Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Oct 2008 : Column 177WH—continued

and that the

It also states:

I hope that, in quoting the report in that way, I am not guilty of the practice of West End theatres that has, perhaps, now been done away with.

9 Oct 2008 : Column 178WH

We are committed to those principles. Testing will continue to be a critical part of public accountability for the long term. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned Alberta. I visited Alberta in November and found that it tests as much as we do. In fact, as I said to the Select Committee, we have shifted on the key stage 1 test over the last 10 years, whereas Alberta has continued with externally marked tests that are conducted on a single day and inform accountability with the school card system that, among other systems, reflects the results of those tests.

The OECD programme for international student assessment in 2007 states that

It continues:

It seems that testing is becoming more of an international trend, not less. I visited Spain last week and learned that it will be introducing national testing so that it can properly measure the performance of schools.

Having established the principle of testing, it is important not to confuse it with the problems with delivery this summer. The failure of the Educational Testing Service—the contractor to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority—and the subsequent delays to results this summer have been deeply frustrating for pupils, parents and teachers. I share their frustration. Ofqual, the new independent regulator of exams and tests, has provided welcome reassurance that the quality of marking is at least as good as in previous years, despite all the delays and difficulties. I know that that reassurance is welcome.

Mr. Laws: Does the Minister think the QCA also believes the quality of marking this year has been as good as in previous years?

Jim Knight: The regulatory function is being separated from the QCA and given to Ofqual, which will make that assessment within the QCA, so I cannot give an authoritative answer on the QCA’s view. Ofqual will continue to consider the quality of marking as it considers the review process.

Mr. Laws: Will the Minister tell us what evidence Ofqual has that the quality of marking this year has been as good as in previous years?

Jim Knight: I understand that Ofqual has examined the processes used, the quality control mechanisms and the design of the assessment system. It closely monitored the marking process as we went through the problems during the summer and is monitoring the review marking process by the NAA and its contractor. Hon. Members will be aware that the contract between the QCA and the ETS has been dissolved, and that £24.1 million has been recovered, with payment halted for future work. More than 99 per cent. of results for key stages 2 and 3 have been sent to schools.

9 Oct 2008 : Column 179WH

The NAA is contacting schools that are missing results to resolve the remaining issues, and departmental officials are working closely with the NAA to ensure that the reporting of provisional results for 2008 can be brought to a close as soon as possible. The results of review requests that were submitted before the summer have now been sent out to schools. The NAA is confident that results for reviews submitted after the summer break will be made available to schools ahead of the revised deadline. The number of reviews has certainly been much higher than in previous years, and that is to be expected, given the problems with delivery and the lack of confidence that that generated.

Mr. Sheerman: I apologise to the Minister for not congratulating him on becoming a Privy Councillor. Before he is diverted to a matter that the debate is not about—that inquiry is being carried out now—will he respond to our debate on a report that we have written? What I want my right hon. Friend to speak about is not whether lots of other countries have tests, but the high-risk nature of tests here with the inspection system that makes them high risk for everyone. That puts stress on the head and on teachers, and makes them different from those in so many other countries.

Jim Knight: I shall come to that, and I appreciate that I may be stretching your patience, Mr. Williams, in saying a few words about the problems with delivery over the summer. Lord Sutherland is carrying out an inquiry, and the Committee is looking into the matter, so there will be plenty of opportunities to debate that in future.

Mr. Laws: The Minister said a moment ago that the number of appeals is considerably higher this year compared with last year. Will he give an estimate of that increase?

Jim Knight: I cannot do so here and how, but I am sure that that will be revealed in due course.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield and for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said, these problems give us an opportunity to reflect on the application of the principles for testing. We have said consistently that the current arrangements are not set in stone, and that is best evidenced by our piloting of alternative arrangements for testing, on which comments have been made today. We said in the children's plan that there may well be changes, and we recognise that the system could be more flexible for schools, more personalised for individual pupils, and provide more scope for teacher assessment and professional judgment. That is why we are running the making good progress pilot in 450 schools. It is not just about single-level tests, but includes one-to-one tuition, new classroom assessment tools, and stage not age tests.

