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22 July 2008 : Column 680

SATs Testing

1.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I would like to update the House before it rises on the delivery of this year’s national curriculum tests, following my appearance before the Select Committee last week and my letter to its Chairman yesterday. I would like to provide an update to the House on five areas: progress on marking; marking quality and appeals; contractual discussions between the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and ETS Europe; the Sutherland inquiry; and the future of national curriculum tests. I shall continue to update Parliament regularly over the recess. I will write weekly with an update to the Chair of the Select Committee, copying my letter to Opposition spokespeople and the Speaker and placing a copy in the Libraries of both Houses.

First, on marking, the first priority is to ensure that schools receive their 2008 results in an orderly way, with the minimum of delay. This morning, in a written statement, I provided the House with the latest information that the QCA and ETS Europe have given me on results released to schools. The total of scripts marked and released has now risen to more than 98 per cent. of marks at key stage 2, and at key stage 3 some 88 per cent. of marks are now available—94.1 per cent. in maths, 93.4 per cent. in science and 76.9 per cent. in English. QCA and ETS Europe had made a commitment that all schools would have received their marks on 8 July, and they have both apologised to schools for the delay. I share the frustration and anger of teachers, children and parents about the delays in the release of this year’s test results—this should not have happened.

Secondly, on marking quality, I have been advised by Ofqual—the independent regulator of qualifications, exams and tests in England—that the quality of marking is at least as good as in previous years, and justifies the issuing of results. Ofqual has assured me that it continues to monitor the quality of the marking of the tests, and that it will consider the evidence in relation to any problems that are brought to its attention and act accordingly. I shall continue to update Parliament on the progress with Ofqual’s work on marking quality. The QCA has extended the timetable for appeals to 10 September or 10 days after the start of term, whichever is later.

Thirdly, QCA has confirmed, in a statement over the weekend, that it is in contractual discussions with ETS Europe following these unacceptable delays. QCA states that it is considering all available options to allow the timely conclusion of the work for the 2008 test series and to secure a successful 2009 programme. The contract with ETS Europe was drawn up and has been managed by QCA, at arm’s length from Ministers, to ensure the independence and objectivity of the testing regime. Any contractual discussions are legally a matter for the QCA and ETS Europe. Those discussions are continuing, and they are highly sensitive—commercially, legally and financially. At this stage it is very important and in the public interest that QCA should be able to conclude those discussions in a timely, orderly and rigorous fashion, in order to safeguard the interests of pupils, schools and taxpayers.

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I am advised that ministerial intervention or interference at this stage, including public statements intended to influence the outcome of these contractual discussions, would be inappropriate and would jeopardise the public interest. In particular, it is very important that nothing is said to shift responsibility or redress from where it properly falls under the contract. I hope that the House will understand why I cannot comment further at this stage.

Fourthly, following the publication of the terms of reference last week, I can confirm to the House that Lord Sutherland has started work on his independent inquiry. It is important to allow an orderly completion of this year’s national curriculum tests, so Lord Sutherland has told me that he intends to collect evidence in August and September before reporting publicly when the House returns in the autumn. The independent inquiry will look at all the issues surrounding the test delays, including the specification and procurement of the contract with ETS by QCA. That will include the role played by Ministers and my Department and the arm’s length relationship between the QCA and Ministers and departmental officials in that regard.

Finally, on the wider question of testing and assessment, I have welcomed the Select Committee’s recent report and its support for the principle of externally assessed national tests. But, as I said to the Committee last week, the current testing and assessment regime is not set in stone. Indeed, in the children’s plan we highlighted the potential opportunities presented by our Making Good Progress pilot, involving 500 schools, where pupils are entered for single-level tests when their teacher judges them to be ready and at the level appropriate for them.

It is important that we evaluate the case for change before making decisions. As I said to the Committee last week, the pilot runs to next July and is being externally evaluated. I have asked for an interim report in the autumn, and I will publish it to Parliament, but we must not return to the situation where school accountability was weak, parents lacked good information about their child’s progress and, as a result, many children fell behind in their education and development. That is why it is so important that we complete the delivery of this year’s test results, ensure the delivery of the 2009 national curriculum tests and secure public confidence that the system is being appropriately managed, regulated and scrutinised at arm’s length from the Government.

I am determined that we learn the lessons of this year’s experience. I am confident that the work of Ofqual and Lord Sutherland will be of great value in that regard, and I commend this statement to the House.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I first of all thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for finding time before we break up for this statement? I also thank the Secretary of State for taking the opportunity to update us today on the latest twists in this terrible fiasco. I wish to underline our sympathy for the pupils, parents, heads and teachers whose summer has been blighted by the chaos surrounding the marking of the key stage 2 and key stage 3 tests.

Under the American contractor ETS, there have been chronic delays in getting all papers marked, the marking itself has been flawed, with reports of teenagers and cocktail waitresses being approached to help meet deadlines,
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and papers of widely differing quality being given the same mark. The Secretary of State says that it is no worse than every year. Does not that just underline the incompetence at the heart of this Government when it comes to education?

