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9 Oct 2008 : Column 171WH—continued

4.11 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I should like to add my congratulations to the Minister on his well-deserved elevation to right hon. Gentleman. It should be noted that the Ministers that I have shadowed tend to be promoted rather than having to resign in ignominy. His predecessor became Chief Whip and then Home Secretary. Before that, I shadowed the Energy Minister who went on to become the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is the contrast between a Minister and his shadow that shows him in a good light, so congratulations to the Minister.

It is a pleasure to be taking part in this debate. I think that I detected a valedictory tone in the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). I enjoyed serving under his chairmanship for the couple of years that I was on that Committee. Many of its reports under his chairmanship have been highly influential for the Government. Some, however, have received quite poor responses. I want to cite the excellent report by the Committee on special educational needs and the report into the teaching of reading that led to the Rose review and a complete change of Government policy on how we teach children to read in our primary schools.

I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that we need a period of stability in our education system. The plethora of fortnightly initiatives has undermined morale in the teaching profession. The permanent state of revolution that seems to exist, with new curriculums coming out of the QCA every other term, is too much. The hon. Gentleman himself appeared to wish to make sweeping changes to the testing regime if the Liberal Democrats came to power, but we should all be careful before recommending too many changes to the education system.

Mr. Laws: My point was that if there are to be changes, they need to be made with cross-party consensus and after consideration so that we do not have a process of constant revolution.

Mr. Gibb: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but we should leave the testing regime in place and improve it incrementally if problems are perceived in particular aspects of the tests.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about literacy and maths. When I said that I wanted all children to reach level 4 in English at key stage 2, I was excluding children with particular neurological conditions or special needs, who need extra help and attention from specialists in that area. It is important in any debate about testing in education to distinguish between those who are opposed to any external testing for ideological reasons and those who have specific concerns about our testing regime. Many people who express particular concerns about our testing regime conceal the fact that they are opposed to testing per se—they
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always have been, and always will be. I am not saying that anybody in this debate falls into that category, but that is often the case in the education world. There is an ideological approach that goes back to the 1920s in the United States and to the ’50s and ’60s in this country that says that children should never be tested, and that they should learn by self discovery in a non-didactic way. It suggests that knowledge and concepts should be downgraded and replaced by teaching life skills. It is an ideology that is still very prevalent in the corridors of the education establishment.

The Select Committee rightly concluded:

It went on to say:

I agree with the Minister—as I might do several times during this debate—about the importance of national testing. I think that the Select Committee came out in favour of the concept of national external testing.

Once we accept the principle of national testing, particularly its motivational role for students, teachers and schools, it is then necessary to consider each of the criticisms of the system of tests that we have in this country. The first criticism is that English pupils are the most tested in the world. However, that is factually untrue. The appendix to the report says that across the world, from Japan to France to Australia, some type of full cohort testing taken at key points in pupils’ progression through school is the norm. In the United States, the No Child Left Behind legislation, which came into force in 2002, introduced statutory assessment of all children every year between the ages of eight and 14. In Alberta, Canada, all children aged nine, 12 and 15 have to take centrally set and marked tests. In the 2006 study by the Programme for International Student Assessment, Alberta, if it is assumed to be an independent nation, scored the second highest score, just behind Finland. In England, there is just one set of tests after seven years of primary education. Three years later, there is another set of tests and two years after that, there are GCSEs. I do not believe that that level of national testing is too burdensome.

Mr. Laws: Am I right in saying that about a year ago, a Conservative commission on public services and education considered this whole issue and recommended the abolition of the key stage 3 tests and the residue of the key stage 1 tests as well? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that his party has taken a definite decision to reject those recommendations?

Mr. Gibb: Yes, we have. Testing is here to stay. We have recommended abolishing the key stage 1 test—the teacher-led assessment—and replacing it with a screening test at the age of six, after two years at primary school, to ensure that children can decode. Testing will remain if the Conservatives are elected to Government in 18 months’ time.

