Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 128 - 139)



  Q128  Chairman (Fiona Mactaggart): Good afternoon, everyone. We have a rather interesting situation here. We are missing our Chair, because this session coincides with the debate on the Education and Skills Bill in the House, so I have agreed to act as Chair. We are also missing a bunch of witnesses. I am afraid that Steve Sinnott of the National Union of Teachers and Chris Keates of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers pulled out. They would have provided two thirds of the witnesses in the second part of this evidence session, so we have decided to put together all four witnesses who are here—thank you for agreeing to this, Mary—for one slightly truncated session. It is important that we speak to the NASUWT and the NUT, and it is striking that in its evidence the NUT specifically asked to come before the Committee to give evidence. We want to speak to senior officials, and not to junior substitutes, so we will arrange an alternative date for them to appear. In the meantime, in this session—I imagine that it will finish at about 5.15 pm if that is convenient for all our witnesses—we will look at testing and assessment as part of our inquiry. It is usual for the Chair to offer witnesses an opportunity to make brief preliminary remarks about the issues before them, which can help the Committee to zero in on its main concerns. If any of you would like to do that, I would welcome your contribution.

  Dr Bousted: The key issue for this Committee is that proposed by Dylan Wiliam, who said that the challenge that we have as a country is to have tests that are worth teaching to. At present, the view of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers is that we do not have tests that are worth teaching to. The current testing system is highly unsatisfactory. Some 30% of pupils will be awarded the wrong level at Key Stage tests. That is an issue for standard assessment tests and GCSEs. Another issue is that, because of over-teaching to the tests, six months on from being tested at Key Stages 2 and 3, 25% of children do not maintain the same level. For a Government who are keenly interested in raising pupils' standards and system levels of attainment and achievement, that is not good. What is striking from the evidence that has been presented by the people representing our organisations is the degree of consensus in the submissions. There is consensus that tests are used for too many different purposes, and because of that their value is corrupted. There is consensus on the inadequate relationship between the national curriculum and the tests. In other words, the tests cover very narrow aspects of the national curriculum, which leads to worries about validity. There is also striking evidence that because we test seven out of 11 years of compulsory schooling, there is a demotivating impact on pupils, which leads to a very instrumental view of learning. I was interested to read in The Times Higher Education Supplement that this instrumental view of learning is even affecting the most academic pupils—those who go on to higher education. They arrive at university without the necessary research skills and skills for independent learning, which then have to be taught in the first year of university. Therefore, the tests have a severe effect on all children in the curriculum. Even in the Government's own terms, the tests do not do the job and, more significantly, they militate against assessment for learning, which we need to encourage. This is a highly significant inquiry. I am glad that the Select Committee wants to consider the matter. I know that you were going to do it and then the inquiry was halted and you will come back to it. It is highly significant, and we will await your final report with interest because you are commenting on something for which the public perception is now changing. We are coming to an interesting time in the assessment and testing debate. There is beginning to be more of a clamour to do things differently.

  Mick Brookes: I am very pleased to be here as well. It is important that we get beneath the headlines of what all the associations have been saying. The impression that the teaching unions are against assessment is palpably not true. We are for assessment, but it has to be assessment for the right reasons and with the right instruments. If we do not have that, we end up, as Mary said, corrupting the curriculum. You should have received the book from the Commission on Testing by the National Association of Head Teachers.[3] In that Commission, views were gathered from the wider community, and not just the teaching community. It included views from the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations and governing bodies. It was not just our association that was represented. Anthony Seldon stated: "Children are encouraged to develop an attitude that, if it is not in the exam, it doesn't matter. Intellectual curiosity is stifled and young people's deeper cultural, moral, sporting, social and spiritual faculties are marginalised by a system in which all must come second to delivering improving test and exam numbers." That is where we are. I know from my colleagues that it has altered the curriculum, particularly in the primary sector but also in the secondary sector. I am sure that Brian will say more about that in a minute. It is timely that we come to this now to look at where we go to continue to raise standards in education.

