Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 251 - 259)



  Q251  Chairman: I welcome the distinguished group of witnesses that includes Professor Madeleine Atkins, Professor Steve Smith, Richard Wainer and Susan Anderson. Thank you for coming, and I apologise for the delay. As you know, for 20 days we will be discussing the European treaty, and that was the start of the voting—it was on a programme motion, I think. I hope that now we will not have any more interruptions for a considerable time. You will be aware that this is our first major inquiry as the new Committee for Children, Schools and Families, and we are very keen to get to the bottom of the questions around testing and assessment. We are particularly keen to speak to the end users, such as the universities and employers. We always give witnesses a chance to say something to get us started, or they can go straight into answering the questions. You know the topic: is our testing and assessment system fit for purpose? When you wander around the world answering questions about UK education, a lot of people say, "We would like to know more about how our students perform, but not like the United Kingdom, which tests at seven, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18." They go through the catalogue of testing that they are sure that we have. Are we where we want to be in testing and assessment? You can answer that question, or you can introduce yourself and say what you want to say.

  Professor Atkins: I am Madeleine Atkins, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University. I would like to make two comments on your introductory questions. First, I question whether we have got the balance right between a deep synoptic understanding of subjects at AS and A2-level, as opposed to having a broad range of quite superficial knowledge. As we move our curriculum towards problem-based and activity-led learning, which is very much in line with what the employers say that they want, we are finding that a gulf is opening up in the way in which students are prepared to learn as they come into university. My second comment is that as we move further towards the knowledge-based society, we find that many young people coming from school and college underestimate the amount of mathematics and numeracy that is required in higher education vocational programmes. I am delighted to see that Diplomas will have numeracy as a requirement in the new 14-19 Diplomas. Nevertheless, I wonder whether we have got the balance right.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Professor Smith: Very briefly, I am here as Chair of the 1994 group of research-led universities. As Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, a member of the Prime Minister's National Council for Educational Excellence, a member of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service board and a member of the UK Post Qualification Admissions Delivery Partnership, I am particularly interested in answering questions and discussing issues of fair access and wider participation and the way in which the current assessment regime at A-level supports those aims. Given the nature of our intake. I am also very happy to talk about Exeter's experience with A grades and the prospect of grade A* at A-level, which opens up a series of issues, and also the accuracy of A-level predictions. I am very happy to talk about all those issues as well as the measures that we have to put in place as a university in order to cover the knowledge gaps that we identify in the existing A-level curriculum.

  Chairman: We invited you as individual vice-chancellors, Professor Smith. Universities UK did not feel that it could add any value by appearing before the Committee on this subject, as it could not get any agreement among its members, which rather surprised us so we thought we would go for individual vice-chancellors instead. I was surprised at Universities UK's reaction, but never mind.

  Susan Anderson: I will make a comment for Richard Wainer and myself. Our key message is that employers recognise and understand GCSEs and A-levels as high-quality qualifications. They see value in the new Diplomas, but they understand GCSEs and A-levels. We have concerns about literacy, numeracy and employability skills, and also about the number of students studying science and maths A-levels, because we are not getting enough young people choosing to study the science subjects at university that employers want. Those are the key points that I would like to emphasise in my opening remarks.

  Q252  Chairman: I shall go back to the point that I was making earlier and want to question the two vice-chancellors. This morning, I visited Southfields Community College, which is a fascinating place, to look at what it does. It is an extraordinarily interesting, innovative college. I popped into some of the sixth-form courses and, as I usually am, was absolutely amazed at how hard the students work.

  We hear vice-chancellors and other organisations saying that they get people who they do not think have the depth or breadth of knowledge that they should have, which surprises me because such visits to schools point me in another direction. I went into an English class where people immediately wanted to know whether I knew Simon Armitage, because I am from Huddersfield, and what I thought of Shakespeare as a poet rather than as a playwright. They were fascinating and stimulating young people. A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggested that students, having worked through sixth form frenetically to achieve good results to get into university, are actually not worked very hard when you get hold of them, and that we have the most easy-going university regime in the developed world. If it is true that they are not that good, why do you not work them harder? Professor Smith, will you answer that?

  Professor Smith: I will happily answer that. I actually think that university students work very hard, and the evidence supports that. There are, of course, questions about the evidence, but the basic evidence, alongside the number of 2.1 and 1st grades, is the proportion of people completing courses, the proportion of people satisfied with the experience and, crucially, the proportion of people moving into graduate-level jobs. The HEPI study is a good study, but please note that it talks about contact hours, full stop. I think that it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between being in a lecture theatre in some of the continental countries with 500 people present for an hour and doing seminar and tutorial work for an hour. I think that the HEPI study has limitations because of its methodology, but students at universities in the UK work hard and the results objectively show that.

  Q253  Chairman: What about the first point? How do they arrive with you? It is a gross term to use these days, but are they oven ready when they get to you in Exeter at 18?

  Professor Smith: Oven ready might not be quite the right term. Let me put it this way: we need a certain degree of subtlety. I have read all the transcripts for the Committee's previous sittings and think that the key point is that it is neither one thing nor the other. By that, I mean that the students come with skills that are different to those of people who went to university 20 years ago or 35 years ago, when I went to university. They are different sets of skills.