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the real issue is not between national testing and no national testing; it is the nature of the national testing. For example, is the testing absolutely universal, what is its frequency, do the individual child and their parents
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understand its significance and what use is made of it publicly? Those are the issues, and they distinguish the United Kingdom from almost every other country in the world.

Mr. Gibb: I will come on to those points, but I do not accept the argument that such tests cannot be used for multiple purposes. There are two main purposes—to assess the child and to provide an accountability framework for schools—and I do not think that they are incompatible. I will talk in a moment about the concept of teaching to the test and the extent of that problem and how we tackle it, but I want to focus first on the issue of too many tests. There is a problem with tests from 16 onwards. The introduction of modularisation and the AS/A2 split means that sixth-formers are taking exams throughout their two years of study with repeated retakes adding to that burden. From the age of 15 or 16, children in this country have a huge burden of testing, which is unnecessary.

The reforms have done so much damage. As I said in an intervention, they have stunted the progression of 16 and 17-year-olds from absorbers of knowledge and concepts at GCSE level to thinkers at A-level. Too many sixth-formers leave school with their intellectual development scarcely above the GCSE level because of the modular approach, which was reflected in the concerns the vice-chancellors expressed in their evidence to the Select Committee. We have asked Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial college, to look at that aspect of the exam system to determine what reforms are required to restore the integrity and rigour of our examinations and public confidence in them.

Teaching to the test was raised in the report, and it has been raised extensively in this debate. I would argue that it is a feature of weaker schools. I visit schools every week, and I always ask heads whether they engage in the practice, whether for year 6 in primary schools or year 9 in secondary schools, and whether they focus on test practice, narrowing the curriculum or stressing their pupils. The heads of strong primary schools in particular tell me that the children in their school take the tests in their stride. They simply come in on a Monday morning and do them. Those schools are confident that their broad curriculum, which includes ample time for subjects such as history and geography as well as the basics and science, equips the children with a broad knowledge and vocabulary so that they can excel in key stage 2 standard assessment tests. Ofsted itself said on page 13 of the response to the Select Committee’s report that

I believe that that is the case.

The schools that use synthetic phonics to teach reading in reception class and year 1 get to a position in which almost every child is a fluent reader by the end of year 1, or at the end of year 2 at the very latest. In those schools, having learned to read, children then spend the next five years of their primary education reading to learn rather than still struggling to read. Children should not be put in the position 10 weeks before their key stage 2 tests in English of being rehearsed to reach level 4. In strong schools, the aim is not level 4 but
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level 5—they are way beyond level 4. Schools should aim to teach beyond the test. If they were to do so, they would find that the test itself was not something to worry about.

I acknowledge that teaching to the test takes place in either a minority or significant minority of schools. Ofsted needs to monitor the extent to which it takes place and to report on it at an individual school level. It should criticise schools for doing it. I am always astonished by how many teachers admit to teaching to the test. The hon. Member for Huddersfield cited people who gave evidence to the Select Committee saying that they teach to the test. Professionals should not want to boast about it. It is, as he said, “naughty”, and Ofsted should therefore include it as one of the things on which it reports.

I agree with paragraph 131 of the Select Committee’s report, which recommends

Of course, schools are under pressure to ensure that all children who leave primary school are fluent readers and at ease with arithmetic. When tests were introduced in the mid-1990s, it became clear that one half of 11-year-olds were starting secondary school ill-equipped in the basics. Even now, one in five 11-year-olds leaving primary school still struggles with reading, and 40 per cent. leave primary school not having mastered the basics in reading, writing and maths combined.

I am always astonished when I visit comprehensive schools—even good comprehensive schools with good feeder primary schools—where the head teacher tells me that 25 per cent. of the children coming into their school have a reading age below the age of 11, or that some other significant percentage have a reading age more than two years below their chronological age. As much as half the intake of some weaker comprehensives with weak feeder primary schools has a reading age below the children’s chronological age. That is totally unacceptable and unnecessary: reading is a low-level skill that all children, except those with particular neurological conditions, should master in the first two or three years of primary school.

