Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
WEDNESDAY 15 MAY 2002
40. I was not clear whether the quinquennial
review was to ask whether you were doing your job well, or whether
it was necessary for you to do your job. You spend either £76
million or £127 million, and you have over 500 staff, over
half of them in Central London: are you worth it, Sir William?
(Sir William Stubbs) I think we do provide value for
money, Chairman; there is no doubt about that. As I said at the
very outset, a number of qualifications were awarded throughout
the country, and I have described the use to which they were put,
and I think that much public confidence is derived from that.
That confidence stems largely from the work of the regulatory
body. I think that without QCA you would be a much more worried
nation, with respect to the examination system. You asked about
how well we do our work. I think the answer is that it is both.
The primary question is whether we should continue, and that is
what I wanted an answer to before we appointed a chief executive.
I think we would then be expected to look at what we were doing
to see whether we could do it more efficiently or effectively.
41. Some people would look at a quango and say,
"are you necessary?" What conditions would be necessary
for you to cease to exist?
(Sir William Stubbs) It would be such benign conditions
that I find it hard to imagine, Chairman. You would have total
confidence in the integrity of bodies training to give a service
that was crucial to young people's and adults' life chances and
needed no oversight. That may be your expectation of the world
in the immediate future, but it is not mine, Chairman. I think
that there is a discipline associated with having a regulator
in place, and we fulfil that. Maybe we should fulfil it more openly,
but we certainly fulfil it. If we were not there, the system would
be, quite frankly, in some respects dangerous because qualifications
would be given without any scrutiny about the integrity of them.
Qualifications, ultimately, are certificated evidence of the candidate's
achievements and abilities. It is very important that one should
have confidence in it.
42. Mr Weller, what was wrong with the Secondary
(Mr Weller) That Council was responsible, as its name
implies, for school examinations. It was not the curriculum
43. Within its area of responsibility.
(Mr Weller) Within its area of responsibility, I think
it functioned tolerably well, but it was not able to offer the
progression links between qualifications of different kinds that
QCA is able to do. People may not necessarily want to go through
a linear route and may want to move to and from general and vocational
qualifications. You could not do that without an oversight of
relationships and the national qualifications framework. In its
own sphere, it operated fairly successfully, albeit there were
a very large number of committees which took much time to process
44. Have you ever stormed into the Secretary
of State's office and said: "Secretary of State, we have
assessed the baccalaureate system, and you really should not take
(Sir William Stubbs) The answer to the first part,
have I ever stormed in, I have not stormed in.
45. Have you done an assessment of the attractions
(Sir William Stubbs) The international baccalaureate
has been looked at on our behalf by our equivalent in Wales, because
the body that runs the international baccalaureate is based in
46. Is that published?
(Sir William Stubbs) I think it is published.
(Mr Weller) There is an accreditation process. It
was a question of establishing if the body was a fit awarding
47. Could you let us have anything you have
(Sir William Stubbs) Yes.
48. There has been a quite spectacular increase
in raising standards in relation to Key Stage2 over the last seven
years. Does that represent a real increase and improvement in
standards in our primary schools?
(Sir William Stubbs) It certainly represents a real
increase. By the way, when you lump them together, you are talking
about English, maths and science collectively, but the rate of
improvement in each of those subjects has been different. The
rate of improvement in science has been the most marked. There
has been some improvement. All the evidence that is complementary
to the tests, and that is the evidence of direct observation from
HMI principally, shows that the quality of education in schools
has improved, and our evidence backs that up. Where there is dispute
is about the reliability and accuracy of the percentage of improvement.
That comes down to those who make the judgments. Much earlier
on this morning, I said to you, Chairman, that we provided a variety
of techniques in order to ensure that those judgments are as well
organised and as rigorous and meticulous as one could reasonably
expect. The fact that there has been real improvement is, I would
think, very powerful indeed.
