Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)



  Q340  Mr. Chaytor: Minister, the Department's submission to the inquiry describes the arrangements at Key Stage 1, saying that, "The child will not necessarily recognise a difference between the formal tests and tasks he/she completes for other classroom exercises." If that is important at Key Stage 1, why is it not important at Key Stages 2 or 3?

  Jim Knight: I will let Ralph make a contribution, because he has been sitting here very patiently, but I would say that there is a difference. When you look at the age at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3, there is clearly a significant age difference, and with that, in general terms, there is a difference in maturity. There comes a point when it is appropriate to start introducing young people to the pressures of assessment. Those are pressures that we all live with throughout our educational careers; we have to start getting used to that at some point, and I think 11 is a better age than seven.

  Q341  Chairman: Ralph, I hope that you do not feel neglected. The Minister has said that you have been very patient. Will you catch my eye if you want to say something, and we will welcome you in?

  Ralph Tabberer: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I endorse what the Minister has said. We try to take decisions about assessment that suit the context and the particular teaching and learning environment. We will perhaps look at the use of more controlled assessment and teacher assessment, where they offer us a better alternative. That might, for example, be when young people are younger; there may be more variation in their performance on particular days, and such assessments may be more sensitive. We would also look at the use of more controlled assessment or teacher assessment in areas such as applied learning. There are aspects of applied learning in Diplomas that will not be as susceptible to an external test.

  Q342  Mr. Chaytor: When we get to Key Stage 2, the judgment is made on tests that last about 45 minutes. How does that equate with the Minister's criticism a few moments ago of what is now the old system of language orals? You said, "We want to move away from the hit-and-miss, 20-minute test in which you are coached to learn." How can it be wrong that there is a hit-and-miss, 20-minute test, but right that there is a hit-and-miss, 45-minute test?

  Jim Knight: In respect of the oral examinations for GCSE, those are the qualifications that you take with you through your life. I cannot remember whether I got a B or a C for the oral.

  Mr. Chaytor: I am sure it was a B.

  Jim Knight: Well, I got a C for the written one and a B for the oral or vice versa. I cannot remember which way round it was, but I do remember the oral exam. You carry that with you. I cannot imagine that many people remember their SATs scores—I do not reckon many of us were young enough to take them.

  Q343  Mr. Chaytor: But the tests determine the primary school's position in the league tables and the pupil's self-esteem when they enter secondary school. My question is why are the Government so hung up on the single test at the end of Key Stage 2.

  Jim Knight: It may be that we are not. It may be that if testing when ready and the single level tests prove effective in raising standards, we will be able to move to a position in which you have a number of test windows during a year—there are currently two, but we might be able to develop that further—and it is not necessarily all about how everyone did on a rainy Monday afternoon in English and a rainy Friday afternoon in maths at the end of Key Stage 2; it can be throughout that key stage.

  Ralph Tabberer: I add to that that the judgment we are making is about the context—the type of learning taking place—and an oral assessment looks to us better placed as a teacher assessment rather than as an external exam. In relation to the end of Key Stage tests, there is also an issue in every assessment of manageability. If we go back far enough in the history of the testing regimes, at key stages there was experience of using teacher assessment. That proved, in the early days of the national curriculum, very unmanageable. It meant that we were losing huge amounts of teacher time to moderation, which was not proving terribly effective. It is about trying to judge the best kind of measurement—the manageability of the measurement and the validity of the measurement.

  Q344  Mr. Chaytor: In getting an accurate picture of a child's ability in year 6, is it not more valid to have the result of teacher assessment throughout the year as well as an external test, rather than relying simply on the external test?

  Chairman: What is the point of personalised learning?

  Jim Knight: That is the excitement of the progression pilots. The current situation with SATs is that everyone takes the test and then the examiner decides which grade you are at based on your response in that test, whereas the single level test is a scenario whereby the teacher assessment informs whether the child is ready and what level the child is put in for, so the test is used as part of teacher assessment for learning, rather than sitting alongside it as it does at the moment.

  Q345  Mr. Chaytor: My other question is this. In moving away bit by bit from the regime that was inherited in 1997, will you accept that there is a link between a very rigid testing regime and disaffection and demotivation among children who do not perform well under that kind of regime?

  Jim Knight: I think that it would be a very tenuous link. You see schools that are performing very well in very difficult circumstances. Obviously, part of what they are doing in performing well is that a large number of their pupils are doing well in tests. Why are they doing well? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I think in this case it is getting the behaviour, ethos and atmosphere in the school right, and getting people focused on their learning, which means that they are not disengaged. What then subsequently happens is that they do well in their tests, but my own feeling would be that you would be getting it the wrong way round if you said that because they are not doing well in tests, they are disengaged.

