Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 173 - 179)



  Q173  Chairman: May I welcome our witnesses to this session of the Children, Schools and Families Committee? We are very pleased to have such a talented group of experts with us this afternoon and we hope to learn a lot from them. As we have at least six sections to cover, I hope that you will not mind if we cut a section to move on to the next. We really could spend a couple of hours on each section. Sometimes I will rather rudely say, "Quick questions and quick answers." Do not get upset about that. Will you all introduce yourselves? We have your CVs, so there is no need for you to say anything about them. Starting with Andrew, have you any one thought that you would like to raise before we start the questions and answers?

  Dr. Bird: I am Andrew Bird from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. I take it that you are looking for an opening statement from us?

  Chairman: It depends how long your opening statement is.

  Dr. Bird: A minute.

  Chairman: You can have a minute. Before you came in, I was saying to my colleagues that you used to do a really useful job in a fantastic chemical company in Huddersfield.

  Dr. Bird: That was a few years ago.

  Chairman: They did not believe that I was going to say that. Andrew, you are very welcome. Please give me your minute.

  Dr. Bird: First, AQA is an independent charity. The board of trustees is drawn from the teaching profession, higher education and business. Our one purpose is to "do good in education". We aim to discharge that by giving high quality qualifications in respect of teachers, parents, employers and HE, by delivering new qualifications and modes of assessment that meet the needs of today's and tomorrow's learners, by providing the best level of training support to teachers who deliver our specifications, and by carrying out and publishing research into educational assessment. May I draw your attention to a couple of points that we raised in our written evidence, and then two that have arisen since? The first one, drawn from our written evidence, concerns functional skills and hurdles for GCSE. The policy intention is to impose a functional skills hurdle at Level 2 of GCSE on English, maths and ICT. On considering our research, we are concerned that when it is introduced, it will de facto be a change of standard. From our modelling work, it will suppress the pass rate for A to C at GCSE. The policy position is that making such things explicit will lead to more discreet, direct teaching of those skills and, hence, a rise in performance. That might be true, but we need to consider the policy implications of that. We have no problem with raising the standard. In fact, we think that that is a good idea, providing that we understand it and we all know what will happen as a consequence of that at the transition point. Secondly, throughout our evidence, we are quite keen on diversity of provision: giving the choice to teachers and advisers to give students the widest range of curriculum opportunities. It is important to remember that only a small number of our students do three A-levels. Many do one or two A-levels, and they would find the Diploma to be too much at Level 3. Diversity of providers—meaning people such as ourselves—drive competition in service delivery and support, which, we believe, helps innovation. Evidence from contractual models suggests that, in so doing, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority drives out innovation. I also want to raise two items that are drawn from the more recent past. Clearly, we welcome the Government's intention to separate the regulator. As we mentioned that in our written evidence, we cannot do anything else at this stage. However, we want to draw two points to your attention. One is the need for a willingness to co-ordinate and integrate regulation across the three countries of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a de facto single market in qualifications but, as you will be aware, the policy position in those countries is diverging. Therefore, from a regulatory point of view, there needs to be a bringing together of regulation. We are also concerned that as the shadow regulator—sorry, it is the interim regulator at this stage, I am told. As that process has got under way, the focus has seemed to be mainly on picking a new name for it, rather than considering the technical capability and capacity it requires to be an effective regulator. We are concerned that the result will be a stifling, box-ticking bureaucracy, rather than a strategic regulator of our activities. Finally, we think there is an emerging dilemma between two terms that we hear a lot from the Government and regulator. This is the whole high-stakes environment versus light-touch regulation. We obviously welcome appropriate and sensible regulation that aligns to the five principles, but we see the intention to extend the availability of qualifications from colleges and workplaces and, in those situations, encourage light-touch regulation—which one can understand to help people enter the market and to ensure that those qualifications are acquired and certificated—as working against those qualifications being portable and having utility. If regulation is only light touch, it is in danger of not meeting the standard of regulation that the high-stakes qualifications are put under. Qualifications need to command respect, and not just from the initial provider of those qualifications. Thank you, Chairman.

