Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  Q60  Chairman: In broad terms, do you think that this morning's proposals are to be welcomed?

  Dr Boston: Yes.

  Q61  Chairman: In their entirety—there is no hesitation, qualification? I won't say the Australian equivalent of welcome, but you know what I mean.

  Dr Boston: With a modest, restrained British approach to things, Mr Chairman, yes, these proposals are to be welcomed.

  Q62  Chairman: Let us drill down a little. In this Committee, and the previous one, we did not see great public demand for these changes. Do you believe that the public were knocking on people's doors—they were certainly not knocking on my door—saying that they wanted a more independent relationship? Or is it that they were worried about standards? There was always a fuss in August when the results came out—the Daily Mail would always tell us that standards were going down and that there was grade inflation and much else. Is that what people are responding to? Is that what the Government have responded to—the furore that goes on in August?

  Dr Boston: Certainly, the Government have listened to and heard our concerns about the ambiguity present where there is a body that, among other things, is responsible for regulation and reports on the maintenance of assessment standards to a Government who are committed to driving up standards to meet particular targets. As I said, in reality, we have not been troubled by this. I do not think that anyone could point to an occasion when pressure has been put on the organisation by the Government or civil servants with regard to standards— certainly, I am totally unaware of it, and I am certain that it has never happened. However, if we consider one of the causes of the August debate to be that the separation of the regulator from Government is not perfectly clear, then that August debate might be diminished if the separation were made more apparent. Of course, there may be other issues in the August debate that are not resolved by that situation.

  Q63  Chairman: As you know, August is a slow news time. They always bring the education correspondents back for August, so if they have to write about something, I am sure that they will do so. What is your view of the balance between the agency and the other body? How will it be handled, and how will the two organisations develop?

Dr Boston: The Secretary of State has asked us to set up an interim regulatory authority. That should be done virtually immediately, and there should be as much distance between the regulatory body and the parent body—the QCA—as is possible by the summer examinations. Of course, the legislation will not be passed and take effect until 2009.  The way we are looking at setting up the interim arrangements is for the QCA board, which cannot be discharged of its regulatory responsibilities without a change in the Act, nevertheless carrying out those responsibilities, not through me as Chief Executive, but through Isabel Nisbet, the Head of Regulation and Standards, who, it has been announced today, will be the Acting Chief Executive of the new regulatory authority—Ofqual, or whatever shorthand we might finally use to describe it. That organisation will be operating in shadow form from April. I will not be dealing personally with the awarding body chiefs on matters of standards and I will not be setting levels in relation to national curriculum tests, as I do at the moment. That will be done by David Gee as head of the NAA. I will be responsible for managing the affairs of the board. I will remain the accounting officer for the entire organisation, but the shadow regulator's funds will be ring-fenced. An interim board with an interim chairman will be established for the shadow regulator, and the proposal is that, to all intents and purposes, it should function as a separate body from about April. Not only will it function separately, but it will do so from Coventry, because many of them would otherwise be moving to our temporary premises in the old Adult Learning Inspectorate.

  Q64  Chairman: We must get on to the last thing. We have dipped our toe into the area of testing and assessment. We have already had a lot of written evidence and we have had a seminar. People mostly wanted to talk about, not the constitutional role of the two organisations, or the split between the roles of the organisations—that was hardly mentioned—but too much testing, grade inflation, and a range of things that concern parents, students and commentators. It seems that this is to take our eye off the ball, so that we can say, "Look, this is all alright. We are making some big, grand, but complex changes out there," whereas most parents and students are worried about other things entirely, such as too much testing. Everywhere in the world they say that there are too many tests. Academics come before us and tell us that we test the wrong things or too many things. Those are the real issues, are they not?

  Dr Boston: Yes, they are. Certainly, during the interim period, we will not be taking our eyes off those balls.

  Chairman: Let us get drilling now with David.

  Q65  Mr Chaytor: To pursue today's announcement a little further. What will it cost?

  Dr Boston: I do not have an answer to that, but we will be meeting to establish the shadow regulatory authority for which we will need completely new front-of-house facilities. From April, if you ring the regulatory authority, you will not want someone from the QCA answering the phone. The media will need to be different, as will the presentation and delivery. We are looking at that, with a view to presenting a budget bid to the DCSF for putting it in place.