The Secretary of State rightly acknowledges that this situation is unacceptable, but what parents and teachers want to know is whether he will take responsibility. He has consistently argued that responsibility for this affair rests in hands other than his—at arm’s length. But can he confirm that civil servants from his Department—specifically, the director general of schools—were there at the meeting when the contract was awarded to ETS? Can the Secretary of State tell us what, if anything, civil servants told him about that procurement process? Can he tell us what action, if any, he then took to ensure the safe delivery of testing?

When I informed the Secretary of State in the House on 19 May that ETS had a record of missed deadlines and mistaken marking in the US, he confessed he had “no knowledge” of their record—even though he is accountable to Parliament for the testing regime. How could the Secretary of State have known so little about the company to which we were entrusting a multi-million pound contract when his own director general of schools was there when the contract was awarded? The chief executive of the QCA says that he is entirely satisfied with the process that awarded ETS this contract. Is the Secretary of State?

I note what the Secretary of State says about the ongoing contractual negotiations, but does he not agree that when companies with public sector contracts fail to live up to their promises they should not be bailed out by the taxpayer? Does he not agree that any contract signed with a company that means we have to pay them to escape is a contract that could only have been signed by a Government who are neither prudent nor competent?

As soon as ETS took up its contract, examiners started to register their concerns. The standardisation process, which ensures consistent marking, was flawed, with highly experienced markers being failed and other, much weaker candidates, being passed despite registering a worryingly high number of mistakes. Worse, the failsafe system to deal with bad marking—the borderline process which allows for papers to be remarked—was scrapped. Given the high number of complaints of inconsistent and error-strewn marking in this year’s tests, how can the Secretary of State have confidence in the quality of marking? Can he give an absolute guarantee that full key stage 2 results will be published on 5 August and key stage 3 results on 12 August? And can he give an absolute guarantee that heads and teachers can be confident that the results generated by ETS will be robust enough to guarantee accurate pupil scores and reliable league tables?

In assessing the credibility of everything that has been said today, it is crucial that we also know just what action Ministers took when the flaws in ETS’s operation became impossible to ignore. When was the Secretary of State first made aware that there were major problems with this year’s marking and what actions did he take? In March, the chief executive of the QCA warned the Secretary of State that the introduction of “new IT” by ETS carried risks. What steps did the Secretary of State take to reduce those risks?

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On 14 May this year, the head of the new exams watchdog Ofqual wrote to the Secretary of State to outline her priorities. In his reply, the Secretary of State said nothing about the importance of getting this year’s SATs right, and instead said that the new single-level testing and the diploma programme were the priorities. Why, when teachers and examiners were already warning of problems with the tests, did the Secretary of State not ask the regulator specifically to address those concerns?

On 19 May, I and the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) again raised the concerns being voiced by teachers and examiners. The Secretary of State said that he would monitor the situation closely. Then on 4 July, Ministers had to acknowledge that the problems with marking were so great that the publication of results would have to be delayed. Can the Secretary of State tell us what specific steps he took after 19 May to get SATs testing back on track, what meetings he had, which interventions he authorised and which officials he pursued? Or did he, like an exam candidate who has not done his homework, just cross his fingers, hope for the best and pray that he would not be asked any tough questions?

We all await Lord Sutherland’s report with interest, but when the Secretary of State’s predecessor Estelle Morris ran into trouble with a marking fiasco, she commissioned a former chief inspector to issue an interim report within a week. Why is the Secretary of State not insisting on similar urgency even now? Is he afraid of the results? Has not his behaviour throughout this affair been characterised by indifference, high-handedness and inattention? Is it not the case that his Department failed to ensure that contracts had been awarded properly, failed to heed warning signs and failed to act quickly to avert a fiasco that every teacher in the land could see coming? Do not pupils, parents and teachers deserve better than a Secretary of State who fails the most basic test of all—competence in office?

Ed Balls: There is no doubt in my mind that parents, teachers and pupils deserve better than the service that they have had in recent weeks from ETS Europe and from the QCA. I have said clearly that I very much regret what has happened and the inconvenience to schools and pupils. Indeed, I share the frustration and anger of teachers, children and parents that this should have happened.

The QCA and ETS have both apologised. However, as I have said, this is a commercial and legal matter, and I will not say anything that either shifts responsibility or redress from where it should properly fall, or that would influence the outcome of the current contractual discussions. What I say in the House today has practical and financial consequences, and for me to indulge in the rhetoric and grandstanding of the hon. Gentleman would be ill-advised and against the public interest: I am not going to do that.

