Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Association of Colleges (AoC)


  AoC (the Association of Colleges) is the representative body for colleges of further education, including general FE colleges, sixth form colleges and specialist colleges in England, Wales (through our association with fforum) and Northern Ireland (through our association with ANIC). AoC was established in 1996 by the colleges themselves to provide a voice for further education at national and regional levels. Some 98% of the 415 plus general FE colleges, sixth form colleges and specialist colleges in the three countries are in membership. These colleges are the largest providers of post-16 general and vocational education and training in the UK. They serve over four million of the six million learners participating in post-statutory education and training, offering lifelong learning opportunities for school leavers and adults over a vast range of academic and vocational qualifications. Levels of study range from the basic skills needed to remedy disadvantage, through to professional qualifications and higher education degrees.

  The key role played by the sector and its 250,000 staff in raising the level of skills and competitiveness of the nation's workforce make colleges central to the Government's national and regional agenda for economic prosperity and social inclusion. AoC services to member college corporations include information, professional development and support in all aspects of institutional management, governance, curriculum development, quality, employment, business development and funding. AoC also works in close partnership with the Government and all other key national and regional agencies to assist policy development, continuously to improve quality and to secure the best possible provision for post-16 education and training.

  A summary of the key points included in this submission are:

    1.  The assessment framework should mirror the move towards a modular approach to the curriculum and therefore allow for the assessment of bite-sized chunks of learning which builds on learners' existing achievements.

    2.  A flexible approach should be taken to forms of assessment to ensure that they can be accessed by all learners: this is particularly important at a time when there is a greater emphasis on summative assessments.

    3.  This learner centred approach will be facilitated by ensuring that lecturers have a role in devising appropriate assessment tools.

    4.  Whatever form of assessment is used it is key that the burden and/or nature of assessment does not become more important than the learning taking place.

    5.  As the platform of awarding bodies widens there should be differentiation in the rigour of the regulatory framework and monitoring procedure based upon the quality and maturity of the provider.

    6.  The impact of Key Skills tests on raising attainment levels is open to question. Consideration should be given to broadening the range of such tests if they are to continue to allow for a broader picture of young peoples' skills and abilities.

    7.  League tables do not provide a true reflection of the work of the FE sector and the emphasis on them is in danger of shifting the focus within the school sector to league results rather than individual need.

    8.  There is no recognition given in league tables to the 48% of young people who do achieve Level 2: the inclusion of Level 1 results would provide a much needed incentive for schools to invest resources and expertise in this significant group of learners.

    9.  The current league table reporting mechanisms based on individual institutions will not meet the needs of the 14-19 reforms where partnerships and shared ownership of students will be the key.

    10.  The current testing system at 16 is, in our view, a disincentive to progression. We advocate the development of an experiential learning route post 14 with an appropriate assessment and testing framework.

    11.  The potential negative impact upon teaching and learning and on the cohesive view of subjects created by modular assessments could be mitigated by the wider use of such initiatives as the Level 3 extension project.

    12.  There can be no justification for universities imposing another hurdle for young people to overcome through the use of entry tests. If the rationale for these tests is dissatisfaction with the standards of A-level then this is the problem which should be addressed.


  AoC is pleased to provide evidence to the Committee on the key issue of testing and assessment: an issue which has been the subject of much recent debate.


  1.1  AoC would want to reiterate its consistently stated view of the key principles which should, in our view, underpin any system of testing and assessment. These are that assessments should:

    —  be able to be accessed by all learners regardless of their learning styles

    —  build on learners' existing achievements

    —  allow for the assessment of bite- sized chunks of learning

    —  allow for formative charting of progress

  1.2  The assessment framework should mirror the move towards a modular approach to the curriculum which responds effectively to the needs of both learners and employers. This incremental approach whereby learners would be able to build up a bank of achievements would not be impeded by the current restrictions of age and level but would allow the learner to develop skills and knowledge against agreed standards in a way which would maximise individual potential and maintain motivation.

  1.3  AoC believes that the Qualifications and Credit Framework currently being piloted is an example of best practice. Whilst welcoming the commitment to use QCF principles in the design of the Foundation Learning Tier AoC believes that if the decision had been taken to encompass all qualifications within this framework it would have resulted in a genuinely flexible assessment and testing system which would have allowed all learners to achieve their full potential.


