Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 15 MAY 2002
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
(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
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
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.
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?
(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
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
(Sir William Stubbs) When you say "most organisations",
we are not running a sweetie shop. We are running a very large
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
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
(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.
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
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
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.