  Chairman: I let you get away with that even though it took more than a minute.

  Murray Butcher: Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me. I am Murray Butcher, director of assessment and quality at City & Guilds, which is the UK's largest vocational awarding body. Established in 1878, it received a royal charter from Queen Victoria in 1900. We provide about 500 vocational qualifications in diverse occupational areas, ranging from agriculture to zoo keeping. City & Guilds currently comprises four qualification brands: the City & Guilds, which is the wide range of vocational qualifications; the Institute of Leadership and Management, which covers first-line management and beyond; the Hospitality Awarding Body, which relates primarily to hotel and catering qualifications; and the National Proficiency Tests Council, which covers all our land-based awards. We operate in the UK and internationally, covering about 100 countries and working through about 8,000 centres. A centre can be a school, college, university, training provider or employer. I will seek to make any other points I can during the general questioning.

  Chairman: Fine.

  Jerry Jarvis: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I will be brief. I am Managing Director of Edexcel, which is a Pearson company. We are known principally for our technology. The only thing I would like to say in an opening statement is how struck I was by what Ken Boston said in his evidence on 17 December. He picked up three key issues that he said were critical in improving attainment in this country. First was the provision of personalised learning; the second was the provision of continuous analytical testing and evaluation; and the third was the professional training of teachers. We strongly endorse that view. We also believe that those three factors are the issues that would most quickly improve attainment in this country, and we have invested massively in the provision of a framework to do that. Like my colleagues, I am very pleased to participate in this inquiry and I look forward to the recommendations and the outcome.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Greg Watson: Good afternoon. I am Greg Watson, the Chief Executive of OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, to give it its full title. We are a major UK awarding body that principally makes qualification awards to 14 to 19-year-olds in schools and colleges. We are exactly 150 years old and a not-for-profit social enterprise. For a century and a half, we have developed assessments of various types to structure, motivate and reward learning. We are a member of the Cambridge Assessment Group, which is a well known international education group that operates in more than 150 countries. In many of those countries, it offers assessments similar to the style of assessment that we have here in the UK. In the past 10 years there have been three developments of note, which perhaps we shall have an opportunity to explore in this inquiry. The first is a growing use of qualifications as a public policy lever, and with that a widening of the uses to which assessment is put beyond the original purpose of structuring, motivating and rewarding learning. I am thinking of uses such as measuring school performance. Secondly, there has been more frequent change at both the system-wide level and that of individual qualifications, and some short-circuiting of long-established disciplines of evaluation and research based on hard evidence. Thirdly, and connected with the previous two, there has been an imperceptible but worrying loss of public confidence and a feeling that somehow things are not quite what they used to be. That concern has become harder to deal with because of the many uses to which assessment and qualifications have been put and the difficulty of explaining and assessing the impact of change. We very much welcome the Secretary of State's announcement before Christmas that a new independent exams regulator will be created. We see in that a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deal with the three issues that I have mentioned and to put the exams system in a position of being seen to be sufficiently independent while commanding public confidence, and for the regulator to have a key role in balancing the desire to innovate and keep pace with society with a desire to maintain stability and integrity over time.

  Q174  Chairman: Thank you very much for those openers. May I open the questioning by asking Jerry Jarvis something? I shall start with him, as he is in the middle. People used to say that the trouble with our examinations was that we had a number of boards, and that what we needed was one big board that did everything. That would stop competition and prevent people from switching from one examining board to another, and everything would be a lot tidier if one board did the job that the four of you do. Is that not an unanswerable proposition?

  Jerry Jarvis: Inevitably, I have a personal view. I spent a long career outside education before coming into it, and I am used to competition being used to drive up standards and reduce costs. My observation is that we benefit massively from having competition in the marketplace. The huge majority of teachers who choose the specifications of examination systems tell us that they value the choice that they have. That choice certainly makes me compete strongly with the colleagues who are sat beside me. Without it, we would not have the degree of ingenuity, purpose and lead that we have in this country, nor the stability and reliability. Competition has been very good for education.

