Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 328 - 339)



  Q328  Chairman: Now that people have had time to settle down, I welcome the Minister for Schools and Learners, Jim Knight, and Ralph Tabberer to our proceedings. Our inquiry into testing and assessment is getting particularly interesting. We sometimes say to ourselves that we know that we are getting under the skin of an inquiry when we feel that we are more dangerous than we were when we started, because we have a little knowledge. We have had some very good evidence sessions, and we hope that this one will be of even more value than the others. Do either of you want to say anything before we get started?

  Jim Knight: As is traditional, I will not make a statement, because I do not want to delay the Committee. On the letter that I sent to you today and circulated to other members of the Committee, as certain portions of the media have shown an interest in this subject, some clarification might be helpful so that you have more facts to get you beyond some of the fiction that you may have read in the newspapers. The letter sets out the timetable for publishing an interim evaluation of the single level tests in the autumn. In general terms, we are very pleased with the progress of that particular pilot. Obviously, I will be delighted to answer your questions on that and anything else that you want to ask.

  Chairman: Ralph?

  Ralph Tabberer: I have no introduction.

  Q329  Chairman: May I start us off by saying that this testing and assessment all seems to be a bit of a mess? We have taken evidence, which you must have read—your officials will certainly have summarised it for you. We have had so much evidence that shows that people are teaching to the tests and using the tests inappropriately, and for outcomes that were never intended. A lot of people have criticised the level of testing and assessment, and we are looking at whether it is fundamentally effective in improving the life chances of the children in our schools.

  Jim Knight: As you would expect, I do not agree with you that it is a mess. Naturally, I have heard a lot of the evidence. I cannot be accountable for what your witnesses say, but I can offer you a bunch of other people who might say something different. In respect of teaching to the test, there is a yes and a no answer. In general terms, we are pretty clear about our priorities in testing. We want people to focus on maths, English and science and to get them right, which is why they are the subjects that are tested. In that regard, we want people to teach to those priorities. However, the vast swathe of teachers and schools up and down the country use tests appropriately. In order to help those who do not and to improve best practice generally, we are investing £150 million over the next three years on assessment for learning to improve the way in which the tests are used. In respect of the charge that tests are used inappropriately or for too many different things, it could be done differently. As some people argue, you could judge national performance on the basis of some kind of sample test. I am sure that that would be fine with regard to judgments around the national performance of the school system, but testing is about not only that, but parents being able to see how well their child is doing in the school system, pupils being able to see how well they are doing against a national comparator and parents being able to see how well individual schools are doing. If you want to do those sorts of things, some people would argue that alongside sampling you would have some form of teacher assessment. However, using teacher assessment to hold schools accountable would put quite a significant burden on teachers and assessment, so there would need to be some form of accreditation on how the assessment is done to ensure that it is fair and transparent and that it compares nationally. When I look at the matter and begin to unravel the alternatives and think about how they would work in practice, I find that the current SATs are much more straightforward—everybody would understand it. They are used for a series of things, and there might be some compromise involved, but the system is straightforward and simple, and it shows what our priorities are and gives us accountability at every level. I do not think that it is a mess at all.

  Q330  Chairman: If you look internationally, you will see how such a system looks like an English obsession. Most other countries in the world do not test and assess as much as we do. The Welsh and the Scots do not do so, and nor do most of the countries with which we normally compare ourselves.

  Jim Knight: I visited Alberta in November and found that it tests just as much as we do. In fact, we have shifted on the Key Stage 1 test in the past 10 years, whereas Alberta has continued with externally marked tests that are conducted on a single day. Alberta is one, but we could include Singapore.

  Q331  Chairman: My brother and sister were born in Alberta, so I know a bit about it. It is hardly comparable to England, is it?

  Jim Knight: In terms of international comparisons, which is what the question was about, Alberta is out there alongside the usual suspects—

  Q332  Chairman: I meant countries like ours, such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy or the United States.

  Jim Knight: Some parts of the United States, such as New York, do quite a bit of testing. Every education system is slightly different, and it is difficult to draw such international comparisons and say that this or that is exactly the same from one to the other. We have a system of accountability and testing; some countries test, such as Singapore or Alberta, but others do not. We think that we have struck the balance. Ofsted inspects schools, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority independently monitors and regulates the tests, and the Office for National Statistics independently publishes the results of the tests, so the process is perfectly separated from Government. There is evidence that standards are consistently improving as a result of the use of the tests and there is good accountability to parents, which is important.

  Q333  Chairman: The Government's watchword when it comes to education and other policies is "evidence-based". When you look at the evidence, are you sure that the testing and assessment method, which seems to have been uniquely championed in this country, is effective? Do you have any doubts at all about it? Is it successful? Does it give children in our schools a better experience and education than that provided by our competitors?

  Jim Knight: I think that it is successful. When I look at how standards have improved since tests were introduced and since we increased accountability through tests and tables, I can say that they have worked. That is not to say that the situation cannot be improved. The Government are piloting, through Making Good Progress, single-level tests and testing when ready. As we signalled in the Children's Plan, finding that those pilots are working may mean that we can evolve SATs one step further. That does not mean that we want to retreat from tests.

