Examination of Witnesses (Questions 287
MONDAY 28 JANUARY 2008
Q287 Chairman: Can I welcome Jon
Coles, David Bell and Sue Hackman to our deliberations? I apologise
for the Division that has delayed the beginning of this session.
You seemed to be enjoying that first session, from which we got
some good information and feedback. We normally allow you to say
somethingit is very nice to see you here, Permanent Secretary,
we were delighted that you were able to join us so do you
and your team want to say something to get us started, or do you
want to go straight into questions?
David Bell: If I could just make
some brief introductory remarks, I did enjoy that last session,
I hope that I am going to enjoy this session just as much.
Chairman: I would not guarantee that.
David Bell: This year is an interesting
year because it marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the
Education Reform Act 1988, which gave us, among other things,
national tests. The key purposes of testing and examinations more
generally have stood over that period. We want them to provide
objective, reliable information about every child and young person's
progress. We want them to enable parents to make reliable and
informative judgments about the quality of schools and colleges.
We want to use them at the national level, both to assist and
identify where to put our support, and also, we use them to identify
the state of the system and how things are moving. As part of
that, both with national tests and public examinations, we are
very alive to the need to have in place robust processes and procedures
to ensure standards over time. What it is important to stress,
however, is the evolution of testing and assessment, and that
is partly for the reasons that you have just heardthat
demands, employers' expectations and society's expectations change.
However, we also want to be thinking about better ways to ensure
that testing and assessment enables children and young people
to make appropriate progress. Many of the issues that I know are
the subject of the Committee's inquiry are close to our hearts
and are issues that we are looking at. For example, in areas like
single-level testing or the assessment arrangements around Diplomas,
we are trying to take account of change in expectations and demands.
Throughout all this, rigour is essential in assessment and testing,
and I assure you that both the Ministers and the officials of
the Department are completely behind any changes that will improve
the testing and assessment of children and young people in this
Q288 Chairman: Thank you for that.
Shall we get started with the questions now? Jolly good. My question
comes from the last remark by Professor Smith, from Exeter university.
Why do you think we are not getting above this still-restricted
number of people getting to A to C in GCSEs? He finished by saying
that that there is one thing that restricts it; 90% of people
who take A-levels get into university. Why is it that there is
this restriction; why are we not getting more young people through?
As you said, this is the 20th anniversary this year of the Education
Reform Act, so why do we still seem to be performing lower than
the demands of a modern economy would suggest we should be?
David Bell: It is important to
stress that we have made considerable progress. If you take the
percentage of youngsters who achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE,
we know that that figure has improved over time with English and
maths. The percentage of young children leaving primary school
with the appropriate level of education has improved. What Professor
Smith argued, and what we would argue, is that you have to keep
the pressure on all the time to ensure that more and more young
people achieve the required standard. There is not a single, simple
answer. For example, trying to improve the teaching of reading
in the earliest years of primary school is as important as ensuring
that those youngsters who have not achieved the appropriate standard
at age 11 are given support to get into secondary education, or
ensuring that youngsters have the right kind of curriculum choice,
whether that is Diplomas, GCSE, A-level or whatever. This is a
story of progress. As you have heard from other witnesses in this
inquiry, we have gone from below average to above average, but
there is a long way to go. This country's economic success depends
on more people becoming highly skilled and we know that other
nations, both developed and developing, are increasing their rate
of progress in educational attainment.
Q289 Chairman: Earlier I said that
I had been at Southfields Community College. One of the complaints
that I heard there was that it was still getting a substantial
number of children coming through at 11 who were not able to read
and write properly. We have had numeracy and literacy programmes
for a considerable time now. Is it the quality of teaching? Is
it the way we teach? What is holding things back?
David Bell: Again, I would make
the point that there has been considerable progress over that
period. However, there is no getting away from the fact that we
must make even greater progress. There are some things that are
crucial: the quality of the teaching that children get is important
in the primary years as is the content of the curriculum and what
they are actually taught. Again, we have made changes to the teaching
of reading in recent years. In the new arrangements for Key Stage
3 at the beginning of secondary education, we have tried to make
more time and space available for schools who are still picking
up youngsters who have not made sufficient progress in primary
education. That is all very important. When we get on discuss
the single level testsI know you will want to talk about
themone of the principles underpinning the pilot is the
placing of greater emphasis on the progress that students are
making and really ratcheting up the teacher's capacity to assess
where students are, and to help them to make appropriate progress.
