House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
TAKEN BEFORE THE
CHILDREN, SCHOOLS AND FAMILIES COMMITTEE
Monday 28 January 2008
PROFESSOR STEVE SMITH, PROFESSOR MADELEINE ATKINS, SUSAN ANDERSON and RICHARD WAINER
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Children, Schools and Families Committee
on Monday 28 January 2008
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Chairman)
Ms Dawn Butler
Mr. John Heppell
Mrs. Sharon Hodgson
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter, Professor Madeleine Atkins, Vice-Chancellor, University of Coventry, and Susan Anderson, Director, Human Resources Policy, and Richard Wainer, Principal Policy Adviser, Education and Skills, Confederation of British Industry, gave evidence.
Q251 <Chairman:> I welcome the distinguished group of witnesses that includes Professor Madeleine Atkins, Professor Steve Smith, Richard Wainer and Susan Anderson. Thank you for coming, and I apologise for the delay. As you know, for 20 days we will be discussing the European treaty, and that was the start of the voting-it was on a programme motion, I think. I hope that now we will not have any more interruptions for a considerable time. You will be aware that this is our first major inquiry as the new Committee for Children, Schools and Families, and we are very keen to get to the bottom of the questions around testing and assessment. We are particularly keen to speak to the end users, such as the universities and employers.
We always give witnesses a chance to say something to get us started, or they can go straight into answering the questions. You know the topic: is our testing and assessment system fit for purpose? When you wander around the world answering questions about UK education, a lot of people say, "We would like to know more about how our students perform, but not like the United Kingdom, which tests at seven, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18." They go through the catalogue of testing that they are sure that we have. Are we where we want to be in testing and assessment? You can answer that question, or you can introduce yourself and say what you want to say.
<Professor Atkins:> I am Madeleine Atkins, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University. I would like to make two comments on your introductory questions. First, I question whether we have got the balance right between a deep synoptic understanding of subjects at AS and A2-level, as opposed to having a broad range of quite superficial knowledge. As we move our curriculum towards problem-based and activity-led learning, which is very much in line with what the employers say that they want, we are finding that a gulf is opening up in the way in which students are prepared to learn as they come into university.
My second comment is that as we move further towards the knowledge-based society, we find that many young people coming from school and college underestimate the amount of mathematics and numeracy that is required in higher education vocational programmes. I am delighted to see that diplomas will have numeracy as a requirement in the new 14-to-19 diplomas. Nevertheless, I wonder whether we have got the balance right.
<Chairman:> Thank you.
<Professor Smith:> Very briefly, I am here as chair of the 1994 group of research-led universities. As Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, a member of the Prime Minister's National Council for Educational Excellence, a member of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service board and a member of the UK Post Qualification Admissions Delivery Partnership, I am particularly interested in answering questions and discussing issues of fair access and wider participation and the way in which the current assessment regime at A-level supports those aims. Given the nature of our intake. I am also very happy to talk about Exeter's experience with A grades and the prospect of grade A* at A-level, which opens up a series of issues, and also the accuracy of A-level predictions. I am very happy to talk about all those issues as well as the measures that we have to put in place as a university in order to cover the knowledge gaps that we identify in the existing A-level curriculum.
<Chairman:> We invited you as individual vice-chancellors, Professor Smith. Universities UK did not feel that it could add any value by appearing before the Committee on this subject, as it could not get any agreement among its members, which rather surprised us so we thought we would go for individual vice-chancellors instead. I was surprised at Universities UK's reaction, but never mind.
<Susan Anderson:> I will make a comment for Richard Wainer and myself. Our key message is that employers recognise and understand GCSEs and A-levels as high-quality qualifications. They see value in the new diplomas, but they understand GCSEs and A-levels. We have concerns about literacy, numeracy and employability skills, and also about the number of students studying science and maths A-levels, because we are not getting enough young people choosing to study the science subjects at university that employers want. Those are the key points that I would like to emphasise in my opening remarks.
Q252 <Chairman:> I shall go back to the point that I was making earlier and want to question the two vice-chancellors. This morning, I visited Southfields Community College, which is a fascinating place, to look at what it does. It is an extraordinarily interesting, innovative college. I popped into some of the sixth-form courses and, as I usually am, was absolutely amazed at how hard the students work.
We hear vice-chancellors and other organisations saying that they get people who they do not think have the depth or breadth of knowledge that they should have, which surprises me because such visits to schools point me in another direction. I went into an English class where people immediately wanted to know whether I knew Simon Armitage, because I am from Huddersfield, and what I thought of Shakespeare as a poet rather than as a playwright. They were fascinating and stimulating young people.
A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute suggested that students, having worked through sixth form frenetically to achieve good results to get into university, are actually not worked very hard when you get hold of them, and that we have the most easy-going university regime in the developed world. If it is true that they are not that good, why do you not work them harder? Professor Smith, will you answer that?
<Professor Smith:> I will happily answer that. I actually think that university students work very hard, and the evidence supports that. There are, of course, questions about the evidence, but the basic evidence, alongside the number of 2.1 and 1st grades, is the proportion of people completing courses, the proportion of people satisfied with the experience and, crucially, the proportion of people moving into graduate-level jobs.
