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Westminster Hall

Thursday 9 October 2008

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Testing and Assessment

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, HC169 and the Government and Ofsted responses, HC 1003.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is a great pleasure to be able to appear[Interruption.] I see that the Minister has arrived in the nick of time, as ever—seven strong men dug him out of his foxhole. He said, “No, no, I don’t want to see Barry Sheerman.”

It is a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall to discuss a major report from our Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. As many people with an interest in the education system know, when we formed the new Committee, we were determined to get the right balance between the work on schools and the new challenge of having responsibility for children and families. We decided that on the schools side, we would consider the three major planks of educational reform, which most people believe date back to 1988 and the time when Lord Baker was Secretary of State. Of course, those reforms were about testing and assessment—knowing how students were performing—and the national curriculum and inspection. There is no doubt that in 1997, the incoming Labour Government carried on with those three major ways of trying to improve standards in schools. Our responsibility seemed clear: 20 years after those reforms were embarked on, we needed to assess whether they had been effective and were still fit for purpose or whether they needed modification. That is what the Committee is about in relation to schools.

In terms of children and families, we embarked on a major inquiry into looked-after children—children in care. We are well on the way with that inquiry and the balance has been struck in a pretty fair way. In fact, I have just come from a wonderful lunch time meeting with a dozen young people who had been in care. We do not believe that an inquiry into children in care can be carried out without actually talking to some of those children and we have just come from an excellent meeting with them. That is by way of explaining why, at the moment, I am the only member of the Committee here. I suspect my colleagues will be joining me shortly.

I would like to discuss testing and assessment in terms of the following framework. Only yesterday, I was talking to the Institute of Education about a new publication called “Educational Management Administration and Leadership: The Legacy of the Educational Reform Act 1988”, which is an excellent collection of essays that evaluates the progress we have made in the past 20 years. Yesterday, I was at the Institute of Education with the authors of that publication and a large audience. I argued that I thought on the whole the publication was a bit too pessimistic about
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how much change there had been and how much difference the reforms had made. The thesis in the book is basically that the reforms that were introduced depended largely on a kind of market economy view of providing education.

I want to remind the House and this Chamber that when one considers the biographies of our great Secretaries of State for Education—and there have been quite a few of them—it is sad that, on average, they only stay as Secretary of State for about 20 months. One wonders how they ever achieved anything—let alone greatness. Indeed, yet again, in the Department for Children, Schools and Families a couple of people have moved on just as they were becoming interesting and fantastically knowledgeable about education. They went off to the Department for Transport or somewhere else. There is something wrong with our ministerial system when good men and women just learn the ropes and are then moved on. That is not good for education and if that happened with a school—if we walked into a school in which the top management kept changing and the middle management churned—it would be in special measures. However, that is what has happened in the former Department for Education and Skills and in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Something is going sincerely wrong under all parties when such ministerial churn takes place.

That happens with the civil servants, too—they just begin to understand Building Schools for the Future or testing and assessment, and they have gone. I am making a serious point: there is something seriously wrong with a democratic system that ends up being more about what the Whips want and what individuals want for their career advancement than what the citizens of this country need from a Department dealing with education, or any other Department.

When I spoke about testing and assessment at the lecture yesterday, I tried to put the matter in context. In 1988, when a Secretary of State—or senior politician—was offered responsibility for education, they often said, “No. It is a hopeless little Department with no power and a small budget.” These days, that is the sort of thing that people say about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—I should not really say that, but I have heard it said. Pre-1988, people thought that the Department dealing with education was small and had a small budget and asked, “If you are ambitious, why would you go to education?” However, Ken Baker and the educational reforms of the past 20 years have made a real difference to that perception. Before 1988, education was largely run by local authorities and since then, during the period of reform, an England-wide, centralised education system has been delivered by franchise directly to schools. Local education authorities have been bypassed whenever doing so would be useful. That model is quite useful for understanding the change that has taken place during the past 20 years. There are some strengths in that model, but there are some serious weaknesses. That is the backdrop I want to give the House to our report on testing and assessment. That is the setting—a heavy reliance on three kinds of tools.