  Q66  Mr Chaytor: Do you know at what stage your budget bid will be presented?

  Dr Boston: It will be presented within the next few weeks; by early January.

  Q67  Mr Chaytor: In your opening presentation, you put a lot of emphasis on the distinction between assessment standards and performance standards. In 1996, the QCA's predecessor and Ofsted published a report on assessment standards, saying that there had been no weakening in the previous 20 years. In 2007, can the QCA say that there has been no weakening in assessment standards in the previous 11 years?

  Dr Boston: Yes. I would also have to say that being able to say that is the product of vigilance and monitoring. Of course, when looking at standards, which are made by humans, and evidence produced by full-cohort papers—a new, different paper each year—judgments have to be made about the way in which one paper and performance equates with previous papers and performance, and so on.  Much of our work on maintenance of standards is looking back over a period of time. The reviews that we undertake of groups of subjects over a period of time indicate, from time to time, that in one area there might have been a drift, and that needs to be corrected. In a report earlier this year we looked at music, including elements of the music curriculum and music performance, and there appeared to have been a drift there over five years. That then needs to be corrected by altering criteria with awarding bodies.  It is a process of monitoring, review and adjustment, but taken in balance as a whole—as an overview of the situation—my answer clearly and unambiguously is yes.

  Q68  Mr Chaytor: But will today's announcement about the split of the QCA's functions in any way reduce the likelihood of drift in assessment standards over the next 10 or 20 years? Your argument seems to be that there has been some drift here and there, which is largely the inevitable result of human error and weakness of human judgment that has been corrected. But is there anything in the new structure that will stop that happening?

  Dr Boston: No. The new body—the regulatory authority—will use codes of practice similar to those we have used in the past. It will use monitoring processes with awarding bodies. It may choose to extend its work beyond the work we fundamentally do, which is at the front end of the qualification, developing the criteria and then accrediting the qualification submitted to meet those criteria, and at the end of the process, after the examination is running, looking at whether the code of practice has been applied in the awarding process. As we move forward with regulation—since Isabel Nisbet[4] has been with the organisation, she has driven this very hard—we need to be regulating more on the basis of the assessment of risk and going into particular points through the process, rather than focusing initially at the start and, finally, at the end.

  Q69  Mr Chaytor: But none of those issues could not be grasped by the QCA in its present format. Is not that the case?

  Dr Boston: That is true.

  Q70  Mr Chaytor: There is nothing about the new form of regulator that will give an enhanced guarantee of no reduction in assessment standards.

  Dr Boston: It is precisely the same style.

  Q71  Mr Chaytor: What I am trying to get at is this: is the conclusion, therefore, that the only argument for change is to somehow deal with the annual two-weeks-in-August hysteria in the tabloid press?

  Dr Boston: Well, I would not describe it as dealing with the two weeks of hysteria, because while the basis for that might be diminished I am not sure that it is going to go away. The basis of the separation that is occurring is, as I see it, the logical one: a regulatory authority should not be reporting to the political party that is currently trying to drive up standards.

  Q72  Mr Chaytor: In terms of structural change within the QCA, will the existing structure of the organisation adapt itself neatly to a division into the two new functions or will this require a major overhaul?

  Dr Boston: No. This will require some major separation of the organisation. The regulation and standards division is clearly at the core of regulation, although not all that it does will go to the new regulatory authority. There are other elements in our curriculum division and in the qualifications and skills division, where regulatory work is done. The re-accreditation of A-levels, for example, which is essentially regulatory, is done through the qualifications division as a 14-19 qualification. We have to unpick those functions and make provision for that work to transfer to the regulator.

  Q73  Mr Chaytor: Within the QCA as it stands, there are three main divisions. The structure of the organisation is based on three main areas.

  Dr Boston: There are four: regulation, qualifications and skills, curriculum and the NAA, which is the operational arm that delivers the national curriculum tests and the modernisation agenda.

  Q74  Mr Chaytor: In terms of assessment standards and performance, this is a blurring of these two functions across the four divisions.