In testing this new approach, we hope that pupils will benefit from a more personalised learning experience, whatever their starting point, that parents will benefit from clearer information about their child's progress rather than having simply a snapshot after two or three years, and that teachers will benefit from greater freedom to use their professional judgment about the progress a child is making and when they are ready to take a test. Every child, from the most affluent to the most
9 Oct 2008 : Column 180WH
disadvantaged and from the brightest to the least able, will have the chance to achieve what they are capable of. The most able pupils will be able to progress quickly, and those who need more help can cover difficult areas more thoroughly in personalised one-to-one sessions with a qualified tutor. Extra sessions might take place after school at a central location such as a drop-in centre, at home, or even in supermarkets—I know of one or two examples of that—on a Saturday while their parents do the shopping. They will not duplicate other forms of support on offer, but will offer extra support in a way that works best for pupils and their parents, and will give parents an extra opportunity to be involved in their child's learning.

We expect to release results from the second round of single-level tests to schools shortly, and we will publish an evaluation of the first year of the making good progress pilots later in the autumn. That evaluation will include an assessment of whether the tests functioned well in technical terms, how schools used them, and whether there was any impact on the rest of the curriculum. The Committee was right to recommend that we allow sufficient time for a full pilot of single-level tests, and to ensure that any issues and problems can be addressed before the model is rolled out. That is exactly what we are doing, and we will proceed with a national roll-out only if the tests work and result in improvements for pupils.

Mr. Sheerman: Why is my right hon. Friend so in love with single-level tests? What experience caused his romance with that idea? Which country or piece of research made him love them so much?

Jim Knight: My interest in single-level tests is, as I said earlier, the combination of improved assessment for learning and being able to trust teachers’ professional judgment. As I took my drama examinations as a child, I was able to progress at a pace with momentum behind learning. Ultimately, we all want every child to have that momentum and sense of progress in their learning. We are chasing after a testing system that informs that momentum and becomes more personalised in informing that momentum. If we become international pioneers in that, so be it. That would be good.

Several hon. Members rose

Jim Knight: All four hon. Members have risen. Is that a record? I shall start with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North.

Mr. Chaytor: If the single-level test proves successful, and if the national roll-out takes place, do the Government intend to publish the results of all the tests at each level for every pupil every year? What will be published?

Jim Knight: We have not made that decision. I think it is unlikely that we would do that, but we have not decided.

Mr. Laws: Will the Minister clarify—I apologise if this is already on the public record—when he and the Secretary of State will decide whether to extend the single-level test to the whole country? If they decide to do so, what will be the first year when the single-level test could come in and the existing test go out?

9 Oct 2008 : Column 181WH

Jim Knight: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are one year into a three-year pilot study. At the moment, we have not sought to anticipate or shorten the length of that pilot. It would have to show remarkable consistency and success, particularly in the technical issues of test design, to persuade us to shorten it. That is about as far as I can go at this stage.

Mr. Gibb: Does the Minister accept that the single-level test will lead to a huge increase in the quantity and frequency of testing in primary schools as they enter children for each level of the test when they feel that a child is ready? Instead of taking one test in year 6, a child could take three tests as they reach levels 3, 4 and 5, and another at level 6 if that is reintroduced.

Jim Knight: If an individual progresses through their learning at that pace across all subjects, yes, that might happen. However, although I am optimistic about the future success of the education system in primary schools and elsewhere, it is unlikely that pupils will constantly be taking tests when, on average, we are looking for two levels of progress for each key stage. The crucial thing is the atmosphere around taking the tests. The tests are shorter than the SATs and there is less pressure because the whole class—or cohort—is not taking them at the same time. The tests are a different proposition and teachers will decide the appropriate time to take them—as happens with musical instrument graded examinations and other graded examinations in dance, drama and so on. Indeed, parents might be enthusiastic for the next test to be taken, but it would not be done in the same atmosphere—or with the same high stakes—as an end of key stage test for everybody that is taken on a Tuesday afternoon some time in May.

Mr. Gibb: Music exams are quite stressful—for example, when children take their grade 5 piano—and how much pressure is put on children depends on the school. In good, strong primary schools, a lot of pressure is not put on children. However, does the Minister accept that most children will end up taking four tests instead of the existing one because as soon as they are ready for level 3, whatever year they are in, the school will put them in for that test in order to bank the result?

Jim Knight: Obviously that is something we will consider in the pilot. We have to examine carefully whether different sorts of gaming, teaching to the test and stress on pupils will be created. We would not want to introduce the tests if those sorts of factors create negative results.