The HEPI study is a good study, but please note that it talks about contact hours, full stop. I think that it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between being in a lecture theatre in some of the continental countries with 500 people present for an hour and doing seminar and tutorial work for an hour. I think that the HEPI study has limitations because of its methodology, but students at universities in the UK work hard and the results objectively show that.
Q253 <Chairman:> What about the first point? How do they arrive with you? It is a gross term to use these days, but are they oven ready when they get to you in Exeter at 18?
<Professor Smith:> Oven ready might not be quite the right term. Let me put it this way: we need a certain degree of subtlety. I have read all the transcripts for the Committee's previous sittings and think that the key point is that it is neither one thing nor the other. By that, I mean that the students come with skills that are different to those of people who went to university 20 years ago or 35 years ago, when I went to university. They are different sets of skills.
In preparation for today, we asked all the admissions tutors at Exeter what they find. You get two basic sets of comments: first, with regard to the right sets of study skills, they are actually rather well prepared, with the exception of independent critical thinking, which is why the extended project in the diploma looks very exciting; secondly, there are differences in the subject knowledge that they arrive with, especially in some of the sciences. You might wish to push on that a bit more.
In Exeter, for example, the level of maths that the students come with is a major issue. We put on additional maths in the first year from the business school right through to biosciences, physics, engineering and computer science because we do not think that everyone comes at the right level. Equally, in our English school they actually put on additional study skills modules for people in the first year because gaps were identified there as well.
<Professor Atkins:> We would say the same sort of thing. With regard to mathematics, our colleagues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-STEM-would say that the range of mathematics now studied in the sixth form is much wider than it used to be, but that there is less depth, particularly around subject topics such as calculus. For example, for students reading engineering subjects, we have to put on supplementary work so that students-even those with a grade A or B at mathematics-can cope with things like fluid dynamics, heat transfer and engine cycle calculations. That area seems to trip up our inbound students.
I absolutely endorse what Steve has said; there is a requirement for mathematics and numeracy right across the vocational field. Particularly in nursing and professions allied to medicine, we find that students who dropped mathematics at 16, having got their grade A to C at GCSE, forget it. It is not like riding a bicycle. Also, if they have learned maths as a selection of discrete random techniques, they arrive to learn about drug medication, for example, and cannot quite remember which bit to put above which bit when calculating the percentage. That is quite worrying. The amount of additional confidence-building that we have to do with numeracy, as well as the actual mathematics input, is quite considerable.
As with Exeter, we fund a large maths support centre that tests 800 students coming into Coventry University on the induction week and continues to offer drop-in sessions. We see about 2,000 students a term on a drop-in basis. This is a major issue. It is not a problem just in STEM subjects, but in business, nursing and other areas.
I also agree with Professor Smith about academic writing. We find that there are problems in the ability of students to do two things. First, we are having to focus on bringing independent critical analysis to web-based materials or internet-based sources. Students are very able to source materials on the internet from many different places, but are not quite so able to bring critical appraisal to those sources. For example, they get information from "Wiki" and it arrives in the essay without any greater consideration. Secondly, students are often unable to structure a report at length, rather than produce a short piece of writing. They do not always understand that writing is a recursive process that needs to be worked at. Those are some of the area where we have to put in additional time, help and resources to aid students' academic writing.
Q254 <Chairman:> Thank you. That evidence will be familiar to you, Susan. It is the sort of thing that the CBI has been saying for some time.
<Susan Anderson:> Those issues certainly resonate with us. When we talk to employers about graduate skills, more often, they are concerned about the quantity of graduates, particularly in the STEM areas of physical science, maths and engineering. They are in very high demand among employers, not just in the specialised manufacturing or engineering sectors, but in the financial services. Employers are concerned more about the quantity than the quality of such graduates.
Sometimes, an employer from a pharmaceutical firm, for example, will say that somebody has come to them with bioscience or another relevant degree, but has not done the particular bits that they want. It would not take much to fix that. Often, major employers are working with universities-whether in the IT or the pharmaceutical sector-to see how they can get courses in those disciplines that reflect business needs. That is an area where we in business can work more closely with universities and that is happening.
On literacy and numeracy, we are more concerned about school leavers at 16 and 18 than about graduates. I emphasise that when we ask employers for their views on school leavers and graduates it is literacy and numeracy that they are concerned about. We get very few complaints about IT skills. That is rather different from the work force, where there are some issues with IT. Only 2% of employers say that they have any problems with graduates' general IT skills and about 8% say that they have problems with those of 16 or 18 year olds. For whatever reason, in some areas there are very few problems; that is probably because those areas are reinforced by home use. It is important to us, and we have worked closely with the Government, to establish what we mean by basic literacy and numeracy. We are happy to expand on that, as we have in our paper.
