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We cannot differentiate the question of testing from the form of presentation of information in the league tables. League tables are the second issue that I wish to raise, and have been in existence for nearly 20 years, becoming increasingly dominant. The original theory of league tables was that they would flush out into the open the good and less good schools. They were first mooted long before Kenneth Baker, under Sir Keith
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Joseph. His idea was, “Well, the less good schools will simply go to the wall. Let the bad schools collapse and close, and pupils will migrate to the good schools. Hey presto, problem solved.” Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple. Schools and parents are located in certain places, so we cannot simply shut schools down wholesale and allow pupils to migrate. We must recognise the over-simplicity of the argument that league tables, by themselves, can drive up standards without any damaging effects being incurred.

League tables have damaging effects, because year after year, some schools always appear towards the bottom of the league tables. I am not being fatalistic and saying that schools that serve particular catchment areas or enrol children with particular learning difficulties can never improve and progress. We know, and the Government rightly, and frequently, remind us that some schools with identical cohorts of children perform at strikingly different levels. That is nearly always because of the quality of the head teacher, the senior management and therefore the body of teachers. It is not fatalistic to say that certain schools will always have more difficulty in shining in the league tables or progressing to the top.

The difficulty is that when parents in any community see certain schools either languishing in the middle of the league table year after year or plummeting towards the bottom, a local perception builds up that ultimately becomes damning to the reputation of those schools. That happens because we have focused entirely on one set of indicators in the presentation of information. There can be no going back to the days before freedom of information, and I do not think that anybody would want to suppress information about our pupils’ achievements. However, by focusing on one indicator—scores at key stage 2, key stage 3, GCSE or A-level—we do not reflect a school’s full range of qualities.

The Government have listened a little to that argument and changed the format of the league tables. They have introduced the concept of value added in an attempt to indicate the progress that a school makes. There is still some debate about the usefulness of the value-added methodology that is used and whether different value- added methodologies would give a more accurate representation of pupils’ progress, but we can leave that to one side.

The Government have made efforts, but the fact remains that the deeper understanding of a school’s quality that comes from an inspection report, for example, is not reflected in the league tables. The Government and Ofsted are aware of that, and I once again make the plea that we must have freedom of information about the performance of our schools. Pupils’ examination performance must be in the public domain, but it must be set in context. The Government could do much more to review the construction of the performance tables and ensure that Ofsted’s judgments about different aspects of a school’s activities are incorporated in the league tables.

The Government’s response contains a reference to that matter, acknowledging that the presentation of the value-added score has its limitations. In justifying what the Government have done to improve that presentation, paragraph 41 of the response states:

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If anybody thinks that including confidence intervals will make parents suddenly and miraculously begin to understand what the value-added score means, they are living on a different planet from most parents. I recognise that the Government’s response acknowledges that there is a problem, but we will have to go much further to ensure that our performance tables provide the full range of a school’s qualities and achievements, not just key stage scores.

What are the wider social issues related to a culture of targets, testing and tables? Other members of the Committee and Ministers will be aware of the UNICEF report published earlier this year, entitled “Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries”. They will know that in that report, which I think was the first of its kind, the United Kingdom came 21st of the 21 OECD countries surveyed in UNICEF’s assessment of the well-being of children. It was assessed by six criteria, or six dimensions, as UNICEF prefers to call them. One was educational well-being, and given the huge emphasis and enormously increased investment that the Government have put into education in the past 10 years, we would all expect the UK to come out of the survey extremely strongly. Unfortunately, we did not. When all the indicators were aggregated, we were at the bottom of the league table, and on the education dimension we were only 17th of the 21.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I am trying to recall when the research for that piece of work was carried out. Does my hon. Friend have that information? My recollection is that it was about five years ago, so the impact of all the resources and changes that he is mentioning would not have been fully felt.

Mr. Chaytor: The report was published first in 2007, and finally earlier this year, so by definition the research was carried out some years previously. That is true, and I am confident that our position in the league table will be higher next time the survey is done. We cannot be fully confident about that, because the similar report that came out in 2006—the third assessment of the programme for international student assessment—showed that our position in the international league table for the performance of 15-year-olds had fallen back since 2000. These things are not entirely predictable.

I have flagged up the matter, because the well-being of children, their overall performance and their attitude to school are issues to be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield touched on the impact of testing, in so far as it tends to skew young people’s attitudes. They want to pass the test, so they acquire knowledge without necessarily understanding what it is all about. When they progress from A-levels to university, tutors criticise them for not being able to apply what they have learned or for having forgotten it. That applies, too, to young people leaving school at 16 and going straight into the workplace, who are criticised by employers for not being work-ready or able to apply what they have learned in school.

