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The Secretary of State acknowledged that he gave an assurance to this House more than two months ago that the key stage tests were on track, yet in spite of that reassurance 130,000 scripts for key stage 3 English have yet to be marked. Is he prepared to accept some responsibility on his part and on that of his ministerial team for the failure to act in that two-month period? Interestingly, he acknowledged a moment ago that he and his ministerial colleagues were aware of the problems before he made the statement in the House on 19 May that the tests were on track. Will he tell us in his response when he and his ministerial colleagues were first made aware of the problems that there have been this year?

On the issue of the reliability of marking, is the Secretary of State not extraordinarily complacent and very premature to assume that we can have confidence in this year’s key stage test marking? That is particularly the case in the light of the number of complaints that there have already been about key stage 2 English and that there are likely to be about key stage 3 English tests when they are marked and sent out. Will he confirm that the assessment that has been made by Ofqual, which he seems so keen to rely on, appears to be only a somewhat cursory assessment of the processes that have been used and not of the results? Schools that end up having to appeal against the results could face costs of £6.50 per script or £180 per school or per set of results. Will he consider waiving those fees this year so that schools in this country do not end up paying for the incompetence of the Government and ETS? On ETS, does he accept that it is fairly clear from all the evidence so far that ETS has demonstrated unfitness to run the contract this year?

Will the Secretary of State tell us whether any payments have been made so far to ETS out of the extraordinary £165 million that the Government will pay to that company over the next five years to administer the tests?

Can he also tell us, without going into the detail of the contracts that have been signed, whether the QCA and the Government have the power to cancel ETS’s contract without paying penalties if it can be demonstrated that ETS has acted in a negligent and incompetent way in administering the test this year?

On the time scale for the Sutherland inquiry, the Secretary of State has given us the usual ministerial vagueness, saying that the report will be delivered in the autumn. Can he be a little clearer about when he expects the report to come back? Can he indicate the latest date by which it would be necessary for the Government to make a decision if they are to put in place a new contractor for the 2009 tests, given the sensitivity of the time scales involved?

On the future of the testing regime, I think the Secretary of State said that the Select Committee was supportive of some form of national testing, and indeed it was, but it was also extremely critical of the existing testing regime. In his comments at the end of his statement about single-level tests and other adjustments that could be made, there was a sense of the deckchairs being shuffled around on the Titanic, given what we have seen with the marking of the tests this year and the much wider criticisms that have been made. Nobody is suggesting going back to a system of zero accountability, but when it is clear that the testing regime is collapsing under its own grotesque weight, do we not need a more fundamental
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review of that regime than the one that the Secretary of State is hinting at? Do we not need to axe some of the unhelpful and irrelevant tests, such as those at key stage 3, which have a low value in terms of school accountability and pupil assessment? Should we not put some of the enormous amount of money that could be saved by reducing the scale of testing into early diagnosis and early intervention to address some of the root causes of the challenges faced by so many young people in our education system today?

Ed Balls: I am a bit confused. Today, the hon. Gentleman is calling for a review of national testing and its future; yesterday, he said:

I am not sure whether he is calling today for a different review from the one that he rejected yesterday. To be fair to him, however, we have different and principled positions: I believe that it is important that we have continued externally validated national curriculum tests, and he does not—he calls them grotesque and he wants to abolish them.

I should say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) that we no longer have any idea what the Conservative party’s policy on externally validated tests is. I guess that we will have to wait for the outcome of its inquiry under Richard Sykes before we get more elucidation from the hon. Gentleman. However, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and I have different views. I am happy to reform, but I want to keep externally validated tests, and it is really important for parents, teachers and the Government that we do so.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we will abolish the £6.50 per script appeals charge. As he will know, there is a £6.50 charge only if the school fails in its appeal; if it succeeds, it does not pay a charge. Of course it is sensible to keep that charge in place, but if more appeals are successful, schools will not pay more charges. As I said—I am not being complacent about this—Ofqual has advised me on the basis of its work so far that there has not been a decline in marking quality, but it has also said that it continues to keep the issue under the review, and that is its role. That shows that I was right to introduce the principle of an independent regulator—Ofqual—last year so that it could play that role precisely.