This is the first report. We are halfway through our evaluation of the national curriculum and we will then consider inspection, Ofsted and so on. That has put the matter in context. The report was published on 7 May. Ofsted submitted a response on 25 June and, on 15 July, we received the Government’s response. The Committee
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published both responses as our fifth special report, Session 2007-08, on 22 July. The Minister is an old friend of mine, but it is one of the most disappointing responses I have ever had to an inquiry of our Committee. Someone in the audience I was addressing yesterday mischievously said to me, “Do your reports ever make any difference?” In the House—when I have a better voice than this—I am known for speaking up for my Committee and boasting a little. I hope that I am not too boastful, but I do remind people that the good commonsense reports that we produced, both as the Education and Skills Committee and as the Children, Schools and Families Committee, have made a great difference. They have made a great difference to the succession of Ministers who have taken on board our recommendations, and there has been better policy implementation because of our reports. You and I, Mr. Williams, have been around for some time—as has the Minister—but we know that things do not happen instantaneously. Let me remind you, Mr. Williams, about the rather frenzied period spent considering variable fees, top-up fees and university funding. The report we wrote made a big difference in a short time to whether that piece of legislation was a success or failure in the House. Many people think that our report on the later White Paper on schools made a big difference and bridged the gap between the original White Paper and the legislation that flowed from that.

There have been fast and slow results. I was amused this week when I heard the Secretary of State—if it was not him, it was the Minister—saying that where there is an instance of bullying in schools it should be noted and reported. I remember that when the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who is the Conservative spokesperson on schools, was a member of the Select Committee, we wrote a report on bullying. We made that recommendation on bullying at least three years ago, if not four. Now, the Secretary of State thinks that it is a good idea. That is a four-year lag and sometimes there are two-year lags, but I challenge anyone to examine the history of the Select Committee over the past seven years and not to say that it has made a substantial difference to policy. I think that Ministers have benefited from our reports and our wisdom. We have sometimes given them a good opportunity to hang a change in policy on a report from us.

I shall go through some of the main points in the present report on testing and assessment. We stated:

far too wide a range of purposes—

That is a heavy-duty use of a system of testing. Let us compare it with the situation 20 years ago. When Ken Baker got to the Department, he did not know how children were performing in schools at all. It was very difficult for him to find out how children were progressing, so he instituted some tests in schools and found that they were not progressing nearly as well as people thought they were and not as well as local authorities and his officials were telling him. He was very disturbed by that.

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At about that time—I am sure that this is right—Ken Baker read one of those management books, and there was a saying in one of those books that people of my age will certainly remember, which was, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” That was said by one of the management gurus of the time. I thought that it was in the book on one-minute management, but I checked the quote the other day and it is by another management guru. I think that Ken Baker took that idea very seriously and that Ministers have consequently always taken it very seriously, but it can be taken too far, and running through the Select Committee report is our view that it has gone far too far.

The Committee received a large quantity of evidence; there is much feeling in the country about this issue. As we said in our conclusion, the evidence was that

and that one of the purposes—accountability—had the effect of raising the stakes of the testing system for teachers, schools and local authorities, and raising them in a dangerous way. People who gave evidence to the Committee said that people no longer wanted to be heads but wanted to stay as deputy heads because they could not bear the thought of the responsibility of being head of a school that perhaps was in an inner city or a town with high mobility of students. They could not bear the idea that they might take over a school and that following an influx of students and a decline in the achievement of the students, they would, within a year or two, given the testing system that we have, be unable to practise as a teacher or a head for the rest of their lives. Such was the fear. Whether that fear was grounded in reality is a question that the Minister will perhaps respond to, but we found a great deal of evidence that people were seriously deterred from going for senior management positions in schools because of the testing regime. That is not good.

We stated that

That is the heart of the issue. Anything that I say flows from that, because those consequences include teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, inappropriate diversion of resources in favour of pupils on the borderline and just too much national testing.

We had witnesses after witnesses and made visit after visit. The Select Committee takes oral evidence and receives written evidence, and we go out on visits. There is nothing like the visits to bring home to us the reality on the ground. Our members, both individually and as a Committee, get out to many schools. I challenge anyone in the House to say that they have been to more schools than I have. I go to schools and other educational settings all the time. I think that I beat most Ministers in that respect. They may have a little spurt of going out on visits when they are the Minister responsible for schools, but then they move on to new things and I overtake them. I unashamedly say that I think I am the champion visitor of schools.

