Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 287 - 299)



  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 something—it 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 heard—that 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 country.

  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 tests—I know you will want to talk about them—one 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 things.

  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 curriculum—that 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 them—we 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%.[1] 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 children—that 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,[2] 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 a percentage.

  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 making—that 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 subject—is 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 schools.

  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 on that.

  Jon Coles: They said that that was the case, but I do not know where they got their information from.

  Chairman: Okay.

  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 that figure.

  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 doubt—I am absolutely convinced—that 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 it.

  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 going up?

  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

2   Memorandum TA 48 (on Committee website) Back

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