Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  Q400  Chairman: Some people on the Committee have always wondered why you cannot just have the raw data—the scores that you get in your subjects—and leave it at that. Universities can judge from that; they do not need the A*.

  Jim Knight: We can give that data to admissions tutors. We have said that we will do that, which is fine. The issue is about stretch, as I have said; it is not about differentiation for universities.

  Q401  Mr. Carswell: You have used the word "elitist" several times in a disparaging sense. Is not testing and assessment inherently elitist, because it differentiates and breaks down people's results in a hierarchy of performance?

  Jim Knight: Not necessarily, because a driving test is not that elitist.

  Q402  Mr. Carswell: Between those who pass and those who fail, of course it is. I failed my driving test the first few times I took it—it was elitist, and for people who drove, thank goodness that it was.

  Jim Knight: I have discussed an education system that was designed to separate people in an elitist way. We had a lot more selection, including Certificates of Secondary Education, General Certificates of Education and the rest. A few went to university, and the rest went into unskilled or skilled occupations, of which—this is no longer the case—there were plenty.[2] We cannot afford to have a level of elitism that is culturally built in. Yes, we need to differentiate, but not in a way that makes judgments.

  Mr. Carswell: By definition, it is going to make judgments.

  Q403  Lynda Waltho: I want to wave a flag for the poor old Diploma at this point.

  Jim Knight: There is nothing poor or old about the Diploma.

  Q404  Lynda Waltho: No, I do not think that it is poor, and I want to make sure that it is not ignored. The OCR has stated that in its experience new qualifications take at least 10 years to become accepted and to take root—I am not sure whether you will be pleased to hear that. It has also indicated that in seeking parity with GCSE and GCE, the main parts of Diplomas are increasingly adopting models and grading structures that mirror GCSE and GCE. What assurances can you give us, Minister, that the proposed format of the new Diploma, which I am positive about, will be given time to work and will not be subject to undue interference?

  Jim Knight: As you know, the first teaching will start this September, with the entitlement in 2013 to all 14 of them—we will decide when the entitlement to the last three is introduced. That is a fair lead-in time—it is not the full OCR 10 years, but it is fair. The fundamental design of the Diplomas will not change. We are not going to move away from generic learning, which involves things such as functional skills, personal learning and thinking skills. The voice of the sector skills councils, where we started the process, will obviously be heard very loud in terms of what learning is required for someone to do well in a sector. On additional specialist learning, which is the area of greatest flexibility, there may well be some things that feel very familiar in terms of GCSE, A-level, BTEC and the other qualifications that are part of the landscape at the moment. The additional specialist learning element and the work experience element may well look familiar. We have said that no individual school or college will be able to live with those individual Diplomas on their own. We will have much stronger employer engagement and a style of teaching and learning that is related to the workplace. In assessment terms, some of that may be similar to applied GCSEs, applied A-levels and some of the BTECs—it will be a very distinctive offer—but we will always look for equivalence. We should not shy away from equivalence with GCSEs and A-levels. At the advanced level, we were pleased about the Diploma being worth the equivalent of three and a half A-levels.

  Q405  Lynda Waltho: Just one more point. The supplementary memorandum from the Department states that the Government will consider the future of A-levels and GCSEs "in the light of the evidence". It is clear that both of those qualifications are here to stay. Has the Department's position on the long-term future of GCSEs and A-levels changed?

  Jim Knight: No. The announcement that we made in October, when we announced the three additional Diplomas, was that we would postpone the A-level review until 2013. In the meantime, we will see what the evidence is in terms of the experience of learners, parents, schools, colleges, universities and employers around the qualification landscape. We will continue to invest and reform A-levels and GCSEs in the meantime. We will not let them wither on the vine—far from it. Obviously, we will be putting a lot of energy into making Diplomas a success, but not at the expense of GCSEs, A-levels and, indeed, apprenticeships, which we will be expanding as well. We want to be able to assess them all to see whether they are strong offers for all stakeholders. We will have a review in 2013, and we have no preconceptions about how that will turn out.