  Q346  Mr. Chaytor: In any high-stakes testing system, 80% pass, but 20% fail. I am interested in whether there is any link between the sense of failure and loss of self-esteem of those who so publicly fail, and disaffection in the early years of secondary—Key Stage 3—which is a major concern of the Government.

  Ralph Tabberer: First I question the premise that these are, in conventional terms, high-stakes tests. We normally talk about high-stakes tests as determining for pupils the school they go on to within a selective system. Within our assessment history, if we go back 20 or 30 years and look at tests such as the 11-plus, those might legitimately be called high-stakes tests for children, because they were so determining of the next stage. We have got medium-stakes tests for our students that allow them to show what they can do and give them and their parents a sense of where they are. They also happen to give us very useful information, as Mr. Slaughter has indicated, for policy development and accountability. The Minister is right to point to the progression tests as an interesting experiment. What we have been keen to do is to offer Ministers alternative approaches. We have listened like you to comments over the years about the possible downside of what you termed rigidity. We have listened to people talking about the possible effect on the year 6 curriculum and the possible effect on the pace of the whole key stage. So looking at a progression test as an alternative, the idea of actually being able to draw down a test to be ready on time for pupils may give teachers and pupils a different environment. We think it is appropriate to pilot that, but we do not think it appropriate to rush for that solution. We want to give Ministers alternative options, so they can deal with just that sort of question.

  Chairman: We now move on. John Heppell will lead us on the notion of centralised control and validity versus reliability.

  Q347  Mr. Heppell: Looking at how the Government are addressing A-levels and Diplomas, people might think that there has been a subtle change, in that whereas we were moving towards greater reliability at the expense of validity, there has been a slight move the other way. Many universities have said to us that people come to them without a sufficient breadth of skills in a particular subject. We have heard from examination boards that, instead of being closed, the questions are now, if you like, opened out, or open-ended. Obviously there is a consequence to that, and I know that such things are finely balanced, but can you confirm that there is a move to ensure that validity goes up a bit in the rank, as against reliability?

  Jim Knight: We want both, obviously, and we will continue to evolve and improve the A-level as we introduce the Diplomas. We are mindful of the criticism, which we have heard from both employers and universities, that people may be well versed in the particulars of their subject, in which they perhaps took an A-level, but they need to do better in terms of some of the wider, softer skills. That is why we are introducing measures such as the extended project into A-levels. That is also why we have introduced personal learning and thinking skills and why the work-related learning that runs through the Diplomas in order to offer what both universities and employers are saying they want more of from our young people.

  Q348  Mr. Heppell: Moving on from that slightly, you now have what is called controlled internal assessment. However, we are told by our advisers that there has always been controlled internal assessment. You have not actually taken the coursework into account in assessing that. You are taking an add-on to the coursework and assessing that. Is that not the case? Are you not interfering, from a centralised position, with what should be a creative process? I understand that you set down the guidelines fairly rigidly in respect of what the controlled internal assessment—the very name says it—does. Is it a lack of faith in teachers?

  Jim Knight: No, I do not think that it is a lack of faith in teachers. Again, we had to design an examination system that retains the confidence of everyone that it is serving and those involved, including the pupils—most importantly—the teachers and parents, the employers and those in further and higher education. We found that an over-emphasis on coursework in some subjects was problematic, so we have moved away from that. The use of controlled internal assessment is, perhaps, a halfway house between the examination hall one afternoon and the continuous assessment of coursework. Ralph, do you want to add anything to that?

  Ralph Tabberer: Again, I think it is a question of looking at different subjects and seeing which is the right design that suits them. There are some subjects for which coursework is a natural or highly desirable assessment method—art, for example. There are other subjects for which external assessments work almost fully. For example, we have moved more of maths into that realm. We have been trying, with the controlled assessments, to create a more controlled environment where it is more likely that the assessments made by one teacher will be replicated by another. That addresses public questions about coursework, as the Minister suggests, and about the possibility that there is variability, which affects GCSE results.

  Q349  Chairman: Is this an endless search for an accurate method of evaluating the teaching and the quality of knowledge that the child assumes? It is endless, is it not? Does it not squeeze out the thing that John is pushing you on: the creativity—the breadth, depth and the imagination of it? The Welsh have got rid of it. Are they struggling because they have got rid of this testing?

