Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 55 - 59)



  Q55  Chairman: I welcome you, Dr Ken Boston, to our deliberations. It is the first time that you have appeared before this Committee—we saw you in a previous Committee on a reasonably regular basis. It was good of you to come here at short notice, given that people—certainly those in Parliament—are 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 test—it 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 rising—as they are—we 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 regulation—the areas of curriculum, assessment and qualifications development—our 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 future—nor at the start of next year or at the end of the key stage—but 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 things—personalised learning, formative assessment, and professional development for teachers—which 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 executive—I 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 Committee.

  Dr Boston: That would be my assumption, but those matters are being considered within the Department, not the QCA.

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