  Q334  Mr. Slaughter: Picking up on what the Chairman has said, if I understood you correctly, you said that in relation to national policy or, indeed, national standards, which is whether overall standards of education and learning are rising, there are alternatives to testing every pupil in every school—in other words, it could be done by inspection, sampling or the like. A valid criticism might be that there is too much testing, which distorts the learning process, and that you could do it another way as regards national results and policy. Are you are defending testing every school on the basis of the effect on that school? Did I understand that correctly?

  Jim Knight: Yes, I think that you probably have understood correctly. It is worth saying that no pupil spends more than 2% of their time taking tests.[1] Assessment, including tests, is and always will be part of teaching. The question then is whether we should have national tests and whether the amount of time spent taking and preparing for national tests is too stressful. I do not buy that. I think that life has its stresses and that it is worth teaching a bit about that in school. I do not get the argument. I visit enough schools where tests are used extremely well by teachers to drive forward and progress learning. In the end, I flatly reject the argument that there is too much testing.

  Q335  Mr. Slaughter: It is the Government, not us, who are thinking of relieving the burden of vivas in foreign languages. Obviously, you are sensitive to the stress on the poor dears.

  Jim Knight: I am delighted that you have brought that up. Certainly, the move that we are making on the oral examination for modern foreign languages is because of not stress, but standards. Ron Dearing has said that hit-and-miss, one-off, 20-minute tests in which you are coached to rote-learn bits of French, or whichever subject is being studied, are not serving us well. Controlled teacher assessment during the course that tests different scenarios in which people use languages is likely to improve standards significantly, which is why we want to do it. It is not because of stress.

  Q336  Mr. Slaughter: I meant the stress on the examiners—the native speakers listening to their languages being mangled in those exams. Let us talk about individual schools. You gave the example of information for parents, so that they can look at league tables and select a school. That is free-market education, is it not? It would aid parents in selecting and migrating to schools, particularly if they have the time, knowledge, access to the Internet and all that sort of business in order to get hold of such information. Is that not part of the postcode lottery for schools or of the segregation or decomprehensivisation of schools?

  Jim Knight: A lot of implicit values are tied up in that. I will not say yes, but it very much informs parents, which is a good thing. We explicitly want to move to a position in which parents choose schools, rather than schools choose parents, and I have debated that with the Committee in the past. We believe in parental choice—we can rehearse those arguments, if you like—but phrases such as "postcode lottery" involve separate issues from whether we should publish data about schools. Quite frankly, if we did not publish such data, there would be an outcry that we were hiding things, and the media would publish them anyway. I think that it is better that we put them out in a controlled and transparent way so that they can be scrutinised by bodies, such as this Committee, rather than leaving it to the vagaries of how newspapers choose to publish them.

  Q337  Mr. Slaughter: Looking at the positive side of that, as far as the Department and the inspectorate are concerned, do you think that part of the role of testing in individual schools is to identify the performance of schools and of the teaching staff within them in order to alert you to failure or underperformance in particular?

  Jim Knight: I write to the top 100 most-improved schools in the country every year. Testing helps me to identify success. I also keep an eye on those that are not doing so well, and my colleague, Andrew Adonis, does the same—perhaps he is the bad cop to my good cop. However, the data help us to manage the system. We are accountable to Parliament and are elected by the public in order to continue the improvements of the past 10 years in our education system.

  Q338  Mr. Slaughter: I suppose that what I am getting at is that if—you might not be with me on this—one of the effects of publishing data is that parents who are savvy enough gravitate towards or even mutate certain schools, which results in more of a division between good schools and bad schools in an area, that would at least allow you, or professional educationalists, to identify underperforming schools and to do something about them through, for example, the Academy Programme.

  Jim Knight: Yes, it allows us to identify areas where we need to intervene. If we did not have the tests and tables, something would be missing from the body of information that we recommend that parents look at when making decisions about which schools to choose for their children, but they should not be seen in isolation. They are very simple and easy for people to understand—they are easier than leafing through Ofsted reports, which we also recommend—although perhaps not as easy as chatting to other parents in the neighbourhood or going to visit the school itself, which are the sorts of things we expect parents to do. However articulate parents are, and however much technology they have at home, those are the sorts of things that we expect them to do when choosing schools for their children.

  Q339  Mr. Slaughter: One aim of the Academy Programme, as I understand it, is to target underperforming schools, particularly in areas of deprivation, and to put good schools—whether new or replacement schools—into such areas. Do you see tests in the same way? Do they enable you to focus resources on areas of deprivation or underperformance, rather than simply to present information to third parties so that they can deal with such things?

  Jim Knight: Undoubtedly, they are an indicator that we use. They are not the only indicator—we, too, look at Ofsted reports and other factors, such as attendance rates, when assessing how well a school is doing—but they are undoubtedly the prime indicator. We have explicitly set targets for the number of schools with 25% or fewer pupils getting five A*s to C at GCSE and we now have the targets for 30% to get five higher-level GSCEs, including English and maths. Ten or 11 years ago, half of schools did not have more than 30% of pupils getting five higher-level GCSEs including English and maths. That is now 21% of schools, but we have further to go. That measure helps us to target schools, and we are doing work on that right now.

1   See the answer to Q 368 for correction and clarification of this figure. Back

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