  Q175  Chairman: What if a teacher or head teacher said to you that the danger of competition between examination boards is that everybody knows that if you are being pushed and pushed to raise standards and raise the number of people getting grades A to C and so on at GCSE, A-level and other levels, people go for the easiest pass? Reputations go around, and people say, "It is easier to take English at GCSE or A-level with that board," and they switch around. If you are really going to compete, you will just become known as the easiest board from which to get qualifications so that you can wipe out the other three.

  Jerry Jarvis: That is a popular view, but it is generally not held up by fact. I am one of three accountable officers in this country. I am responsible for ensuring that each award made by Edexcel is made under strict scrutiny and that the standard is maintained across time and in comparison with other awards. I do not have the ability to interfere with that standard. If you look at the appearance of so-called easy qualifications, the arguments tend to break down when you get into some of the detail. For example, the pass rate in GCSE maths is higher than the pass rate in media. Does that mean that maths is easier than media? Because of choice, these days, students will take the qualifications that they enjoy and are good at. Ken Boston put it eloquently when he drew the difference between the standard that is the hurdle that students must achieve, and the standard that is expressed as the number of students who have actually achieved that standard. We do not and cannot compete by producing easy qualifications.

  Q176  Chairman: Why then, Greg, are so many people and parents out there, let alone the poor old editor of the Daily Mail, unhappy and feeling that standards have gone down and that kids do not work as hard or get qualifications of the same standard as when they were at school? Why is there a general feeling that things ain't what they used to be?

  Greg Watson: Let me offer two possibilities. First, qualifications have changed and evolved. The A-levels that young people sit today are not the same as those I sat, with good reason. The need for the routine replaying of a large body of knowledge has probably weakened slightly as access to information has become easier. On the other hand, industry says that it wants people who are more skilled in using that information—in applying it and being able to think for themselves. In A-level, we have seen a shift over time so that the body of knowledge in any given subject is probably a bit smaller, but the skills needed to apply that knowledge have moved to a slightly higher level of demand. Some of the commentary is simply an unfamiliarity with how the qualifications have changed—they do not feel the same. Secondly, I think that there is a misunderstanding about the nature of competition among the people sat at this table. Ours is a competition of not standards, but ideas. Because we are all independent organisations, because we are all close to the business of teaching and learning, and because we find ourselves between schools and colleges on one hand and universities and employers on the other, I think that we feel driven to look for new approaches. Look at what has happened with GCSE science recently. There has been a real rejuvenation of science in the classroom because of a particularly innovative programme that we at OCR have developed in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation. Look at what is happening with geography at the moment. We are running a groundbreaking pilot with a different approach to geography that reconnects the concepts of geography with a study of the real world. That helps young people to make more sense of the subject. One reason why we have a 150-year tradition in this country that so many other countries overseas want to buy into is that we have had the power to innovate and a competition of ideas and subjects. They have helped us to keep subjects fresh and interesting and to offer different approaches to different young people who want to learn in different styles.

  Q177  Chairman: Andrew, you are a scientist by training, are you not? Why do people say that people are shifting to what are perceived as easier subjects? We are still having difficulty in attracting enough people to carry on with maths, physics and the sciences in general. Even geography seems to be losing students, despite the new course that Greg Watson has just described to us. With what you are providing, are you not colluding to stimulate movement away from the hard scientific subjects to subjects that are perceived to be easier?

  Dr. Bird: Perception is everything, is it not? We are trying to reflect those things that students want to study that are relevant to commerce and work today. Media studies qualifications meet a student need, and teachers feel that students would enjoy learning it. Through it, students can collect important basic study skills and skills for future employment. Is that easier than science? I did French and science at school and found the former incredibly hard. Was the French exam easier than the science exam? It was much harder for me, because of my ability. People find what they enjoy easier, so I found maths quite straightforward, whereas other people find it very difficult. A lot of this is about perception. We work extraordinarily hard to ensure that the level of demand among subjects is maintained over time, and we do that by using experts in the classroom and expert examiners—people who are knowledgeable about their subject. We cannot undo the perception of, "Well, it is not what I was taught at school"— nor should it be, because times, demand and needs have moved on—"and I cannot connect with or understand it, so I do not appreciate that it is as difficult as, say, physics."

