Examination of Witnesses (Questions 55
MONDAY 17 DECEMBER 2007
Q55 Chairman: I welcome you, Dr Ken
Boston, to our deliberations. It is the first time that you have
appeared before this Committeewe saw you in a previous
Committee on a reasonably regular basis. It was good of you to
come here at short notice, given that peoplecertainly those
in Parliamentare close to the time when they disappear
from London for their Christmas break. You were good enough to
enable us to keep the momentum of our inquiry this side of Christmas,
so that we can reach a conclusion early in the new year. We appreciate
your taking the trouble to do that. This is an historic day for
testing and assessment, although we did not plan it that way.
We usually give witnesses a chance to say something at the start,
after which we ask questions. Would you like to make a brief statement?
Dr Boston: I should like to take
a couple of minutes to make a statement. Thank you for giving
me the opportunity to give evidence to the Select Committee. I
shall give a brief preface on standards and national performance.
In its regulatory capacity, it is the job of the Qualifications
and Curriculum Authority to ensure that assessment standards are
maintained year on year for national curriculum tests, GCSEs,
GCEs and other qualifications. The assessment standard is the
height of the hurdle that is to be jumped in any examination or
testit is the degree of difficulty. Our regulatory task
and the task of our division, the National Assessment Agency,
which delivers the national curriculum tests, and the task of
the awarding bodies, which deliver the general qualifications,
is to keep the hurdle at the same height year on year. The
performance standard is different. It is the number of students
who clear the hurdle in a particular year. When we say that standards
are risingas they arewe mean that increasing numbers
are clearing the hurdle. I make that point at the start because
the two uses of the word "standards" are critically
important and have been the source of much confusion. In areas
other than regulationthe areas of curriculum, assessment
and qualifications developmentour role is to work with
the Government to drive up performance standards and increase
the number of those who clear the various hurdles. We are partners
with the Government and other bodies in the national enterprise
of raising performance standards overall.
The QCA has been absolutely scrupulous in ensuring
that our regulatory decisions are not influenced by political
considerations. In my time in the job, at least, Ministers and
civil servants have been similarly principled in ensuring that
they remain totally disengaged from the QCA's regulatory functions.
However, there has always been a logical inconsistency in the
body accountable for maintaining assessment standards reporting
to Ministers whose job is to drive up performance standards. The
Government's decision announced this morning to establish a new
body from within the QCA to take over its regulatory responsibilities
and report to Parliament, not Ministers, will resolve that difficulty
and is therefore very welcome. At the same time, it will allow
the QCA to become, in due course, a new organisation to focus
on the role of curriculum and assessment, and qualifications,
in raising national performance standards. I would like to say
a couple of words about national performance standards and how
to drive them up. Performance standards are rising, but in England,
as in school systems across much of the western world, the rate
of improvement in educational performance has slowed in recent
years. If you look at the graph of our performance and those of
many other western nations, you will see that the lines are not
moving up as steeply as they were a few years ago. In some counties,
the graph has virtually reached a plateau.
There seems to be, internationally, a glass
ceiling at about the 80% competence level: that is, at the level
at which about eight in every 10 young people reach the agreed
national bench marks, such as Level 4 at Key Stage 2. However,
we are by no means unique. Fullan, Hill and others have shown
that the conditions for breaking through that glass ceiling already
exist and the difficulty here and elsewhere has not been in finding
what to do, but in bringing together in the country's classrooms
the things that need to be done. There are three approaches to
teaching and learning that, if brought together effectively within
classrooms, will cause individual, school and national performances
to move upwards more sharply, with national performance standards
potentially rising to the 90% competence level and perhaps above
that. The first of those is personalised learning, which is a
term that I quite dislike, because it is commonly characterised
as putting the learner in charge of the learning, with all the
implications of the secret garden of curriculum that we have heard
in the past, without the edge of challenge and discipline in grappling
with difficulty, which are fundamental to all real learning. Personalised
learning is better described as highly focused teaching, where
the teacher is firmly in charge of the process of instruction
and designs it to stretch the individual beyond the level of what
we might call the comfort zone. There is an educational theory
of 30 years' standing underpinning that, which focuses on drawing
the learner into new areas of learning that are beyond his reach
at that point, but which, with effort and application, are achievable.
As I have said, there is ample evidence over the past 30 years
to show that that works. Personalised learning is deeply rooted
in curriculum, but requires a three-dimensional curriculum that
has depth, rather than a two-dimensional curriculum. It should
be a deep, rich resource from which a teacher can draw bespoke
material to take each young person to their next level of knowledge,
skill and understanding. The second component is systematic and
precise measurement in the classroom of the current stage of learning
to enable the teacher to shape the next stage for each child.