2.1  Why do we have a centrally run system of testing and assessment?

  2.1.1  The current central system has facilitated the development of a clear and transparent system of qualifications with structured levels and pathways. This provides all stakeholders with confidence in the qualification and assessment system.

2.2  What other systems of assessment are in place both internationally and across the UK?

  2.2.1  Internationally there are many examples of central testing and accreditation. The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) is a credit based system for HE which has been successfully tested across Europe.

2.3  Does a focus on national testing and assessment reduce the scope for creativity in the curriculum?

  2.3.1  Whilst a national framework does not of necessity reduce the scope for creativity, the degree of restriction within that framework can significantly limit the possibility of delivering curriculum in a differentiated and imaginative way. Testing reduces creativity if it is inappropriate: for example a written test of mechanical skills or musical understanding diverts the curriculum towards that skill and away from mechanics or music. The system of testing should allow individuals to be tested in ways that are appropriate for them: it should therefore provide for a range of assessment methods. These assessments should be able to credit steps of attainment so that individuals gain a sense of achievement and motivation and their progress can be effectively charted. National assessment should not drive the learning. Colleges tell us that young people are now more interested in the assessment criteria than they are in the learning material. If this is the case, then too great an emphasis is being placed on the test and insufficient on the learning experience.

2.4  Who is the QCA accountable to and is this accountability effective?

  2.4.1  QCA as a regulating body accountable to the DfES plays an essential role in ensuring the integrity and credibility of the examination system. This regulatory function has the dual stands of establishing the regulatory framework and of monitoring its implementation.

  2.4.2  AoC believes that the time may now be appropriated to consider building in greater flexibility and differentiation into QCA's monitoring processes so that a "lighter touch" is adopted with those colleges with a strong track record of operating testing and assessments within a rigorous internal quality framework. This would reflect the commitment of moving towards greater self regulation within the college system and recognise the maturity of many colleges.

  2.4.3  The impact of technology on the testing and assessment mechanisms is a further driver to reviewing the necessity of maintaining the monitoring system in its current form. With the growing introduction of on line testing Awarding Bodies are now able to identify and address any examples of aberrant marking immediately. This should allow awarding bodies to accurately assess risk and differentiate between centres. Our aim here is to reduce the spiralling cost of examinations and the bureaucracy associated with them.

  2.4.4  The Leitch report advocates a more responsive approach whereby employers are able to devise and accredit qualifications. AoC recognises that greater flexibility in the qualification offer is key to the achievement of this demand led approach, however this wider platform of awarding bodies will in the medium term require a strong regulatory framework and robust monitoring procedures.This, therefore supports the proposal for a differentiated monitoring role played dependent upon the nature or quality of the provider.

2.5  What role should exam boards have in testing and assessment?

  2.5.1  There is a self evident role for exam boards in producing examining tools and ensuring the standardisation of tests and assessments. AoC does, however, question the current trend towards greater reliance on more traditional, paper- based summative tests. We understand that the rationale behind this move is to ensure rigour and to avoid plagiarism but find it regrettable as it will inevitably penalise those learners who are unable to evidence their true ability/knowledge through this form of assessment. The focus on paper- based testing may not always be appropriate or, indeed, valid for what is being tested and therefore may not serve either employers' or selectors' needs. AoC has strongly supported the emphasis on meeting individual learner needs and welcomes the current focus on providing a framework for personalising both the school and FE sector. There is a real danger that this personalisation will be undermined by the use of a single form of assessment.

  2.5.2  AoC has consistently lobbied for lecturers to be given more responsibility in devising assessment tools which are appropriate for their learners. This would not only ensure a closer fit to learner need but also, by placing greater responsibility and trust in lecturers, would professionalize the workforce. A more confident workforce taking a more active role in the development of testing/assessment methods would in turn have a positive impact on teaching and learning. However, we recognise that this would need to be supported both by training and rigorous quality controls especially for new providers.