  Dr Boston: Yes, organisationally there is a bit of a blurring. This is meant to clarify it. Regulations and standards or Ofqual—or whatever we end up calling it in shorthand—sitting at Coventry, will be purely to do with assessment standards and nothing else.

  Q75  Chairman: We have a QCA. You are the experts on the curriculum. The Government have just announced yet another inquiry into curriculum, not by you, but by Jim Rose. What is he doing being pulled into that? You are the competent body. You know more about this than Jim Rose. Why are you not doing it? I would be sulking if I were you.

  Dr Boston: The intention announced by Government is that the inquiry will be led by Jim Rose, but that we will work with him as the chief source of advice on evidence and as the body organising and managing a consultation, which presumably will be very widespread. We need to take this out and get genuine consultation with the professionals.

  Q76  Chairman: Have they appointed Jim Rose because he is more of a political fixer than you?

  Dr Boston: I have no comment on that, Mr Chairman.

  Q77  Chairman: Some of us on the predecessor Committee were not too keen on the Rose report. He went totally overboard on synthetic phonics, but we hope that he will do a better job with you on the curriculum.

  Dr Boston: He is certainly a very valued member of our board, and I believe that we will be able to work together very effectively to achieve this. Finally, of course, it will be his advice that goes to the Government. There is no question about that, but we will provide the horsepower in shaping that advice and carrying out the consultation.

  Q78  Ms Butler: We are all aiming for the same goal: to ensure that our children are very well educated. We also want to ensure that schools are properly evaluated. In your opinion, are there any other ways in which the effects of national policy on the state schooling system could be effectively evaluated? Do you have any ideas or opinions on how it could be further improved?

  Dr Boston: I am not quite sure that I get the question. Do you mean methods other than the current assessment system?

  Q79  Ms Butler: Other than the current system and how it works.

  Dr Boston: That question takes us fundamentally to the issue of the fitness for purpose of assessments. What are we assessing and why? That is the area in which the paper that Paul Newton from the QCA prepared for the Select Committee is very helpful. The current Key Stage tests are absolutely fit for the purpose for which they were designed. That is full cohort testing in reading, writing, maths and science for our children at two points in their careers and for reporting on the levels of achievement. They are assessments that are developed over two and a quarter years, and are pre-tested. They are run through teacher panels, pre-tested again, and run through teacher panels again. The marks scheme is developed over a period of time. In terms of the way in which they are put together, if your purpose is full cohort testing, in these dimensions, these are the Rolls-Royce. You are not going to get better; they are fit for purpose. The issue arises with any assessment when, having achieved an assessment that is fit for one purpose, you strap other purposes on to it. As Paul's paper shows, there are 22 purposes currently being served by current assessments, and 14 of those are in some way being served by Key Stage test assessments. Some of those purposes are very close to what is the design purpose, the essential function—the design inference, as Paul calls it. Some of the user inferences—the purposes to which they are put—are much more distant. One of the things that attracts me to the single level tests is that the Government are now looking at a new suite of tests that will have, not only the summative role—potentially when you add up what children have achieved at the end of the Key Stage, to get similar data to the summative data that you get now—but potentially a formative and development role because they are taken during the Key Stage test, and will potentially have less impact on preparation for the test because you are not preparing everyone to take the test at a particular time. You are building children up to take the test when they are ready. My judgment is that, given that there are so many legitimate purposes of testing, and Paul Newton lists 22, it would be absurd to have 22 different sorts of tests in our schools. However, one serving 14 purposes is stretching it too far. Three or four serving three or four purposes each might get the tests closer to what they were designed to do. To take a very simple analogy, Barry, if you want to cut paper or cloth, you have scissors; if you want to slice an apple up, you have a knife; if you want to turn a screw, you have a screwdriver; if you want to open a bottle, you have a corkscrew. To some extent, we are not building tests, we are building Swiss army knives here, and when you put all of these functions on one test, there is the risk that you do not perform any of those functions as perfectly as you might. What we need to do is not to batten on a whole lot of functions to a test, but restrict it to three or four prime functions that we believe are capable of delivering well.

4   Isabel Nisbet, Acting Chief Executive of the new interim regulatory body which will begin operations next year. Isabel is currently the Director of Regulation and Standards at QCA. Back

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