49. Does that mean that our primary school children
moving up to secondary school are now better placed to start their
secondary education; and when will we see a spectacular increase
in Key Stage 3, as we have done with Key Stage 2?
(Sir William Stubbs) There is little doubt that we
are better placed. As we all know, the transition from primary
to secondary is not a serious process, transition from one institution
to another and transition from one teaching staff to another,
and moving into a much bigger organisation, moving into a learning
organisation that has to deal with young people coming from a
variety of schools with different experiences; and also what is
expected of them. They move into a curriculum that is much more
subject-based and there is a dip in attainment. To some extent,
that results from secondary school teachers wanting the evidence
of young people's achievement directly rather than relying on
the evidence of their primary colleagues. That has been a problem
for decades now, since my earliest days in education. Secondary
schools wanted to re-test youngsters instead of using the evidence
from primary schools. Effort is being made at Key Stage 3 by the
Department and the Secretary of State concerned, to see Key Stage
3 improved, including transition arrangements. There are a number
of novel schemes around the country. If they could make that transition
utterly seamless, then what you are looking for would have a much
higher probability of coming about. At the present, it is not
without its difficulties.
(Mr Jones) To answer the question directly about when
one would expect to see a spectacular improvement in Key Stage
3, the point touched on by Sir William at the end is critical
here. In relation to the improvements that we began to see coming
through the system in Key Stage 2 in particular, it is reasonable
to make some causal connection with the fact that there has been
a massive effort to focus on the core of the Key Stage in the
national strategies over the last four years. The work that we
do in designing the curriculum and the tests, provides a framework
but the input of supporting teachers and putting resources in
and training, very much comes through the Department, in terms
of their strategies, and one has begun to see that. As you are
aware, Key Stage 3 in a sense, has just begun. The parallel strategy
for bringing about improvement at Key Stage 3 is in its first
year or so. So one might expect a year or two before one started
to see similar effects in terms of the end of Key Stage 3 results.
50. When I go into primary schools, quite often
an issue that is raised by teachers is the fact that they feel
the curriculum is becoming too overcrowded in the primary school.
Have you any views on that?
(Sir William Stubbs) I mentioned earlier on that there
is something like just under 20 per cent available for schools,
particularly primary schools, to use in terms of developing the
curriculum. There is evidence that many schools imaginatively
use that. In addition to the National Curriculum, we give advice
to teachers, which, by the way from all our assessments is highly
appreciated, on how to deliver subjects and so forth. I think
where the difficulties come is where some schools, rather mechanistically,
follow advice and follow the National Curriculum, perhaps sometimes
because they are not confident enough to use the freedom; but
there is certainly nothing within the National Curriculum framework
which would not allow them to do that. Chris has been looking
at that, particularly within primary.
(Mr Jones) An unusual feature of our National Curriculum
is that it does not specify amounts of time statutorily to be
linked with subjects. With the first major review of the curriculum
in 1995, the design was such that there was an expectation that
the National Curriculum would occupy of the order of 80 per cent
of schools' time. That depends to some extent on the amount of
time that the school is in session and the amount of time the
teacher has, and so on. The figures at the moment suggest that
schools typically spend rather more than that, and that it is
probably closer to 85 per cent of their time on the National Curriculum.
It does vary from school to school. Some schools clearly find
it difficult to fit everything in. Interestingly, and perhaps
not surprisingly, the more successful schools, schools that do
well in terms of the sorts of measures that are in place, are
often the ones that will comment that they find no trouble with
fitting everything in. Schools vary in terms of their success
in getting things together. We spend a good deal of time producing
advice, based on what actually happens in successful schools and
in effective schools, to spread those ideas around the system,
both on paper and through our websites and so on, to enable other
schools to learn from schools that have been successful in doing
that. The figure is somewhere around 85 per cent to 90 per cent.
51. Are there any subjects in danger of being
squeezed out in the primary school? I am thinking primarily of
subjects such as PE and Games.
