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I heard the comments by the Chairman and the hon. Member for Bury, North on this year’s collapse of the testing regime. They touched on the possibilities that
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have now opened up owing to this year’s experience and all the criticism in the Committee’s report and elsewhere. There is a chance for a new consensus on the testing regime. The hon. Member for Bury, North even referred to how the Government have been learning lessons recently in a number of policy areas—for example, economic problems leading to changes in economic policy, and the implosion of the testing regime potentially leading to changes in testing. I hope that that is not the only way the Government will learn to improve their policies—following the implosion of existing policies. However, if this year’s shambles of the key stage tests provides an opportunity to solve some of the fundamental problems in the testing regime, I hope that we will take it.

We in this place have a responsibility to try to ensure, where we have such testing regimes, that there is continuity and that we do not just lurch from one set of tests to another, with a Government determined to be seen to be addressing the deficiencies of the existing regime. The Government should not continuously change the testing regime simply because they feel under pressure to appear to be doing something all the time. We have an opportunity to improve the system, but given that there might be a change of Government within the next 18 months or so, there is also the risk that we could see—over the next one, two, three, four or five years—a period of constant instability and changes to the testing regime. That would be extremely damaging for the school system. The Minister will recognise that one of the big criticisms made of education policy over the past 10 years, by people in the private and maintained sectors, unions and business, has been about the degree of volatility in policy. I hope therefore that the Select Committee’s report will give us an opportunity to carve out a consensus on where change should take place, so that we do not simply lurch from one set of policies to another.

Before I outline what I think are the principal weaknesses of our testing regime, and before the Minister portrays me as a left-wing, crazed lunatic who wants to dismantle any sense of accountability and testing, I want to say a few things about what elements of accountability and testing the system needs. I think that everybody agrees—the hon. Member for Bury, North, who is clearly a great critic of the existing system, certainly does—that there is no possibility of, or argument for, returning to a system with no clear public accountability over the results attained by young people and schools.

As I shall explain later, I want to see national tests at age 11, 16 and 18. In my constituency, I find key stage 2 tests and GCSE results extremely valuable in assessing how local schools are doing. Of course, I have the benefit of understanding something about the catchment areas of those schools, against which I review those results. I have rarely noticed a school either dramatically underperforming or outperforming its catchment area without later discovering that there was either exceptional leading and teaching going on at that school, or a problem with leading and teaching. I would not want to get away from having that knowledge and accountability. As the hon. Member for Bury, North has acknowledged, once that information is collected, it is difficult, in a world of freedom of information, to deny it to parents. I would be angry if it were denied to me.

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Mr. Chaytor: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s elimination of 13 as an age at which national tests should take place, but why should they continue at 16 once diplomas have become established and the participation age has moved up to 17, and later 18? What is the purpose of national testing at 16?

Mr. Laws: I shall come back to that point later, when I discuss how the testing regime should be structured and how testing and assessment should link together. I mean that as a promise and not as the usual attempt to duck the question.

I believe that there should be national testing at particular ages and that the results should be published. We need to try to make sure that those published results are fair to schools, but we will never be able to prevent people from looking simply at the headline results, rather than taking into account all the other factors that we would like taken into account.

Basically, I do not believe that the problems identified in the UN report are down to the stresses and pressures of the testing regime. As the Chairman has suggested, they are a bigger issue for head teachers and teachers than for children, who tend to adapt to the environment that they find in schools. Most of the problems that have placed us at the bottom of the UN report tell us far more about Britain’s society and the environment in which youngsters grow up outside school than about things going on inside schools.

I agree with the comments that were implicitly made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) that it is vital that youngsters master the basics of literacy and numeracy in the early years of their education. If they do not, they have no chance of performing to an adequate standard in secondary education and beyond. That will demotivate them pretty rapidly, not only in English and maths but in all the other subjects in which they will be incapable of engaging. I shall not go so far as to suggest that every youngster would be able to reach the minimum levels that the Government have specified—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would not say that every single child would, as those with high-level special needs clearly would not—but I agree with the implication that the number of youngsters who are incapable of reaching those targets ought to be much lower than it is today.

Lord Adonis, who did some impressive work within the Department but has sadly left it recently, did a particularly good job in challenging the assumption that a large proportion of our youngsters would never be able to perform to the levels, in key stage tests and GCSEs, to which many of us would like them to perform. I hope that in 10 or 20 years’ time, we will not have an education system that is built on an assumption that 20, 30 or 40 per cent. of youngsters cannot reach basic minimum levels.

