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9 Oct 2008 : Column 183WH—continued

Ofqual will be responsible for ensuring high standards right across the spectrum of the qualifications system, including the new diplomas. As hon. Members know, we will be legislating in the next Session to establish an independent regulator of qualifications and tests—namely, Ofqual. Ofqual already exists in an interim form and it is exceptionally unlikely that it will continue to exist in the same office as what will be the Qualifications and
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Curriculum Development Agency. Ofqual has taken on the QCA’s regulatory functions and, when it exists in statutory form, will report directly to Parliament.

The key driver for establishing Ofqual—announced by the Secretary of State just over a year ago—was to develop confidence in the standards of qualifications. But, for the first time, Ofqual will also have a statutory role to regulate and report on national curriculum assessment. Having Ofqual’s independent assurance this summer has been invaluable. Its role in relation to tests will continue to be crucial in the coming years as we look to rebuild confidence in the testing system.

This has been an interesting and productive debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber made a number of interesting points. I shall reflect on them and discuss this issue further with the ministerial team, particularly as we look to the procurement process for 2009 and beyond.

With Ofsted inspecting schools, the QCA overseeing system development, Ofqual regulating the tests, and the involvement of the Office for National Statistics, the process is appropriately separated and independent from the Government. Teachers, pupils, parents and the public can have confidence in the process. We are determined to continue to get this right. We want this country to be the best place in the world for children to grow up, with a world-class education system that offers everyone an equal chance of a successful future, that narrows the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged and the rest, and that develops every child’s unique talents so that they can achieve their full potential.

5 pm

Mr. Sheerman: With permission, Mr. Williams. That was a much better response to our report than the one that we originally received. I am reasonably pleased that when the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) intervened on the Minister, the Minister refused to take the bait and give us an authoritative and distinctive answer, because we want him to be contemplative and to take the pilot seriously. We want him, during this intervening year, to have the ability to judge whether the time is ripe for change, so I take a very positive view of his remarks.

One small disappointment that I have relates to the point on which I intervened. It is fine going around the world assessing what happens in different countries and saying that they all have national testing. Our report said that we were in favour of national testing, but we were worried about the high-risk nature of the testing, which can mean the end of careers very quickly. A head teacher who gave evidence to us said that he was in a small school in a very disadvantaged area in the centre of London, with a high level of change because of migrants coming in and going out. The statistics on his achievements can change very quickly. If Ofsted comes in during an unlucky year, rather than the next year, his teaching career is over—he will never be a head again. The high risk linked to the testing, which everyone knows about, is what concerns us most.

Let me explain the other aspect that I am disappointed about. I am sure that the Minister has read or will read the book of essays published by the Institute of Education and edited by Geoff Whitty and his colleagues. The point is made very soundly that too many people at the chalk face in our education system—teachers, support
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workers and heads—feel that they are in a system that is one of central direction, that their professional competence, knowledge, understanding and experience are not fully used, and that the Department sees itself as the McDonald’s headquarters and they are working in the franchise and are very restricted in how they can use their professional competence.

I ask the Minister to read the essays and to think. That range of essays certainly made me think carefully about what exactly we are doing with this profession that we have spent so much time rewarding better and paying better. We all recognise that there are now better salaries in teaching; there are better facilities, wonderful new buildings under the Building Schools for the Future programme, and much else. Is it not time—this is the heart of our report—that we started trusting teachers a little more to use their professional competence, whether that involves marking key stage tests or broader issues?

I do not want to prolong the debate further, but perhaps the Minister will also consider the relationship
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between testing and assessment and the uses to which that is put by Ofsted. There is another collection of essays, shortly to be published, to which I can refer him. He may be surprised to learn that the publisher is Civitas—a think-tank with which I am not usually associated. However, I have done a foreword for that group of essays about the change in Ofsted over recent years. The reason I bring that reading to the Minister’s attention is that it contains very good contributions from heads and other experts and teachers about their perception of how short the Ofsted inspection now is—it is one and a half days in reality—and about their fear that too often the only thing they are being judged on is the printout of their results, so that testing and assessment become so much more powerful and daunting for any school. This is about a balance. I recommend that reading to the Minister. I would be very grateful if he were to reflect on it and if we could then have a conversation when he next came to our Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Five o’clock.

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