I am happy to answer the many scattergun questions that the hon. Gentleman asked. It is important to answer them now, but we will also have the inquiry by Lord Sutherland, which I set up immediately and which will provide independent answers to all those questions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the length of time that the process will take. It will take so much time because it is important that we go through all that has
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happened and get it right. He might not have observed that the difference between this case and the Tomlinson inquiry in 2002 is that there was no contractual, legal or commercial issue at stake in the delivery of those tests. There is such an issue at stake in this case, and that is why it is important that things are handled carefully. Lord Sutherland has said that he wants to work to this timetable. I am happy to let him work to the timetable that he thinks is right to get to the heart of what has occurred.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the procurement process. That process was handled at arm’s length from Ministers. At no point have Ministers seen the contracts drawn up between the QCA and ETS. At no point were Ministers consulted on those contracts—[Hon. Members: “Why not?”] Opposition Members ask why not, but it is not possible for the Government to be accountable for the results of tests while at the same time being actively involved in the management of the marking of those tests. That would not command public confidence. That is why the right way, which is how this has been done for a number of years, is for the contract to be managed at arm’s length by the QCA. That is what it did in this case.

I am accountable to the House for schools policy, including the delivery of results. However, the responsibility for the delivery of those results is a matter for the QCA and ETS under contract. Lord Sutherland will look carefully at why that delivery did not happen. Clear processes were followed at the time, including the Office of Government Commerce’s carrying out gateway reviews—at least one, carried out two years ago—to ensure that the contract was negotiated in line with the remit set by our Department and in line with best practice in order to deliver efficiency, value for money and the best procurement of the contract. Those processes were given a green light by the OGC and that was reported to Ministers.

All the details of the procurement process, including the role played by Ministers and officials, will be considered by Lord Sutherland in his report. The reality of government is that Ministers do not interfere with the procurement and marking of tests and test results. We have stuck to that fundamental principle.

Earlier this year, there were early difficulties with the marking and with some of the computer programmes for the test results. That was raised with our Department in advance of our exchanges in the House of Commons in May. They were raised in the House on that day, too. I immediately sought reassurances. In the following weeks, the Minister for Schools and Learners had a series of meetings. Contingencies were put in place for the delivery of those results. I had a meeting on 2 June with Ken Boston, the chief executive of the QCA, in which I was reassured that all the actions that we had asked for in the days after 19 May had been taken. We were assured that the actions in that period had got things on track.

Despite a series of meetings in May and June, it was only on 1 July that the QCA brought to our attention the fact that the tests would not be delivered on time, because the marking was behind and because of problems with the flow of data to the computers on which they are presented. We immediately asked for that to be investigated by the QCA and, two days later, having satisfied ourselves that that was the position, we announced in a letter to the Select Committee, reporting to Parliament,
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the Library and Opposition spokesmen, that we would delay the publication of key stage 2 results until 15 June and the publication of key stage 3 results until later in that week. At that time, we announced the independent inquiry. We discussed the inquiry’s terms of reference with Ofqual and with Lord Sutherland. That was published when I appeared before the Select Committee the following week.

At the same time, Ofqual reassured me on 4 July, and has done since, that the quality of marking is at least as high as in previous years—although that is monitored closely—and that therefore it is appropriate for those results to be published in August. The final decision on publication will be made on the advice of the independent statistician in our Department and on the basis of the views of Ofqual in the coming days and weeks.

The hon. Gentleman obviously does not know how the regime works in practice, but 10 million scripts are marked by over 1.2 million pupils in every year—

Michael Gove: What?

Ed Balls: The scripts are done by pupils, not marked by pupils; I am sorry about that faux pas. There are 1.2 million pupils and 10 million scripts, and every year there are some difficulties with the marking of those scripts. That is why we have an appeals process and why there are appeals every year. Of course, every year there are problems in the marking of the scripts and things get sorted out.

The advice I have received from the QCA and others is that the volume of complaints received through the helplines has been similar to the volume received in recent years. Ofqual is looking at that, and Lord Sutherland will consider it. No evidence has been provided at this point to suggest that there is any reason to delay the publication of the marks. It would be the wrong thing to do for the future of testing in our country.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about teenagers and cocktail waitresses marking tests, he has no evidence that any teenager or cocktail waitress has marked any test. If he wants to provide that information to Lord Sutherland’s inquiry, I am sure that it will be considered. Once again, we will find that behind the rhetoric there is no substance to the hon. Gentleman’s allegation.

We have an independent inquiry. Sensitive contractual discussions are going on at the moment. All aspects of the matter will be considered closely. It is important that we take the right decisions this year so that we can secure confidence in the future of the testing regime. Rather than undermining confidence, the hon. Gentleman should support the work that we are doing with the independent inquiry. He should support the work that the QCA is doing in order to get the best outcome in these discussions. Rather than undermining confidence, he should act more like a statesman in these matters.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I hope that notwithstanding those comments the Secretary of State will accept that if we are to have a high-stakes national testing system we must have a high-quality marking system that enjoys confidence. I hope that the Secretary of State would acknowledge that this year’s marking of the key stage 2 and 3 tests has been nothing short of a complete shambles.

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