I wish to ask whether there is a link between the United Kingdom’s position in the international league table organised by UNICEF and the policy that we have adopted for 20 years in our education system. The dominant thrust of that policy has been driven by targets, testing and tables. I do not know that anyone
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can prove whether there is a link, but the relationship needs to be explored further. We can see for ourselves that there are ongoing problems in respect of the large number of young people who become disaffected from school at an early age, leave school early and hit the streets at 16 to fall into the category of NEETs—not in education, employment or training. We can see that there is a problem when young people do not wish to continue their education or training beyond the age of 16 and when teachers and Ofsted report that an ongoing difficulty in our school is not poor discipline overall—schools are, by and large, incredibly well-managed places—but low-level disruption in the classroom from some young people who have switched off from the curriculum offered.

We must question whether the dominance of testing is a contributory factor to that disaffection and alienation among some young people. In one sense, it is fairly self-evident. If a youngster who does not have high-level conceptual skills, who finds it hard to grasp mathematical concepts, who does not have a strong command of vocabulary and does not come from a family with a lot of intellectual capital to support them, takes their key stage 2 SATs and does not get level 4, they will feel a failure. There is no point beating around the bush; that is what happens. Some 25 per cent. of children aged 11 fail to make the grade that the Government say they should, and they feel that they have failed. Entering secondary school with the label of failure obviously will not be a big motivation for success in their school career.

Mr. Gibb: The biggest problem facing such children in secondary school is not the label; it is the fact that they will have great difficulty accessing the curriculum because they do not have the necessary literacy skills. Not reaching level 4 means that their reading age is significantly below 11 and that they will struggle throughout their career. Reading is not a high-level skill. All children should reach level 4 by the time they leave primary school. That must be the aim of our primary school education.

Mr. Chaytor: I understand that point completely, and I understand how crucial the three core skills are. However, in any cohort of children, a certain percentage will have learning difficulties of one kind or another—it is not a tiny percentage; it is more substantial than I think the hon. Gentleman assumes—which means that it is almost impossible for them to reach level 4 in one or more of the three core skills. That is no criticism of those children or their teachers and parents; it is just the way it is.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about preparation for the secondary school curriculum. Another dimension to the problem is that, because our system has focused so hugely on testing during the past 20 years, we have given less attention to the curriculum’s flexibility. Had we reviewed our secondary school curriculum some years ago and made it more flexible in recognition of the fact that children perform at different levels, have different interests and aptitudes and engage with certain activities more than others, rather than using the monolithic watered-down grammar school
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curriculum established in 1988, more of our less motivated and harder-to-teach children would have prospered in recent years.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I agree that a number of children will find it difficult to reach the Government targets, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that that number is likely to be much closer to 5 per cent. than to the 20 to 25 per cent. that we have at present?

Mr. Chaytor: Yes, I do. It probably is about 5 per cent., although it might be creeping up to 10 per cent. The problem with talking about learning difficulties is that the term encompasses a huge range of problems. Some children have learning difficulties because of their horrific home backgrounds, not because of any lack of intellectual capacity. That is why I moved the number closer to the upper end of the range than the lower.

When all children know that they are expected to reach level 4 and a significant minority have huge difficulty getting there or just do not get there despite their best efforts and those of their teachers, the dominance of that level and the fact that it has become such a public indicator of success inevitably reinforces a sense of failure and inadequacy. That causes those young people to enter secondary school education with comparatively low self-esteem, and that self-esteem gets lower as they progress through secondary school.

I do not want to make any more of the issue. I have made the point that we must examine the relationship between an excessively rigorous system of testing—a system in which testing has tended to squeeze out flexibility and variety in the curriculum—and the impact on pupil behaviour, well-being, self-esteem and overall levels of success. Moving on, I have five random comments to make arising from the report. First, the Government rejected the Committee’s recommendation that we move to a system of sampling rather than full-cohort testing for a number of reasons, one of which is the additional expense. However, it is not a question of either/or. Many countries have a system whereby all students take the test but not all results are published nationally, and a sample of the students’ scripts is used for national monitoring purposes. It is not a question of either sampling or full-cohort testing; it is a question whether the Government insist on using the full cohort for national monitoring purposes or take a sample of that cohort.