Similarly, on the employability skills that employers are looking for, we do not label them in quite the same way as universities do. But we know that young people are getting those skills as we have defined them-self-management and team-working- from their school and university experiences. What they are not always very good at is calling them by the right labels, or being able to talk about and demonstrate how they have worked as part of an effective team on a university project, or become an effective self-manager. Sometimes the problem is with labelling and terminology, rather than the fact that particularly university graduates do not have those skills at all.
Q255 <Chairman:> So, does your organisation aspire for well rounded graduates with a broader competence?
<Susan Anderson:> Our bigger problem is lack of STEM graduates. If we have an issue to address, we are saying that those areas come pretty much top of the list.
Employability skills are also important, but we think that universities, at least the good ones, really get those skills, and understand that employers are looking for people who can apply their literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace. For the university graduates, it is often a question of talking the language that employers talk and understand, and being realistic. For example, if you say that you are going to go into a business environment and be a leader, you will not be a leader on day one. Sometimes, graduates need a bit of realism. Primarily, when we talk about quality, that refers to employability skills, but the key concern is quantity of STEM graduates.
<Richard Wainer:> I would like to add to that. While the quantity of STEM graduates is probably the primary concern in HE, you are right about employers wanting well-rounded people coming out of university. Our surveys show that about 70% of graduate jobs require a specific degree discipline, because employers are looking for a well-rounded person with good literacy and numeracy, and good employability skills.
Q256 <Chairman:> Someone with a diploma?
<Richard Wainer:> Quite possibly. Our members have looked at the diplomas and, in principle, they can see them working. But there are many issues to work on between now and September, and going through to 2013, to ensure that they really are a high quality route for young people, both into university and into employment.
<Chairman:> I am not saying this to take a pot shot at you in the CBI, but some of us who were around at the time thought that the original Tomlinson reforms were rather stymied by the CBI attitude. But, we will come back to that and drill down on it.
What I want to get out of this sitting is whether, if things are not quite as you want them now, is it because of the supply chain, what is happening down there, too much teaching for tests? I see the permanent secretary has just come in and is sitting behind you. Is it something that the Government have been doing over the past 10 or 20 years-not limited to one Administration? Is something in the schools not quite right for giving the right kind of product? Do not answer that now, but, by the end of the sitting, that is what my colleagues hope to be able to drill down and try to discover.
Q257 <Stephen Williams:> I would like to start with some factual questions to the two vice-chancellors. What is the social composition of undergraduates at Exeter and Coventry? How many, as a proportion, come from private schools, and how many come from the lowest socio-economic group?
<Professor Smith:> At Exeter, 74% of undergraduates come from state schools, and, I would need to be absolutely sure, but I think that 17.2% come from the lowest socio-economic groups.
<Professor Atkins:> At Coventry something like 98% of undergraduates are from state schools and something like 39% are from black and minority ethnic groups. Depending on how the socio-economic indicators are cut and which indicators are used, the figures are 37% to 47% in relation to that. I can give you the exact figures for the record if you prefer.
<Stephen Williams:> Flipping the figures around, 26% of undergraduates at Exeter are from a privately educated background compared with 2% at Coventry. How does that fit in with the targets that the Office for Fair Access sets you as institutions? Presumably Coventry is meeting them comfortably?
<Professor Atkins:> We exceed our benchmarks, yes.
<Professor Smith:> You will be pleased to know that Exeter now exceeds its OFFA benchmark. When I arrived five years ago, there were 66.9% from state schools and, from recollection, the OFFA benchmark by 2010 will be 73%. We are ahead of that, which is a deliberate policy of the institution.
Q258 <Stephen Williams:> I guess that for some subjects your admissions tutors have an over-supply of good candidates coming through. How do you differentiate between those candidates? Is it from their predicted grades or do you interview people?
<Professor Smith:> We have 24,000 applicants-we are 12th in the country on applications by place. We do not interview everyone because it would be practically impossible to do so. We take predicted grades. An important point about predicted grades is that 67% of grades predicted are accurate within one grade either side. For a student who is taking three A-levels, that means that predicted grades are not perfect. However, out of all A-levels, 84% of predicted grades are accurate within two grades either side. In a sense that is pretty accurate and we use those. The problem we have-different institutions will have different problems and Madeleine will have one story and we will have another partly reflecting our hinterland-is that the crucial determinate of all the issues you are putting your finger on is the entry grades required. As you know, 25% of students get an A and 4% get three As.
Q259 <Stephen Williams:> Out of the whole population?
<Professor Smith:> Out of the whole population of 616. Those figures stand. The problem is, in some major areas of work, the average entrance grade is A, A, A. Thus a major issue is how to discriminate between the applicants who have three grade As. Of course, as you also know, 31% of students who get an A come from the independent schools sector even though they educate only 7% of the population. Going back to Susan's point, in the shortage subjects-in the STEM subjects and in some of the languages-well over 50% of As come from the independent schools sector. We have a very nice dilemma to deal with. As an institution, the more we use A-levels and predicted A-levels, the more we move towards certain social groups.