The youngsters who are falling behind will be given additional
support in English and maths. There are lots of ways in which
we can continue to improve performance, but we need highly skilled
teachers, head teachers and school leaders who are really focused
on raising standards.
Chairman: Let us get on with the rest
of the questions.
Q290 Mr. Heppell: You started by
speaking about the different things that tests and so on are used
for. We are all aware that the national curriculum tests and the
public examinations at 16 and beyond are used for different methods.
Some people might say that if they are designed initially to put
a greater emphasis on pupil performance but are then used for
accountability reasons, they will be less accurate and less relevant.
Do you recognise people's concerns about that?
David Bell: I do recognise that,
but I have never found it a particularly persuasive argument.
It seems to imply that you can only use tests or assessment for
one single purpose. I do not accept that. I think that our tests
give a good measure of attainment and the progress that children
or young people have made to get to a particular point. It does
not seem to be incompatible with that to then aggregate up the
performance levels to give a picture of how well the school is
doing. Parents can use that information, and it does not seem
to be too difficult to say that, on the basis of those school-level
results, we get a picture of what is happening across the country
as a whole. While I hear the argument that is often put about
multiple purposes of testing and assessment, I do not think that
it is problematic to expect tests or assessments to do different
Q291 Mr. Heppell: Will you accept
that the use of test results for that purpose means that there
is a tendency for teachers in schools to concentrate on improving
their statistical performance and working for the tests at the
expense of children's education in general?
David Bell: I would obviously
want to make the point that enabling youngsters to be well prepared
for a test or a public examination is quite important. Actually
some schools had not previously given sufficient attention to
that. Before we had national curriculum tests, the first time
that some youngsters took a structured test or anything approaching
a structured test examination was at the age of 16 when they came
to sit their first public examinations. It is important as part
of preparation for a test that youngsters are given some experience
of that. We also hear some people arguing that it skews the whole
curriculumthat teachers become completely obsessed with
the testing perhaps because they are concerned about the school's
performance and the whole curriculum is changed. Our evidence,
which I think is supported by inspection evidence, is that schools
that are confident and know what they want children to learn can
comfortably ensure that children are prepared for the test in
a way that does not distort teaching and learning. I do not think
that anyone would say that they want everything to stop just for
the test. Again, examples from the best schools suggest that they
can comfortably marry good progress made by children in tests
with a rich and varied curriculum.
Q292 Mrs. Hodgson: I want to ask
a couple of questions about teaching to the test. We have received
significant evidence that schools and teachers are now so motivated
to meet targets and do well in league tables that they resort
to widespread teaching to the test. Consequently, there is a narrowing
of the taught curriculum. What are your comments on that?
David Bell: Perhaps, Mr. Chairman,
I could begin to bring some of my colleagues in?
Chairman: It would be a pleasure to hear
from themwe know them well.
Sue Hackman: First of all, it
is important that literacy and numeracy are robust because that
is what the rest of the curriculum depends upon. There was never
a great student in design and technology who did not have good
maths as well. Someone cannot easily study history and geography
unless they can read and write well. Literacy and numeracy are
the cornerstones of the whole curriculum. Personally, I do not
think that there is a huge problem with focusing on the core subjects.
At the same time, we support a broad and balanced curriculum.
That is part of what should be taught. We have researched how
much time schools spend in preparing for tests. In the four years
of Key Stage 2 it is 0.14% and during Key Stage 3 it is 0.2%.
That does not seem too much. In life, we need some experience
of being challenged and stretched as well as of being supported
and coached. That is part of the rich experience that we must
provide. Having said that, we do give guidance to schools that
they should not over-drill to the test. They should prepare for
the test so children can show what they are capable of, but the
biggest reason why children should not be trained just for the
tests for long periods is that it does not work. What works is
effective, consistent teaching and learning throughout the three
or four years of the key stage. It is certainly not our policy
to drive schools to spend too much time on teaching to the test.
Chairman: Leave David to one side; he
will come in when we need him. I really want to get Jon and Sue
to pursue that matter.
Jon Coles: Can I just add something
on that question of teaching to the test, which is an important
issue? Broadening that in relation to public exams, which is my
side of this discussion, it is obviously important to get the
curriculum right, and to have the right curriculum that prepares
young people in the right way. A lot of what you were hearing
from the previous witnesses was very much about how well the curriculum
prepares young people for life. Then, of course, you need to test
the whole of that curriculum, and you need testing that is valid
and reliable in relation to that curriculum, and that tests the
skills that people were talking about, not just a very narrow
set of skills and abilities to answer the test. That means that
the test needs to be properly trialled and robust; it needs to
have the right assessment instruments for the sort of learning.
