Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  Q360  Chairman: You are missing the point. We represent a broad swathe of population in our constituencies and we want the information to be intelligible to people with higher education, lesser education and very little education. We want them all to be well informed. In the way that you present CVA scores, what you have set up is a system that is only understandable to people with higher levels of qualifications. That is unfair.

  Jim Knight: I want to challenge that if I may. I do not think that it is that difficult to understand that in CVA terms, 1,000 is the norm. If you are above 1,000, you are adding value better than the norm. If you are below 1,000, you are adding value lower than the norm. If that is all people understand, then it is pretty straightforward.

  Q361  Mr. Chaytor: Surely, the real point is that the significance of the degree to which it is below 1,000 is unclear. What is the Government's resistance to a simple banding system or a five-point scale, from excellent to poor, to rate a school's value-added performance? Would that not be easier? We use simple banding systems to describe most other public institutions. Yet this value-added concept is a—    

  Jim Knight: A star system.

  Q362  Mr. Chaytor: What parents want to know is to what degree their school differs from what could reasonably be expected. As it presents at the moment, they just cannot work that out.

  Jim Knight: The problem is that you would be lumping lots of different judgments together. We would have constant Select Committee inquiries into whether it was a fair way in which to lump everything together.

  Q363  Mr. Chaytor: That is what the Ofsted report is.

  Jim Knight: The Ofsted report gives a series of judgments under a series of headings.

  Q364  Mr. Chaytor: It comes together under one scale.

  Jim Knight: Yes, the Ofsted report is the thorough, authoritative reflection on a school, whereas, finding ways to lump things together using year by year assessment and attainment tables would make us vulnerable to criticism and questions such as whether we left out soft skills, science, foreign languages and so on. There are many ways of making judgments about a school. You could say the same about a hospital to some extent, but a hospital's performance is rated by inspection.

  Q365  Annette Brooke: Can I ask you to have a look at how informative CVA is for the vast majority of parents? The vast majority of parents do not really appreciate it and do not take it on board. They still see, in a selective system, that school X must be better than school Y, because it has better figures according to raw results. School Y might be doing fantastically well, but that is not the message that comes out.

  Jim Knight: Annette, we would always look seriously at the Committee's recommendations, and I shall look out for that one in particular.

  Q366  Chairman: It is not rocket science. Do a quick little test—anyone could do it. Get the Institute of Education to see how understandable it is. You would not have to take a big sample—you could simply test how many people easily understand it, as Ralph said, and sample by class and educational background. You could do it in a week.

  Jim Knight: I will reflect on the wishes of the Committee.

  Q367  Annette Brooke: Finally, even if the league tables really work and if they convey something or other to parents, you often argue that they are driving up standards. What is the causal link between league tables and the driving up of standards? Do you genuinely have evidence for such a statement?

  Jim Knight: We have discussed this afternoon the nature of testing and the publication of results in tables, and their use in making schools accountable. Part of the debate is about whether the tests are high stakes. Schools take how well they are doing in the tests really seriously, which drives forward their literacy and numeracy priorities. Getting things right in English, maths and science is a priority. There is evidence that such sharp accountability has driven things forward in those subjects.

  Annette Brooke: I shall leave the drilling on that question to my colleagues. You write to your 100 most improved schools, but are they most improved on raw results, on CVA or on both?

  Chairman: Let us move on. Fiona, do you wish to ask a question about the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing?

  Q368  Fiona Mactaggart: Minister, you said earlier that no individual pupil spends more than 2% of their time on taking tests. That might have been a mis-statement: Sue Hackman told us that no one spent more than 0.2% of their time preparing for tests, but David Bell said in writing that that meant taking tests. Do you have any evidence to show how long pupils spend on revision and preparation for tests?

  Jim Knight: I do not have those statistics. Key Stage 2 tests take a total of five hours and 35 minutes in one week in May, so the amount of teaching time taken away so that pupils can sit the test is 0.2%. For Key Stage 3, seven hours and 55 minutes, or 0.3%, is taken away. Those are the figures that Sue quoted. When I recalled that it was 2%, I should have said 0.2%. However, I do not have any exact statistics on the average amount of time anyone spends preparing for the test, which would be hugely variable. With some schools—and I think the ideal is that they would just integrate it into their learning—there would be a certain amount of preparation for taking a test, because it is just good practice to instil in young people the belief that when they are about to take an examination they should prepare for it. I prepared a little bit for this hearing, believe it or not. However, I do not know exactly how the figure might average out across the country.

