Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Oct 2008 : Column 152WH—continued

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend is right, but I think that she was being a little unfair to the Minister. I am already giving him a hard time about testing assessments,
9 Oct 2008 : Column 153WH
without touching upon the key stage tests. I shall come to them a little later. The Committee is rather interested in key stage 2 and 3 tests and their marking. As my hon. Friend said, we did not consider them in enough detail. We did not finish our consideration of key stage tests as a result of the problems in the summer. Perhaps we can do it later, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The Committee identified the fact that high stakes testing and the consequent distortion of the education of some children may make them unfit for higher education and employment. I want to go into more detail about that, because many teachers feel compelled to focus disproportionately on those aspects of the curriculum most likely to be tested and on borderline students who can be helped to reach the Government targets. I shall give an illustration.

We spoke to university teachers. You might ask, Mr. Williams, why we talked to them, but those in higher education are saying, “Do you know that some schools teach so much to the test that by the time we get the students at 18 they do not know how to think outside the subject. They come to university saying, ‘What do we fill in?’ and ‘What do we do?’ or ‘What boxes do we tick?’ and ‘What bit of knowledge do you want?’”

Mr. Gibb: Is that not a consequence of the reforms to the A-levels in Curriculum 2000? Does not the modularisation of A-levels prevent the transition from being a GCSE absorber of knowledge and concepts to becoming a thinker at A-level? It does not happen now.

Mr. Sheerman: To be fair, that is a subject for another debate. I am interested in getting to know the shadow Minister well. I know that he does not like our report, because he is quite fond of testing and assessments. Not only do we have a cross-party consensus between the Labour and Conservative parties on the economic measures that are going on outside this Chamber; we have one also on testing and assessment. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, but they will have the chance to put their views later.

National curriculum tests address only a limited part of the curriculum, and a limited range of children’s skills and knowledge. That is the heart of the problem. Achieving excellent test results by teaching the whole curriculum in a balanced and creative manner, without teaching the tests or narrowing the curriculum. requires considerable confidence on the part of teachers and schools—confidence that many do not have. However, I wish to go a little further.

The other aspect of our inquiry clearly showed—the key stage test problems in the summer underlined it—that the reform movement over the past 20 years has led to the undervaluing of our teachers. There are many aspects of teacher training, and the Government have done good things to attract able people into teaching—the golden hello for subjects short of staff and the teach first scheme in London and other parts of the country have attracted really good talent. The Government are doing some good stuff.

One problem with the working of the national curriculum and the centralisation of education is that it has led—inadvertently in some ways; I do not think that it was a
9 Oct 2008 : Column 154WH
deliberate ploy—to an undervaluing of teachers and a lowering of their feeling of professional competence. We have been running this sort of system for 20 years. We might say to teachers, “Do it yourself. Explore the curriculum. Do this. Do that. Open things up.”; but they say, “Oh, I’m terrified. What if my class underperforms and the head comes down on my like a ton of bricks because I have not delivered the A to C grades expected in my subject?”

There is a real problem in the undervaluing of a highly trained work force. Once that has happened, once their professionalism has been undermined, it will lead to serious problems. In part, our report is asking why the Government do not trust teachers more. I throw in the example of the key stage tests in the summer. What kind of country and what kind of Department is it that allows millions of scripts to go running and chasing around the country, being delivered by the Royal Mail or special delivery? It was a carbon footprint disaster. The tests could have been administered and assessed locally, by local teachers. They could be set nationally and marked locally. I do not understand the logic of it.

When thinking of our report during the summer—I am sure, Mr. Williams, that the Clerk is telling you that I am out of order, but I do not think that I am—I said to myself, “What a crazy world it is that we cannot trust our teachers to do more. They are competent and highly trained. Why not give them the confidence to do many more tasks?”

The Government did not accept that the current system of targets had put the system out of balance; nor did they accept that improvements in national test results were the result of teaching to the test. They ignored the Committee’s view that although teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum were not the inevitable consequences of high stakes testing, many schools and teachers were struggling and had resorted to those techniques in an effort to maintain or improve their league table position.

The Government said that single-level tests and increased emphasis on teacher assessment were the answers to the Committee’s questions on the burden of testing. However, they did not address the concern that single-level tests might actually increase the burden of testing. That is another major point arising from the report. We are worried about single-level testing. Many people think that it is a magic answer and that people taking tests as many times as they like is better than taking them at the end of a year, but we believe that such an approach has not been piloted, tried and tested sufficiently well, so there could be unintended consequences if we rush into it as if it is the answer. In the drive towards more demonstrable reliability in results, the Committee found that teacher assessment and the wider skills of the teaching profession have been undervalued, and that the single-level tests should be treated with great care.

