Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 327)



  Q320   Ms Butler: Sorry, I am not clear exactly how it will monitor the pupil, as opposed to the teacher's perception of how the pupil is doing.

  Sue Hackman: When a pupil arrives at a level—let us say Level 4, Level 5 or Level 6—it means something: the child has certain competencies. For example, at Level 4 English, children do not just read aloud and literally; they can read between the lines. That is how you know that they are at Level 4. That is the marker. At Level 5, they can use standard English and write in paragraphs. What is in the APP that measures progress? It spells out those markers and competencies showing that single children are at that level. When the teacher is sure and has assessed in the classroom that a child can do those things—for example, can use standard English and paragraphs—and knows and has seen on several occasions that the child can do that, they say that the child really is at Level 5 in their everyday work, so they can be entered for their single level test to get external confirmation that that is the level that they are at. It is a formal confirmation of the teacher's classroom assessment.

  David Bell: May I come in on that? Miss Butler is also concerned about what you might call depressed expectation and some youngsters never being considered ready for the test. It is important, alongside all that Sue has described, that teachers and school leaders, such as head teachers, ensure that all youngsters, irrespective of their background, are suitably judged ready at the right time. We want a system with the potential to enable youngsters who are not doing well to make better progress and, as part of the pilot, we are also encouraging schools to look at two levels of progress that students can make, but we do not want all those good intentions to be undermined by some pupils not being considered ready when they actually are. That is an issue, first and foremost, of classroom practice—of teachers being really skilled at judging when students are ready to move on—and, secondly, and perhaps equally important, of school leaders asking the question, "Are we sure that every youngster, irrespective of background, has been properly assessed by the teacher and taken forward?"

  Sue Hackman: May I add that one of the purposes of introducing the single level test is to introduce motivation into the system so that the child has some short-range goals to be going for during those long key stages that last four years? We think that it will add some interest and motivation for pupils who are facing those tests. For the most able, the test will give stretch—if they do well in their end-of-Key-Stage test,[3] it will give them additional challenges to move on to—and it will allow the least able, or those who perhaps move more slowly, to move at a pace that is most suitable for them while giving them something to go for. When a less able child enters the tests, they will enter at a level that is suitable for them, and at which the teacher is confident that they will achieve. The tests will build their confidence and enthusiasm for learning. It was partly those children who we had in mind when we introduced the tests.

  Chairman: We have one last section and only nine minutes to get through it. Fiona, would you lead us through?

  Q321  Fiona Mactaggart: We have talked quite a bit about the reliability of tests—the 30% figure—but I am also really interested in the validity of tests. It seems that in the hunt for more reliable testing—a test that will produce the same result every time—we are making tests that cut down the curriculum. In a way, that was the point that I was getting at earlier with the universities.I feel a bit like Mr. Gradgrind, who asked for the definition of a horse. Sissy Jupe knew everything there was to know about a horse but did not know that it was a gramnivorous quadruped, as I recall. I worry that we are overstressing reliability at the expense of validity in assessing young people's learning. Is there any truth in that worry, and, if so, what are you doing to try to overcome it?

  Jon Coles: Should I respond in relation to the public exam system? I think that that comes to the point about the A-level specification, for example, and the extent to which being very tight means that the assessment objectives are clear and can be assessed precisely and reliably. That is one of the reasons why we have a reliable system of public examination. That then goes to the question that universities and employers were raising in your last session and, in all of that, the desire to ensure that there is the full range of knowledge, that the tests are reliable and that they can be confirmed—whether we have managed to capture sufficiently all the broader sets of skills. They range from self-management through to independent learning, the ability to work in teams and all the rest. The set of reforms that we have in place now, which range from the new Diplomas, which are designed with some really different approaches to assessment in places—

  Q322  Fiona Mactaggart: OCR suggested in its evidence to us that seeking parity with GCSE has actually limited the range of assessment and made it too much like previous examinations.

  Jon Coles: I do not think that that will be the case. I believe that in their oral evidence to you, several of the awarding bodies said that they hoped that the Diplomas would give them the ability to introduce the broader range of assessment methods that would better test the broad range of skills that all the universities and employers who appeared before you earlier said were so crucial to them, and that is indeed what the Diplomas are designed to do.

  The extended project is another example of the system changing in quite a significant way to ensure that some of those higher-order intellectual, personal, practical and thinking skills can be developed and tested in ways that enable young people to pursue their own learning and to learn and research independently. So there is a set of changes in train, and it includes the introduction of the new forms of controlled assessment at GCSE, which are designed to ensure that we have a system that is at once valid and reliable in testing the skills and knowledge that the syllabus is designed to develop. I think that you are right to say that that is something that we have to keep working at over time, and at any one point in time there is a risk that one is stressed more than the other, but I think that the set of reforms that we are implementing at the moment really focuses on getting the set of things that employers and universities want, while ensuring that we have a very reliable system underpinning that.