<Professor Atkins:> There is a slightly different picture at Coventry. First, our ratio of applicants to places is something like 4:1 this year. We use predicted grades as the basis on which to decide whether or not to make a standard offer for the course. We find that very low predicted grades correlate with difficulties in completing the course and with drop-outs. We find that there is less correlation between medium and good predicted grades and the ultimate outcome of degree classification. Over the last four years, as A-level grades have gone up, we have raised our grade ask. To give you a precise example, four years ago, for business studies we would have been asking for something like 160 UCAS tariff points. We now ask for 260 UCAS tariff points. That is a change over a four-year period. We put most weight on the predicted grades and actual grades achieved at GCSE and AS. We obviously look with care at the reference and at the personal statement, but the predicted grades and actual grades carry the most weight. We find that the predicted grades where there are external and independent assessments, such as AS and A2, are more accurate for our purposes in predicting whether the student will do well on the course than some of the vocational qualifications, where there is a much higher proportion of internal assessment and there is not necessarily the same guarantee of coverage of the syllabus. We find that GCSE, AS and A2 are better predictors for our purposes, but we do not differentiate our standard offer; once we decide to make an offer, it is the standard offer-we do not differentiate by board or widening participation category.
Q260 <Stephen Williams:> Let us take a practical example. In either institution, I am sure that there is a subject you could cite-perhaps you have 20 places for English and you get 80 or 100 applicants, all of whom actually meet your entrance criteria, whatever they are. How do you then select which students will be admitted to Coventry or Exeter? Do you interview at that point? What other criteria do you look at?
<Professor Atkins:> For those subject areas where we are a selecting institution, for example in design, which is one of our major strengths, we look at portfolio. We audition, interview and require portfolio evidence, and that would be the major way in which we would discriminate at that point. In other subject areas where we are a recruiting university, we will make the standard offer.
<Professor Smith:> At Exeter we use A-level grades to drive up A-level grades/UCAS tariff points as the way of discriminating. The problem, therefore, with many of our subjects, comes when we have a large number of people who are predicted to get three As. We will at that point use the personal statement. We will take into account school performance because that actually is quite a good indicator of where the person fits in that group, but really, of course, every university has some courses for which it selects and some for which it recruits, but for the vast majority of universities, there is always room to move by upping the offer each year. Similarly to Coventry, we have moved our standard offer now so our intake comes in on average with about 395 UCAS tariff points, which of course is three As at A-level and a bit more.
Q261 <Stephen Williams:> Professor Smith mentioned in his introductory statement that he was involved in a PQA group. What difference do you think that that would make to applicants, if their A-levels were certain rather than predicted? Would it make your admissions tutors' jobs easier?
<Professor Smith:> It is a great example of a nice technical fix to a problem that actually ends you up in another problem. PQA looks very attractive-what could be fairer than someone coming to admission with their grades? The difficulty is that that militates against widening participation activities. We find that a lot of the issues that we have in driving up the percentage of students coming to us from the lower socio-economic groups is a lot of painstaking work-over two years often-with the school, encouraging them to come and visit the university. Some 68% of our widened-participation of students come from our partner schools in the south-west, which means that we have at least two to three years' engagement with the students. Our worry is that PQA might seem technically nice, but what it might do is specifically disadvantage those who have not got the confidence. The ultimate thing that you find with people's choice with A-levels is a large percentage of students who could go to institutions that demand higher grades but who chose not to because of lack of support, lack of aspiration and lack of ambition. I think that PQA could, if we were not careful, make that problem more difficult.
Q262 <Stephen Williams:> I know that widening participation is probably the remit of the other Select Committees rather than this one, but none the less we have discovered already that 9% of people get three As at A-level and a significant proportion of those will come from state schools. At least they would be known, I suppose, at the point of application, and maybe they could be sought out by some universities, rather than waiting for them to apply, so perhaps the dynamics would change.
I will ask a final question on A-levels and one more question about the introduction of the A*. Do you think that that will enable you to differentiate between top-level candidates, or will it lead to a new set of problems?
<Professor Atkins:> On the face of it yes, of course, it gives us a greater degree of discrimination. The extent to which certain kinds of school will be able to coach for the A*, as opposed to more general FE colleges, which may not have that facility or staff who are as able to coach in that way, remains to be seen. I have to say that, for example, in mathematics, where the A* will be on core 3 and 4, as I understand it, we will welcome that in mathematics itself and the subjects that require mathematics at A-level. It will mean that we can see how students are doing with the more difficult mathematics. At the moment, because many repeat their AS modules in order to pump up their marks in the first year of the sixth form, we find that the ultimate A-level grade in mathematics can hide a grip that is not that good of the more difficult subject matter in the second year of the syllabus.
<Professor Smith:> The core issue is the distinction between people getting As and Bs, Cs and Ds, and Madeleine referred to that earlier. That is a very good predictor of their ability to cope. A* will undoubtedly allow us to introduce stretch and to have another tool to measure. However, the core issue from the report that we published in the group that I chaired last week is that the predictions are that 3,500 people will get three A*s, 11,000 will get two A*s, and 29,000 will get one, compared with the 24,000 who get three As at A-level now.