  Brian Lightman: What is interesting is the degree of consensus that is already here. I have heard nothing that I disagree with and would not have wanted to say myself. That is a very important message: that we really do feel strongly about this. I want to home in on two things. The first is the examinations system, which has become so costly and complex and is at a point that is completely unsustainable in its current format. There seems to be an assumption that everything has to be externally assessed, which is having all kinds of implications in terms of what we are doing in school, what we are doing for the children, the pressure we are putting them under and the disaffection that we are causing as well as the unhappiness and stress of children. That sounds as if I am going to speak against assessment and I am certainly not going to do that. Like the NAHT, we are far from opposed to assessment. In fact, we are saying that assessment is an integral part of the teaching and learning process. It is absolutely the bread and butter of what every teacher does. It is strange that that aspect of our work has almost been taken away from the professional skills of teachers, because it has been handed over to people outside the classroom. I want to talk about the problem with that. True assessment for learning is something that we are genuinely excited and passionate about as school leaders because, when you introduce those types of technique, you can see immediately improvements in the motivation of the students and quite enormous improvements in the quality of the learning that goes on. That is a terribly important aspect of what we are doing and we need to re-professionalise teachers and train them so that they can use those methods in their teaching. That would have an enormous impact on things like low-level disruption in the classroom, the motivation of students and the progress that they make. ASCL is providing in its paper a proposal for chartered assessors that we see as a solution to the problem. We do not want just to talk about a problem. We are saying that we understand the need for assessment for accountability and we understand that assessment needs to be robust, valid, reliable and so on. Therefore, we propose a model whereby teachers can be trained in their skills and assessment and we can build that into our work. That would be much better value for money and a much more efficient system. I could say a lot more about that, but by way of introduction, that will do for the moment.

  Keith Bartley: I became Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council in March this year and one of the first things that impressed me was the range and the nature of the evidence and research work with teachers and with parents that underpinned our submission to you. I hope that you have had access to that. The General Teaching Council was founded and exists in the public interest, and I share the consensus that you have heard about already. We feel strongly that this country needs an assessment system that more effectively supports learning and promotes higher achievement. We are very much here in terms of a statement of intent to help the Government to find a means by which benchmarked information about schools in the public domain is valid, reliable and illustrative of the progress made by children. I will not go through them now, but all our proposals were submitted with that objective in mind.

  Q129  Chairman: Thank you all very much. It could be understood that the arguments that you have all made—I doubt that this is what you believe—are against all forms of externally moderated examinations. I would like you to talk about where you feel externally moderated examinations ought to fit into the system and why.

  Mick Brookes: You are quite right; that is not that case. We think that we should place greater reliance on teacher assessments, as Mary said, but it would need to be moderated. I know, from my experiences as a head teacher, that you can have two teachers with a parallel year group, one of whose glass is half-full and the other whose glass is half-empty, and who might assess something such as writing, for instance, which has a degree of subjectivity about it, at different levels. There needs, therefore, to be something there. The Scottish system is worth looking at. They have a bank of benchmarked tests, from which schools can draw, in order to check on the validity of teacher assessment. We are not against external assessments; in fact, it is important to have some benchmarking. Nobody in our association wants to return to the 1970s when you did not know what the school up the road was doing, let alone a school at the other end of the country. There needs to be some benchmarking and an idea of where schools should be, but we are saying that we need to test for the right purpose. The current testing regime is used for far too many purposes.

  Brian Lightman: I am sure that we would agree with that. There is certainly a place for external assessment, which will increase as you go higher up the age range. We do not suggest removing A-levels because they are important external benchmarks, but there should be an appropriate range of assessment methods. However, going further down the age range, we need to think whether it is really necessary for material at, say, Key Stage 3, to be marked externally, bearing in mind that it is marked by the same people as those in the school at the time. Does everything need to be externally arranged? Do we need a system by which we send things away? Given technology, should we not, as the NAHT suggested, adopt a system by which, for example, you could download assessment material? We should use new technology to download new material and use it when we are genuinely ready. That does not mean that everybody does the same test on the same day and in the same room, but that when you are ready, you draw down those resources to a certain standard.