  In preparation for today, we asked all the admissions tutors at Exeter what they find. You get two basic sets of comments: first, with regard to the right sets of study skills, they are actually rather well prepared, with the exception of independent critical thinking, which is why the extended project in the Diploma looks very exciting; secondly, there are differences in the subject knowledge that they arrive with, especially in some of the sciences. You might wish to push on that a bit more. In Exeter, for example, the level of maths that the students come with is a major issue. We put on additional maths in the first year from the business school right through to biosciences, physics, engineering and computer science because we do not think that everyone comes at the right level. Equally, in our English school they actually put on additional study skills modules for people in the first year because gaps were identified there as well.

  Professor Atkins: We would say the same sort of thing. With regard to mathematics, our colleagues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—would say that the range of mathematics now studied in the sixth form is much wider than it used to be, but that there is less depth, particularly around subject topics such as calculus. For example, for students reading engineering subjects, we have to put on supplementary work so that students—even those with a grade A or B at mathematics—can cope with things like fluid dynamics, heat transfer and engine cycle calculations. That area seems to trip up our inbound students. I absolutely endorse what Steve has said; there is a requirement for mathematics and numeracy right across the vocational field. Particularly in nursing and professions allied to medicine, we find that students who dropped mathematics at 16, having got their grade A to C at GCSE, forget it. It is not like riding a bicycle. Also, if they have learned maths as a selection of discrete random techniques, they arrive to learn about drug medication, for example, and cannot quite remember which bit to put above which bit when calculating the percentage. That is quite worrying. The amount of additional confidence-building that we have to do with numeracy, as well as the actual mathematics input, is quite considerable. As with Exeter, we fund a large maths support centre that tests 800 students coming into Coventry University on the induction week and continues to offer drop-in sessions. We see about 2,000 students a term on a drop-in basis. This is a major issue. It is not a problem just in STEM subjects, but in business, nursing and other areas. I also agree with Professor Smith about academic writing. We find that there are problems in the ability of students to do two things. First, we are having to focus on bringing independent critical analysis to web-based materials or Internet-based sources. Students are very able to source materials on the Internet from many different places, but are not quite so able to bring critical appraisal to those sources. For example, they get information from "Wiki" and it arrives in the essay without any greater consideration. Secondly, students are often unable to structure a report at length, rather than produce a short piece of writing. They do not always understand that writing is a recursive process that needs to be worked at. Those are some of the areas where we have to put in additional time, help and resources to aid students' academic writing.

  Q254  Chairman: Thank you. That evidence will be familiar to you, Susan. It is the sort of thing that the CBI has been saying for some time.

  Susan Anderson: Those issues certainly resonate with us. When we talk to employers about graduate skills, more often, they are concerned about the quantity of graduates, particularly in the STEM areas of physical science, maths and engineering. They are in very high demand among employers, not just in the specialised manufacturing or engineering sectors, but in the financial services. Employers are concerned more about the quantity than the quality of such graduates. Sometimes, an employer from a pharmaceutical firm, for example, will say that somebody has come to them with bioscience or another relevant degree, but has not done the particular bits that they want. It would not take much to fix that. Often, major employers are working with universities—whether in the IT or the pharmaceutical sector—to see how they can get courses in those disciplines that reflect business needs. That is an area where we in business can work more closely with universities and that is happening. On literacy and numeracy, we are more concerned about school leavers at 16 and 18 than about graduates. I emphasise that when we ask employers for their views on school leavers and graduates it is literacy and numeracy that they are concerned about. We get very few complaints about IT skills. That is rather different from the work force, where there are some issues with IT. Only 2% of employers say that they have any problems with graduates' general IT skills and about 8% say that they have problems with those of 16 or 18-year-olds. For whatever reason, in some areas there are very few problems; that is probably because those areas are reinforced by home use. It is important to us, and we have worked closely with the Government, to establish what we mean by basic literacy and numeracy. We are happy to expand on that, as we have in our paper. Similarly, on the employability skills that employers are looking for, we do not label them in quite the same way as universities do. But we know that young people are getting those skills as we have defined them—self-management and team-working—from their school and university experiences. What they are not always very good at is calling them by the right labels, or being able to talk about and demonstrate how they have worked as part of an effective team on a university project, or become an effective self-manager. Sometimes the problem is with labelling and terminology, rather than the fact that particularly university graduates do not have those skills at all.

  Q255  Chairman: So, does your organisation aspire for well rounded graduates with a broader competence?

  Susan Anderson: Our bigger problem is lack of STEM graduates. If we have an issue to address, we are saying that those areas come pretty much top of the list. Employability skills are also important, but we think that universities, at least the good ones, really get those skills, and understand that employers are looking for people who can apply their literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace. For the university graduates, it is often a question of talking the language that employers talk and understand, and being realistic. For example, if you say that you are going to go into a business environment and be a leader, you will not be a leader on day one. Sometimes, graduates need a bit of realism. Primarily, when we talk about quality, that refers to employability skills, but the key concern is quantity of STEM graduates.