The issue between now and A*s coming in is to make sure that we do not see a move up from 31% of As coming from the independent school sector, because as Madeleine has just said, one worry that we have all got, which I shall pose as an open question, is: which schools do you think might decide that their job is to coach people to make sure that they get the A*? That would be a very unfortunate outcome if, in three years' time, we were sitting here saying, "Oh gosh. A lot of the A*s have gone to the independent school sector." What does that do when universities come before you again, and we talk about widening participation? Universities that are pushed to having as many A*s as possible are clearly going to run into that issue.
Q263 <Stephen Williams:> One final question-we have talked a lot, but it is my fault because I have asked the questions. We have talked purely about A-levels so far. Of course, a lot of people applying to university at the moment, and hopefully in future as well, will have other qualifications, such as the new diploma, the Baccalaureate, and so on. How many people from both your institutions come in with anything other than an A-level, and are their success rates at application any more or less than with an A-level?
<Professor Atkins:> I cannot give you the exact proportion, but I can find it out for you and let you have it.
Q264 <Stephen Williams:> In general terms.
<Professor Atkins:> In general terms, we accept a high proportion of students who have vocational qualifications, often with one A-level, and sometimes just vocational qualifications. We also take, as you would expect, a fair proportion from access courses. We find that the commitment to study and to be successful is an enormously important part of predicting whether or not those individuals are going to be successful. There are some aspects of vocational qualifications that fit well for the kind of assignments that students have to do with us, and there are some that do not. The main problem is one of coverage. It is often quite difficult for us to know the extent to which a particular syllabus has been covered on some of these vocational qualifications. There are knowledge gaps and inconsistencies from college to college, and often school to school, so we have to do a little more work in getting all students to the same base point. That does not mean to say that they are less good as qualifications; just that they put a slightly different requirement on to us in order to be successful with those students in the first year.
<Professor Smith:> At Exeter, well over 90% come in with A-levels. The interesting finding that we have is that those who are coming in with the International Baccalaureate do better in firsts and 2.1s than the average, by about 6%, and no IB student has yet dropped out of university. We think that that is worth noting. However, because we need to spend time supporting the Government's agenda of reaching out to people from backgrounds that are under-represented in HE, we are enthusiastic supporters of things like diplomas, and we will be taking people with diplomas, and we want to go down that route. Also, as was announced today, we will be working with Flybe as one of the companies on this new skills training, precisely because we have got to attack the problems across the piece. The fundamental problem in the UK is the percentage of kids who leave school at 16 without five GCSEs grade A to C, which is currently 54%. If you read Leitch, you see the problems that those kids are going to have in future.
Q265 <Lynda Waltho:> I would like to speak directly to the CBI. You will be receiving school leavers, and they will have a range of qualifications: A-levels, the Baccalaureate, national vocational qualifications. Do your members like that, or would it be simpler if there were one qualification to choose from?
<Susan Anderson:> Clearly, GCSEs and A-levels have a good track record. Employers understand what a GCSE grade C in English and maths means. They know that it delivers a certain standard of literacy and numeracy, and, similarly, they know what an A-level means. In the case that Steve and Madeleine were talking about, where a young person presents themselves for employment with three As at A-level, that is not a problem for employers because we interview people. We interview everybody and would not offer someone a job without doing so. We have no problem distinguishing between able people because we interview them. As people get older and more experienced, their A-level or degree or their level of qualification and experience is supplemented by all sorts of work experience.
Employers are used to GCSEs and A-levels. That said, many companies, such as those in hospitality, catering or hairdressing, could see real value in vocational diplomas. That is why we have supported vocational diplomas. We think that they enable young people to realise how to apply their literacy and numeracy skills. If you can see how that will be applied, you can see how important it is. So, yes, for employers in those sectors, the diplomas will be valuable qualifications, as long as it does what it says on the tin-that is the key test for employers. However, because we always interview, we do not have a problem differentiating in the way that our universities do, as they frankly do not have the resources to interview every candidate.
Q266 <Lynda Waltho:> What about the original outline for the diplomas as being more useful? Carrying on the Chairman's point about the possibility of the CBI possibly stymieing the original outline-what would be your answer to that? Did the CBI stymie the original diploma?
<Susan Anderson:> If I can return to my opening remarks, we said that the CBI's priority was to raise standards of numeracy and literacy, particularly at 16 but also 18, and to raise the number of students doing STEM degrees. That was the most important priority for us. We felt that the upheaval of replacing GCSEs and A-levels with a new, untried and untested diploma did not seem to be the right focus when we had so many employers saying that they were concerned about the literacy and numeracy of our young people, particularly those who leave school at 16.
The strategy that has been undertaken, to develop the diplomas and do that in tandem with GCSEs and A-levels, has been the right one. As my colleague Richard said, we now have the diplomas. We have good diplomas and those employers who have been closely involved in designing the curricula are satisfied that those diplomas will deliver the skills and competences that employers need in those sectors.