When I go out on visits, I talk to heads, staff and students, and time after time the staff say that the pressure is on them to such an extent that they cannot help but teach to the test. They say that in an embarrassed way. They say, “We don’t want to teach to the test. If we
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do, it narrows the curriculum.” Schools should be broadening the curriculum. They should be allowing children to wander across the curriculum, find out what they enjoy, spend more time on one part of it and so on. Of course, we want the essentials to be learned, because if people cannot read and write or add up, they do not have access to other materials. We all know that, so I hope that the Minister will not throw that one at us. The curriculum, if people take it seriously in terms of its breadth, is a very good one in many ways, but if schools teach to the test, that destroys access to the broader curriculum.

I went to schools where heads said to me, “We got some special money to expand access to the broader curriculum.” They would then smile ruefully and say, “Do you know what we spent that money on? Teaching to the test—more rehearsals.” That is dreadful. I like the Minister a lot. The only time that I thought he really had his head in the sand when he was giving evidence to the Committee was when he would not accept that, up and down the country, his regime, the Government’s regime, was leading to teaching to the test, a narrowing of the curriculum and a diversion of resources.

Time and again, we found that classes were aimed at children who were just at the margins of being able to reach a certain standard. It was a question of lifting the low-hanging fruit and getting those pupils into the five A to C area. Staff were concentrating on those pupils and perhaps neglecting both the brightest students, whom they took for granted, and the less able students, whom they did not think would make that standard. Some pretty naughty things are going on in schools. That is not the case in all of them. I hate it when people say that these practices are going on in all of them, but a significant number of schools are involved. When we go into a school with very good leadership and a fantastic team of staff, there is a different environment. They know that there are tests, but they are not teaching to the test; they are providing access to the full curriculum. Many schools do that. I do not want to slag off the whole state sector. That would not be right. Most of the state school sector that I see is wonderful, but a significant percentage of schools are teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum, which is bad for us all.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I tend to agree with that last point. It is not the majority of schools that are teaching to the test, but with regard to the minority or significant minority of schools that do teach to the test, does the hon. Gentleman think that Ofsted should pick that up in its inspections and that if it is discovered that it is going on in a particular school, that should count against the school in its inspection report?

Mr. Sheerman: Yes, absolutely right. I said to the chief inspector of schools, “Look, if we found this in our inquiry, why haven’t you been seeing it?” Ofsted then did its own work and came back to the Minister and to us and said, “Yes, there is a lot of evidence of teaching to the test.” That reinforces the point that we made. There was a bit of me that said, “Where on earth has Ofsted been that, with all its resources, it was not flagging the issue up loud and clear before us?” Nevertheless, that is for another day when we do our inquiry into the inspection system.

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I was disappointed that the Government should have rejected the Committee’s concerns over the multiple use of test data, teaching for the test and the narrowing of the curriculum. They rejected them pretty clearly and bluntly. They did not believe that the number of purposes to which the test data is put should be limited. Indeed, they said that

The Government also said that test data was fit to support each of the three purposes: measuring pupil attainment—the most important use—school and teacher accountability, and national monitoring. Basically, they said that nothing is wrong.

I do not want to say this to the Minister, but I have to do so because I think that he has been rather naughty. His response to the Committee was a distortion of what the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, a very respected man, had told the Committee. I shall give the details to the Committee.

The Government claimed that the chief executive, Ken Boston, confirmed that the tests are fit for purpose. He must have been apoplectic when he read that. In fact, he said that the tests were fit for the purpose for which they were designed—that is, cohort testing in the three core subjects. The Committee had a long session with him, and he expressed severe reservations about the tests as they are presently used. He added that problems arise when a test that is fit for one purpose is used for other purposes. He said that one test serving 14 purposes was stretching it too far. When all those functions are put into one test, there is a risk of that none of them are performed as well as they might be. That is what Ken Boston said in evidence. Anyone who hears or reads our debate can check the evidence given to the Committee.

The Committee also identified the fact that high stakes testing and a consequent distortion in the education of some children may leave them unprepared for higher education and employment.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My hon. Friend speaks about the fitness for purpose of cohort testing under the present testing regime. Our report was produced in May, so we were not able to consider the specific key stage tests that were offered to children this year. One of those tests has given schools in my constituency a great deal of concern. I speak of this year’s written English test, which was set for key stage 2 pupils. It required pupils to have a knowledge of historical fairgrounds; they had to write a biography of a fairground operator. Many of the pupils in my constituents are recently arrived migrants, and they did not have sufficient pre-existing historical knowledge to meet that challenge; yet, quite properly, they could have met an extended writing challenge that did not require that level of knowledge.

One of the things that we failed to cover in our report was to consider some of the details of whether that approach was fit for cohort testing.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short.

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