Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 250)



  Q240  Mr. Stuart: Just to go back to Edexcel ResultsPlus, will you look at common fields and common analysis? Referring to the earlier question about the unintended consequences, could it be that every teacher in the future will be able to have marks for their entire career? Would you be able to categorise them as a four-plus teacher, a three-and-a-half plus teacher and a three-plus teacher? Now that the Prime Minister has said that he will not put up with schools that are below a certain level and they will have to be closed, will we move to a stage in which politicians in here will say that any teacher below a certain level will be fired within two years or brought up to scratch?

  Jerry Jarvis: Right now, those teachers are liable to be sacked anyway for their performance as defined by the league tables. Teachers, management teams and students can avoid that if they use ResultsPlus to continuously assess their performance and improve it—so it would have the opposite effect.

  Mr. Stuart: And to continuously avoid splitting infinitives.

  Q241  Fiona Mactaggart: Do exams have to be in the summer when hay fever and hot weather cause problems to some candidates?

  Jerry Jarvis: That is a much broader question because of university entrance and the competition for places. As someone said to me when I joined Edexcel, the reason why we have university entrance at that time of the year is so that children can bring in the harvest. We seriously should look at the overlap that exists between the teaching curriculum and the examination process that leads to higher education. Right now, I do not think that any of us can see a viable methodology for moving that examination time.

  Q242  Chairman: Even trying to get Oxford and Cambridge to have the same application process as other universities has been very difficult. You looked rather uncomfortable—Greg particularly, and also you Jerry—when I said that perhaps the opinion is that you are getting out of touch with what universities and teachers are saying. You seemed more hurt at that than at any other question. May I take you back to Kevin Stannard, the director of international curriculum development at Cambridge University? He said: "Through the late 1980s and the 1990s, the gap between academics and schools got wider and wider in terms of academics disengaging from exam boards. I think what we are living with now are the implications of that". Why would he say that, Greg, if it was all nonsense?

  Greg Watson: My discomfort is that getting qualifications right is the business of trade-offs. There are so many different stakes in the qualification system. For it to work well, and for it have everyone's confidence, everybody has to have their say; and those different and sometimes competing demands have to be balanced—and balanced well. I recognise that universities have a bit less of a stake as a result of the last 10 years; employers will feel in some areas that they have a bit less of stake in some parts of the system, although it has grown in others. We are sitting in the middle, and inevitably juggling all those. We are certainly making a lot of effort to build more relationships back with higher education; they have weakened a bit, as we have had more of our focus drawn towards the Government of the day, and a not particularly independent regulator.

  Q243  Chairman: Is there anything you want to say to the Committee before we wind up—anything that you think you should inform the Committee about what you have not yet said because our questions were inadequate?

  Jerry Jarvis: If I had not got across my point about the importance of the things that Ken Boston said and about all the money that I have spent, I would be very disappointed.

  Chairman: I think that we got that.

  Jerry Jarvis: But we have a serious opportunity to shift that stubborn A to C statistic that has dogged us for many years.

  Murray Butcher: A point came from Fiona about releasing information and the problems it might cause. I think that we should look at it from the reverse direction. It is sensible for awarding bodies like ourselves to find ways to be more and more open in our processes. If part of that is giving feedback, as mentioned, with all the data that we collect from various examining activities, there is a growing duty and responsibility, at least on the four of us, to be more creative and more open with that information. It will only make the system more robust.

  Q244  Chairman: I feel a bit guilty about you, Murray, because we have not asked you as many questions as others. Surely we should have asked you about this vast expansion of apprenticeships. Are they going to be linked to qualifications in a serious way—or should they be?

  Murray Butcher: I regard apprenticeships as they stand as serious qualifications.

  Q245  Chairman: I am sorry, but they are not naturally linked to qualifications, are they?

  Murray Butcher: They are an amalgam of two or three different bits.

  Q246  Chairman: A lot of them are still time-served, with hardly any paper qualification. Evidence given to the Committee suggests that that is the case.

  Murray Butcher: I would be extremely surprised, because the QCA and the Learning and Skills Council have identified apprenticeships as involving national vocational qualifications, possibly what is called a technical certificate, which underpins knowledge, and functional and basic skills. That is the apprenticeship.

  Q247  Chairman: So you are totally happy with what is happening with apprenticeships?

  Murray Butcher: I would not say that I was totally happy. They probably need more support in the workplace, and still more understanding by employers as to what they offer. I know that the achievement rates remain relatively low—at about 40%.—partly because young people who begin apprenticeships achieve employment and leave the programme. So there are obviously some problems about ensuring continuance into employment.

  There are some structural issues that need to be resolved, but as a product they provide a good background and a good basis for employment. What is planned at the moment is increasing flexibility in the structure of the apprenticeship. That is what QCA and others are currently looking at.

  Greg Watson: Just a final thought on standards, which is right at the heart of the review. In general in this country, we spend too much time having a debate about standards at the low level of an individual question paper, the marking of this year's examination and small changes here or there in the percentage of candidates getting a given grade. We are having that debate at the wrong level. The potential for standards to move and for public confidence to be shaken is greatest when there is wholesale, system-wide change or major structural changes to long-established qualifications. The acid test for looking at the move to an independent regulator is whether we will have a body that is sufficiently able to look at the macro-level changes and the effect that they may have on standards and public confidence and worry much less about the detail of which individual qualification is which. As I hope you have heard, that is something on which we have tremendous expertise, tremendous power to innovate and a tremendous ability to add to learning by making exams sympathetic to the business of learning, rather than something that sits outside it.

  Q248  Chairman: But, Greg, you are still selling a product. We on this Committee and our predecessor Committee have argued for a long time that you do not need a new A* plus and that you can just let the universities have the full marks at A-level. Would that not be just as good as an A*? Why do you want an A*?

  Greg Watson: We do not just want the A* grade, but the new style of syllabus that we have developed to support it. We have been back to every single A-level subject and—to answer your question, Fiona, about where these questions come from—defined in new terms what you have to be able to do to get the highest grade in an A-level. Now, we are setting questions to match that.

  Q249  Chairman: Will that inevitably lead to even more children from elite independent schools dominating the leading research universities in our country?

  Greg Watson: We will just mark what we are faced with and give the A*s to the A*-standard candidates.

  Dr. Bird: There is a forecast in our evidence to that effect. I cannot remember which paragraph it is in, but we have provided a forecast of that in our evidence.

  Q250  Chairman: Jerry, do you think that, too? Do you think that will be the inevitable conclusion? Will an A* mean that even more children from the independent sector and the best of the state school system will dominate?

  Jerry Jarvis: That is certainly a tendency and something that we really have to work on. However, it is striking that if you look at individual schools' performance, you can see that two schools facing each other in the same street and drawn from the same community can have dramatically different outcomes, and we need to understand much more why that is. The fact that schools that have dramatic advantages will do better is almost an inevitability. The private sector already has the vast majority of passes at A-level, so you would expect it to excel at A*, but a number of other schools also excel and can also differentiate themselves hugely. In the evidence that the awarding bodies gave during last summer's results, we faced the press together and pointed out that there were differences in different school types and that the overall achievement rates at some school types were doing down, not up. However, there is, of course, a general tendency that the better-off and the more advantaged will gain higher grades.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that evidence. It has been a long session, but it has been a good one from our point of view. Sorry if we pushed you too hard at any time or if we have been hard on you, although I do not think that we were. You have been excellent witnesses. Thank you very much for your contributions.

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