweetie shop. We are running a very large organisation.

  13. I have never known British Petroleum be without a chief executive for six months.
  (Sir William Stubbs) As far as I know the Chief Executive of British Petroleum was not advertised. We are required to advertise, and you would be criticising me here today if we did not advertise and we overnight appointed a chief executive. We move with proper public procedures that are open to scrutiny and you can draw comfort from that.

  14. Sir William, I do not draw comfort from that. I will have to look now and I will ask my Clerk to find out how many public sector jobs have an interregnum of six months with no-one at the helm in terms of a chief executive. I do not think many will have this length of time, but we will leave that to one side. We have not asked you about the Quinquennial Review. What is likely to be the outcome of the Quinquennial Review for your organisation?
  (Sir William Stubbs) The basic purpose as I understand it is to see whether there is a continuing need for an organisation like this. I sincerely hope the outcome will be to confirm that the organisation does fulfil the purpose that is needed and that it does it in a professional and sensible way and has a track record that commands confidence. That is, I hope, the desired outcome. We have not yet received the report so it is speculation at this stage.

  15. How do you view the process? Have you found it onerous? Have you found it a distraction? Have you found it takes your eye off the ball with what you should be doing?
  (Sir William Stubbs) When you say it takes our eye off the ball, it certainly requires attention and a lot of preparation in order to give evidence to the panel and to answer their questions. Yes, that is work that we would not otherwise have been doing. I think it is a very good stocktaking. I think it is sensible for an organisation to look back and to answer questions about itself. I think it not unreasonable. It is difficult for those carrying out the task in a relatively short period of time to gain a thorough understanding. Harking back to your earlier concern about the failure to appoint a chief executive, I said that I did not want to go out and appoint a chief executive until the Quinquennial had concluded, until we knew. It seemed to me to be absolutely unreasonable to be carrying out a search when there might have been a sword of Damocles hanging over the organisation. At my request they speeded up the Quinquennial and they started sooner than they might otherwise have done. In fairness, that is part of the answer why there was a delay. I think we will be in a better position when we make the appointment, which we will know by next week, the answer to the main question: does the organisation remain in business in broadly the same way it is now?

  Chairman: I hear what you say and I understand that, but from the Committee's point of view what we are concerned about is that it has had a pretty turbulent past, this whole area, lots of institutional changes, and I will call on David Chaytor to ask you some questions on that, but in a sense all the time what we are looking for to reassure parents and teachers and students is little turbulence, permanence, and that is why we are pushing you on that.

Mr Chaytor

  16. Sir William, your organisation was formed in 1997 and you are going through your first Quinquennial Review. What do you identify as the biggest weaknesses of the QCA?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I do not detect any big weaknesses in QCA.

  17. In the submissions that we have received from organisations with whom you deal almost all of them criticise the QCA as an institution for various things ranging from lack of accountability to over-bureaucracy to conflict of roles between the regulatory role and the role of delivering the tests. Are you not concerned about any of those issues and are those issues not being addressed in your Quinquennial Review?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I cannot answer what has been addressed in the Quinquennial Review. They have been asking us about procedures for consultation, quite reasonably, but they would do that anyway, I would have thought. As far as people concerned about bureaucracy are concerned, I think more accurately if there is a concern about excessive bureaucracy, we probably do want bureaucracy because it does mean that there is a procedure that they hopefully see as transparent and fair. Some organisations, particularly some awarding bodies and bodies that are preparing awards for sections of industry, have had to come to terms with a very different arrangement in order to satisfy the national framework of qualifications so that what they are doing can stand up to scrutiny. I think for some of them that was a painful process but hopefully we have gone through that and now I think there is a wider understanding of what we are doing and how we are doing business. I am more sanguine about some of them but I still want to look into it.

  18. In the review process is there some element of self-evaluation that you have to go through?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Formally the Quinquennial is a group of people appointed by the Department, led by a civil servant, to look at us and they form their own views. They have discussions with us, they ask us questions, it gives an indication of where people have indicated personal problems to them. Inevitably therefore we look at ourselves but there is not a formality about it.

  19. So there is no formal self-evaluation?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Not as far as the Quinquennial is concerned. We do that every year anyway as we take stock.

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