The hon. Gentleman asked when we became aware of the issues before us, and we were of course aware of them. The Schools Minister and I were aware of the problems that had occurred with ETS Europe before our exchange in the House of Commons on 19 May. Lord Sutherland will look into the detail of all this. We also took repeated and regular action in the following weeks in discussions with QCA, but, again, Lord Sutherland will look at that in his inquiry. I hope that he will report as soon as possible once he has collected his evidence in August and September. I hope that that will be in October, but, for today, I will say that it will be in the autumn, because I do not want to pre-empt his timetable, as that is for him to decide. However, I am clear that the sooner he can complete his report, the better.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asks at what point we should make decisions about the contract for the 2009 tests. He tries to lure me into providing a commentary
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on the discussions that are currently under way. He asks me to use words such as “incompetent”, but I am not going to get into that. As I explained very clearly, the advice to me is that to secure the best interests of the taxpayer, schools and pupils, the right thing for me to do today is not to comment on discussions that are ongoing and very sensitive, so I will not comment on them. Obviously, however, the sooner information can be provided to the House, the better.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We have already been over half an hour on the statement and an awful lot of people are seeking to catch my eye. Could I please now appeal for one crisp question and, hopefully, a crisp answer?

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May I pass on to the Secretary of State the concerns expressed to me at the weekend by parents and students, including a young constituent called Emma Hoare, about the quality of the marking and the lack of reassurance that they obtained from the TV appearance by an ETS spokesperson, who simply did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the issue? Can Ofqual take into account the need to reassure the public, as well as the Secretary of State, about the quality of these tests?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is quite right. One reason why I acted last autumn was that, in my judgment, there was a conflict of interest in the same body—the QCA—being responsible for contracting to deliver the tests and also acting as the independent regulator of quality. That is why we pulled those two roles apart and why we are legislating for Ofqual. Ofqual is giving the assurances, and it is monitoring the situation closely. There are always some problems with marking every year, but the advice to me is that, so far, there have not been more problems than in previous years. Ofqual is keeping that under review and looking at it closely, and I will report regularly to the House.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Like the rest of the country, the Secretary of State must have seen the two published test papers in English that appeared in the national newspapers last week. Can he tell us why the public and the House should have any confidence in the marking of those test papers, when one, which was clearly well written and accurately spelled, was given a very similar mark to the other, which was poorly written and poorly spelled? For the record, can he tell us his personal opinion of those two papers and the marks that they received?

Ed Balls: Like the hon. Lady, I have no confidence in the marking of those two particular scripts. I am sure that the head teacher of Moss Side primary will be making an appeal. There are appeals every year when the marking goes wrong. The question that we have to judge is not whether there has been a problem in an individual case—that is for the appeals process—but whether there has been a systemic problem of marking quality. As of today, no evidence has been provided to me of a systemic problem of marking quality, but we will keep the issue under review.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware of the concern among teachers about the quality of the tests themselves? When I visited three primary schools in Slough, I found that the teachers were not particularly concerned about the results, although they were angry that they had not got them yet. However, they were very keen to tell me that the extended writing test at key stage 2 was ethnically biased and not appropriate for the pupils of Slough. Those teachers are also concerned, and this will affect every constituency, about how the RAISE system—the system for reporting and analysis for improvement through school self-evaluation—for tracking pupil progress will be affected by what has happened and by the quality of the tests, which look at individual questions.

Ed Balls: I hear my hon. Friend’s concerns. She will understand that the tests are not set by Ministers or by my Department, but at arm’s length by the QCA. I will make sure that her views on those issues are expressed to the QCA. We need to make sure at all times that we have the highest standards of test setting. We also need to make sure that we have a curriculum in primary schools that is suited to the needs of our 21st century society. That is why Sir Jim Rose is reviewing the primary curriculum. Obviously, that will impact on tests in the future.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s rather extraordinary statement, which could best be summarised as saying, “This is absolutely nothing to do with me. I’m just the Secretary of State in charge of the Department.” Is it not the truth that this is a complete fiasco, that it has happened on his watch and that ultimately the buck rests with him and no one else?

Ed Balls: As I said very clearly, I am accountable to Parliament for schools policy, and that includes the delivery of the tests. I was clear about that today, and I was clear about it last week when I appeared before the Select Committee. However, the responsibility for delivering those tests lies contractually with ETS Europe. A contract was drawn up with the QCA at arm’s length from Ministers, and rightly so, because that is the only way to inspire public confidence in the objectivity of test setting that is independent of ministerial interference. I am clearly accountable for setting the regime, but the responsibility lay with ETS Europe, and the question that is being discussed today is whether those responsibilities have been properly discharged.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I have written to him about a primary school in my constituency and the issue of marking quality. The school has achieved key stage 2 results of 74 per cent. in maths, which is good for our area of Salford, but its English results, which were expected to be 70 per cent., were only 34 per cent. That is having quite an impact on the English teachers. The school has checked with the Salford school improvement service, which cannot see any reason for the gap between what was expected and what has actually happened. The school is concerned about what will happen to its reputation across the summer holidays, and about the children who are transferring to high school with those unexpectedly poor results. What advice
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should I, as its local MP, be giving to the school? How should it proceed to manage this matter across the school holidays?