  Q406  Mr. Chaytor: Minister, may I ask about the splitting up of the QCA? Will the positions of chief executive at the two new agencies be publicly advertised?

  Jim Knight: We would have to advertise under the normal Nolan rules.

  Ralph Tabberer: With the new regulator, the position would be open, but with the existing QCA in its new form, my understanding is that Ken Boston will be staying on as the chief executive until the end of his term.

  Q407  Mr. Chaytor: How will you ensure that the development agency and the regulator are more independent of the Department than the QCA has been in the past? Earlier, you described the QCA as the "independent regulator", and then qualified that by saying, "Well, relatively independent." What will be put in place that will make it different?

  Jim Knight: The regulator will be a non-ministerial department, like Ofsted, accountable to Parliament rather than through Ministers. The new chief regulator, the chair of the organisation, will be a Crown appointment in the same way as Christine Gilbert at Ofsted. In that respect, it will clearly be more independent than the QCA as a non-departmental public body that is accountable through us and through our budget lines, subject to a remit letter. The position of the development body will be very similar to the QCA's current position: it will not be any closer; it will not be any further away; and it will still perform the development role that the QCA currently performs.

  Q408  Chairman: Would you like the Committee to help you with appointments and screening the eligible candidates?

  Jim Knight: Goodness me, it is very difficult for me to refuse any offers of help from the Committee, but I would have to see the form back in the Department.

  Ralph Tabberer: We would have to consult civil service commissioners, who guide us on this process.

  Jim Knight: There you go; that is the official advice.

  Q409  Mr. Chaytor: So the new development agency will essentially be the QCA reinvented? It will not be a non-departmental public body?

  Jim Knight: It will be—

  Ralph Tabberer: It will remain—

  Jim Knight: Yes.

  Ralph Tabberer: It will remain a non-departmental public body accountable to our Ministers.

  Q410  Mr. Chaytor: Not accountable to Parliament?

  Ralph Tabberer: Well, it will be, but through our Ministers, whereas the independent regulator will not have a route through our Ministers. That is the distinction.

  Q411  Mr. Chaytor: What will the route be for the independent regulator?

  Jim Knight: As Ofsted is now, so not through Ministers but directly to Parliament.

  Chairman: Through this Committee.

  Q412  Mr. Chaytor: Had the development agency been in existence 12 months ago, would a policy such as the introduction of single level tests have been taken up only after advice from the development agency? Had that been the case, would it have been likely to have been introduced over a longer period? The point that I am trying to get at is this. There was an urgency about the introduction of the single level test. Your letter to the Committee mentions that one of the problems was the lack of pre-testing. Is this not almost like the introduction of curriculum 2000, when the lack of pre-testing was one of the reasons for the difficulties?

  Ralph Tabberer: The pilot for the single level test has been agreed and worked on with the QCA from the beginning. The very big difference between curriculum 2000 and the single level test is the fact that it is a pilot. We are making sure that it acts as a pilot. We test it out so that we understand what is going on. We are doing that with the QCA. There is nothing in the timing of any of these decisions that will have changed the way that we approach that or the advice that we would have given.

  Q413  Mr. Chaytor: May I ask about the Primary Review? Could you say a word about the time scale for that, and will it be under the aegis of the new Development and Training Agency?

  Jim Knight: Jim Rose is leading that for us. Most of the support that he gets logistically, in secretariat and personnel terms, is from the QCA. They are doing that together. Jim is working from within the Department, but with the QCA, in that review. We expect some interim advice from him in a few months, and we are looking for him to conclude by the end of the year.

  Chairman: Fiona has a very quick question on creativity. She has a pressing problem.

  Q414  Fiona Mactaggart: I am sorry about that; I said to the Chairman that I would have to leave and that I would not be able to ask you about your welcome announcement on the cultural offer and on ways to assess creativity. Clearly, no one really knows how that needs to be done, and I wonder whether you would share with the Committee your early thoughts on how it is to be done—and continue to share with the Committee what you are going to do?

  Jim Knight: To continue to share—

  Chairman: You had better make it quick, Minister, or Fiona will miss her deadline.