  Richard Wainer: I would like to add to that. While the quantity of STEM graduates is probably the primary concern in HE, you are right about employers wanting well-rounded people coming out of university. Our surveys show that about 70% of graduate jobs require a specific degree discipline, because employers are looking for a well-rounded person with good literacy and numeracy, and good employability skills.

  Q256  Chairman: Someone with a Diploma?

  Richard Wainer: Quite possibly. Our members have looked at the Diplomas and, in principle, they can see them working. But there are many issues to work on between now and September, and going through to 2013, to ensure that they really are a high quality route for young people, both into university and into employment.

  Chairman: I am not saying this to take a pot shot at you in the CBI, but some of us who were around at the time thought that the original Tomlinson reforms were rather stymied by the CBI attitude. But, we will come back to that and drill down on it. What I want to get out of this sitting is whether, if things are not quite as you want them now, is it because of the supply chain, what is happening down there, too much teaching for tests? I see the Permanent Secretary has just come in and is sitting behind you. Is it something that the Government have been doing over the past 10 or 20 years—not limited to one Administration? Is something in the schools not quite right for giving the right kind of product? Do not answer that now, but, by the end of the sitting, that is what my colleagues hope to be able to drill down and try to discover.

  Q257  Stephen Williams: I would like to start with some factual questions to the two vice-chancellors. What is the social composition of undergraduates at Exeter and Coventry? How many, as a proportion, come from private schools, and how many come from the lowest socio-economic group?

  Professor Smith: At Exeter, 74% of undergraduates come from state schools, and, I would need to be absolutely sure, but I think that 17.2% come from the lowest socio-economic groups.

  Professor Atkins: At Coventry 97% of undergraduates are from state schools and 38% are from black and minority ethnic groups. Depending on how the indicators are cut and used, the figures are 41% from the lowest socio-economic groups and 21% from the lowest participation neighbourhoods.

  Stephen Williams: Flipping the figures around, 26% of undergraduates at Exeter are from a privately educated background compared with 3% at Coventry. How does that fit in with the targets that the Office for Fair Access sets you as institutions? Presumably Coventry is meeting them comfortably?

  Professor Atkins: We exceed our benchmarks, yes.

  Professor Smith: You will be pleased to know that Exeter now exceeds its OFFA benchmark. When I arrived five years ago, there were 66.9% from state schools and, from recollection, the OFFA benchmark by 2010 will be 73%. We are ahead of that, which is a deliberate policy of the institution.

  Q258  Stephen Williams: I guess that for some subjects your admissions tutors have an over-supply of good candidates coming through. How do you differentiate between those candidates? Is it from their predicted grades or do you interview people?

  Professor Smith: We have 24,000 applicants—we are 12th in the country on applications by place. We do not interview everyone because it would be practically impossible to do so. We take predicted grades. An important point about predicted grades is that 67% of grades predicted are accurate within one grade either side. For a student who is taking three A-levels, that means that predicted grades are not perfect. However, out of all A-levels, 84% of predicted grades are accurate within two grades either side. In a sense that is pretty accurate and we use those. The problem we have—different institutions will have different problems and Madeleine will have one story and we will have another partly reflecting our hinterland—is that the crucial determinate of all the issues you are putting your finger on is the entry grades required. As you know, 25% of students get an A and 4% get three As.

  Q259  Stephen Williams: Out of the whole population?

  Professor Smith: Out of the whole population of 660,000. Those figures stand. The problem is, in some major areas of work, the average entrance grade is A, A, and A. Thus a major issue is how to discriminate between the applicants who have three grade As. Of course, as you also know, 31% of students who get an A come from the independent schools sector even though they educate only 7% of the population. Going back to Susan's point, in the shortage subjects—in the STEM subjects and in some of the languages—well over 50% of As come from the independent schools sector. We have a very nice dilemma to deal with. As an institution, the more we use A-levels and predicted A-levels, the more we move towards certain social groups.

  Professor Atkins: There is a slightly different picture at Coventry. First, our ratio of applicants to places has been on average 5:1. We use predicted grades as the basis on which to decide whether or not to make a standard offer for the course. We find that very low predicted grades correlate with difficulties in completing the course and with drop-outs. We find that there is less correlation between medium and good predicted grades and the ultimate outcome of degree classification. Over the last four years, as A-level grades have gone up, we have raised our grade ask. To give you a precise example, four years ago, for business studies we would have been asking for something like 160 UCAS tariff points. We now ask for 260 UCAS tariff points. That is a change over a four-year period. We put most weight on the predicted grades and actual grades achieved at GCSE and AS. We obviously look with care at the reference and at the personal statement, but the predicted grades and actual grades carry the most weight. We find that the predicted grades where there are external and independent assessments, such as AS and A2, are more accurate for our purposes in predicting whether the student will do well on the course than some of the vocational qualifications, where there is a much higher proportion of internal assessment and there is not necessarily the same guarantee of coverage of the syllabus. We find that GCSE, AS and A2 are better predictors for our purposes, but we do not differentiate our standard offer; once we decide to make an offer, it is the standard offer—we do not differentiate by board or widening participation category.

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