3.1  How effective are current Key Stage tests?

  3.1.1  As the recipients of students who have undertaken Key Stage tests, colleges are concerned about the degree of remedial work they have to undertake to ensure that students' skills are at the necessary level; this must create some doubts about how far the tests have helped to raise attainment levels. This leads us to question the use that is currently being made of the outcomes of the Key Stage tests.

  3.1.2  It would seem sensible that if young people are going to be tested regularly that the tests should allow for the assessment of a broader picture of their skills and abilities to be developed, for example what are their preferred learning styles or assessment styles? These outcomes could be used to inform the teaching and learning strategies used and could be passed on to, for example, the Careers staff to allow for more targeted advice and guidance to be given. This would be in keeping with the development of the personalisation agenda and would also provide the profile necessary to support the progression of young people to the most appropriate mix of programme within the Specialised Diplomas.

3.2  Are league tables based on test results an accurate reflection of how well schools are performing?

  3.2.1  The league tables currently lead to schools placing all their efforts on ensuring that as many of their pupils as possible obtain at least 5 GCSEs at Grade C or above. It is probable that the outcomes of league table results, rather than individual need, take precedence; that drilling young people on the skills needed to pass tests rather that enhancing their ability to learn and apply that learning has moulded classroom practice. The consequence of this is that there is a focus of additional time and resources on those borderline Grade C/D pupils: many of whom subsequently succeed. However, whilst these young people have the necessary grades to progress to level 3 courses they often do not have the necessary concepts or intellectual rigour to deal with the demands of the next level course. This raising of false expectations resulting in a sense of inadequacy may well account for the high drop out rate at 17.

  3.2.2  Both the current league tables and the measurements proposed in the new proposals on "Progression Measures" only report at Level 2: there is therefore no recognition given to pupil achievement at Level 1. Given that in 2005-06 41.5% of pupils left school without having achieved five GCSEs at Grade C or above (and that this group of young people form a significant pool of untapped talent who, because their needs are not addressed, frequently account for a great deal of disruptive behaviour and/or fall into the NEET group), AoC strongly believes that Level 1 achievement should be included in league tables. This would serve to highlight the need for high quality provision at this essential stage and provide incentives to schools to focus resources and expertise on this level of work.

  3.2.3  The development of the Foundation Learning Tier would, in our view, provide an excellent framework for that significant tranche of young people who are not ready to complete a full Level 2 qualification at the age of 16.


  4.1  Although there is no specific request for comment on Performance Measures in FE, AoC considers that there are issues linked to this which should be drawn to the Committee's attention.

  4.2  AoC has consistently objected to the basis of league tables in that, of their nature, they favour those schools that are in a position to recruit more able pupils. We recognise that the development of value-added measures mitigate against this bias to a certain extent but the focus on academic examination results continues to undervalue the work done by the FE sector which has traditionally recruited young people with lower qualifications and/or those who prefer the vocational to the academic route.

  4.3  The implementation of the Government's 14-19 reform policy raises another fundamental issue about league tables which AoC believes should be addressed. The current tables measure performance in individual institutions: however, the 14-19 reforms are based upon partnerships both across schools and across the school/FE sectors so that frequently students will be "shared" by two or more institutions. The current league table reporting mechanism will not promote the partnership working which is at the heart of the new 14-19 curriculum and consequently will not encourage the development of provision which meets the needs of young learners. AoC recommends that thought to be given to disbanding the current individual performance base in favour of developing a form of local target setting against which the local performance of all partners can be measured.

4.4  Is the testing and assessment in "summative" tests fit for purpose?

  4.4.1  As indicated above AoC believes that any testing regime should allow for all learners to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Summative testing has a role in any testing and assessment framework in that it provides the vehicle to judge the learners' overall understanding and knowledge. However, the nature of summative testing at 16 is not in our view "fit for purpose".

  4.4.2  AoC has always argued that the current form of Level 2 testing at 16 only serves to create a barrier in that it does not give many young people the opportunity to demonstrate what they are good at. This artificial hurdle at the age of 16 is, in our view, a disincentive to progression and a significant contributory factor to drop out both pre and post 16.

