Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 172)



  Q160  Mrs. Hodgson: Yes. I am very interested in the move towards personalised learning and then equally, hopefully, towards specialist teachers, especially with regard to SEN. I know we are not talking specifically about SEN, but you might be aware that I have a Private Member's Bill about SEN statistics and information gathering that will be hitting the House on 1 February. The crux of what I want to get to is this. Witnesses have pointed to a contradiction between personalised learning, which recognises that all children learn in different ways and have different abilities and needs, and the systematic targets that assume that children develop at the same rate. The NUT, for instance, is critical of the current practice of diverting resources towards teaching children at the margins of the level. Again, that is to get the best league table results for the school. I want to talk about what I feel we should be doing in going down the route of a more personalised learning agenda. The assessment for learning is the crux of all this; what we need to be getting to. That is what the test is all about and that would then identify the gifted child right the way down to the child with a special educational need. You use that as a tool for a teaching assessment or assessment for learning. That should be, in my opinion, the whole basis of these tests. I would imagine from things I have picked up today that you agree with that, rather than trying to produce a form of league tables that are then used for all sorts of other reasons. Is an increased emphasis on personalised learning, combined with single-level tests, likely to effect real change in the classroom? In particular, is it likely to lead to pupils being treated equally, so that each is enabled to achieve to the best of his or her ability?

  Brian Lightman: Personalised learning will enable each child to be treated equally. However, the issue is about the targets set, not the personalised learning and single level testing. For example, if your target focuses on five grades A* to C, inevitably, the focus will be on those with four and who are nearly heading towards the fifth. You will concentrate on giving those children the extra help. If you are talking about children who have made two levels of progress through the national curriculum, you will focus on those heading towards that, but not quite there. The children who you are talking about—the others—who do not quite fit into those categories, will be left out. That has been one of the major shortcomings of this target-setting culture over many years. For example, the focus of GCSEs has been very heavily on the C-D border line, and not, for example, on students underachieving by getting a grade A, but who could hopefully get an A*, or on those getting a B, but who could be helped to get an A. Genuine personalised learning does not focus on such perverse indicators that make us concentrate on those who will help us meet the target, rather than on ensuring that all children in our schools learn effectively.

  Dr Bousted: The question is very interesting. I return to my previous point: too often, the Government believe that you can place contradictory things in a policy document and that they will happen. Personalised learning will not take root in the current system and is unlikely to do so with single level testing on the same days. In order for it to take root, teachers must be confident in their ability to assess where a child is at. In our system, that is one of the things that they are weakest at and least confident on. I was at a conference at which two head teachers said to me, "The teachers in our schools do not have the confidence in their own assessments, because the system is so geared towards exams that the professional competence has not been built up." It needs to be rebuilt, because it is the essence of personalisation—you know where a child is at and what you need to do to take them further. We do not know enough, in anything like enough detail, about where children are at in the system. Interestingly, we surveyed our members on assessment recently and got quite a big response—from about 400 members. They were asked whether the national system of external assessments supports a range of things, one of which was personalised learning. Some 83% of the 400 correspondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the current system provides the bedrock and foundation in which personalised learning can take place. The danger for Governments of all persuasions is that, although a policy document might sound and look wonderful, and be full of high-minded ideas, it will have no real effect in the system. That is the danger with personalised learning.

  Q161  Chairman: But, Keith, did you not say earlier that teachers are better at assessments now?

  Keith Bartley: No, I said that teachers are more adept at teaching the curriculum, because of the way in which it has developed, which means that they are also trained in assessing within that curriculum. My reservation was about the narrowness of the elements in the curriculum that are tested. I was separating testing and assessment. May I respond more generally to the point about assessment for learning and personalisation? That is at the heart of the matter. Teachers and children exploring what they have learned, and what they need to learn next, is absolutely central to taking forward an examination system that examines us according to outcomes and products—if you like—including whether we use the OECD and other measures such as the programme for international student assessment. However, that requires considerable investment in teachers' continuing professional development, because of the issue about what they have been trained to do thus far in their teacher training. Teachers tell us that they would love to be able to explore more, with other teachers and their own pupils, ways in which they can better understand what pupils have learned, to be able to draw down tests to confirm that, and to help them set targets for what they need to learn next. On your starting point, about special educational needs, one of the greatest concerns that we have is that we are now losing that generation of teachers that were trained as specialists in special educational needs. We are also concerned that many of the skills and talents of our teachers who spend most of their time teaching children with special educational needs—things like the use of P levels and very fine graduations of understanding of learning—are in danger of being lost to the training element of the system and being compressed into a narrow population, when actually they are skills that all teachers need.