We must ensure that the new system, which has been designed to deliver the diplomas, teachers with specialist skills and the coming together of the colleges and universities, does deliver. There are some big asks there. We feel confident that they will deliver in the various areas where they are being piloted and trialled, but there are concerns about delivery. Therefore, it was entirely right and appropriate to have a twin-track approach: to retain A-levels and GCSEs as well as to develop the new vocational lines of diplomas. It was absolutely the right thing to do.
Q267 <Lynda Waltho:> What about today's announcements-somewhat disparaging in some cases-about what are called "Mcqualifications"? You referred to the Flybe input. What is your view on that? Will that be another complication, or does it show less confidence in the system that you believe your members have?
<Susan Anderson:> I will be absolutely clear: these are not A-levels and GCSEs; they are workplace qualifications and as such they will be very valuable. Organisations that provide high-quality training such as Flybe, Network Rail and McDonald's, have been delivering very effective training. But part of the problem-this is a common problem in business, where we are spending about £33 billion on training every year-is that only about a third of that training is recognised by qualifications. The qualifications do not reflect the needs, the competences and the skills that business needs. What is happening in a number of initiatives is that the qualifications are reflecting the business needs rather than the qualifications being out here somewhere and not being helpful either to employers or to their employees of whatever age.
So they are very different. Of course we need to ensure that quality is assured, and the various organisations and companies are going through very comprehensive quality assurance and will have to meet exactly the same criteria as an Edexcel or a City and Guilds. That is an important point to make, but the point that I cannot emphasise enough is that they are delivering workplace skills to meet workplace needs. Therefore it does not matter whether they are 16, 18 or 60; a person who arrives with a good qualification reflecting business needs will always be employable. That is our key objective in this initiative.
Q268 <Fiona Mactaggart:> We have had a bit of evidence that suggests that what our present examination system tests is people's capacity to pass those examinations rather than what I think Professor Atkins was at least hinting at, when she referred to a lack of synoptic understanding of subjects among some of the students who enter Coventry. I am quite interested in an issue that was raised in the CBI evidence and which reflects that. Does our present testing system at A-level and elsewhere properly enable teachers to teach concepts and students to reflect them? If not, what would you change?
<Chairman:> Who is that to?
<Fiona Mactaggart:> Professor Atkins, I think. She walked into this in her earlier remarks.
<Professor Atkins:> What I was hinting at was, indeed, a possible tension which we feel is potentially developing between an assessment system through the school period of a young person's life, where there is a great deal of teaching to the test and the ability to repeat AS modules, in particular, again and again to try to improve on grades, and what we would wish to provide as a university-level education. In vocational courses in particular we are trying to achieve graduates who are very good indeed at problem solving, with messy, real-life problems. That requires a deep understanding and deep learning, and the ability not just to have a selection of techniques that you have learned by rote and learned to apply by rote, but to select the appropriate tools and methodologies for that particular problem because you can understand the connections between them and you can see that that might well be relevant in trying to tackle the issue that is the subject of your group work, your assignment or whatever it might be.
We are slightly anxious that the atomisation of AS/A2 and potentially of diplomas-although the extended project will be extremely helpful there-means that some students arrive with us believing that their university life will be chunked up like that as well and that we are going to teach them to the test, whereas we are taking live projects from employers, business and the private and public sectors and encouraging them to work in teams on that kind of activity-led curriculum. They find that transition quite difficult. It does not mean to say that that they cannot do it, but it does mean that we have to teach in a rather different way to begin with in order that that synoptic understanding is developed and that understanding of connections between tools, techniques and methodologies is really in place.
Q269 <Fiona Mactaggart:> Does the CBI want to say anything about that?
<Richard Wainer:> Our members have not raised that concern with us. As Susan said, their issues are about ensuring that young people are literate, numerate and employable. With support from the former Department for Education and Science, we looked at exactly what is meant functional literacy and numeracy. What skills, activities and tasks do they want young people or any of their employees to be able to perform to the basic level? We defined literacy and numeracy and we are glad the Government took that up and that they are now developing functional literacy and numeracy modules to be included in the GCSEs and the new diplomas. Their main concern is making sure that young people can exhibit those competencies.
Q270 <Fiona Mactaggart:> I wonder whether that is one of the reasons for the shortage of students succeeding in the science subjects, because they are linear subjects, where prior understanding is very often required in order to do further work. That is reflected in what Professor Atkins was saying about anxiety and about people beefing-up the first bit of their AS results and having a grade that overall does not reflect their real capacity in mathematics, for example.
I am concerned that physics, mathematics and modern foreign languages are all subjects in which the present way of teaching to the test might not help the development of students' understanding of that subject. If that is the case, it could be a reason for the low number of entrants. If you think there is any truth in that, what would you do about it?
<Professor Atkins:> We would say rather less testing through the sixth form years and the nature of the testing to be more problem-based and synoptic rather than chunked up into units, with just that bit of knowledge tested and then put to one side.