  Q130  Chairman: Sorry to interrupt you, but is that not exactly what is proposed in the single-level test?

  Brian Lightman: No, I do not think that it is. At the moment, everybody across the country is doing the same test on the same day, so it is still an external test. We suggest having a bank of assessments, which the professionals should be trusted to draw down and use. When a class, or group of students within a class, is ready to be assessed, they could draw down those materials and apply the assessments to those students. We would have to ensure the appropriate external moderation. That could be helped by the model that we put forward of chartered assessors, whereby qualified people moderate both within and outside the school.

  Q131  Chairman: In St. Cyres school, which you headed, did you find that occasionally you would pick different examination boards for different subjects, because of questions about whether a board is easier in some subjects than in others?

  Brian Lightman: I am sure that that has happened in every school in the country.

  Q132  Chairman: I am not picking you out, but just asking for your personal experiences as a head teacher.

  Brian Lightman: In my experience, in all of my schools, including when I was a head of department in Surrey, we would change our syllabus, partly depending on how we felt that we could get the children through exams. That is bound to happen in a culture in which everything is looked at and accountable. We should be choosing assessment materials that reflect the kind of teaching and learning that we want to have. Given that you mentioned St. Cyres, I should add that it is in Wales, where we do not have Key Stage 3 tests. Interestingly, given the changes there, there is now a genuine debate among heads of different subjects about what constitutes effective learning at a particular level within each subject. Heads of department of different schools are getting together and really thinking about that moderation process in a way that I have not seen in the past 15 years or so.

  Q133  Chairman: It does not seem to be producing better results in Wales and the rest of the country, but nevertheless—

  Brian Lightman: Well, I think it is.

  Keith Bartley: Going back to your question about external moderation, our research tends to suggest two things. One is that we think that public exams should be more about learning, which means that what is examined needs to be broader, and that more account needs to be taken of how they represent what has been learned. The second is linked to that. At the moment, most of our public exams have extremely high stakes. They are used for many purposes—that is the point that Mary started with. An externally moderated examination tells us how well a young person has achieved, comparatively. The scores are then aggregated to give us a sense of how well a school has done, and aggregated further to give us an idea of how well young people of a particular age have done across the country. That multiplicity of uses to which a single examination is put represents stakes that are too high, and it tends to subvert part of the original purpose of evaluating learning.

  Chairman: Andy, perhaps this is the moment at which you would like to come in.

  Q134  Mr Slaughter: Yes, I was very interested in what was said at the beginning about the types of test and whether they are of a good standard. I shall come to that in a second, but first I shall return to an even earlier stage and see whether I have understood what you are saying about testing in general.From my lay understanding, you are essentially talking about two different types of testing. The first is testing that is internal to an institution—the type of testing that I remember from when I was at school, which is a tool for teachers to use on their pupils to determine whether they are progressing and learning according to the curriculum that they are being taught. I would have thought that it is also used to encourage them to learn, because it provides an incentive, rather than their staring at a blank piece of paper in a test. I assume that that still goes on; it went on a lot when I was at school. I assume that you do not object to it. National tests—I am not so much talking about exams such as A-levels, which have been mentioned—seem to perform a wholly different function: to test whether an institution and its teachers are performing. Do you see testing as I have just explained it, and, if not, what is your analysis? Do you think that the first type is good and the second bad?

  Dr Bousted: Well—

  Chairman: Sorry, do come in there.

  Mick Brookes: We are very well behaved.