Mr. Laws: I accept that it is extremely valuable to have accountability and to know what is happening in primary schools at one year, particularly when youngsters are about to leave, but what is the point of the key stage 3 tests?

Mr. Gibb: I will come on to that in the next segment of my speech. I will not avoid the question, as the hon. Gentleman did: I want to come to it in my own way.

Mr. Sheerman: I understand what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is describing, but, for the schools that I visit, it is rarely a question of poor leadership or a poor school. One has to look more closely at the situation. For example, many inner urban schools have children that have arrived from another country 18 months or a year before and have no knowledge of English—that could be a significant percentage of the population. One must look at the context: a new migrant population, a much higher percentage of special educational needs than one finds in the average school, and, of course, a great deal of social deprivation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, those things have to be considered.

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Mr. Gibb: I understand that point. I came across it when I looked at Kobi Nazrul school, which is the school where Ruth Miskin was the head teacher. Some 98 per cent. of the children who go there are Bangladeshi—a significant proportion have English as a second language—yet, while she was head teacher there, she managed to get 100 per cent. of the children to level 4 in English. A few years later, the new head teacher was effective and continued to achieve those results, but I noticed that in one year, the figure went down to 67 per cent. I rang Ruth and asked why that was, and it was for the very reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out. It was impossible for children who had come into the school during the previous year to achieve the results, because they had not been there long enough.

One has to look at figures about schools intelligently, and I think most people do so. I certainly do, and I am sure that Ofsted does, as do parents: most parents I have spoken to do not look only at test results. They look at Ofsted reports, speak to the parents of existing pupils at the school, and look at how well dressed the children are. They consider a range of issues, but that is not a reason for not continuing with externally administered national tests and publishing the results.

Mr. Sheerman: There is a real danger in taking the tests too seriously. If Ofsted, increasingly with a light touch, is in a school for only a day and a half, there is so much pressure on it just to read the test results. There is little of the quality weighting that the hon. Gentleman described. That is the real problem with using testing inappropriately. If Ofsted had gone to Ruth Miskin’s old school when the results changed and just looked at the results, it might well have condemned it.

Mr. Gibb: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is a pity that the Education Act 2005 changed the Ofsted inspection regime, which is now very short. I agreed with the changes that enabled a much shorter notice period—I thought that the months of pressure on schools to produce teaching plans and documentation ready for the great visit from Ofsted was a mistake—but why can we not have short-notice inspections that are slightly longer? I believe that teachers would appreciate having Ofsted inspectors in the classroom, particularly if the report on the school was negative. Ofsted needs to demonstrate that it has looked at the school in more detail than the short inspections allow at present. We must look at these things intelligently, and I agree 100 per cent. with the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The pressure on schools is important. Schools should not be forced to fiddle the system. They should examine their teaching methods if they are worried about their key stage 2 or GCSE results, rather than take shortcuts or try to game the system. That is why Ofsted needs to judge schools on the basis of a balanced scorecard. It should note schools that put unnecessary pressure on pupils, that teach to the test or that narrow the curriculum. In all walks of life, there are competing pressures. In business, people are under pressure to increase sales, reduce their costs and keep the customer satisfied. If people just focus on one of those things, the business will go bust. If they just focus on reducing costs, they will find an unhappy customer base and if they focus only on sales they will wipe out their profit and the company will go bust.

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The SATs that are most criticised—picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil—are the key stage 3 tests. However, those are probably the most important. Years 7, 8 and 9 are known to be a problem area in our education system, as one witness to the Committee said. There is significant evidence of a dip in performance that is not just a result of hot-housing at key stage 2. For example, 11 per cent. of pupils who reach level 4 at key stage 2 make no improvement over the next three years in their secondary education and gain another level 4 in their key stage 3 tests. These are the same pupils who went through the system.