The testing that you do for mathematics is very different from
the testing that you do for construction or engineering. Evidently,
some things can be assessed through written external tests, and
some things cannot be. You need the test not to be too predictable,
so that it is very difficult to narrow down on the questions that
you need to prepare people for.
At that point, good quality test preparation
and preparation for exams is making sure that young people can
display what they know and can do in the assessment that they
are about to face. I, for one, am glad that my teachers went to
the trouble of preparing me to do the tests and exams that I had
to do, because having taught me the curriculum properly, it was
important that I was able to demonstrate my understanding of it
in the exam. I think that that is what we would want for all our
childrenthat they should be taught the curriculum properly
and then taught to display what they know.
Q293 Mrs. Hodgson: What we have been
trying to get to the bottom of in the evidence that we have taken
so far is whether teaching to the test is a good or a bad thing.
When we had the exam boards here, we asked them the same question,
and the feeling from them was that it was more of a good thing.
However, we have all had a detailed e-mail from Warwick Mansell,
who is an author and reporter for The Times Educational Supplement.
Chairman: Warwick Mansell has written
a very good new book on testing and assessment. We are getting
Jon Coles: Like your previous
witnesses, I have not read the book either.
Q294 Mrs. Hodgson: Warwick Mansell
has obviously done a lot of research and interviewed a lot of
people about the issue of teaching to the test. You mention literacy
and numeracy, and that has such an impact across the whole curriculum.
However, repetition is very important, because that is how you
learn a subject. Biology and chemistry, however, are quite different
and there is one example here of a sixth-former who says, "Most
of my chemistry class excelled at chemistry exams, but knew very
little about chemistry as a subject. The same was true in biology."
My only worry is that children are being taught to pass the exams,
which is good, because they need to be able to pass the exam,
but are they developing independent thinking so that when they
get to university, they will know how to study a subject fully
on their own and to develop their own strand of thinking, rather
than studying the best way to pass the exam?
Jon Coles: The point about A-level
that your previous witnesses were makingthat they worry
that assessment has become too atomised and not sufficiently synoptic,
because it does not test people's ability to make connections
across the subjectis something that we have heard a lot.
That is why we are making some significant changes to A-level,
in particular, reducing the number of assessment units from six
to four, which goes straight to the point about how much testing
is going on. It also makes sure that people have to make connections
across a bigger range of the subject, and changes to the forms
of question in A-level will make sure that people are asked questions
that have more variety and that require more extended writing,
more analysis, and independent thought and study. A number of
things have strengthened A-level and made it an even stronger
qualification since the introduction of Curriculum 2000. The A-levels
that I suspect that most of us in this room did were possible
to pass by being taught seven essays, and revising five of them,
and expecting them to come up. That was a pretty good strategy
for passing A-levels in the past. You cannot do that now because
A-levels require you to know and understand the whole of the syllabus.
They test the whole of the specification at every sitting. The
issue is whether A-levels have gone too far in testing all of
the knowledge in small chunks. Do they do enough to test an understanding
of the connections across the subject and an ability to analyse
in depth? That is the purpose of the reforms that are now in train.
The A-levels that will be taught from this September will be assessed
in a new way with four units rather than the six that currently
exist. There will be a bigger variety of question stems, more
analytical questions and more extended writing. That is an important
set of reforms. Set alongside the new extended project, that means
that the sixth-form experience that people will get in the future
will demand much more independent thinking and analysis of the
subject. Nobody would condone for a second the idea that students
should be taught to answer exam questions and nothing else. Just
as Sue said that that is a bad strategy at Key Stage 2, I want
to emphasise that it is a bad strategy for teaching A-level because
there is already a significant amount of synoptic assessment.
It is not possible to get the best grades at A-level without demonstrating
an understanding of the wider subject. I do not want you to take
quite at face value the quotation that you read to me. We do not
see the scenario across the country that people can pass exams,
but have no understanding of the subject. I do not think that
that is the reality in our schools and colleges.
Chairman: We will come back to that point.
Q295 Annette Brooke: I have two quick
questions. I want to return to how much time is spent on teaching
to the test and the percentages that were given about that. If
we were to do a survey of primary school teachers and we asked
how they approach teaching year 7 compared with how they approach
teaching year 6, do you not think that our survey would show that
they feel constrained in their overall teaching of year 6?