<Professor Smith:> Very briefly, I think the issue goes back a lot earlier. A lot of work must go on about what happens pre-14, when students make choices about what they are studying. Our concern about A-levels is that they tend to benefit the middle class because those parents know how to make sure their children are re-taking the modules, so you see an effect there. The problem we have with A-levels is that students come very assessment-oriented: they mark-hunt; they are reluctant to take risks; they tend not to take a critical stance; and they tend not to take responsibility for their own learning. But the crucial point is the independent thinking. It is common in our institution that students go to the lecture tutor and say, "What is the right answer?" That is creating quite a gap between how they come to us with A-levels and what is needed at university.
<Fiona Mactaggart:> May I ask Susan Anderson that question?
<Chairman:> We are running late because of the Division. I will therefore ask my colleagues to speed up a little, because we are still on section 1.
<Susan Anderson:> I want to go further back than A-levels. When we asked our employers what they understood by literacy and numeracy, some of it was pretty fundamental stuff. Some workers who come into the workplace cannot do mental arithmetic, do not know their multiplication tables and cannot work out fractions and percentages, but those things are easy to test. Sometimes schools assume that having learnt those things once it is for ever in the brain, but that is not always so.
Many companies tell us that people cannot spot errors or rogue figures because they cannot do mental arithmetic. Those are things that you can test pretty accurately and, linking to the diploma point, if you can apply them and understand why they are applied and see why they are important it makes them more relevant. That is especially so if you can apply them in a construction or a retail environment, for example, if children know that they want to take that particular vocational route. Those skills are pretty basic and if children are not getting them right at 16, 14 or 11, that is a good indication for employers of whether schools are getting the basics right.
Q271 <Fiona Mactaggart:> I wonder whether the responses that Professor Smith and Professor Atkins gave imply that we should not allow retakes for part 1 of AS-levels.
<Professor Atkins:> Some universities do not permit that. I think I am right that some medical schools do not permit the retake mark to be included, but that would have to be checked. There is concern about this culture.
In a sense, you are saying that students work very hard in sixth form. They absolutely do and that is partly because tests come up every three or four months. The pressure for those tests is enormous. In the first year of sixth form, students are told that they have to get close to 100% in maths because next year they will not get such a high mark and they have to get their average up. That is an enormous pressure.
We do not doubt the amount of sheer hard work that is going on. However, that would perhaps be better directed if students were saying, "This subject is really exciting; we have time to think and to get enthusiastic about it," rather than, "We have to do another test paper on Friday." There does not seem to be as much time to explore the subject as there used to be.
<Professor Smith:> That is why a lot of universities do additional specialist admissions tests that measure competence. At our university, we use several of the major national tests. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is aware of this problem. There are proposals to reduce significantly the ability to retake too many things. I would personally welcome that, although it is not as easy as it sounds at first. Clearly, it is good to allow students to improve their grades by increasing the work load and retaking exams. I think that there is a difficult balance to find on this issue.
Q272 <Mr. Heppell:> I have a brief question. There is a big demand for students studying STEM subjects, and particularly for science graduates. You seem to be saying that we should tackle the problem earlier on in school, with more people taking triple science and so on. Could this be part of the problem? I think that this is more of an issue for the CBI than the universities. Perhaps employers do not give enough status and reward to people in those jobs. If they were getting more rewards, those jobs would be more attractive. At some stage, people are making choices. Would they be more likely to make choices towards science if they thought that the rewards were better?
<Susan Anderson:> Can I answer that question in two parts? First, the starting salary for someone going into the City is about £38,000. The sorts of people who can work for large investment banks or large accountancy firms are engineers and physicists. We need physicists and engineers in manufacturing, but they are also in demand in occupations and professions that need highly numerate people. On average, the starting salary of an engineer is about £24,000. Compare that with the starting salary of somebody with a general arts degree. They could not do those jobs. They might get very good jobs, but they will be in sectors such as retail, which ask for general graduates.
Graduates in physics and chemistry are getting very good starting salaries. The problem is that there are not enough of them, so employers in the engineering sector see a number of potential recruits going off to investment banking. I do not think that that is a bad thing. It tells us that we need more STEM graduates, not that people in engineering ought to pay them more.
Secondly, you are absolutely right that we in business need to get those sorts of facts out to young people so that they are aware, when making their choices at 14, 16 or 18, of the very well-paid jobs that are open to those who do STEM degrees. Employers must convince students that they offer good jobs and convince able students that they might like to do an apprentice programme rather than a degree.
<Chairman:> I will make myself very unpopular because we only have two more sections. We have covered some parts of the other sections, but we must move on. I take your point about needing good mathematics to go into the City; I understand that you have to count in French up to 4 billion, at least, to qualify these days.
Dawn, you are going to ask some leader questions on the knowledge and skills deficit.
Q273 <Ms Butler:> Some of this might have been answered in the first section, but, in the CBI report, you have said that too many people leave school without necessary literacy and numeracy skills. Does the current qualifications system for school leavers provide sufficient opportunities for candidates to equip themselves with the skills and attributes that business people or universities are looking for?
<Susan Anderson:> As we have said, we have sought to feed into the design of qualifications by defining what literacy and numeracy means in an employment situation. We think that a basic level of literacy and numeracy probably equates to a level 1. So, the new functional skills elements of the diplomas, GCSEs, and A-levels will help employers to have some confidence that young people are coming out with basic literacy and numeracy skills. However, that is not enough. We must have, as employers, the equivalent of a grade C in English and maths. We must have much higher standards of literacy and numeracy than the very basic levels that we have talked about.
