Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  Q300  Stephen Williams: You think that standards have been held, but not necessarily improved?

  Sue Hackman: I definitely think that standards have improved. We can corroborate that by the patterns that exist in other surveys of pupil abilities, and in the PIRLS and PISA tests, which also give us another take on how standards are developing as do Ofsted reports. We are pretty certain that standards are rising. However, having said that, no one will say that every test is perfect. There must be year on year fluctuations. It is the task of the QCA to ensure that they are regulated and watched.

  Q301  Stephen Williams: If Sue Hackman thinks that standards are improving, how does that stack up with the evidence from Professor Smith in the earlier session? He said that universities increasingly have to lay on remedial classes, particularly in maths, or for anyone who wishes to do a physics degree, because the standard of entrance—even if a pupil has three straight As—is not sufficient to be a first year undergraduate. Therefore, how could standards have gone up?

  Sue Hackman: National tests test every single child in the cohort. University intakes vary from year to year, so it did occur to me that university fluctuations might be to do with which pupils are choosing to come to your university over time. Having said that, I agree that when pupils are studying a science degree at university, they need a high level of mathematics, and we must strive to produce pupils who can do that.

  Q302  Stephen Williams: But if you look at the number of people applying to do a subject such as physics, it has gone down considerably over the last 20 years. So it is safe to assume that the people who are applying to do physics now are the hard core who want to do that subject and are committed to it. Yet university departments say that the standard coming in is not what it was—not only at Exeter, I have also heard it from many other admissions tutors around the country.

  Jon Coles: There are some important considerations relating to how many people are doing a STEM subject, which is broadly science, technology, engineering, or maths, and there is a need to increase that number. You will know from previous inquiries, and from documents that the Department has submitted to the Committee, some of the background to what we are doing about the matter.

  One thing that has been happening over the last 20 years at A-level and post-16 years old, is a significant widening of the choices available to young people and a significant increase in the range of options that they can take. A feature of that has been a decline in the number of people doing some of the traditional subjects, particularly science subjects. That is unquestionably a cause for concern. In recent years we have seen some reversal of that trend in relation to some key science subjects and to maths, which was affected after curriculum 2000. A range of issues needs to be addressed. I do not think that any of what I have said suggests that standards themselves have fallen, but rather that there is a wider range of young people doing a wider range of subjects. Therefore, people who might once have chosen to do science subjects are choosing other subjects. That is a feature of our system, and you have to judge at every stage to what extent to allow people free choice of subjects or to attempt to constrain their choice.

  Q303  Chairman: If you took students from the independent sector and grammar schools out of the number of young people qualifying to come through in STEM subjects, you would be very worried indeed. So something is going on in the state sector that you surely need to take seriously.

  Jon Coles: That is absolutely right. I do not have the figures in front of me for numbers of school leavers doing STEM subjects by different types of school, although the Department certainly has them. That concern is an important policy direction. As you know, a huge amount of work is going on to raise the numbers of students doing the sciences, particularly the physical sciences, maths and other technology subjects. That is important work. The good news is that, in the last couple of years, some reversal in that decline has begun and numbers are beginning to come up again. Numbers in maths have now recovered to above their pre-curriculum 2000 levels, which is serious progress. There is more to do, and of course the new science Diploma will be part of encouraging more and a broader group of young people into science.

  Q304  Stephen Williams: I think that we are drifting on to the choices people make at 16, rather than the standards once people have exercised those choices, which is what we are asking about. Looking at A-levels in the round and going back to some of the comments made in the earlier session by Professor Smith again, I wrote down what he said: increasingly students mark hunt; they do not have independent thinking and are afraid to give critical answers; and they play safe. Do you accept that it is a fault with the existing modular A-level system that students are simply trying to leap each hurdle in order to get the grade at the end, rather than having an in-depth understanding of the subject?

  Jon Coles: As I was trying to say in an earlier answer, the A-level system tests people's knowledge of the whole syllabus better than before, and ensures that more young people have to know more from all of it.

  I think that we agree there is a need to have more questions that test the abilities to think independently and critically, to analyse in depth, to give extended answers and so on. That is the purpose of the reforms in train at the moment, which will reduce the number of A-level modules from six to four and increase the amount of synoptic assessment. That is absolutely a driver of policy to get more of that into A-level.

  Q305  Stephen Williams: I have one and a half questions. This is the last time that I will ever ask a question in this Committee.

  Chairman: On this day.

  Stephen Williams: First of all, it has been put to us that as a result of this teaching to the test, teachers have become more skilled at getting children or young people through exams, but the downside is that the students themselves become deskilled in the area I have just asked you about. Given that universities have these worries and employers have these worries, as we heard from the CBI, and given that universities are increasingly introducing or reintroducing their own supplementary exams and tests, are A-levels fit for the purpose for which they are perceived to be designed?