Sue Hackman: In year 6, teachers
prepare for the tests. That is the reality of life and it is appropriate
that they prepare pupils for those tests. I dare say that there
would be a difference. We might also reflect that teachers in
year 7 should have the same sense of urgency in teaching their
pupils to get them ready for the rest of that key stage. There
is a difference in teaching every year group because every year
has a slightly different purpose; there might be a test, pupils
might be starting out in a key stage or they might be consolidating
what they have already done.
Q296 Annette Brooke: But is this
not like one big hiccup, which interrupts the flow of general
education? When a test is coming up, it is a critical time and
the whole school will be judged on it.
Sue Hackman: Hopefully, with the
single level tests, we are moving towards children being tested
throughout their careers as they become ready for it, so that
we can see how they develop as they go along. That would spread
some of the pressure through the years.
Annette Brooke: I will leave my colleagues
to ask about that.
Chairman: David Bell wants to come in
on that point.
David Bell: I just want to make
the point that a number of the folk in this room spend quite a
lot of time visiting schools. As Sue mentioned, you do hear people
saying that the pressures on youngsters get greater at year 6.
People often tell you that they are teaching to the tests, that
all of the imagination is gone and that there is no room for anything
else. However, on talking to them further and on talking to the
children, you will hear about the huge range of activities that
are going on. That somehow gives the lie to the argument that
the curriculum has become completely narrowed as a result of testing.
On this issue it is quite hard to get to what
people actually do, as opposed to what they think. It is very
unusual to go to schools where everything has been turned over
for a large amount of time to focus just on the tests. I can speak
from very considerable experience, having visited hundreds of
Q297 Annette Brooke: I guess that
it is a matter of proportion. Running through our evidence, we
have heard about the wide degree of variation in the giving of
grades in these assessments; 30% of the grades awarded being wrong
is the figure that was mentioned. In most walks of life, when
there is a potential degree of error, or perhaps a particular
variation in the whole year cohort, there is a little note under
the table explaining that. Do you think that we should have some
footnotes when you publish your league tables?
Jon Coles: On the public examination
system, I do not know where this figure of 30% comes from. I have
seen it appear in your transcripts and I have not been able to
track down its source.
Chairman: One of our witnesses gave evidence
Jon Coles: They said that that
was the case, but I do not know where they got their information
Jon Coles: Just in relation to
our public exam system, I simply do not accept that there is anything
approaching that degree of error in the grading of qualifications,
such as GCSEs and A-levels. The OECD has examined the matter at
some length and has concluded that we have the most carefully
and appropriately regulated exam system in the world. You did
not ask the chief executives of the award body whether they accepted
Q298 Annette Brooke: I did ask the
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority what it was doing to investigate
the matter. I was not very satisfied that it was checking out
the figure. I think that it is important to check it out. Perhaps
you could ask them to do it, and then you can put your hands up
and say that there is not a 30% error rate.
Jon Coles: I can say that without
asking QCA to do any further work, because QCA regulates the exam
system robustly. I can say to you without a shadow of a doubtI
am absolutely convincedthat there is nothing like a 30%
error rate in GCSEs and A-levels. If there is some evidence that
that is the case, I would really welcome knowing what it is.
Chairman: Jon, let us agree that together
we will get to the bottom of this.
Jon Coles: That would be excellent.
Chairman: We all want to pursue it. It
was a figure that was given to the Committee and we will pursue
Annette Brooke: That is fine.
Chairman: I would like to move on to
the broader question of standards.
Q299 Stephen Williams: Perhaps I
could direct these questions at Sue Hackman as this is her area
of responsibility. In his introductory remarks, the Permanent
Secretary said that results have gone up. He was talking about
those getting five GCSEs at A to C grades, including maths and
English, and those getting A-levels. Is that the same as standards
Sue Hackman: Statisticians would
draw a distinction between the two. There are mechanisms to ensure
that tests each year are anchored by means of pre-testing against
the performance of the year before. There are also efforts to
anchor standards at the level setting point, against the level
that was achieved in the previous year. Therefore, there are safeguards
in the system for anchoring the tests each year.
1 Note from David Bell, Permanent Secretary:
In answer to question 292, Sue Hackman indicated that the Department
holds research evidence on the amount of time schools spend preparing
students for tests. I would like to clarify that the evidence
we hold actually relates to the time schools spend administering
tests. The time spent administering tests at Key Stage 2 is 0.14%
and during Key Stage 3 is 0.2%. I recognise that this is a meaningful
difference and apologise for the mistake. Back
Memorandum TA 48 (on Committee website) Back