Ed Balls: I would advise my hon. Friend to encourage the school to appeal. In a case where it is felt that there is a problem across all the test papers, the school should lodge a group appeal rather than individual appeals. That appeal will be looked at separately and independently, and rightly so, because it is important that the appeals process works in an orderly way, as it does every year. I would encourage my hon. Friend to advise that primary school to appeal.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Secretary of State has said that he regrets the situation, and he has accepted the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) that, as Secretary of State, he is in overall charge of education policy and of this testing. Yet, before the Select Committee and today in the House of Commons, as the person at the top with whom the buck stops, he has signally failed to take the opportunity to apologise. Will he do so now to all the parents, children and schools that have been so badly let down?

Ed Balls: I have to say—and I shall say it for the third time to the hon. Gentleman—that I am advised that ministerial intervention or interference at this stage in a contractual discussion would be the wrong thing to do. It is important that nothing is said to shift responsibility or redress from where it properly falls under the contract. I said in my statement that, “I hope that the House will understand why I cannot comment further at this stage.” Clearly, however, some Members did not understand why I cannot comment at this stage, but that is still the policy that I am going to pursue, because that is the legal advice that I have been given.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): The issue of procurement, including price, and the issue of culpability, involving the discussions between the QCA and ETS, go to the heart of the matter. If the Secretary of State will not comment on those issues now, will he do so in due course? On the quality of marking will he ensure that the independent inquiry looks at the issue of appeals, including numbers of appeals and successful appeals, to see whether his point about quality being maintained is upheld?

Ed Balls: The body that is responsible for regulating the appeals process and ensuring the quality of marking and the quality of appeals is Ofqual, and that is really its responsibility. Clearly, Lord Sutherland will look at any issue that he wants to, but in the first instance, that is a matter for Ofqual. Lord Sutherland will look at all aspects of the procurement process, including how the contract was specified and procured, and that will include the input from departmental officials and Ministers in my Department in setting the remit. He will look at all those issues and report publicly. Of course I will comment, but I have said today that I will not comment on the details of this process while the commercial negotiations are occurring, because they are financially and legally very sensitive indeed.

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I suspect that a letter I have received from Christine Glen, the head teacher at Wincanton primary school in my constituency, is typical of many. She uses words such as “fiasco”, “incompetent” and “slapdash”, and deplores the quality of the marking of scripts that she has received. She makes the important point that, when pupils have worked up to or beyond national expectations all year and are then given a disastrous mark in an exam, it has a very unfortunate effect not only on the pupils but on their future career at secondary school. If that pattern is replicated across the country—and it sounds as though it is—would it not be better to declare this year’s SATs null and void, and to allow the teachers, who have the expertise, the competence and the knowledge of their pupils, to make individual assessments?

Ed Balls: The answer to that question is no. That would be quite the wrong thing to do in the interests of children and young people in our country. That is why I have rejected the Liberal Democrats’ advice to scrap externally marked SATs. The right thing to do in the case that the hon. Gentleman describes would be for the head teacher to appeal. The appeals process will work properly, as it does. If there is a problem, it needs to be sorted out at the appeals stage. As I said earlier, there is no evidence being provided to me at this stage by Ofqual that there has been a decline in marking quality, although of course there are problems with marking every year. That is why we have an appeals process. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage the head teacher in his constituency to appeal.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Without prejudging the outcome of any inquiry, may I inform my right hon. Friend that anyone in the industry will tell him that we simply do not have a sufficient number of qualified exam markers in this country? That is the problem. Either we get more markers or we balance the work load across the year—which would he prefer?

Ed Balls: It is essential that we have enough qualified markers, and that depends on the rates of pay that the markers are paid to do their job. As my hon. Friend may know, the payments to markers were increased during this process in order to bring in more markers. I am told that we have enough qualified markers; the question is whether they are marking the tests. Lord Sutherland will look at all these matters, but I think that in this case not enough markers were engaged at an early stage.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Teachers, parents and pupils will be astonished to hear the Secretary of State say that he is unable to say sorry because of the legal advice that he has received. Will he publish that legal advice today?

Ed Balls: I have said that I very much regret what has happened, and I have explained clearly that the advice to me is that I should not comment on anything that would prejudice responsibility. That is the legal advice that I have been given. I have made it clear that I am accountable, but the responsibility lies with the QCA and with ETS Europe. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is trying to make comments that would shift that responsibility.

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