  Q369  Fiona Mactaggart: Would you be surprised to learn that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority did a survey of primary schools that showed that at Key Stage 2, in the four months before the test, it was 10 hours a week on average per pupil? That is nearly 50% of the teaching time available.

  Jim Knight: I have not seen that research. I do not know whether it is something with which Ralph is familiar.

  Ralph Tabberer: I am certainly familiar with the QCA research. It goes back to what I said earlier about the problems that have surfaced from time to time regarding the possible impact on the year 6 curriculum. That is why we are looking at—and we always listen to questions raised by the profession and by non-departmental public bodies—the impact of the current system.

  Q370  Fiona Mactaggart: What effort is the Department making on this? Of course public examinations require rehearsal and revision—I have no doubt about that—but the Key Stage tests were not originally conceived as that kind of test for pupils. If half the time of a Key Stage 2 pupil is taken up with revision for the test, that is time when they are not learning new things.

  Jim Knight: I shall let Ralph come in on this in a minute, but I dispute that, and would be very surprised if there are young people who are just sat there revising when they know it all. If they are spending some time making sure that when they complete year 6 they have the necessary maths, English and science skills to be able to prosper when they get into secondary and move into Key Stage 3, I do not have a problem with that. I do not have a problem with their being taught the things they need to be able to pass the test, even if that means more catch-up classes, or even if it means a shift in the amount of time being spent on the priority subjects in their final year in primary.

  Ralph Tabberer: I am sorry if I nearly interrupted my Minister, but it was only to be just as quick in disputing the premise that revision is wasted time. It is enormously important that young people are as prepared as possible for Level 4, particularly in English and maths, so that they are ready to access the secondary curriculum. I am not concerned if that is a prime interest for teachers teaching in year 6. We know there is a tremendously strong relationship between pupils who attain Level 4 in English and maths at that age and their results at GCSE, and if we can give more young people access to that level we are sure that they make a stronger transition into secondary schools and are more likely to succeed. The threshold is not there by accident, and I do not think we should treat revision as necessarily a negative.

  Q371  Fiona Mactaggart: I do not do so, but I am concerned about standards. I have only one concern, and it is about standards. There is a balance between testing and standards, and testing is the way in which you assess whether a child has achieved a standard. You might want to anchor a child into that standard, but I am concerned that our focus on testing may—I am not saying that it does, but there is a risk that it will—interfere with the drive for standards. In a way it can become a substitute for standards. For example, Mr. Tabberer, your experience is as a teacher educator and the head of teacher education. Would you say that well-implemented teaching for learning, and that kind of in-teaching assessment, has the capacity to drive up standards faster than the constant testing of children?

  Ralph Tabberer: Yes, I believe that assessment for learning is an immensely important and continuous part of the teaching and learning process. I also believe in occasional external assessments to lift performance and give young people the opportunity to perform at a higher level. Both have a beneficial effect, and I have never said that one is more important than the other—both are of value. The helpful thing in your distinction is that we do not want to see children being drilled so that they can just repeat low-level processes accurately and get marks for that—we are all clear that we do not want that. This is where I turn to the professionalism of teachers, and when I talk to them, I do not hear that they are engaged in that process—they are trying not to drill, but to prepare pupils so that they can do their best in these tests. We have a good balance. The evidence is saying that if there is anywhere in our overall system where we need to invest in assessment, it is in more assessment for learning, so you are right.

  Jim Knight: Which we are doing, with £150 million over the next three years.

  Q372  Fiona Mactaggart: So far, our efforts to implement it across the board have not been as good as they should have been. Is that not the case?

  Jim Knight: We can always do better.

  Q373  Fiona Mactaggart: Let us briefly take this back to the point that Annette raised about the results of tests being used for other purposes. I do not think that most teachers drill pupils, but some do, and my anxiety is that that is partly because we use the tests in the ways that we do. There is a risk—I would like your views on this—that drilling might become more, not less, prevalent in the single level tests, although there is a possibility that it might become less prevalent. However, I would like your opinion on the fact that the research shows that about 30% of pupils at Key Stage 2 are misallocated levels just because that happens. About 15% are allocated a level below that which they should have and about 15% are allocated a level above—I might have got the margins slightly wrong, but that is how I read the research. One anxiety about the single level tests—this is great for the individual pupil—is that once you are through the gateway, you are safe. My anxiety is about pupils getting unreliable success results, although that would be good for those pupils and might motivate them, with good consequences. However, because we use the tests to measure schools, there is a real incentive for teachers to push children through the gateway. I have not seen any evidence that the Department has addressed the damaging consequences of what the evidence suggests is really going on.