  Jon Coles: Yes, I think they are. The changes we are making now will make them more fit for that purpose. The tougher questions that follow from the changes that I have been talking about and the introduction of an A* will address the concerns of those universities which struggle to discriminate between candidates. Those changes, together with the extended project, will mean that more and more young people are required to learn independently, to study in depth and to pursue their own thinking and ideas. Those are crucial things. All of those things are being designed into Diplomas from the outset. So the size of Diploma assessment unit will be the size of the new, bigger A-level assessment units rather than the existing smaller ones. They will be designed to encourage critical thinking and reflection. That broad set of personal learning and thinking skills—the things about self-management you were pursuing in the last session—the ability to work in teams, to learn in depth and to research critically are all built into the Diplomas and into the new extended project. So all young people pursuing that route will be required to pursue in depth and under their own steam an area of learning that is particular to them. It will force them to become independent learners in order to be successful. That is a set of changes that we have under way which are very important.

  Q306  Chairman: The awarding bodies said right at the end of our session last week that they thought an A* would certainly favour the independent sector in getting into the research-rich universities. Does it not concern you that they said that?

  Jon Coles: We have analysed that. It was a concern that we all had. It was something that was important to look at. At the moment the analysis I have suggests that just over 9,000 of the 26,000 of the candidates for A-level—some may be over 18—who get three As come from the independent sector. That is just over a third. Our analysis based on last summer's exam results of what proportion would get three A*s, suggests that about 1,150 of just over 3,050 candidates who would have got 3 A*s had that grade been introduced last year would be from the independent sector. Again, that is just over a third. It is a slightly greater proportion from the independent sector, but it is not dramatic.

  Q307  Chairman: But that is not the point, is it? The point is that what we know in this Committee, and you must know it well, is that the longer you extend and the higher the hurdles you put up in that process of coming through education to higher education, the more kids from less privileged backgrounds drop by the wayside or lower their sights. That is why we are so obsessed as a Committee in all its incarnations that, for example, Oxford and Cambridge still get away with having a different application system. As you said, David Bell, we all go to schools and we know that as soon as the kids from the poorer backgrounds find out that there is this posh route to Oxford and Cambridge they say, "I'm not going to be different from my friends and I'm not going to do that." So you lose them there. Then you are going to give them A*s, and that will put them off even further. That is the problem, is it not? It is more psychological than the careful analysis of figures you have just given us.

  Jon Coles: I think that the point the awarding bodies were making in your discussion—it is absolutely right to raise it as an issue—is whether you would have a disproportionately greater proportion of people from the independent sector getting three A*s. This analysis suggests there is a slight increase in that proportion, but it is very slight.

  Q308  Chairman: Why not just publish the results, give them the figures and let them judge? What is wrong with the figures? Why do you have to have an A*? Give them the figures. They can judge who has got what in their A-levels at present.

  Jon Coles: Well—

  Chairman: David, you are looking very quizzical.

  David Bell: I will come in in a minute.

  Jon Coles: At the moment, we certainly allow universities to have information about performance in AS modules and to have the marks in individuals AS modules if they want them—that is available to them.

  Q309  Chairman: In AS?

  Jon Coles: Of course, it is only AS marks that exist at the moment of making offers, which is the crucial moment for many of the selecting courses in HE. So, they do have that information available to them. The issue, of course, is that the rules around AS and cashing in mean that not every candidate has their AS grades at that point. We make available all the information that exists in the system now, but the point you are making is that some universities would like more information and a greater ability to make choices. This is an important issue. The crucial point about the A* is that it is designed with respect to the more stretching assessments that we are putting in place; it is designed to make sure that the things that we are trying to do to stretch students and the broader range of skills that you are rightly focusing on are taught, rewarded and recognised in the assessments. It is no good putting in those more stretching questions, which require people to show that they can analyse in depth, if, having demonstrated that they can do so, they do not get the reward for that. That is an important part of why having an A* makes a difference educationally, as well as in terms of selection.

  Q310  Chairman: We do fear that there will be an A** and an A*** on the way shortly.

  David Bell: Very briefly, I just wanted to defend the honour of many universities, which actually go out of their way to put into place programmes—some are funded nationally and some are introduced on the instigation of universities themselves—to open up access as best they can. But, of course, the universities themselves rely on the supply of students from schools and colleges, which is why a lot of our attention has equally got to focus on encouraging schools to ensure that their youngsters get the right opportunities. The assessment is an important issue, as Jon has said, but a lot is being done across the system to ensure that students are given the best possible opportunities to go on to higher education.

  Chairman: David, we take that point, but you know how this Committee has felt historically about the dual application process. We move on to single level tests.

  Q311  Lynda Waltho: I think that we are expecting the results of the first round of the pilot single level tests on 18 January. I have a quote. Apparently, a DCSF spokeswoman said: "there are some differences between subjects, levels and performance in different key stages that we need to understand better before we are confident about releasing results". Are you any closer to understanding the results and publishing them?