  Jim Knight: It is obviously something that we would be happy to do. We announced last week that we would pilot how this works. We know that there are a number of schools where this already happens. We know that there is a considerable amount of culture already within the curriculum in terms of art, music, dance and drama. We know that a number of schools already do trips to access all of that, so what we need to pilot is how to extend that and use the very positive experience of greater partnerships, informed by the Committee's excellent report, and integrate it with the sport five hours, some of which, as with culture, would be out of school.

  Q415  Fiona Mactaggart: What about assessing it?

  Jim Knight: In terms of assessing how well it is working and the results, I turn to Ralph.

  Ralph Tabberer: We would be very happy to work with the Committee on the approach we take. It is new ground for us, and it is important that we get it right. However, we are not in a position where we have a working model up and running, so given your interest we would enjoy looking at it with you.

  Chairman: Honour is satisfied; thank you, Fiona. David, I am sorry about that.

  Q416  Mr. Chaytor: I return to the question of the independence of the new agency. What interests me is where it is specified, where the separate functions are to be described, and how the Government are going to guarantee that independence and ensure that, at the end of the day, Ministers' influence will not determine the recommendations and the advice of the agency.

  Jim Knight: We will need to legislate to achieve some of this. We can set up some interim arrangements in shadow form, effectively trying to put a Chinese wall through the QCA. Ultimately, much of it will therefore be set out in legislation.

  Ralph Tabberer: I would add that the document Confidence in Standards is out for consultation and it sets out the detailed proposals for the bodies. That will allow you and us an opportunity to look at the careful balances that need to be achieved in order to get the regulator and the agency right. The particular opportunity that it gives us is to make what were robust internal procedures within the QCA the subject of work between the two, so one takes responsibility for development and the other holds them to account. It will now be a much more transparent process, which should allow the public to have more confidence in it.

  Q417  Mr. Chaytor: The new regulator will have responsibility for regulating the quality and reliability of qualifications and assessments, but in terms of the policy surrounding assessment, will he be required to give advice on that or will it come under the aegis of the agency? The specific issue that I put to you is perhaps the question with which we started our discussions this afternoon, that of the multiple uses of assessment. Who will be advising the Government about whether it makes sense to use pupil assessment as a means of holding schools accountable and as a means of informing parental preference? Will that be the role of the regulator or the development agency, or will that stay within the Department?

  Jim Knight: In simple terms, Ministers and the Department will still decide on policy. The new development agency will develop that policy into practice, as appropriate and according to its remit, and the regulator will assess whether or not standards have been maintained as a result. It will be quite important to respect the independence of the regulator. If we started to involve the regulator in the policy development too much, we would be back to where we are with the current QCA, in terms of the confliction that I talked about, if confliction is a word, between its development role and its regulatory role. Therefore, we would be cautious about that. However, we would certainly be asking the new development agency for advice on policy development and then deciding what to do with that advice.

  Q418  Mr. Chaytor: If the new development agency gave Ministers advice that it no longer made sense for pupil assessment to serve so many different purposes, would you be likely to accept that advice?

  Jim Knight: Given that the QCA currently performs that development role, the QCA could give us that advice and we would then decide accordingly. We have not received that advice. I have been fairly robust in my position, so I think that you can predict how I might respond if I received such advice.

  Q419  Mr. Chaytor: Will the legislation be specific in giving the development agency responsibility for advising the Government on the uses of assessment and not just the specific forms of assessment?

  Jim Knight: My familiarity with Confidence in Standards is not sufficient to be able to answer that question, but I can obviously let you know if Ralph cannot.

  Ralph Tabberer: In terms of taking advice, the closest relationship will be between the QCA's development agency and the Department in putting together advice for the Ministers. I think that it would be fair to say that we will also seek the views of the regulator on the moves and their response will be public. It would not make sense just to act and have the regulator completely out of the process. However, we have to guard this process in such a way, as Jim indicated, that we do not cause conflict for the regulator in so doing. Again, I would point to the current consultation as an opportunity for us to tease out these issues. They are very good questions.

2   Note by Witness: This relates to the unskilled occupations, not the skilled. Back

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