  4.4.3  In order to address this issue we would advocate the development of an experiential learning route post 14 with an appropriate assessment and testing framework. We continue to advocate an incremental learning model in which young people can mix levels of learning in different subjects according to their ability. The potential this would create of achieving at a higher level in areas of strength and interest would be a powerful motivating influence and would increase the number of young people who continue learning beyond the age of 16.

  4.4.4  AoC welcomes the introduction of the extended project at Level 3 as it will provide a more enabling way for young people to demonstrate their skills and attributes than the traditional testing methods. We believe that the introduction of such innovations should be extended to develop a richer and more differentiated range of 14-19 testing and assessment tools.

4.5  Are the changes to GCSE coursework due to come into effect in 2008 reasonable? What alternative forms of assessment might be used?

  4.5.1  We consider that GCSE provision falls within the schools' remit. However, on the principle of the changes being introduced, we would stress that colleges' whole ethos is to develop the individual's learning skills and ability to take responsibility for and ownership of research for projects: this runs counter to the planned changes to the GSE testing methodology. AoC recognises the concerns over plagiarism which lies behind these changes but would draw the Committee's attention to the alternative approach being taken to this issue by the Joint Council for Qualifications who, in a pilot project with colleges, are encouraging an approach that places the responsibility on the young person to utilise a software package to check for plagiarism. This is, in our view, a more appropriate manner of dealing with the concerns of intellectual property and improper use of the Internet as a research tool. It anticipates and prepares young people to recognise and acknowledge their sources and to develop referencing skills that will be required at higher levels of study.

4.6  What are the benefits of exams and coursework? How should they work together? What should the balance be between then?

  4.6.1  AoC has always asserted that, ideally, assessment should form a natural part of learning. One of the key attributes of good teachers is the ability to embed the ongoing checking of learning into their teaching practice thus being able to chart individual progress and provide additional or alternative learning opportunities as appropriate; a model used naturally in Work Based Learning. We recognise that this is the ideal and appreciate the Government's desire to retain rigour within assessment processes; however, we believe that currently the balance is swinging too far towards summative assessment and that consideration should now be given to redressing this balance.

4.7  Will the ways in which the new 14-19 diplomas are to be assessed impact on other qualifications such as GCSE?

  4.7.1  The 14-19 diplomas will be assessed using a range of internal and external assessment methods; detail of these have not yet been finalised. AoC would wish the same principles of a rigorous framework which gives flexibility for teachers to devise assessment tools suitable to their learners' needs to be adopted. We would want the opportunity to comment upon the detail of the Diploma assessment and testing methodology as the detail is developed.

4.8  Is holding formative summative tests at ages 16, 17 and 18 imposing too great a burden on students? If so, what changes should be made?

  4.8.1  There is some concern in the sector that this pattern of summative tests can result in too much time being dedicated to preparation for examinations rather than giving students a real understanding of their subjects. Summative tests at 17 appear to be the main cause for concern and a review of the nature of assessment at this stage may be appropriate.

4.9  To what extent is frequent, modular assessment altering both the scope of teaching and the style of learning?

  4.9.1  Modular assessment has facilitated the introduction of bite-sized learning so that students are able to focus on a specific component of their course and gain accreditation for it prior to moving on to another component, thus increasing motivation. There is, however, a down side to this modular approach in that if overused it can lead to a fragmentation of the curriculum whereby students do not glean an overview of the subject or of natural links within a subject. The introduction of such initiatives as the extended project at Level 3 will serve to reduce this risk of fragmentation and we would advocate the wider use of this model.

4.10  How does the national assessment system interact with university entrance? What does it mean for a national system of testing and assessment that universities are setting entrance tests as individual institutions?

  4.10.1  AoC sees an intrinsic illogicality in the fact that there is a structured qualifications system which does not allow for automatic progression to Higher Education. We are disappointed that universities remain elitist and unaccountable bodies who are able to use additional entrance tests to further their own selection agendas. If the rationale behind these entrance tests is that universities are not satisfied with the standards of A levels then the perceived problem ie A level should be tackled rather than imposing yet another hurdle for young people to overcome. The elitism in the Higher Education system is exacerbated by the use of tests for which the privileged will be coached whilst others will be denied access. This cannot be fair nor is it in line with Government policy to increase access to degree level qualifications.

May 2007

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