  Mrs. Hodgson: Mick wanted to speak.

  Chairman: I am worried about the time; I know that some of our witnesses have to leave and I am trying to get us going.

  Mick Brookes: I would like to say a little about target-setting and how important that is, and what a precise science it is for an individual child. If you set targets too high, the child cannot do it, becomes frustrated and disconnects. If you set that target too low, the child becomes bored and disconnects; they then leave school as soon as they can—24% of them. So target-setting is a very individual and personalised event. I would suggest that it cannot be done from the building just down the road here.

  Q162  Mrs. Hodgson: The Government signalled a formal change in approach, which is what we are discussing here, such as personal learning and teacher assessment. Without some form of league table, how can the standards of teaching effectively be monitored? What, in your opinion, can be done to monitor the effectiveness? You have already sort of answered that question because you have said that we cannot do personalised learning under the current regime with league tables.

  Dr Bousted: We have one of the most monitored systems in the world, but we do not monitor in very clever ways. Going back to what all of the witnesses said, we need far more about cohort sampling. If you do enough cohort sampling in the key subjects, you can test much more of the curriculum because not every child needs to do the same test. They can do the tests at the same level, but they can test different items. If the tests are statistically significant, you can get a much wider range of test items, which is much more valid. We need to do much more of that. We have been very poor in doing cohort sampling which monitors standards over time. In fact, when we moved to national curriculum tests, we packed up the assessment of performance unit and cohort monitoring over periods of time. We have lost a rich vein of data that used to give us really interesting reports, such as the National Foundation for Educational Research survey about standards in reading over 20 years and whether they had risen or not, with really fine, detailed information about in what types of school standards of reading had risen and in what types of school they had not. We have lost the ability to make that fine, detailed monitoring of the system.

  Q163  Mrs. Hodgson: My last question about that matter is, to touch on the stress and demotivation that Mick mentioned, will the single-level tests address the problems experienced by pupils under the current regime? To give one example—I am terrible for giving personal, real-life examples—my daughter has just gone to high school. She got very good SATs and now that she is in high school she is in all the top sets. She never was stressed going through her SATs and I kept saying to her every day, "Are you okay? Are you okay?" Every day now she comes in stressed because, "I can't cope, Mum—I'm in the top set, I don't think I should be in the top sets." Now she is stressed, and I think that she was obviously hot-housed, got through the SATs, got really good results and has now been thrown in the deep end in this high school where she feels that she cannot cope.

  Mick Brookes: That is a good example.

  Dr Bousted: Yes.

  Q164  Mrs. Hodgson: So, do you think that level tests will help?

  Dr Bousted: Not necessarily, they might compound the problem. What you would then get at Key Stage 2 is a quadrupling—of four times a year going in for your test again. Because your test is coming up and tests are coming up so much more often, all the other aspects of the curriculum may be equally neglected. With single-level tests four times a year, in the way that they are currently being done in the pilots, I would be interested to see whether there is a narrowing of the curriculum and whether it compounds the problem of teaching to the test.

  Mr Heppell: Very quickly, are we sticking to the time?

  Chairman: I am trying to, but failing. This is an inexperienced Chair not managing.

  Q165  Mr Heppell: I have a question about the new approach in schools. Like you, I have been around a long time, and I was a school governor for nearly 30 years—indeed, I was chairman of the school governors—so I feel that I can walk into a school and see whether it is a good school in half an hour, and I do that on visits now. Sometimes, schools will have had good SATs, sometimes Ofsted and others will have got it wrong and sometimes the SATs will have been wrong. The real problem, however, is that schools change; schools are not static—they can better and they can get worse. I recently went to a school with bad SATs, and the school next door, with pupils from the same sort of area, had good SATs, so it is not about the rich in one area and the poor in another area. When I questioned the school about its SATs, the answer I got was, "We're not interested in SATs. We don't really bother with them at all." In fact, I got so anxious, I actually went and told local councillors about it. The school also told me, "We're involved in making sure that we have personalised learning for everybody and we're assessing everybody's progress as they go along." That actually sounded like a great idea, until I asked to see some of the assessments for the children, but there were none; in fact, I am fairly certain that the bloke I was talking to was giving me a load of bull. That is my worry. If there is no outside testing, how do I know whether things are going wrong, as they clearly were in that school? How do I know that there is not a problem that has not been identified?