The Committee expressed the view that the professional competence of teachers can and should be explicitly recognised and supported by extensive training and ongoing professional support to enhance the use of teacher assessment in schools. The Committee took issue with single-level tests. Testing when ready may have some merit, but if the system is used for holding schools to account and if schools succumb to the
9 Oct 2008 : Column 155WH
imperatives of accountability through targets and performance tables, the focus on effective pupil learning could be lost.

Another major point is that the Government interpreted the Committee’s recommendations as supporting their strategy to improve assessment for learning practice, promoting personalised learning and combining the two in single-level tests in the Making Good Progress pilot. In fact, the report offered no such endorsement. I thought that that was a bit naughty. We have taken effective action against the posters that one used to see outside west end theatres that said “Sensational!”, when reviews actually said “Sensationally awful!”. Such things are now against the law, but the Minister did it with our report. He put a big sign, as it were, outside the Eden Project, by which I mean Sanctuary house, that misinterpreted the report. The Committee certainly approved of assessment for learning, increased use of teacher assessment and better personalised learning, but it was not convinced that such outcomes would result from single-level tests and the Making Good Progress pilot.

The Committee was concerned that progression targets would perpetuate the problem of inappropriate use of resources for borderline pupils, and that they would simply shift the emphasis from pupils on the borderline of level 4, for example, to those on the borderline of moving up two levels during a key stage. The Government did not directly address the issue of borderline students but stated that the focus on progression targets as part of the pilot study would enable them to consider their effectiveness in encouraging schools to secure good progress for all pupils, which is different.

I would hope that everyone in education who hears about this debate will know that the Secretary of State has hinted that the coming academic year—2008-09—could be the last for national curriculum testing, which implies that single-level tests may be introduced in 2009-10. I cannot tell what the Minister thinks about that from his expression, but, given that the Making Good Progress pilot, which includes a pilot of single-level tests is not due to be concluded until the end of this academic year, there must be a question whether there will be time to assimilate fully the results of the pilot if the Government are to introduce single-level tests in September 2009. I am not naive—the Government want to get results as quickly as possible, and I do not blame the Minister for being in a hurry. However, the Committee is concerned about single-level testing, even if it is the flavour of the month and fashionable. We have seen the latest fashions and fads employed in other sectors of education and they do not always turn out as well as people expect.

The Committee criticised the Government for not engaging with the complexity of the technical arguments on grade inflation and standards over time. In response to my colleague who said that we did not have time to look in sufficient detail at marking differentiation and key stage tests, I should say that any inquiry can go only so far, and a report must be produced. When I first became Chairman of the Committee, Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was Chairman of the Transport Committee, said, “You have to give Select Committee members a varied diet. The poor darlings don’t have a long attention span.” That was a lovely Gwyneth moment, but there is no doubt that people get bored if an inquiry goes on too long, so there must be time limit. I am the first to
9 Oct 2008 : Column 156WH
admit that things such as a sophisticated examination of, and taking evidence on, grade inflation could have been done better. The Government cited the decision to create Ofqual as an independent regulator in response to the criticism that they did not engage in the complexity that I mentioned. However, without some form of standardised, longitudinal assessment, the Committee suggested sampling, which the Government rejected, so Ofqual will not have the tools to monitor assessment standards, as opposed to performance standards over time.

Going back to where we started, anyone who reads the report will see that the Committee was systematic: we took evidence, listened to what we were told and visited places. In my experience, which includes a range of inquiries in the past seven years, the report was one of the most thoughtful and thorough the Committee has ever offered to the House. The Minister is used to dealing with the Committee and he is charming, and it was great fun when he gave evidence to the Committee, but I hope that he sometimes feels that we are a bit of a pain—a positive rather than negative pain.

Some things can be put right. When we produced our report, the Government were in the first year of a five-year key stage testing contract with an American company, to which they were in hock. At that time, they could not come back to us and say, “We are going to look at testing and assessment again, clearly, openly, thoroughly, and holistically”, because they were in a five-year contract. I do not blame the Minister or the Department for the debacle in the summer—we are inquiring into what went wrong—but it gives them a great opportunity to thoroughly and holistically re-examine testing and assessment. I hope that I am right that the Minister—I always think the best of people, particularly him—has cleverly decided that he will not rush into another four-year contract, but sign a temporary contract for one year. I hope that he believes that that year will give him and his Department the chance to seriously assess the direction of testing and assessment, evaluate the report more thoughtfully, and introduce reforms.

There is a thoughtful collection of essays entitled, “Education Management Administration and Leadership”. From it emerges the idea that the incoming Blair Government, who liked most of the Conservative-style reforms of the previous 10 years in terms of markets, diversity and choice could, at the same time, by adding expenditure and focussing on more deprived areas, social deprivation and so on, secure social justice goals for the less fortunate children in our society.