Secondly, in view of the chaos caused this summer by the collapse of the system for which ETS was responsible, we must consider—the Chairman mentioned this problem—whether it is still sustainable to operate a system in which hundreds of thousands of scripts at key stage 2, key stage 3, GCSE and A-level move around the country every year. The massive bureaucracy and cost of that intensive testing system extends beyond SATs into GCSEs and A-levels. Thirdly, on grade inflation and the role of the regulator—the Government’s response makes an important point about the regulator; Ofqual will be given increasing responsibility for assessing standards over the years—can the Minister think of another sector in which the regulator occupies the same office as the body representing the industry? It is not acceptable that the offices on Piccadilly are the home of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the National Assessment Agency and Ofqual. I do not think that we would find Ofgem, for example, sharing premises with Electricité
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de France or Scottish Power. I put it to the Minister that that should be considered quite quickly in order to separate out the regulator’s role more clearly.

Mr. Laws: Send them to Bury.

Mr. Chaytor: Well, there is plenty of spare office space in my constituency, and they would be very welcome if that were the Minister’s decision.

My fourth point concerns key skills. We all understand that science, literacy and numeracy are key to accessing the secondary school curriculum and to future success in life, but so is information technology. Has not the time come for IT to be included as the fourth key skill? The value would lie particularly in the fact that some young people who do not always thrive in literacy and numeracy or who still find science a closed book are incredibly good at IT. IT should be a key skill not only because it is a key skill for any young person or any adult in a job or on a university course—it is a key skill whether we choose to designate it or not—but because it would have the beneficial effect of opening up the possibility of success in national examinations and SATs, if SATs are to continue, to more young people than currently succeed in the literacy, numeracy and science curriculum.

Finally, the Government’s response to our recommendations on diplomas is fairly bland and does not mention the relationship between diplomas and the key stage 3 SATs. When the diplomas are fully on stream, what is the purpose of key stage 3 SATs? Is that not the time to quietly get rid of them? I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that.

3.40 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate both the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), on his excellent speech, which set out the issues that we need to cover in today’s debate, and his Select Committee on producing what I think is an excellent report that will be greatly welcomed by almost all the organisations involved in the education debate outside this place, even if it is not necessarily welcomed by the Government and Conservative Front-Bench Members. The criticisms in the report will resonate not only with those who would be regarded as critics of the existing targets and testing regime, but with many others, including those involved in the private education system who are also very critical of much of today’s education architecture.

I also congratulate the Minister on his recent and deserved elevation. The Chairman said that the life expectancy of Secretary of States in the Minister’s Department is not very long—20 months, I think he said. I cannot quite remember how long the Minister has been with his Department, but I think it is longer than that, so he is moving the average in the right direction. He has been a good Minister in that Department, and I hope that he will remain there for longer so that, as the Chairman said, we can learn from experience rather than have this constant merry-go-round of new Ministers having to learn on the job very rapidly.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on his speech. He raised many points with which I have some sympathy, although perhaps in some of his criticisms he went slightly beyond how far I wish to go in my comments. However, I recognise the
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criticisms in the Select Committee’s report—it has done an extremely good job. I am disappointed, though, with the quality of the Government’s response. The Chairman mentioned his dissatisfaction with a number of points. The response is pretty thin and unpersuasive. It almost suggests—I hope it does—that the Department is in flux and rethinking seriously, behind closed doors, the future of the existing testing regime, rather than taking seriously the rather bland and unconvincing defence provided in appendix 1 of the response.

I can only think that the Minister, or whichever official drafted the report, must have been smiling with his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote in paragraph 2:

One would have thought that this was a response to an entirely different report, particularly in the light of the national media coverage of the report’s recommendations. I have a BBC report—so I am not quoting from something that would tend to over-dramatise the criticisms made by the Select Committee—that went under the headline: “Tests ‘damaging’ to school system: the national testing system in English schools is being misused to the detriment of children’s education, says a report from a committee of MPs.”

Although the Committee’s report acknowledges that any education system will contain an element of national testing, it is quite clear from the very first page of the document that the Committee has identified major deficiencies in the existing regime and raised serious criticisms. In the second paragraph of the summary, the Committee writes that

objectives, which it referred to earlier. It continued:

The report makes many other criticisms, as the Chairman outlined earlier.

We also have what I would describe pretty much as a misrepresentation of Ken Boston’s views on the national testing regime. Anybody who knows Ken Boston’s views, including those he has put in the public domain, will know that he has many criticisms of and concerns about the regime. I therefore agree with the Chairman that paragraph 9 is a misrepresentation of the views that Ken Boston has put on the record. There is also the misrepresentation of—or, at best, confusion about—the Committee’s position on the single-level test.

Furthermore, the Government’s response offers a complete lack of evidence on the issue of “teaching to the test” and on national standards. Paragraph 12 of the response states:

but then it offers no evidence for that assertion. Although the Chairman has made the generous admission that the length of the report did not allow for the Committee to go into as much detail as he would have liked, the Government simply cannot rebut some of its points but offer no evidence in doing so.

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