I want to touch on three deficiencies in the existing regime, the first of which is about what is happening to results across the education field. This point comes directly back to the issue that the Chairman and the hon. Member for Bury, North raised about sample testing. One of the most striking points about the education debate in this country is the lack of basic agreement about what has happened to standards in the past decade. It is extraordinary that we should be trying to have a debate about how to improve education, when
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there is a gulf between quite sensible people as regards what has happened to educational standards, in terms of test results, in the past 10 years.

If one believes many of the Government’s figures, there has been an extraordinary improvement in educational standards across the country—an almost unbelievable improvement in some areas—which, if true, would be testament to great success. Of course, many people in the country, including many serious educationists, believe that there has been a running down of standards, and that the process of teaching to the test has distorted what the results tell us. Many people believe that educational standards have been going backwards.

In his August 2007 report on the Government’s performance on education, Alan Smithers summed up the position rather nicely. He said:

If we are to have a proper debate about educational standards in this country, and if we are to have a testing system that is meaningful, then that testing must have some kind of credible element to it that is independent of the Government. Standards should not change over time, and no one should be able to dispute what is being produced, in terms of what is happening to standards.

I strongly support the Select Committee’s proposal on having Ofqual, or some other body, carry out sample tests on a small proportion of one or two cohorts—probably two—every year, so that we can assess what is happening to educational standards over time. That assessment should be invariant to what is happening to the nature of tests and teaching to tests.

The Government’s response to that proposal, in paragraph 23 of their report, was totally unconvincing. They said:

I think that people in the teaching profession will read that with amusement—

What a lot of nonsense! Cohort sample testing would precisely bring transparency and credibility to a system that currently has none whatever. When the Government worry about the extra costs involved, they should take some reassurance from the fact that I, the Select Committee and all the others involved in this debate, other than those on the Government and Conservative sides, are suggesting a massive scaling back of the testing regime, which would supply easily enough money to carry out those sample tests of cohorts, and still save money.

I was even more depressed, but nevertheless enlightened, regarding that point by paragraph 50 of the Government’s response, in which they set out in black and white terms that

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In other words, Ofqual can comment on what the Government are doing, but it will not have an opportunity to assess standards itself, or to commission. I have discussed this issue with the lady who is taking over and running Ofqual, who said she would think about whether sample cohort tests were a good idea. It seems pretty clear that, as far as the Government are concerned, Ofqual will not have the opportunity to carry out that role at all. The Government’s response makes it clear that

That is enlightening, and I hope that parties and individuals in this House who are concerned about this issue will, when the proposed legislation comes to the House, ensure that we have a much stronger independent body to assess educational standards in this country. I certainly would not support the Government’s proposals were they not to allow for a body that would check standards, because it would simply be what people have suspected it would be—an incredible cheerleader for the Government, rather than a genuinely impartial assessor of standards.

Jim Knight: I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow, but does he not think it appropriate that the assessment of standards in education be carried out by the Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted?

Mr. Laws: I think that Ofsted carries out one element of inspection, but it is most certainly not carrying out inspection in a way that introduces credibility in respect of the cohort tests. If the Minister is arguing that he will give much more significant powers to Ofsted and allow and encourage it to cohort test, I might think again about what he says on Ofqual, but I fear that the Government want to create the appearance of an independent assessment of standards without creating a body with real teeth to do the job. My suspicion is that the Government do not want to accept the Committee’s recommendations in that area, precisely because they do not have the assurance or confidence that the cohort sampling, of which the Committee is in favour, will bear out the alleged extraordinary improvement in standards, not only between 1997 and 2008 but over the decade prior to that, when GSCE results also went up by an extraordinary amount. That is the first area that we need to address.

The second area is how the key stage tests operate. As I said earlier, I want some element of testing and accountability in the system. I do not want the key stage 2 tests done away with, and, while we have the system of GCSEs and A-levels, it makes sense to test at those levels. The curriculum will always narrow beyond 16 years old, and we will always want to measure performance up to and beyond that age, but we could enormously reduce the rest of the testing. I agree with people such as John Dunford, with most head teachers to whom I have spoken as I have been around schools and with most other education professionals, who say that the key stage 3 tests are pretty much a waste of time. The hon. Member for Bury, North made an excellent point when he asked what will happen when, with the diplomas, the 14-to-19 curriculum comes in with a vengeance. Are we really going to maintain the nonsense of key stage 3 tests? They seem to be an utter waste of time.

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The testing regime is important for accountability, but it must reinforce a genuine process both of identifying the challenges that young people face in education and of doing something about it. We spend huge amounts at key stages 1 and 3, and, arguably, we could even reduce the size of the key stage 2 test, but let us look at what happens to youngsters who at an early age are identified in schools as not having the literacy and numeracy skills that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton described.