Whatever changes might or might not happen, we need to answer criticisms about teaching to the test, about which we have heard much today. I noted that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said I might have my head in the sand on that particular issue. The latest Ofsted annual report stated:

That needs to be the rule, not the exception—in all schools, not just the good ones. Schools must support personalised development of pupils at all levels. As I have said, there is a clear place for testing and assessment, but it has to be used in the right way. There will always
9 Oct 2008 : Column 182WH
be a certain amount of teaching to the test—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said as much. When I took my driving test, I was taught to the test, but I was safer on the roads as a result. No parent would question whether their child was well-prepared for a piano exam, which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said was slightly stressful. That is the same shorter, stage not age type of test we have been talking about.

However, there needs to be a balance. Following the concerns raised by the Committee, Ofsted has recently raised concerns, and we have to take note of that. I have always said that teaching to the test—by which I mean focusing narrowly on assessment to the detriment of other aspects of the curriculum, rather than giving children a rigorous grounding in the core subjects as part of normal lessons so that they can pass tests in those subjects—is unacceptable. We make no apologies for the focus on core subjects; they should be a priority. However, good schools achieve the right balance, and do so not at the expense of the rest of the curriculum, as the hon. Gentleman outlined.

We are committed to gathering evidence about teaching to the test—as the Committee has recommended—and to exploring how far excessive time is spent on test preparation. School standards advisers are leading on that work, and we will use the evidence to provide guidance to schools, reinforce good practice and re-emphasise the message that excessive time spent on test preparation is unacceptable. It is appropriate that Ofsted should take note of unacceptable test preparation taking place in a school and reflect that in its findings.

We are already taking action to improve teacher assessment and assessment for learning, which is essential to help teachers to support pupils in the context of more personalised learning. Rigorous assessment and tracking of pupil performance to inform classroom practice is the most common feature of schools that are closing attainment gaps and seeing good progress in their pupils. Some schools are already using assessment for learning effectively. However, for a quarter of schools, ongoing assessment is a key area for improvement. That is why we have developed the assessment for learning strategy, together with the national strategies, the QCA and the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors. The strategy will support schools in improving their ongoing assessment of each child in their class, and help them to identify strengths and areas where children need to progress. It will also help them to plan their teaching and additional support for pupils accordingly. We are investing £150 million over the next three years in the continuing professional development of school staff in relation to assessment for learning.

Mr. Laws: Will the Minister give way again?

Jim Knight: This is an extremely appropriate time for me to give way—although I recall the hon. Gentleman previously saying that he was intervening for the last time.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for his great patience. Just so I and schools around the country are absolutely clear on this, is he saying that despite all the
9 Oct 2008 : Column 183WH
reviews, the time scale means that we will definitely continue to have key stage 2 and 3 tests in their existing form in 2009 and 2010?

Jim Knight: I have been clear about our commitment to testing and national testing. We are going forward with a procurement process for testing for next year, but, as I have said, we are continuing to reflect on what the Committee has said and what hon. Members have said in this debate.

Mr. Laws: Will the Minister give way for the last last time?

Jim Knight: If there is an absolute copper-bottomed guarantee that this is the last time, I will, of course, give way.

Mr. Laws: I am only coming back to the Minister on this point because he has not given us a straight answer to what is a pretty simple question. I thought he was saying that the pilots are in the first of three years, which suggests that there would not be any change in 2009 and 2010. If the Government are intent on the existing regime, why can the Minister not just give a simple commitment to keep the key stage 2 and 3 tests in 2009 and 2010? If that is what the Government are going to do, why can we not have some clarity on the matter?

Jim Knight: I cannot add much more. We are reflecting on that matter and have a procurement in place for 2009. If we were going to continue and were not reflecting, we would have simply re-tendered the ETS contract. However, we have not done so because we think it appropriate to have some debate, discussion and reflection on these issues. We are continuing with the pilot, but I am afraid I cannot be any clearer than that.

Testing is a vital part of the assessment system but, alongside Ofsted reports and teachers’ own judgments, it is just one part of providing a complete picture of progress. Assessment is just one part of the system of reviewing pupils’ progress. A testing system should be considered in the context of the other reforms we are making: raising the education and training leaving age to 18, the introduction of diplomas, the review of the primary curriculum being carried out by Jim Rose, and the more flexible secondary curriculum that started being taught this September.

Our aim is to create a system of fair access, personalisation, and learning that nurtures well-rounded individuals. Testing and assessment have to support that evolving system. We are pleased that the Committee recognises and endorses our approach to assessment for the new diplomas. The NAA is developing a national approach to assessment for the diploma that supports high-quality internal assessment and ensures the professional expertise of local assessors.

Next Section Index Home Page