  Ralph Tabberer: Any assessment system is a design where you are trying to balance validity, reliability and manageability. You try to get the best design for your whole system. I think that we have been very consistent, actually, with the principles that were set out at the start of the introduction of the national curriculum assessment. We have tried to stick to those principles in measuring and giving parents and pupils information about what they can do. We have made changes when there has been a build-up of concern and we have felt that it has not been possible to answer that. So we have moved when things have been unmanageable. We have not been inflexible. The basics are still there. Again, if we find better ways of assessing, we will put those options to Ministers. I suppose that one of those areas in future will be IT-delivered testing. We should certainly keep our eyes open for alternatives that give us the best balance.

  Q350  Chairman: Is there a horrible generation in the Department that read, as I did as a young man, a thing called "The One Minute Manager", the central theme of which is that, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it? It seems to me that the Department is still desperate to measure all the time. They do not measure so much in the independent sector, do they? That is not the way they get good results, is it? Not through constant measurement.

  Jim Knight: I am a product of an independent school where I was tested an awful lot. That is part of a traditional elitist education, I think. It is an endless pursuit because the economy is ever-changing and we are ever-changing socially. The environment in which schools and the education system are operating is ever-changing, and education has to respond to that. It therefore has to keep changing. The environment that I grew up in and in which I went to school was one in which, if you were lucky, 10% went to university. However, skills needs have changed, as we discussed in other evidence sessions. We therefore need to change the qualifications to respond to that change—and as you change the qualifications, you change the forms of assessment.

  Q351  Mr. Heppell: Have you actually come across problems on the ground? Has somebody that is studying or somebody that is teaching said, "Look, it doesn't work like this. We need to have more flexibility in the way we deal with it"? Are there problems on the ground?

  Jim Knight: Specific problems?

  Mr. Heppell: Problems specific to the controlled assessment rather than just an assessment of coursework.

  Chairman: Ralph, perhaps you should answer that. You used to be in charge of teacher training.

  Ralph Tabberer: I am trying to think of any particular cases where people have brought up additional problems relating to controlled assessment, but I cannot think of a piece that does that. In general, though, I am clear that we do monitor the impact of assessment; we monitor not only the impact on pupils and schools but the opinions of different parties. We keep that in view, and as I tried to say earlier we are willing to change, and when we can we put alternative proposals to Ministers. We think we have something with the progression tests that might give an alternative approach, and Ministers have been quick to say, "Well, let's pilot it. Let us not implement it until we know more about how it might impact." That is all evidence of us being intelligent and open. We keep on looking for improved solutions, but not moving away from the basic principles on which the current model was developed.

  Q352  Chairman: The desire to measure is not driving out the imagination and joy of education?

  Ralph Tabberer: It should not, no.

  Jim Knight: I thought of this Committee when the announcements were made last week around the culture of entitlement and the importance of greater partnership. Similarly, we have a commitment to sport in the curriculum that we are developing, and we have a cooking announcement. Some of these things are not that easily measured. The pilots on culture will test how easy it is to measure the five hours in the curriculum. We are ever-evolving about this. Some things are much easier to measure than others, but the pressure that I was talking to John about in respect of employers and universities around the softer skills is more difficult to measure—but that does not mean that we are not committed to trying to work harder to develop that.

  Ralph Tabberer: Of all the schools that I have visited, I cannot think of one that is immensely creative that is not also interested in the tests and doing their best by them. I cannot think of a school that I have visited that does well in tests that does not have a strong creative side as well. Sometimes we set these aspects as alternatives, but I do not think that that is always fair. There are plenty of schools that manage to do both very well indeed. They are well led, and they know what they are doing. There is plenty of evidence that you can have creativity, a lot of autonomy and a lot of self-determination by teachers and that you can have a properly assessed system that gives parents a good account of what is happening in the school.

  Chairman: Let us drill down into testing and school accountability with Annette.

  Q353  Annette Brooke: I want to look at whether the test is fit for all the purposes that we try to use it for. I do not think anyone would disagree that there should be some form of measurement of pupils' progress. But is not the difficulty that the Government are placing so much reliance on a test that was designed for one purpose but which is now being used to measure whole school performance? Do you not have any concerns about that?

  Jim Knight: If it were the only measure of school performance and the only aspect of accountability, one would have to be concerned that we were putting all our eggs in one basket. But we are not. We have inspection and we look at performance in other areas. We only test a few subjects through the SATs. We are still looking at how people are doing on other things. We also have national strategies working in some other areas. So I would say that it is a critical measure but it is not the only measure. Therefore, I am happy with how it sits.