(Mr Jones) The last time we reviewed the National
Curriculum and put a new National Curriculum in place was for
the year 2000. We spent the previous three years building up to
that review. Interestingly, in the two years preceding that new
curriculum coming into place the Secretary of State effectively
suspended a large part of the National Curriculum in primary schools
in order to give particular attention to literacy, numeracy and
so on. Therefore, there is an interesting two-year period leading
up to that. In 2000 there was a question as to whether to carry
on with an arrangement whereby schools had to do geography and
history etcetera but did not have to follow the National Curriculum.
We gave very clear advice to the Secretary of State at that point
that that should not be the case, and that programmes of study
nationally specified should be re-introduced, but slimmer than
the ones beforeless of it. The Secretary of State agreed
with that, and that is what happened. There is not any evidence
that the subjects are being squeezed out, but there is evidence
certainly that primary schools have re-organised their priorities
over the past three or four years. There is a greater emphasis
on literacy and numeracy in Key Stages 1 and 2, particularly Key
Stage 2, and that does put some pressure on schools in terms of
finding the time to fit things together. One of the things that
we have registered over a number of years is that schools, as
you would expect, have got much, much better at planning and organising,
and doing what they need to do in order to deliver what is a very
ambitious National Curriculum. That is to the credit of schools.
We are so much better at it now than we were five years ago. There
is pressure there, but the schools are coping.
52. On Key Stage 2 results, you said categorically
that there was a definite rise in achievement over the last seven
years. There are voices in the education world that say that some
of this is an unreal rise. Talking to that range of teachers,
they all say, certainly off the record, that year 6 is dominated
for a whole year by teaching to the tests, with an eye to the
school's league table position and al the rest of it. In my last
year in teaching, before the election, I was a year 7 form tutor.
As well as teaching those 33 pupils, I was also reviewing their
progress in every subject every term. I would say beyond a shadow
of a doubt that one third of those pupils came in that September
with Key Stage 2 results that were higher than the level they
were really on. Have you done any research into this?
(Sir William Stubbs) This would be the progress that
they might have made in the third term, before their transfer
into the secondary school. I would think they would make no progress,
and we should be concerned about that. I was asked earlier if
there had been a real improvement over the last few years with
respect to the achievements in English, maths and science: there
has been real improvement. I also accept, by the way, that there
is teaching to the tests, and that tests do affect school life.
This term, I suspect, there has been greater emphasis given to
Shakespeare plays than there would be in the last two years, and
that is an anxiety to some extent. Most of the tests used in schools
are not our tests, because schools want to use them for their
own purposes. Schools asked us to construct non-statutory tests
that would help them do that. A sensible, wisely-led school does
not allow that to become disproportionate, but, when it does,
the kind of fears that you express become real.
53. The proportion of A-level students getting
A grade has risen dramatically over the last ten years and has
gone from 12 per cent to 19 per cent. The reason given for that
is polarised between, "we have now got better teaching and
learning skills" to "the exams are easier". Which
end of the spectrum does QCA go for, or do you have another interpretation
of those figures?
(Sir William Stubbs) There has been a real improvement
from 13 to 18 per cent over all subjects. It is not the same for
all subjects, and I would like to come back to that at some stage
in your questions. During that period, there has been significant
change in the examination system so that it is possible for young
people to not have one final examination but they have a series
of modules. The purpose of bringing that in, which was schools
learning from higher education, is that the experience in a limited
examination can help their learning in other parts of the syllabus.
The examinations are constructed deliberately in order to enable
young people to be more effective in their learning. Secondly,
young people and teachers now get the scripts back, so they can
see the technique of examinations and what markers examiners are
looking for. The last Secretary of State introduced that. Now,
the scripts go back and the teachers can see them; and wise teachers
learn from that, as do individual students. The third reason isand
it may not be one that sits with us comfortably, particularly
with Mr Holmes's earlier comment about how we see ourselves versus
those who went beforethere is a considerable body of evidence
that says young people are more intelligent than ten or fifteen
years ago, and that their IQ is greater. We may not find that
comfortable, but nonetheless there is evidence. Putting together
the intelligence of young people, the changing of awarding and
examining systems, the increased emphasis that is given to tests
now, and the importance of young people achieving the A-level
results, you can see that the motivation is significantly different.