  Jim Knight: We are obviously in the early days of the pilot on the single level tests, and we have had only the December round of testing. It is worth noting that we made the decisions about changing the measures on the tests in November, before the December tests were even taken, let alone before the results were known—I say that for the benefit of any media representatives listening. We will see what happens in those pilots, but one thing that was a bit weird about the patterns from the December tests was the number of entrants who were put in at the wrong level. As things bed in, teachers will understand the importance of the assessment of their children's learning and the fact that these are pass/fail tests. There is a big difference from the SATs as they stand, where the examiner makes the assessment of which level the pupil is at. In this case, the teacher makes the assessment of which level the pupil is at, then the examiner checks whether the teacher is right. That changes the terms of trade quite significantly. It puts more emphasis on the teacher's own assessment. That is why assessment for learning is built into the Making Good Progress pilots, alongside one-to-one tuition, progression targets and incentive payments.

  Q374  Fiona Mactaggart: I am trying to refresh my memory about your letter to the Committee. As we saw it only this morning, I might be wrong, but one of the things that you were wondering about—this was on the third page of your letter—was whether part of the reason for the wrong entry might have been that pupils were not being focused and prepared in the way that they have been. I am quite interested in this issue. Let me explain why. I am an MP for an area that has the 11-plus. When it was originally conceived, the 11-plus was said to be an assessment of where pupils were at and not a consequence of drilling and so on. Of course, ambitious parents drill their children extensively. Of course they do—they pay for tutors if they can afford it—because it makes a huge difference to pupils' performance, as a result of which it is not the kind of assessment that it was in the days when I did the 11-plus. I went into school one morning and the exam was stuck in front of me; I did not know that that was going to happen that day. Today, it is quite a different experience. I think it would be a good thing if we could, in the single level tests and in Key Stage 2 tests, make that the norm. It would create a blip in results in the short term, because of the lack of preparation, but it might tell us better truth about what pupils know, and mean that teachers could focus on getting the pupils' understanding strong rather than on getting pupils through examinations.

  Jim Knight: I think I am with you on this. However, I would sound a note of caution, in that I do not want to take the pressure off.

  Fiona Mactaggart: Neither do I.

  Jim Knight: I know you do not. We are explicitly designing this to drive progress for every single pupil, regardless of their starting point, because of the concern that some people have expressed about the current situation, in which, let us say, at the end of Key Stage 2 there is too much focus in some schools on people on the margins of a Level 4 and not on the rest, because that is where the measure is. This is about every single child making two levels of progress within each key stage and being tested when they are ready, so the testing is the culmination of learning when the child is ready to take the test, rather than everyone being pushed and drilled for an arbitrary date in June or May or whenever it is. That feels like a good model to explore in the pilot. In relation to ambitious parents, I think the answer is to try to get every parent as ambitious as the next for their child. I would love an aspect of this to be parents asking at parents evenings or in e-mails to teachers when their child will be ready to take the next test in reading, writing or numeracy, so that there is a bit of a push in the same way as there is with the music grading exam. In the days when my daughter was young enough to take her cello exams, when I saw the cello teacher I would ask when she would be ready for grade 4, grade 5 or whatever. Just that little bit of push in the system for each individual is not a bad thing.

  Ralph Tabberer: I agree entirely that whenever you pilot or look at an alternative approach to assessment, the thing you have to do, as you are suggesting, is look at the changes that causes in teacher behaviour, pupil behaviour and parent behaviour. That is precisely why we want to go through this pilot exercise. When you are looking at a pilot and weighing it against the strengths and weaknesses of an existing system, you are asking yourselves questions about whether it might cause less time in year 6 to be devoted to revision, less time to be devoted to drilling and so on. I think we have to go through a couple of these rounds of the progression tests and look quite closely at whether those are the problems, or whether we get a new set of behaviours. At the moment we are very open to those possibilities. You can always set out a theory that a new assessment form could cause this or that, and there are plenty of people out there with experience of assessment—and some without—who will proselytise for different theories about what might happen. We clearly want, with the progression test, to change some behaviours, say earlier in Key Stage 2—to get some of the questions that are being asked about the progress of all pupils asked earlier in the key stage than may be the case now. If we can make it more obvious that children are perhaps progressing more slowly than we wish in year 3 and year 4, that could be a good effect, but if we misjudge the accountability to the point where everybody feels that they have got to drill in order to prove worth, then we have gone too far. These are very subtle things, but these are the crucial questions that we have got to ask.