  David Bell: I am pleased to confirm that that quote was correct, and we said in a letter to the schools that participated that there had been some unexpected patterns in the results. The first thing to say is that we would not and should not be surprised that, when you pilot a new form of testing, you might need to see what actually happened. We are doing some further work, and we have asked the National Assessment Agency to do some further work. We are not ready yet to come back with the results of that analysis to say what has happened. To reinforce the point, however, we will make these findings public in due course. Obviously, we want to enable those schools and students who took part in the pilots to receive their results in due course. I cannot say any more than that at the moment. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if I misled the Committee by starting to speculate on the results of that kind of analysis.

  Q312  Lynda Waltho: It is about the time frame, really. The Government have actually stated that the single level test will be rolled-out depending on positive evidence from the pilot, but what are we talking about when we say, "positive evidence"?

  David Bell: We said two things: first, as you suggested, there was positive evidence from the pilot, to which I will return in a moment; secondly, there is an endorsement of the approach from the regulator. It is a very important second point that we would need to ensure that the tests passed the standard. In terms of positive evidence, there are a number of things that you want them to do. You ask whether they are robust, reliable and valid, what is their impact on students' and teachers' behaviour, and so on. We have to consider a range of things in this round of testing. We are very fortunate in having 40,000 students taking part at this stage, so there is a good base. We also said that we would expect at least four rounds in the pilot phase, so that we learn as we go—I did a bit of homework on this before I came in—and we should not be surprised that it takes time to do that, because if you look back to the introduction of the national curriculum tests, it took quite a bit of time to get them right. We are quite careful in saying that we are doing a national pilot; we will examine it carefully; it will be independently reviewed; and we will need the advice of the regulator before we go forward nationally. However, as Sue said earlier, we think that the basic principle is sound in offering youngsters a test when they are ready to take it, to build it much more naturally into the flow of teaching and learning. You have to go from what seems the right principle to something that works in practice, hence the need for the national test in the pilot.

  Q313  Lynda Waltho: As the head of the whole thing, do you have a time frame that you think would be a good idea to aim at—a time when you would want it to be finished?

  David Bell: We have the four rounds of the pilots, and perhaps Sue will give more detail on the timetable. We are cautious about saying that it will be done by this summer and that we will try to roll it out and so on, because we want to be very clear that we have the evidence to make a decision should Ministers decide to go in this direction.

  Q314  Chairman: Should Sue's head be on the block for this? Sue, is it your section's responsibility that this project is not making sufficient progress?

  Sue Hackman: Team work is my responsibility.

  David Bell: I must come in and defend a member of staff. In the end, the Permanent Secretary has to take responsibility in the civil service.

  Sue Hackman: We have given ourselves two years. There are two test windows a year for test runs. At the end of that time, we would know if this thing is workable, but then there is a run-in time to prepare future tests, so it would not automatically happen that, at the end of two years, you would go straight into a single testing system. We would commit to saying that, after two years, we would take a decision on whether to carry on or not.

  Q315  Lynda Waltho: You were quite definite about it being possible by the 18th—

  David Bell: Just to be clear, we had given a date for the release of the results to individual schools and pupils on the basis of the December pilot. That is the work we need to do, based on the first pattern of results. As Sue said, in terms of making a decision about the future of the whole programme, we are working to that longer time scale.

  Q316  Ms Butler: So is it intended that, at the end of two years, the single level test would replace all the other Key Stage tests nationally?

  Sue Hackman: Yes. The pupils in the pilot are doing both; they are testing the new tests and sitting the Key Stage tests. If it were successful, the aim would be that it would replace the current testing regime and there would be single level tests for pupils as they move through the system.

  Q317  Ms Butler: What safeguards are in place—I ask this in the context of Bernard Coard's 1970 report on the education of black boys—to ensure that black boys will not be held back by teachers' perception that they are not ready to take the test?

  Sue Hackman: Underpinning the single level test is a big project to secure assessment for learning in schools based on a piece of work that QCA is doing for us called APP—Assessing Pupil Progress. That is a ladder of progress in reading, writing and mathematics, and in due course we think it will apply to other curriculum subjects. Those criteria will help teachers to arrive at accurate rather than impressionistic judgments, and they are the same criteria that underpin the single level tests, so there will be a close tie between teacher assessments. Single level tests are attractive and attract a lot of attention, but the progression pilot is a project that starts with classroom assessment with strong strategies for knowing exactly what children can do and what they need to do next. It also helps with periodic judgments based on the criteria that I have just described. When the teacher and the pupil feel that the pupil is ready for the next level, they would be entered for the next level, a little like they do in music tests. The test will confirm the teacher assessment. With this model, teacher assessment will have more credibility and more importance than currently. The answer to your question is that assessment for learning is really important, and the test and the teacher assessment go hand in hand on the ground as part of the pilot.

  Chairman: A lot of people are worried about that comparison with music tests. The Secretary of State uses it often—sorry Dawn.

  Q318  Ms Butler: May I drill down on that a little? Are you saying that you are introducing further smaller tests to assess whether pupils are ready for the single level test?

  Sue Hackman: No. I am describing the single level test. There is just one set of tests.

  Q319  Ms Butler: So what is the APP?

  Sue Hackman: The APP is the material to help teachers to arrive at accurate judgments in their everyday assessments. It is classroom assessment—ongoing assessment.

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