  Dr Bousted: Yes, we are. We are not going to speak without the teacher letting us speak. If your statement was right and the national tests were used to decide how good an institution was, that would cut down their purpose. You might be able to look at national tests that decide how good an institution is, but that is not the case. The national tests are used to give the individual performance of each child. Our argument is that in looking at an assessment system, we must consider two things: is it valid—testing the key, essential core abilities in a subject that are defined in the national curriculum—and is it reliable? ATL's contention is that the current system is neither valid—it does not test the essential core attributes of a subject—nor reliable. I return to the fact that up to 25% of children, maybe more, get the wrong grade, which has profound consequences for them. Also, a child who only just gets a Level 4 and one who nearly gets a Level 5 might be at very different stages in their learning. It is a broad brush stroke. The other problem is that although tests are meant to be used to give individual level data, school level data and so on, at Key Stage 2, which has one of the most pernicious stages of testing, the results are given far too late to be any good for a child. The child goes on to secondary school, and secondary schools do not believe the grades because they think that primary schools train children to take tests. Indeed, independent evidence from the QCA proves that to be true. The children are then retested at secondary school because there is no confidence in the grades given by primary schools. The idea that the national tests are used just for the national picture is not right. The problem for children is that if you are told at seven, at 11 and then at 14 that you are not very good, it is perfectly logical to say, "Well, if I'm not very good, I won't try." If individual children are told that they are not very good and not told why they are not very good—they might actually be quite good, but they might have been given the wrong grade—that will have a profoundly pernicious effect on lots of them as individuals. So, I would contend with your outline statement that the two types of testing are for two completely different purposes. I do not think that is the case.

  Q135  Chairman: How much are the figures that you are quoting a reflection of the fact that the levels and the curriculum are different at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 2, although the assessment levels are the same?

  Dr Bousted: What, if you get a level—

  Q136  Chairman: If you get a Level 4 in the Key Stage 2 test and a Level 4 in the Key Stage 3 test, you are being tested on a different curriculum, are you not?

  Dr Bousted: Yes, you are, and it does not mean the same thing. Level 4 at Key Stage 2 and Level 4 at Key Stage 3 do not mean that progress has not been made. You are being tested against a different curriculum and a different assessment framework.

  Q137  Chairman: Were you quoting those figures to suggest that the original test was wrong? I was wondering whether the figures that you were quoting were a reflection of the different tests, rather than the wrongness of the first result.

  Dr Bousted: The figures that I am quoting are a measure of the confidence that you can have in the fact that pupils are getting the right grade in the tests at each level. The reason why there is such a problem in the level of confidence is this. At 11 and 14, we assess whether a child is proficient in English, maths and science through pencil-and-paper tests. That has particular problems for the science curriculum, because you can test only a very narrow element of the science curriculum with pencil and paper. There are also huge problems with the English tests at Key Stage 3. There have been problems with their validity and reliability since their inception, and there has been a lot of political fury about them. The issue in terms of validity is whether the test actually relates to key concepts in the national curriculum. There is an argument that it does not, because what you can test with the test items is so narrow. That means that although a child might get a certain level in a test, it might not be—our argument is that, too often, it is not—reflective of their ability. That is equally damaging regardless of whether that goes up or down—whether they are assessed at too high or too low a level.

  Mick Brookes: To come back to your question, some proof of the value that the profession attaches to the results of testing can be seen in the number—QCA will provide this data—of year 3, year 4 and year 5 tests that are purchased by schools to check on progress and teacher assessments at the end of the year. The difficulty with testing is not so much with those things that are easy to test, such as mathematics and comprehension. To pick up what Mary was saying about the validity of the tests, there can be really interesting variations, with the same teacher at the end of primary school—and perhaps all the way through—scoring something like 85% with their children in a reading test, but only 75% or less for writing. The variation in the national levels achieved in reading and in writing, which are often misunderstood by the press, is huge. Why is it that these results are so different if the same teacher, with the same skills, is teaching the same children for all those tests? I think that it has something to do with the assessment of writing. To take just one example, I know of an extremely good school that had very good writers, but the whole year group misunderstood the genre of the writing that they were supposed to be producing for Key Stage 2 SATs and none of them achieved their levels. That meant that the school was in deep trouble with the inspection system—quite unnecessarily so, given that there is over-reliance on the results of testing and not enough attention given to teachers' assessment of the actual ability of children, who, in this case, just made a mistake on a particular day.