The idea that any 14-year-old should have a reading age below the age of 11 is unacceptable. We need to be sure that secondary schools are setting children into ability groups from the start of year 7 in every academic subject, so that those with poor literacy are picked up early and helped. That is why it is important that we have the SATs at the end of key stage 3. There is also a danger, which would apply only to a minority of weaker schools, that, if the key stage 3 division and test were abolished, some schools would be tempted to spend more years focusing on the GCSE figures, so that instead of a two-year course leading to GCSE they may have a three or four-year course, simply to push up their GCSE results at the expense of the knowledge is needed in the earlier years.

Finally, on league tables, some people argue that the publication of the test results distorts teaching, rendering the figures unreliable as a consequence. The idea that publicly funded schools can conceal their results harks back to a pre-freedom-of- information era. I am sure that many Members of Parliament would like to go back to the era before the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but neither the public nor the media would tolerate for Members of Parliament or for schools. One key reason for SATs is to hold schools to account and identify individual schools that are underperforming. It is also important that parents are well informed about a school that they may choose for their child.

There is evidence that GCSE league tables have led some schools to push pupils into softer GCSEs to boost the five-or-more-GCSEs figure. That practice was, to some extent, exposed and stopped when the English and maths figures were included, but the problem is not the league tables but the target. There should not be a target for the percentage of five or more GCSEs. The objective and target for schools is to provide a broad, rigorous education for all their pupils: that is the objective and target that they should be aiming for. We can test that by using a range of measures in addition to the five or more GCSEs, including English and maths. We can, randomly and without announcing the measure in advance, publish the results for pupils with seven or more GCSEs at A* to C, for example, or for those with five or more GCSEs, including physics or a modern foreign language, then compare those figures with the headline figure showing those with five or more GCSEs, to see where schools are, pushing children into the non-core subjects to boost their results. Testing is key to the accountability of the education system. It is key to identifying the weaker schools, important for monitoring the progress that children make, and vital for motivation. If we abandon national testing, we abandon any chance of raising standards in our schools.

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4.34 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families for the important report that we are debating today, which, in turn, gives us the opportunity to debate the important issue of testing and assessment. I also thank my hon. Friend for his tireless work as Chair of the Committee.

I listened with interest to and was entertained by my hon. Friend’s opening salvos on the importance of his reports, which are certainly taken seriously by me and the Department. We publish responses to his reports, although sometimes he does not enjoy them, just as we sometimes do not enjoy the reports. However, our having published the response does not mean we stop thinking about what the reports say. We continue to reflect on the Committee’s work in respect of assessment and testing. I shall reflect on what has been said today in this useful debate, which has been slightly cosy in terms of the numbers of hon. Members engaged in it, but which, equally, has been helpful to me as a Minister and is an important part of the scrutiny of Government.

My hon. Friend hoped that his Committee was regarded as a pain—I think he said “positive pain”—and that is probably a fair assessment. I hope that my having been in post for 28 months, as was mentioned, does not mean that I am getting so thick-skinned as not to feel the pain. I shall try to remain that way.

The report has made a valuable contribution to this important debate and has brought together the views and experience of a wide range of partners. I assure Committee members that we have given serious consideration to its conclusions and recommendations and are continuing to do so. Our aim is shared by every hon. Member who has taken part in the debate: we want to help every child to do the best they can, and tests are an invaluable mechanism to help teachers to achieve that. They help to focus young people on the core skills that they need. I am unashamed in wanting them to focus on English, maths and science and on reading and writing, which is why those things are the basis of the SATs.

SATs create accountability in the education system. There must be objective, validated information about every school. That evidence must be collected consistently to allow accurate comparisons between schools and over time, because it is essential that parents have information about the progress of their child and the school that their child attends and of the education system as a whole.

I welcome the Committee’s views in paragraph 5, quoted by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), which are that

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