If it tells us anything it is that all the money we have expended, and the massive investment we have made in pre-school and early years education, and throughout education—tapering off a bit into higher education—has been a wonderful investment. It would have been even more wonderful with, along the way, some modification of what we do about testing and assessment and the way we value and use our teaching staff, and some more sensitive evaluation of whether the inspection system is quite what we want it to be. I look forward to presenting future reports by the Committee, with you in the Chair, Mr. Williams, and with, I hope, the same Schools Minister as we have today; we shall be arguing the case for the best education system for all the children in the country.

9 Oct 2008 : Column 157WH
3.10 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). My remarks will aim to reinforce his argument. I want, obviously, to support the conclusions and recommendations of the Select Committee report, and to make one or two comments about the Government’s response, which I do not think entirely reflected the spirit of the Committee’s recommendations. I want, too, to pick up the point that the Chairman made at the end of his remarks, about timing. Had the report been scheduled to come out a little later, we might have been able to incorporate sessions that we held with the Educational Testing Service and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority into our evidence, and to make comments and recommendations about the implications of the latest standard assessment tests fiasco this year.

However, there are still some positive things to be brought out. Picking up the Chairman’s point, it seems to me that in exactly the same way as the near collapse of the banking system has thrown the Government a lifeline and enabled them to review their economic policy, the collapse this summer of the testing system and the key stage 2 and 3 tests, too, has thrown the Government a lifeline and enabled them to review their testing and assessment policy with dignity. As the Chairman pointed out, the Government are no longer locked in to five more years of testing and assessment on the model that has applied for the past 20 years.

I welcome the progress that the Government have made, particularly in the past 12 months. There has been a distinct improvement in the openness to criticisms that have been made in recent years of the dominance of testing in our system. There has been a willingness to engage with critics. There have been some positive developments with respect to interest in single-level tests, the assessment for learning programme and the Making Good Progress pilot schemes. All of that is incredibly positive and there is no question but that the Government are seriously considering and evaluating the impact of 20 years of testing and assessment, and considering whether things could be arranged differently.

I want to focus on three main issues, then make a few observations on smaller points. First, I want to discuss the question of teaching to the test—a crucial part of our report, which the Government response rejected almost completely, saying at paragraph 12:

The response continued, however, to say that better understanding of what goes on in schools might be needed and that the Government were

Unfortunately, the evidence is there later in the report, in the Ofsted response in appendix 2. Page 13 is entirely about the evidence that Ofsted has produced in a series of reports. It is important to set out the response from Ofsted:

for teaching of the test. The response continued:

I want to say from the start that there is really little point in the Government’s saying we need to search for more evidence—because Ofsted has provided it, and it is here in appendix 2, next to the Government’s response.

I do not reject completely the idea of teaching to the test. The real issue is not whether to teach to the test or not; obviously, students should be prepared for the forms of assessment that they will confront. The issue is the extent to which the preparation for the test at key stages 2 and 3 dominates the time available and skews the curriculum so that it becomes increasingly focused on the three core skills. The quotation that I have just made from the Ofsted report demonstrates that that happens. I do not visit as many schools as the Chairman does, but I try to do my fair share of visits, and I have yet to come across a teacher who would deny that teaching of the test takes place, or who would reject the notion that a disproportionate amount of time is given to borderline pupils, to squeeze them over the threshold. That is good thing, because we want pupils to succeed, but we must consider the extent to which it dominates the planning of the school day and narrows the curriculum. That is an issue at key stages 2 and 3.

For 20 years, we have had an overall education policy dominated by testing, targets and tables, and we have tended to forget about learning. It is not a question of testing or no testing; it is a question of giving testing its right place in the planning of the school day and year. We need to refocus our efforts and make sure that learning dominates what happens in schools and that testing is seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The other point about testing is that teachers, parents and the public at large do not reject it: testing has always taken place in schools. It is an essential part of the learning function and of assessing children’s progress. What has been specific—and, in my view, specifically damaging—in the past 20 years, has been the linking of the test results to high-profile performance tables. No teacher will say “I do not want the children in my class tested.” Every teacher understands the importance of test results. However, when those test results are presented in the form of league tables whereby a single indicator—a test result at key stage 2 or a GCSE score in secondary schools—is perceived publicly as the only indicator by which the school is judged, we are entering dangerous territory. From the teachers’ point of view, particularly more recently, the linking of the test results for the individual class for which the teacher is responsible to the question of salary and eligibility for higher allowances changes the name of the game. It gives additional importance to testing beyond what would be merited in a normal situation.

Next Section Index Home Page