If personalised learning is to drive up performance at individual,
school and national levels, it needs to stand on a foundation
of frequent, low-stakes assessment of individual performance.
That testing needs to happen routinely and incidentally within
the classroom as a matter of course. Some of it can be supported
by technology, such as a child taking a 10-minute task on a computer
to prove for himself and the teacher whether he has yet mastered,
for example, percentages and can be challenged with something
more demanding, or whether more work on percentages is needed
to make him secure. We need to enable teachers to use more of
that sort of assessment in schools. There is an immense professional
thirst for it and, because youngsters come to see frequent and
incidental assessment as integral to their learning and as hurdles
to train for and take pleasure in leaping, in that sense they
do take charge of their own learning. The third and final component
is professional learning for teachers to enable them to assess
teacher performance better and to use the assessment information
on each student to design and implement personalised instruction.
Teachers need to be able to convert the formative assessment data
into information that will enable them to make instructional decisions
not at some time in the futurenor at the start of next
year or at the end of the key stagebut tomorrow. That is
when decisions on intervention need to be implemented. In England,
significant progress has been made on each of those three essential
prerequisites, achieving further improvement in school and system
performance by bringing them together in classrooms. The new secondary
curriculum has been designed to support highly focused teaching
in the sense that I have described. That will also be an objective
of the forthcoming review of the primary curriculum and of our
work with Sir Jim Rose in the context of the broad view of the
curriculum in the Children's Plan. The Children's Plan puts £1.2
billion into supporting the personalisation of learning over the
next three years. The pilot single-level tests are also a significant
step forward in providing information that has the additional
potential to provide summative data on school and system performance.
The tests represent a substantial investment in addition to the
current, Key Stage tests, which they are expected to replace in
due course. There are also, of course, growing data banks of test
items produced by the QCA at the request of Government, such as
the Key Stage 3 ICT test, and other assessment instruments developed
by the private sector, which will support assessment of separate
components for programmes of study. The assessment of pupil performance
programme, which is now being rolled out nationally in both primary
and secondary schools, goes to the heart of the teachers' professional
learning in making instructional decisions based on assessment
information. The Government is committing £150 million over
the next three years for the development of staff in assessment
for learning. To conclude those initial remarks, let me say that
at the moment I am pretty optimistic about the future. There seems
to be a willingness across Government, the teaching profession
and the broader public to engage in genuine discussion about the
future of testing and assessment and to come out of the trenches
to some extent. There seems also to be a real recognition of the
importance of three thingspersonalised learning, formative
assessment, and professional development for teacherswhich
are the essential keys to raising performance standards and the
only way in which this country will drive itself through the glass
ceiling at around 80%.
Q56 Chairman: Thank you for that
introduction, which was a pretty thorough look at the whole field.
If we are going to get through all our questions in the time available,
the question and answers will have to be quick-fire. I want to
start by asking why all that was necessary? You gave evidence
to the Committee not very long ago, when you seemed to be an extremely
happy chairman of the QCA. You did not say to us that there is
a fundamental problem with the QCA structure and that if only
the Government would listen there should be some fundamental changes.
Nevertheless, fundamental changes are what we have here. Some
of us who know the history and the origins of the changes, over
the past 10 or 15 years, feel that we have kind of been here before.
Why do you think that the changes have come about now?
Dr Boston: Our private, but consistent,
advice to Government has been that there is a perception that
the regulatory decisions could be manipulated by Government, given
the way in which we report to Ministers rather than to Parliament.
That argument is strong, and we have made it again and again.
The Government have accepted the argument in so far as it relates
to the regulatory side of our work. The other side of our work
will continue much as it is. I believe that that is a step forward.
Q57 Chairman: Do you understand that
the regulatory part will be in parallel to what has been established
as the relationship of Ofsted to Parliament?
Dr Boston: I am not precisely
sure what the governance arrangements will be, except that it
will have its own board, its own chairman and its own chief executiveI
do not think that anyone is sure yet and lawyers are looking at
the matter. The issue of whether it is a non-ministerial department,
or reports to Parliament in some other way, still needs to be
worked through as part of the consultation process.
Q58 Chairman: When it was believed
that Ofsted was responsible to and answerable to Parliament, there
was a hard-fought battle to ensure that it did so through this
Committee, or its predecessor Committee.
Dr Boston: Yes.
Q59 Chairman: So, I assume that constitutionally,
the parliamentary relationship will be mediated through a Select
Dr Boston: That would be my assumption,
but those matters are being considered within the Department,
not the QCA.