  Keith Bartley: I would like to go back to the premise about the assessment that is undertaken to inform learning and the assessment that is undertaken perhaps to give information about the effectiveness of a school. Parents told us very clearly that they felt that the information that was published about tests in a school was about the school justifying itself publicly in terms of its place in the national pecking order. Actually, the information that they valued about how well their pupils were doing was that which teachers gave them, which was very largely drawn from the teachers' own interactions with the pupil, whether that information was in written format or—most particularly—they were given the opportunity to talk to teachers about how well their children were doing. As well as questioning validity, we would question the utility of those tests in terms of the audience.

  Q138  Mr Slaughter: That was really where I wanted to go. I was a little concerned about a comment that was made about failure. Obviously, one does not want to label children as failures, but I assume that it is common ground that we regard testing as part of teaching and learning and an essential tool, and that therefore there are going to be people who succeed or fail—that is what happens as a consequence. I want further comment on that, but I would have thought that it was a starting point. Accepting what you just said about the validity of different types of tests, do you think that there is any validity to national testing in that way, or can the positive aspects of testing simply be dealt with at school level, with the judgment with respect to institutions being dealt with in other ways, such as through Ofsted?

  Brian Lightman: I think that one of the problems with national testing is that you are applying it across the board and taking a snapshot of everybody at the same time, and there are other ways of sampling what progress—what learning—has taken place, if we want to have those national benchmarks. That is one of the things that we proposed in our paper. We used to have the assessment of performance unit, which sampled children's progress in different areas and looked across the whole country at one aspect of their learning. By doing that you can really see what children have actually learned, rather than trying to test across the board by giving everybody the same test on the same day and trying to cover everything, which, of course, you cannot possibly do in an hour, or an hour and a half. The other point I want to make is that testing is only a small part of assessment. There are other very valid and effective—and, in fact, proven—methods of assessment, like approaches to assessment such as externally moderated portfolios. Within things like BTEC at the moment there are some very successful models. The people who are doing that assessment have to be trained and accredited, and they have to meet very rigorous standards. You are then able to assess the work of students over a longer period, within that very rigorous framework, to make sure that you are not just doing a snapshot on a particular day. There are all kinds of things that come up, and we have experienced them over the years. Every teacher will tell you about results of tests that they have been mystified about and when they just do not understand the result that a student got in the test, given what they have seen every day in the classroom, because obviously they see the child over a longer period of time. Children get nervous in tests and underperform in tests, and so on. I think that we have to be very careful about how much credence we attach to one method of assessment.

  Mick Brookes: Just on the headlining of what happens, I think that children who have overcome significant special educational needs and have reached Level 2 or upper Level 3 at the end of Key Stage 2 are what we have called the invisible children. They do not appear. While people say, "Well, they are in the contextual value added tables", what newspaper picks those up? What is reported is simply those children who have achieved Level 4-plus at the end of Key Stage 2, which also gives a misleading view, so this is not just at a pupil basis, it is also at a schools basis. I have the permission of head teacher William Ball to tell you this: New Manton primary school in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, has always been down at the bottom end of the league tables because they are norm referenced. You nevertheless get ill-informed people saying that it and others like it are failing schools. Here are three sentences from New Manton school's Ofsted report: "The excellent leadership of the head teacher is largely responsible for the good level of improvement in all areas of school life ... The staff show a strong commitment to the personal development of individual pupils and, as a result, most make good progress ... The very effective governing body is showing an equal determination to bring about change for the benefit of all pupils." The school is good, but it is down at the bottom end of the league tables, so there has been a distortion of fact. There are very good schools that work against the odds to produce higher educational qualifications than they have ever had in their areas, but they are disabused of that excellent work on an annual basis.