  Mick Brookes: That is why, in response to David, I said that there needs to be accreditation and moderation, but not what we have at the minute, so that there is some external view of how accurate assessments are. It is a question of adjusting the system, not throwing it out.

  Keith Bartley: There are two aspects to that for us. One is that what we measure needs to be more valid—in other words, we need to measure things that tell us something about what children are doing—and the way in which we measure things has to illustrate the progress that they have made. We are not in any sense saying that there should be no form of public accountability; it is just that the measures used need to be much more informed than the ones we have at the moment.

  Q166  Mr Heppell: Okay. What progress have schools made already in terms of personalised learning? Who is actually doing things now, unlike the school that I mentioned? How far have people got in terms of assessment for learning? Can we point to excellence or good examples in schools?

  Dr Bousted: We ran our fringes on the curriculum at the party conferences last year and we got in head teachers who were adopting innovative approaches to the curriculum. We have just done a book on the curriculum and we have clear examples of schools that are starting to integrate subjects, to use literacy and numeracy across the curriculum, and to integrate curriculum development and assessment. There is beginning to be more confidence in schools that that is a legitimate thing for them to do. We went through a period when the national strategy was so rigid—you teach reading like this and numeracy like that—that schools lost the confidence to think that they had any professional expertise to bring to the party. The Government have moved from the idea that everything can be done from Whitehall, and that is a significant shift. They have a lot further to go, but my experience is that schools are beginning to re-engage with the issues of what is an appropriate curriculum, what decisions should be made at school level, how they can more effectively assess their pupils, how they offer curriculum that meets pupil needs, and what forms of pedagogy are most suitable for pupils. However, the profession needs more support in that, and that is really key. Over the past 10 years, nearly all the CPD has been offered through the strategies. Subject-specific CPD has virtually withered on the vine, and teachers regularly report that the CPD they are offered is not suitable for them or for what they want. Teachers are moving down the long road towards regaining control of those aspects of the learning and teaching process that they should be in control of, but we need to go a lot further and we need support to do so.

  Q167  Chairman: By CPD, you mean Continuous Professional Development?

  Dr Bousted: Yes.

  Brian Lightman: Our association has been doing a great deal of work with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust on this, and we have seen an enormous amount of good practice developing over the country. It is not embedded yet and it is not everywhere, because it is in a stage of development. We are seeing real enthusiasm because people are seeing the benefits of these approaches in the classroom. We need to continue to support and motivate people and encourage them to develop it further. There is a vast amount of good practice going on around the country. We need to build on that and encourage it to develop further.

  Mick Brookes: It goes back to this: people will do what they are expected to do. If they are told what they shortly will do with Fischer Family Trust and other measures, why will they do it themselves? We need to remove that, encourage schools to develop their own systems within the national framework, and acknowledge that the vast majority of head teachers, teachers and all the people who turn up to school have a passion for children's learning. We need to harness that passion, rather than dumbing it down.

  Q168  Mr Heppell: You have already described some of your reservations about the single-level test. You might have some more. We were talking about staggering them even more than having a situation of individuals being able to take individual tests. Does that then start to create a problem with resources because you are not doing one test a year, but are having to organise various tests?

  Dr Bousted: That is the system in Scotland at the moment, and it works.

  Keith Bartley: When that kind of testing, which is about confirming teachers' assessments, and those assessments, which are more and more being built around assessment for learning practices, become more mainstream, we get very much back to the kind of situation that was described earlier. Testing was a regular part of my primary and secondary schooling, on a daily and weekly basis. It is about putting those tests back in a functional, useful way into schools. The level of resource would be different. The amount of money that is spent nationally on the external administration and validation of our current testing system nowhere near justifies some of the benefits and disbenefits that it generates.

  Chairman: I see nodding heads from your colleagues, so I will not go to them, if that is all right. I will invite Annette to ask the last group of questions.