  Q354  Annette Brooke: Many parents will focus only on this as a measure. Personally, I can feel fairly relaxed that a local authority is looking at the whole school, because it might set off some warning signs that need to be dipped into. However, the majority of parents are not going to dip below what they see in their local newspaper. Therefore, do you not think that this measure is harmful to the idea of parental choice?

  Jim Knight: It goes back to what I was saying before. We do not publish ranked tables; the newspapers choose to rank locally what we publish. I have spoken to various people who work in the media who were a little sceptical about whether they should publish the tables, but when they saw how well rival newspapers sold when they published them they soon leapt at it and published them too. There is no doubt in my mind that if we did not publish the tables someone else would. As I said before, if we as a Department do it, we can be scrutinised; the process is carried out independently using national statistics, and we know that it will be done objectively and fairly, rather than someone who is not subject to as much scrutiny being able to do it.

  Of course, our local newspaper, The Dorset Echo, regularly reports the Ofsted results of schools as and when they achieve them. They usually publish the successes and the pictures of celebrating pupils, teachers, head teachers and governors, rather than those schools that get satisfactory ratings, but obviously they will occasionally run stories on those schools that are not doing so well. I think that those stories, along with what parents say to each other, are as informative of parental choice as the tables.

  Q355  Annette Brooke: I would still disagree that parents have full information. For example, someone told me recently that a certain selective school has 100% five A to C grades at GCSE, and said, "Isn't that fantastic?" That is the perception, is it not, because of the way that league tables are presented?

  Jim Knight: Again, I cannot be accountable for how league tables are presented in every single newspaper. We publish the contextual value added as well as the raw scores. We are now moving to progression targets, so that we are looking at the proportion of schools that progress children through two levels for each key stage. So we will be reporting a number of different things. We are putting a science and language into the indicator, so that all that data will be available in the attainment and assessment tables. However, we cannot tell newspapers how to report the tables.

  Q356  Annette Brooke: May I just dig in to the Contextual Value Added measure? We have had varying evidence on this measure. I think that there was one throwaway comment that it was really just a measure of deprivation. There is also the issue that not all parents will understand the significance of the measure. Is there more that you could do as a Department to make the measure stack up better and be genuinely more informative for parents?

  Jim Knight: I would not say that the measure is perfect, and I will let Ralph give the technical answer on CVA in a moment. However, one of the reasons why I have been pushing on the progression measure is that it is slightly easier for people to get their head round, as to how every single pupil is progressing. So it is not a threshold but something that applies across the board. I think that that will help in respect of the concerns that you raise.

  Q357  Annette Brooke: I would like the answer to my question. However, I would like to pick up on that particular point about progress. An admirable school may have a high percentage of children with special educational needs. Up to 40% of its children may have special educational needs. It is quite likely that those children will not be able to progress more than one level in the standard assessment tests over a given period. If you use that information across the whole school it will add even more distortion to the picture.

  Jim Knight: I am not sure whether there will be any more distortion than there is at the moment. It is a reasonable criticism. When we introduce the foundation learning tier, which can accredit progression and learning below Level 1 in national vocational qualification terms—it is very confusing having national curriculum and NVQ levels—we may be able to look at whether that can be reflected. At the moment, if you have a high proportion of children with SEN, you will not do as well in the raw scores as those schools with a lower proportion.

  Ralph Tabberer: The most important thing is to see the Ofsted inspection as the top of the tree. For parents, who are your concern here, the Ofsted inspection is probably the most rounded, richest and most comprehensive assessment that they will get of a school's strengths and weaknesses. I would always point parents to that assessment as the best thing to consult. When we publish results, we try to ensure that the public can see raw results and that they can look at comparators and benchmarks. We have had a lot of discussion about which way to approach value added. In our consultations on that, we have settled on contextualised value added as the most fair. In trying to publish series of data, we are following the principle of being transparent about all of the analyses so that parents can access the information that they understand or the information that they want. I have to say that we get very few complaints about the testing regime.

  Q358  Chairman: That is because they cannot understand a word of it. You have to understand it to be able to complain about it.        

  Jim Knight: They could complain that they cannot understand it.

  Q359  Chairman: That is true. Come on, look at your site. Get a group of parents to look at the site and evaluate how much they understand the contextual value added score. It is very difficult to understand. Why present it in that form?      

  Ralph Tabberer: Equally, why hold it back? What I am saying is that we know that many parents consult Ofsted reports. We know that in putting those Ofsted reports together, the school, in its self-evaluation, and the inspectors will draw on all those analyses. There is no reason for us to hold back those analyses. What we do is make them transparent.

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