I do not see that it is a choice: I think you can attribute it
to a real gain in young people's achievements. If you will permit
me one comment with my back to the door, Chairman, as we are coming
near to the end of the session, this is an English problem. The
English have real difficulty in recognising the achievements of
their young people in examinations. The Scotsand I am not,
in Tony Hancock's phrase, "Rob Roy"have seen
an increase in the highest grades almost parallel with that in
England. It is not something that worries them as a nation; they
actually draw comfort from that. I think we should draw comfort
from that, but we should be on the watch all the time to see that
it is not false. I think we go to considerable effort to see that
it is not false.
54. I appreciate enormously the idea of celebrating
success, and I agree with you that in the English context, we
are not good at it and ought to do it more. QCA felt concerned
enough last year to set up an independent panel to look at the
quality assurance of you're a-level; so did you have some concern?
(Sir William Stubbs) When the new Chief Executive
came in, I said to him: "You had better prepare yourself
for the annual season"the season the Chairman referred
to, which is opening about nowwhen there is great public
scrutiny and criticism. Perhaps the time has come to look at this
more carefully. That was the context. He said he could see the
sense of that, but that the people who looked at it had to be
independent. He brought them in, and that panel looked at it and,
I am pleased to say, confirmed much of what we had been saying
about quality. Can I give you an example, Chairman, about where
it is most often expressed, and that is mathematics, because the
proportion achieving grade A mathematics is 30 per cent. There
is a great wringing of hands about that, particularly when they
look over the Border and see that the proportion achieving the
highest grades in mathematics in Scotland is of the order of 15
per cent. Immediately, one jumps to the conclusion that there
are low standards in England, and that this is a scandal. The
reality is that three times as many young people present themselves
for higher maths in Scotland, whereas in England it is self-selecting.
It is seen as a hard exam and not so many go in for it. Of those
who do go in for it, naturally a higher proportion get grade A;
but looked at over the population as a whole, three-quarters of
1 per cent of a cohort achieve grade A in England, which is almost
half what it is in Scotland. It depends which end of the telescope
you are looking down. There is much of which to be proud, and
much from which to draw comfort.
55. That is very helpful. One of the recommendations
of that panel was that we should give A-level students their mark
rather than their grade.
(Sir William Stubbs) That was not quite the recommendation;
they said that is what you could do. Indeed, young people can
get their mark now, and it is open to the university if they want
to ask them what their mark is. Once you start publicising the
marks, then you put a lot of reliance on individual marks, and
in the main the judgment is that it is better to have grades and
to look very, very carefully at the boundary of those grades.
That is where we have been putting our effort.
56. You mentioned earlier that you had had the
greatest change in the A-level system in the last couple of years
with the introduction of AS-levels. What effect do you think that
has had or will have on the system for young people?
(Sir William Stubbs) It was introduced not in order
to make the system more or less rigorous, or to make it bureaucratically
more efficient; it was introduced for educational reasons. There
has been anxiety for some time in England that young people were
specialising too much and too early, so it was constructed in
such a way in order to encourage young people to broaden their
programme of studies in the sixth form. In the evidence of the
first year, that has happened. It has not happened in quite the
way we would want. The most popular choice is the three sciences
and maths. There is some evidence that young people are taking
the extra subjectsand they are taking between one and two
extra subjectsthat are allied to their core. The spirit
of the reform is also that they would move to the humanities as
well as the sciences. I expect we will see that, Chairman, but
you should not expect young people to be too adventurous. After
all, they are just at the cusp of their career and with the change
in the examination system I think they are being understandably
cautious; but there are encouraging signs. That is the first thing.