  Q139  Mr Slaughter: I have a lot of sympathy for what you are saying—I am sure that we all know of similar schools in our constituencies. In shorthand, there are good schools that provide a good level of education, but are not in the top quarter of the tables—they might even be in the bottom quarter. I am asking about very basic stuff, and I shall shut up after this, but I want some clarity. I felt that by dissing everything about the tests—their quality, reliability and so on—you were not confronting the question of whether we should get rid of them altogether. Obviously, there must be some way in which to assess institutions; there are many ways, but there must also be some oversight—I used the example of Ofsted. What would you like to see? I would like you to confirm that there is a positive role for testing in schools, including primary schools. Are you saying that testing should be conducted entirely within an institution? What would you like to see done about external accountability, including nationally?

  Chairman: Each of our witnesses would like to respond to that question, so you should all be quite brisk.

  Keith Bartley: There will never be a time at which information about testing in schools is not in the public domain and viewable. We accept that and, indeed, we support it, for comparability purposes. However, the information conveyed by tests should be accurate and valid in terms of what they measure, and tests should not distort the curriculum and learning. At present, the multiplicity of uses to which a single test is put narrows the curriculum and distorts the outcome. To pick up on the question that the Chairman asked Dr Bousted earlier, Dylan Wiliam's view is that some of the fall-off between Key Stages 2 and 3 occurs because most of year 6 is spent drilling youngsters for Key Stage 2 tests, and they forget completely over the summer because they were coached only to climb that hurdle on that day. Removing the high-stakes nature of the testing will be valuable in future.

  Brian Lightman: We are not arguing that you should get rid of testing. As others here have said, we are concerned about how test results are used: they produce simplistic league tables and feed misunderstanding. That has been evident in the coverage that we have seen in the past week. The publication of the league tables has been completely misleading as to the actual meaning of the tests. There should be testing. Using a model whereby people can download high-quality assessment materials and use them at the right time would measure different, important things.

  Mick Brookes: I agree with my colleagues. There is already a company that does online testing. Children take the test online, and they are assessed not only at their own level, but that of the whole cohort. There is already a quick and easy expedient. There must be testing, and it must be nationally benchmarked—otherwise, schools will not know where they are—but I agree that the testing system goes wrong because of the multiplicity of purposes to which the tests are put.

  Dr Bousted: Yes, assessment including testing is a key part of the repertoire that teachers must have at their disposal, but that does not go for the tests that we have at the moment. The tests must be as valid and reliable as they can be but, at the moment, our testing system is corrupting. It does not just corrupt the results; it corrupts all the other things that teachers are trying to achieve, like a broad and balanced curriculum, a varied menu for pupils, and valid assessments of where pupils are and what they can do. You said that pupils have to experience failure. At some point, yes, they do. At some point there has to be sifting—a proper sifting. Children and young people, no matter how they look on the outside, are fairly fragile on the inside, just like the rest of us. What is more important than failure—failure does nobody any good in the end—is that pupils need to know where they are now, and what they need to do to be better. They need to know where they are at. They do not need to know that they have failed. In the end, failure does not get anyone anywhere—they just fail. It does not teach them how to do better. What they have to know more of is why they are at a particular stage and what they need to do to get better. I would say that the over-emphasis on testing means that where a child is now and what has to be done to enable that child to learn better is the most undeveloped aspect of our education system. It is one of the reasons why, in the PISA league tables, we are not performing as we should. We have one of the most undeveloped systems of assessment for learning among developed countries. It is parlously poor in our country.

  Chairman: On that note, I am going to ask David to speak.

3   Commission of Inquiry on tables, targets and testing Back

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