  Q375  Chairman: I have to say that your language worries me, because it is you, and then the Minister, who have kept talking about drilling—drilling, driving and pressure. That language seems to me all wrong in terms of the educational process that Fiona is probing on, in the sense that you set up a system that has an enormous amount of testing in it; you incentivise teachers to achieve on that business of testing and being successful; and you seem not to be able to step outside that and say, "But what does this achieve? What do independent assessors, researchers at whatever institution, tell us?" It is an internal world; you seem to glorify testing and believe that it is going to lead to a better quality of education for the children. It worries me tremendously when you talk about it, and when you brush aside the fact that it could be 50% of the time in school spent on trying to get the kids to achieve on the test. In the school where 30% or 40% of children have special educational needs, and there a lot of poor kids, I have a feeling that the percentage in those schools, particularly perhaps the ones that might just make it with extra drilling, would be much more intense than 50%. It worries me that this is not the world that I see when I visit schools—the world that you describe. They seem to be lost in this drilling, driving and pressure.

  Jim Knight: Fiona started it with the drilling.

  Chairman: No; you guys came up with drilling.

  Ralph Tabberer: I have clearly given the wrong impression if you think that we just, in your words, drive this as an internal system. Far from it. We do not just sit in Sanctuary buildings and imagine what we think will be an effective system. We do a lot of work looking at what the research tells us is working, and what is not working. I would say there is an immensely powerful trail of evidence that our approach to assessing has been very effective over 20 years.

  Q376  Chairman: So there is no evidence that the marginal student gets even more pressure to get to that next level? Is there any evidence that those people who teachers think are never going to make the standard are just left in the wilderness?

  Ralph Tabberer: I accept that there are real questions about where the onus of attention goes with any external tested system at the end of a key stage. Again, that is why within the Department we have been so interested to move towards progression as a new model, looking at the progress that pupils make across the key stage. It is just as important to us that a child who is working at Level 1 gets to a Level 3 as that a child who is working at Level 3 gets to a Level 5, through the key stage. Far from being locked into just one approach we are much more concerned with the overall range. Where I perhaps disagree with you, I am not sure, is that I believe that measurement helps us to understand where a child is and gives us a sense of where they are going. It helps to give the parent and the child that sense, and it helps to give the school that sense. That is itself worth having. I think that helps to open up the secret garden.

  Q377  Chairman: Would not a qualified and perceptive teacher give you that?

  Ralph Tabberer: Yes, but when you are trying to use a system also for public accountability, as we are doing, you are looking for a manageable solution. I believe that our system of external testing creates the best possible model. Indeed, in terms of the international investigation of different models, we get a trail of people coming here to look at the way our system works, to look at the power of the data that we have available and to look at the willingness with which we have been able to confront areas of failure—areas of failure for the disadvantaged as well as the advantaged. Indeed, if you look at the recent comments from colleagues in OECD they point to our system as having probably more of the components of a modern and effective education system than any other they know.

  Chairman: You have been very patient, Annette, in getting to your questions.

  Q378  Annette Brooke: I am still rather concerned about children who would only be able to progress one level being ignored. In many cases, it is probably a cause for great celebration that those children do progress that one level. The teacher will be trusted to celebrate that, I guess. Why, on perhaps the easier aspect of going up two levels for children of a certain ability, are there financial incentives? It seems to me rather topsy-turvy, and we may be in danger of not putting enough incentives in the system for children who, however high the quality of teaching, will find it much more difficult to progress.

  Jim Knight: We have yet to announce exactly how the financial incentives within the pilot will work. My inclination is to focus around those young people who have not been making the sort of pace of progress they should, so rather than just paying money for those who you would normally expect to do well, you focus the incentive around those who have not been doing as well as they should, who have not been making the pace of progress that you want and being able to reward those schools—not teachers, but the schools themselves—if they manage to achieve that. We will make some announcements on that fairly shortly. As for those who are making only one level of progress during key stages, obviously there are some with special educational needs where that might apply. It is worth bearing in mind that, as Ralph said, the new system will celebrate as much someone moving from 0 to 2, or 1 to 3, as it will someone moving from 5 to 7. That is a significant step forward in terms of a system that rewards improvement across the whole ability range.

  Chairman: We must move on.

  Q379  Lynda Waltho: Minister, thank you for your letter, although for me it arrived a bit too close for comfort.

  Jim Knight: I have apologised to the Chairman.

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