The second thing is that we were terribly worried about the number
of young people who were entering A-levels when it was not an
appropriate examination for them, and they were dropping out and
walking away with nothing. The system now enables people to have
a reasonable aspiration, a qualification half-way through, and
they can cash it in, get their AS-level, and use that for whatever
purposes they want. That is a real gain too. Whether it is increasing
the retention rate in the examination system, it is too early
to say, but that is what we believe.
57. In regard to AS-levels, both pupils and
teachers, and I suspect examiners, say that it has vastly increased
the workload. Many pupils that I have talked to in schools are
very unhappy with that. Do you think that that is detrimental
to the education process?
(Sir William Stubbs) It has undoubtedly increased
the attention and effortor, I suppose workloadthat
young people have to put into their studies in the first year
in the sixth form. It used to be that you could rely on your assessment
taking place in two three-hour periods at the end of two years.
For many young people, that was a form of assessment that was
high-risk, and if on the day you were not well or below par, then
failure was a real possibility. That risk is now spread over two
years, and the stakes on an individual are lessreal, but
less, because it is a series of hurdles rather than a high jump.
That means that they have to make an effort in the lower sixth.
I think that last year, which was the year in question, was a
learning year and a nominal year, and probably in the main people
erred on the side of putting in too much effort, and some of the
ancillary effort to sports and other activities in schools was
reduced. I think that that will gradually come back once there
is some stability in the system and once young people and teachers
feel more confident.
58. Do you think that there are therefore no
improvements that can be made in the existing AS structure, and
if there are improvements to be made, what are they?
(Sir William Stubbs) There are improvements that can
be made, and one of them is to do with timetable. At present the
AS examinations are examined first before the A2. That is the
way it started, for good reasons, and we carried it on this year.
I think we could have that later in the school year so that there
is a longer period for learning and revision. When we have consulted
in the past about changing that, the schools have been a bit ambivalent.
Maybe they will have the confidence to say we should do that.
The timetabling of the subjects was, quite frankly, wrong last
year. There were too many conflicts in the subjects and it was
too difficult for young people to take their choice without them
butting up against each other, and sometimes overnight having
to stay in seclusion before going to a special exam the next day.
That has been reduced considerably because we have reduced the
length of the paper in order to allow the timetabling to be made
(Mr Weller) One of the great unknowns in the first
round of AS examinations was the combinations of subjects that
students would choose at the time that timetables were being set.
Those patterns of combination were not known. The examiners know
a lot more about that now and they will find it easier to set
the timetable. There will always be some clash where there is
(Sir William Stubbs) There is one other change, Chairman,
that we are beginning to look at. What has caused some of us anxiety
each summer, in the season you referred to, is that on the same
morning on which an individual young person opens the envelope
and finds out their results, they see headlines in the newspapers
saying that standards have gone down. I think that this is quite
unreasonable. At present, it is necessary for the awarding bodies,
when they produce the results of individual young people, to also
produce national assessments of how the whole system has changed
over the course of the last 12 months. I think we should separate
these two. Young people should get their results earlier so that
they can have a more measured approach to university; and that
national analysis should follow on a few weeks later, disengaged
from the misery or excitement or pleasure that young people get
from the results of their A-levels.
59. Can I ask one final question about AS exams.
Has the introduction of the AS-level been a direct contributor
to the fact of some of the poor performance, particularly by one
individual examining body?
(Sir William Stubbs) The one subject where, frankly,
it was not satisfactory, but we are still not sure how to correct
it, is maths. That was made marginally more difficult, and there
was an outcry. We are not quite clear as to why that was. Was
there too much content; was it a mixture of pure maths and the
applied subjects? We are looking at that this year, when we will
have two years' evidence, to see whether that needs adjusting.
Other than that, in the main, for the other subjects, we are broadly