  Q169  Annette Brooke: I shall be very brief. You mentioned bringing back passion into teaching. Is it impossible to do that within the present system? Is it inevitable that there will be teaching to the test and narrowing on the national curriculum unless we scrap the current system?

  Mick Brookes: Yes, I believe that that is absolutely true. I do not want to overstate the case, but a system of fear has been inculcated throughout education, particularly if you are a young head, or a young deputy, with a young family and a mortgage. You do not want to go to headship because you know that you will carry the can. Unfair and unfounded decisions are made on the performance of schools because Ofsted is now relying far too heavily on the data that we have discredited during this presentation. It is having a profound effect not only on the curriculum, but on the recruitment and retention of head teachers, in particular, who carry this can and do not survive being put into a category, on many occasions quite unfairly.

  Q170  Annette Brooke: Can I follow up on the personalised learning test? Personalised learning seems to equate with goodness, but under the current system will it just be booster classes and personal intervention plans? Will it be centrally directed, almost?

  Dr Bousted: It is likely to be highly bureaucratic and it should be very simple. The issue about personalised learning should be at the heart of good teaching. What is it that I know a child can do? What is it with which they need my help, or the help of other pupils in the class—their more able peers? What help can I use from another pedagogue that will enable them to learn? The danger is that at the moment something that should be right at the heart of teachers' instinctive professional practice is being formalised into a whole range of other structures.

  Mick Brookes: The other problem is that we need to move from norm-referencing to criterion-referencing pupils' progress, and that makes it individual. It is not necessarily how Sally compares with Fred, but the progress that Sally has made, and has made despite the fact that she might have quite severe special educational needs.

  Q171  Annette Brooke: Could that be introduced alongside the present system, or do we really need to scrap that totally? Obviously, it is of great importance to value every child's achievement, which we are not doing at the moment.

  Mick Brookes: Our clear view is that the current system is not helpful to children or to the curriculum, and it is certainly not helpful to my colleagues in schools.

  Annette Brooke: May I just run through—

  Chairman: Keith is desperate to answer these questions, and I want to give him a chance to do so.

  Annette Brooke: I am sorry.

  Keith Bartley: I want to come back to your original question. You asked whether it was impossible. I do not think that it is impossible; I just think that teachers have to be absolutely exceptional to be able to flourish in our current system. There can be an effect on motivation and retention. However, equally, I want to be clear that we see, through our teacher learning academy, some amazingly innovative examples of teachers innovating in their own classrooms and feeling that they have permission to do so. That is not impossible; it is just very difficult.

  Q172  Annette Brooke: Finally, throughout this sitting, we have had the impression that the current system is demotivating for children, teachers and, as we have just heard, head teachers. Could each person give me what to them is an important factor around the demotivation of children and teachers—just one?

  Dr Bousted: For children it is if they do not get their Level 4. That is hugely demotivating if you are going into secondary school. You feel yourself a failure. It is interesting to note that that is particularly a problem for boys. Boys react very badly, gentlemen. It happens to you throughout life—you react very badly to failure.

  Adam Afriyie: How dare you say that? [Laughter.]

  Mick Brookes: I would say it is the idea that we will continue having meetings until morale improves. If we continue doing things the way we are doing, we will not improve the morale of our children or teaching staff in schools, so we have to do things differently. We have to broaden the curriculum and give children those experiences of delight in other areas. We can teach English and literacy through other curriculum areas. Schools need to be encouraged and empowered to do so.

  Brian Lightman: I think that the biggest thing is the fear of failure, coupled with not knowing what to do about it. We know that there are things that students will find difficult—that is part of learning. It is an important part of the learning process that we get things wrong and have to correct them, but it is not being able to do anything about it that causes problems. Students think, "Oh dear, I am going to take this test and I am going to fail and be labelled a failure," at the age of 11, 14 or whatever, and then we wonder why we have problems with motivation.

  Keith Bartley: We need to give our schools and our teachers permission to innovate and permission to fail. They need to be confident about giving children permission to explore by learning.

  Chairman: As we have overrun our time, that was a good line to end on. You have all had your opportunity to summarise what you feel about the matter. I am sorry that I did not manage the time as well as I had hoped. Next time, if I am ever in this Chair again, I will. Thank you very much for your time.

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