  Q323  Fiona Mactaggart: Would you expect a new regulator to publish data on the reliability of particular examinations and qualifications?

  Jon Coles: I am not sure what data they would be.

  Q324  Fiona Mactaggart: Everybody has an assessment of the reliability of a particular testing and examination system. As I understand it, the Key Stage 2 test was assessed as having a variation factor of some 30%, and I suspect that that was where the 30% figure originated. Do you not think that these figures should be public?

  David Bell: The potential of an independent regulator enables it not just to work behind the scenes as it were, but also to make a report. In fact, there will be an annual report, and it will be for the independent regulator to determine what kind of evidence to put into the public domain. I would have thought that if one of the underpinning principles of having a new regulator was to build on the good work of the QCA and, crucially, to help to reinforce public confidence in tests and examinations, it will want to put their work out. In fact, we have also said that we expect it to have quite a strong research function. We expect it to be looking at international data, data from across the four nations in the UK and so on. So, I think that that would be for it to decide, but I would expect it to be putting a lot of their findings, including their technical findings, into the public domain.

  Sue Hackman: We could design tests that would deliver fantastic rates of reliability, but I do not know if they are the kind of tests that we would want because they would be made up of those very small, reliable, atomised kinds of questions that do not deliver a sense of what the child can do and their ability in, as I think the vice-chancellor from Coventry described it, synoptic or conceptual understanding. With regard to national curriculum tests, we do our best with QCA to ensure that a range of skills are tested. There will be some very tight, specific questions and, at the other end of the paper, there will be some wider questions. I think that with any testing system, there is a compromise between having atomistic and reliable questions, and having wide questions that allow pupils with flair and ability to show what they can do more widely.

  Q325  Annette Brooke: I wonder whether you could tell us, now that more and more work is being done on the Diplomas, what you believe will be the long-term future of GCSEs and A-levels. After all, you have put in the children's plan that as long as you have got positive results back on your testing of the single-level tests, that is the way forward. What are your confident predictions, give or take the feedback and piloting of the new Diplomas? What is the long-term future for GCSEs and A-levels?

  David Bell: The Secretary of State made it clear in the autumn that he was not going to carry forward a review of A-levels in 2008, but was going to wait until 2013. The answer is, let us wait and see. By 2013, not only will we have seen the effect of the reforms to A-levels that Jon has described and other changes to GCSEs, but we will have all the Diploma lines up and operational. Do not forget that as we expand the apprenticeships programme, we will see more young people, we hope, following that particular route. We are building a system that we hope will be increasingly good for each of those different qualifications, but that will also provide a wide variety of choice for young people and their families and meet a wide variety of needs. I cannot sit and speculate about what will happen.

  The most important thing, surely, is to have a system of qualifications, tests and examinations that meets the individual needs of every young person but that, at the same time, continues to build the economic and social strength of our nation.

  Q326  Annette Brooke: But you would keep the two routes that Tomlinson thought it would be a good thing to get rid of?

  Jon Coles: Probably the best thing we could do is quote directly from the Secretary of State's statement on the day of the launch of the three new Diplomas and the formal launch of the first five. He said, "If Diplomas are successfully introduced and are delivering what employers and universities value, they could become the qualification of choice for young people. But, because GCSEs and A levels are long-established as well valued qualifications, that should not be decided by any pre-emptive Government decision, but by the needs and demands of young people and parents, schools and colleges, employers and Universities." I am not sure whether we could add to that. We think that they could become the qualification of choice, but that will ultimately be decided by people's choices and the qualifications that they value in future.

  Annette Brooke: I should probably leave it there, although I am tempted to say a bit more.

  Q327  Chairman: I think that we should leave it there. I have one last thing to say to David Bell. There is still a view among teachers and foreign commentators that we still rely on testing and assessment, that the pendulum must start swinging back at some stage to take the pressure off, and that we have gone as far as we can go on testing and assessment. Do you share that feeling?

  David Bell: I think I would be much more concerned if we were sitting here saying, "No, we are prepared to defend everything and we are not prepared to consider any change. Everything must go on as it always has". I hope that you have heard today is that we are very open to the sorts of comments, questions, views and opinions that you have expressed. Much of what the vice-chancellors and the CBI have said in public has been said to us privately, and much of what we have done has been a response to that. I do not accept that we can ever have a system without good and robust national testing and public examinations, the results of which are made available to the public. At the same time, we must meet changing demands, as one of your earlier witnesses described, to ensure that we have the best system.

  Chairman: Thank you. This has been a good session—it could have gone on, but we are late already. I am only slightly disappointed that I did not get a Lancastrian head on the block. Apart from that, I thank you very much.

3   Note by witness: This should read `single-level test' instead of `end-of-Key-Stage-test' . Back

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