  Chairman: Right, I have warmed you up. Murray, you will have to wait for a moment, because people will get testy if I carry on. Now we will drill down a bit, and John Heppell will lead us.

  Mr. Heppell: Sharon can go first because she has to leave.

  Chairman: Sorry, Sharon, you are next. They have switched; they have done a secret deal.

  Q178  Mrs. Hodgson: I want to ask a couple of quick questions and then go, because I am due in the Chamber on Bench duty. I want to talk about evidence that we received from Professor Dylan Wiliam, who argues that although A-levels have not necessarily become easier, examinations no longer measure what they used to. From that, he infers that a pupil achieving a top grade does not necessarily have the same skills as a pupil who achieved a top grade years ago. How are the gatekeepers to further and higher education, and employers, to compare students in similar subjects, but from different years, given the changes in qualifications?

  Jerry Jarvis: Our examination system is complicated and driven by populism. It is actually very difficult to compare an A-level taken in 2007 with one taken pre-Curriculum 2000. The structure is different, and we are examining different things. Access to A-level education was different some 10, 15 and 20 years ago, so the cohort taking those examinations was also different. However, we can perhaps see a continuing thread through the regulator's work in attempting to maintain a standard in A-levels over the years. Truly speaking, however, we can compare precisely only A-levels that were taken since the introduction of Curriculum 2000. I shall return to the mantra that I am sure that you will hear time and again when speaking to anyone from an examination board or awarding body: we have attempted to maintain the hurdle at the same height, even though the features that we are examining are different. What has changed quite dramatically is access. There is far more choice, so, for example, students can take a number of AS-level examinations and continue the AS-level studies that they are best at. There is multiple access to resits, modular variants, and so on, which have increased the probability of students attaining that same fixed standard. There is a very difficult notion to get across, so it is easy to say, "When I did A-levels, they were much harder." Our students work very hard for A-levels today, and something in the region of only 3% of 18-year-olds achieve three A grades.

  Q179  Mrs. Hodgson: If you are saying that standards have been maintained and the hurdle is still at the same height, how can you counter the claims by some universities that school leavers entering the first year do not have the same depth of knowledge that students with the same grades had years ago? The universities are saying that.

  Greg Watson: I think that you have to bear in mind that the role of A-levels in the education system has changed over time. There was a time when A-levels were purely for those entering higher education and they were actually offered to a pretty small part of the 17 and 18-year-old age group. A-levels moved over time to become the standard school-leaving qualification, in many ways, and that will be even more the case if the rate of those staying on to 18 continues to rise. As A-levels have evolved, there has inevitably been a trade-off between ensuring that the qualification is suitably motivating and providing the right structure for learning for a wide range of young people, and making sure that it is a good basis for university entrance. I would recognise that, in the drive to widen the use of A-levels, we have lost a little, and that is why we have come back and started to look at the stretching of the upper end of A-levels to make sure that we reintroduce a little more stretch for the most able exam candidates and give some universities more of an ability to see who the most able are. We should also draw a distinction between the year on year reliability of standards and the long progress of the history of standards. Year on year, all of us at this table go to great lengths—in fact, the QCA's independent review last year said that we go to greater lengths in this country than anywhere—to guard standards in our subjects. What Jerry said was right. Over the decades, we have seen a number of structural changes, which have all been there for a good reason, but we have lacked an independent assessment of the impact of those changes. As I said in my opening remarks, I see it as a positive development that the Secretary of State wants to put the regulator some distance from the Government of the day and Ministers. One role that the regulator will be able to play will be to look at change in the system, to evaluate the impact that any change might have on standards and public perceptions, and to see whether we are happy to make a trade-off for the benefit that we get from making that change. That will be very welcome.

  Chairman: Sharon, have you finished?

  Mrs. Hodgson: Yes. That is great. Thank you.

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