I went to a school in east London a few months ago—one of the schools where the Government are piloting one-to-one reading and numeracy tuition, which seemed to be extremely effective. I think it was in partnership with KPMG. At the end, however, when I asked the head teacher how the scheme was going, it was quite clear that the scale of the challenge—the number of youngsters who would benefit from such interventions at 5, 6 and 7—was way beyond what the Government were providing for.

I would rather we had a system of assessing youngsters seriously as early as possible, probably at age 5, and ensuring that we then had the money to do something about all the youngsters who will already have fallen behind. We know that most will have fallen behind before they even arrive at school. That is a greater priority than tests at ages 7 and 14, which we may think tell us something about school performance but which are widely ignored and rarely reported in local newspapers; which even I, with my interest in education, am totally unaware of in relation to my local schools; and which do not do anything about putting money into what matters, which is, once we have completed the assessment at ages 5 and 6, intervening to do something about the problems in the way the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton described.

The Government say that the Select Committee report lacks evidence of the effects of teaching to the test, but as the Committee Chairman and the hon. Member for Bury, North clearly demonstrated, that is just not true. Appendix 2, the Ofsted response, is extraordinarily blunt about, and critical of, the effects of teaching to the test. There are two pages’ worth of evidence from Ofsted reports on the impact of teaching to the test. The issue is not just about curriculum narrowing, which happens in many schools but can be avoided in those that manage such matters very well, and in those with strong catchment areas, where the results are likely to be good anyway; the comments in Ofsted’s response on p. 13 of the Government’s response are more worrying. The hon. Member for Bury, North quoted them, but I shall do so again because they are so significant. Ofsted quotes itself, saying:

In the next paragraph, Ofsted says that

In other words, the criticism is that the tests not only narrow the curriculum but, because of what is being tested, diminish educational outcomes. Throughout the education system, from the National Union of Teachers
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at one end of the spectrum, to the poshest private schools, the criticism has been made that that element of the education system reduces standards and stretch in the system—even as the formal results profess to suggest that there is some extraordinary rise in standards. It is an issue not only at A-level, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said, but in primary and secondary education, so I should like the testing regime to be slimmed down to focus more on early assessment and intervention.

I should like also to keep the key stage 2 tests. There is a genuine issue about whether they should be marked externally or internally with external moderation, but I would not be willing to move from external testing until we were sure that we could do so without creating credibility problems. If the tests are high-stakes tests, we must acknowledge that the most challenged schools with the poorest results risk being put under pressure to deliver good test results. We worry most about those schools, because that is where we want to know what is going on.

I ask the Minister please not to introduce single-level tests. I am pleased that the Committee’s report made that clear and that the Chairman took that position, too. I know that the tests sound like a good idea, and that to test people when they want sounds terribly sensitive and nice, but will they not simply institutionalise even more testing, not just at particular points in the education system but the entire time? Will the accountability mechanisms be credible, so that we can really see what happens in schools? And, anyway, is it not true that, frankly, there are benchmarks in the education process when we want to know whether youngsters have the basic skills, whether they are ready to enter secondary education and whether they have their basic skills by GSCE level?

The issue cannot be fudged. So far, the evidence is that single-level tests have been a mess and that the Government have been reticent to publicise the effects of the pilots because they have apparently been a shambles. I hope that they will be buried and that the Government will use the opportunity of the utter shambles of this year’s key stage testing to review the issue seriously and think not about a scorched earth policy, which would get rid of the genuine improvements in accountability and testing over the past 20 years, but about designing a system that is fit for purpose and does not, in the case of some tests, waste money to very limited ends. I hope that the Government will listen and be willing to respond.

In his response, I hope that the Minister will update us on what is happening in relation to this year’s key stage results and to the number of appeals that have been received about the key stage test. We understand that there has been a massive increase in the number of appeals this year because of the problems with the tests and the marking. I would appreciate updates on how many appeals the National Assessment Agency has received so far compared with this time last year, and information on whether this year’s marking is as reliable as last year. My understanding is that although Ofqual has indicated that it believes it is, that is not the view taken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It would be helpful if the Minister could sketch out the timetable for commissioning the tests for 2009 so that we have some idea of whether it will be held to.

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Mr. Williams, this has been an extremely useful debate. If the Government are not listening at this stage, I hope that they will in the future. I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee is right when he says that, in a slow-burning way, the reports that his Committee has produced in the past have tended, with a lag, to influence policy. In this area, they most certainly need to.

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