Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor Colin Richards

  1.  This memorandum argues that the issue of testing cannot be seen in isolation but needs to be considered as part of the re-formation of accountability in English education. It proposes a new style of accountability focussed at national, school and parental levels and involves reconsideration of the place and nature of national tests in the education of young people before the age of 16.

  2.  The views expressed are the result of experience of, and reflection on, national testing since its inception—in my roles as senior HMI, as Ofsted's specialist adviser for primary education and latterly as visiting professor at a number of universities in the United Kingdom and abroad.

  3.  The proposals for the future of accountability(including testing) assume that:

    (a)  some form of national curriculum continues to exist;

    (b)  some form of national testing is a political (and public) necessity;

    (c)  some form of national inspection system is a political(and public) necessity;

    (d)  the prime task of teachers is teaching their pupils;

    (e)  autonomy must be balanced by accountability; and

    (f)  in academic terms parents are particularly concerned with their children's achievement and progress in reading, mathematics and basic writing skills, though they also support their children's entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum.

  4.  Accountability in pre-16 education needs to be rendered at national, school and parental levels.


  5.  At national level the Government needs to keep standards under review and to devise a non-intrusive system for assessing pupils' performance in relation to those standards over time. It needs to be able to determine whether that performance is improving or deteriorating over time—preferably in relation to all the major components of any national curriculum, not just the core subjects. The current system of national assessment at ages seven and 11 does not provide a valid or reliable assessment of national performance over time. The Assessment of Performance Unit (operative during the 1980s) might provide a possible model on which to build.

  6.  The Government should set up an independent national body to review standards and to devise national tests which reflect those standards. Such a body would have to make publicly defensible decisions about which age groups would be involved, which components of the curriculum should be tested and which aspects of these components would be tested. The same set of tests would be administered year on year to a very small but representative sample of the school population. The tests would have to be administered confidentially to avoid pressures on schools for test preparation. Data at the national level would be published annually.


  7.  The Government needs a system which assures that individual schools are providing a suitable quality of education and which triggers action should that quality not be evident. This requires some system of school inspection which assesses standards and quality and retains the confidence of parents and teachers. The current Ofsted inspection model does not provide this. However, parents have come to expect publicly available periodic assessments of the quality of and standards in, individual schools. It would be political folly to abandon the notion of regular inspection.

  8.  The current Ofsted model would be modified in a number of ways to make "inspection fit for purpose" Inspections would be lengthened (compared with the current "light-touch" model) but not to the same extent as the earlier Ofsted inspection models. This would probably involve lengthening the time between inspections from three to perhaps five years. Such enhanced inspections would focus on the classroom, not on the school's paperwork, and would report on (a) the performance of children in the work actually observed by inspectors; and (b) the quality of teaching and (as far as is possible) learning based on far more classroom observation than the current "light-touch" inspection model allows. Enhanced inspections should also report on the effectiveness of the school's procedures for self-evaluation and improvement. A summary of these judgements would be reported publicly to parents, along with a summary of the school's reactions to the inspection judgements. A very adverse report might trigger a full inspection or the bringing forward of the timing of the next enhanced inspection.

  9.  Governors and parents would have the right to request an inspection during the five year-year period between inspections and this request would be considered by either Ofsted or HMI (see 13)

  10.  Inspection teams would include the individual school's improvement partner (ie its S.I.P or its future equivalent) who would advise the inspection team, might (or might not ?) contribute to the team's judgements and would take responsibility with the head and governors of the school for any follow-up work consequent on the inspection.

  11.  The system of enhanced inspections would be administered by a reconstituted Ofsted whose inspectors would be drawn from the current cadre of additional inspectors (along with suitably trained headteachers on secondment) and whose management would be drawn from that same cadre. Whatever the failings of the current and post Ofsted models of inspection, the system introduced in 1992 has identified and developed the expertise of enough capable Ofsted inspectors to manage, "man" and regulate the proposed system of enhanced inspections.

  12.  HMI would revert to a role similar to that of pre-Ofsted days. They would be members of, and act as advisers to, a reconstituted Department of Life-Long Learning, would liaise with local authorities and would also carry out their own programme of survey inspections. In exceptional circumstances they might also inspect individual schools at the request of ministers. They might (or might not) consider inspection requests from parents (see 10 above).


  13.  Parents need to be assured that the education system as a whole is performing well, that the schools to which they send their children are providing an education of appropriate quality, and that their children are making appropriate progress. The first two of these considerations would be met by the systems outlined above. It would be political folly not to provide parents with reliable information on how well their children are progressing in the so-called but "mis-named" basics.

  14.  To provide parents with information about individual progress teachers need to engage in ongoing assessment and to report its results.This would be provided in part by approaches to assessment for learning and in part by testing. It would be important that tests should serve, not dominate, good quality teaching.

  15.  There would be one or two kinds of testing. One would involve adopting the Scottish model of having a national data-bank of test items linked to progression particularly in English and mathematics and of teachers drawing, as appropriate, on this bank when seeking to determine or confirm their judgements of individuals' progress. These judgements would then be reported to parents on an individual basis. They would not be reported on a school by school basis (thereby helping to prevent "teaching to the test" or excessive pressure being placed on teachers for results) but they could be reported at an LA level (if thought desirable).

  16.  If the first type of testing is not considered sufficient, a second type would complement it—focusing on parents' main concerns: their child's performance in reading, mathematics and basic writing skills. National standardised tests would be devised to provide both summative and (if possible) diagnostic information which would be reported to parents on an individual basis, not on a school by school basis. Such national tests would be administered twice in a child's primary career—once on a one-to-one basis at the end of year 1 (followed where necessary by programmes of "reading recovery" and "number recovery") and once collectively at the end of year 5 (followed, where necessary, by more remedial or more challenging work to be provided within the same school in year 6). This slimmed-down programme of testing would replace the current end-of-key-stage and "optional" tests which too often dominate both the teaching and the curriculum, especially, but not only, in years 2 and 6.


  17. Such a three-fold system would remove much (though not all) of the burden currently placed on schools by over-controlling regulatory measures—in particular national testing. It would provide government, schools and parents with appropriate information about progress and performance and provide an appropriate balance between professional autonomy and public accountability.

June 2007

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