I think that we have seen progress over the last 10 to 20 years in improving literacy and numeracy levels, but we are saying that they are not anywhere near where we would want them to be. When only 54% of school leavers have a grade C in both English and maths, we cannot afford to be at all complacent in looking at what is happening with literacy and numeracy. There are improvements, but it is the rate of progress that we have more concerns about.
Q274 <Ms Butler:> Do you think that the current plans will improve the rate of progress for school leavers?
<Susan Anderson:> It is very important that we are measuring what is happening so that we know how many children get A to C grades in English and maths. It is important that we measure schools according to that key target. The literacy and numeracy modules for the new diplomas will help, and the fact that they are being delivered in an applied way will help more young people to see the value of those essential skills.
Q275 <Ms Butler:> Professor Smith, I see that you are agreeing?
<Professor Smith:> Absolutely. Diplomas provide a great opportunity of another route to attain those skills, which appeals to students who might be put off by the "academic route". Diplomas are a very good attempt to deal with that, because they are designed with the involvement of employers, so skills are relevant. It is another way of trying to deal with the 54% of school leavers who do not leave at 16 with five GCSEs at grade A to C. As the Leitch review pointed out, the jobs for those people will simply not be there by 2020. I see diplomas as a very good way of creating parity of esteem, but by a different route.
Q276 <Ms Butler:> You talked earlier, Professor, about those people who have A*s being able to develop personal and study skills further. Do you think that diplomas will also help young people to develop them?
<Professor Smith:> The truthful answer is that we have to wait and see. The good news is that with everyone-employers, universities, colleges and schools-being involved in the design of the diplomas, there is a good opportunity for awareness of those matters. The skills modules and sections of the diplomas offer a clear indication that that is on the agenda from the start. So, with regard to design, it is hopeful that those people have been involved from day one and are trying to achieve those ends. Clearly, we will not know whether they have succeeded until the first people complete the diplomas, but they are being designed very much with meeting that deficit in mind.
Q277 <Ms Butler:> Do you think that anything could be added to the design to make us feel more secure that we are equipping young people with those study skills?
<Professor Atkins:> From what we have seen so far-it is still early days for the diplomas-some of the diplomas have got the mathematics right. The engineering diploma is an example of that, as is the manufacturing diploma that is coming through at the moment. I am not sure how widespread that will be in the other diplomas as they are developed. The point that I would make on the IT side is the one that I made earlier: it is not that young people need greater facility with IT, but that being able to appraise IT sources critically will be increasingly important, whether in employment or higher education. I am not sure that the diplomas have quite pinpointed that skill as important for the future.
Q278 <Ms Butler:> That is interesting. Thank you.
My final question relates to the CBI's report, which states that employers often find that they need to remedy deficits in the basics. Do you engage in any remedial activity to bring school leavers up to the necessary standards after entering university or a programme-that question is to all on the panel?
<Chairman:> One from each group, because we are running a bit late.
<Richard Wainer:> Our surveys show that around 15% of our members have to provide remedial basic skills training. Although that is probably through skills for life courses, which the Government provide, there is certainly a lot of frustration among our members about having to provide that sort of training.
<Professor Atkins:> Yes.
<Professor Smith:> Yes.
<Chairman:> As I listen to this, I am thinking about how some of your members go to the media and say that children who have not got A to C in mathematics and English are illiterate. It is not true, is it? I sometimes think that members of this Committee should sit down to take the tests to see what our levels are and bring us back to reality. I would be interested to know what my own skills are in that department-I was never any good at maths.
Q279 <Annette Brooke:> Picking up on that point, could you please clarify whether the CBI's members are still concerned about the literacy and numeracy skills of those who have A to C in maths and English, and will they have what you require if they have their five A to Cs?
<Susan Anderson:> Generally, the answer would be yes, but perhaps it is a bit similar to what we are saying about engineering. For some employers-engineering is a good example-we might well find that they need more depth when it comes to particular engineering applications. That sort of issue can arise. The other thing that I would say from the employer community is that employers are already always training people, whether on or off the job. Therefore, it is not that you have put those skills in a box and never used them, but they are always being applied by people in their work places.
Q280 <Annette Brooke:> Do you have particular concerns about the lower grades of GCSEs, which is a qualification that you want to carry on with? Are we not providing what would be best for the individuals who are going to get Fs and Gs?
<>Susan Anderson: As Professor Smith said, many of those individuals might find that a diploma is a much more appropriate and engaging type of qualification. At the end of the day, however, literacy is literacy and numeracy is numeracy. They have not changed much over the last 20 years. IT has changed considerably, but I do not think that employers demand the same skills for IT. In some cases, employers' demands are going up because, as Steve has said, there will be fewer jobs for people with very poor literacy and numeracy skills. Employers' expectations are rising, but they do not necessarily think that standards have been slipping or that qualifications are not now worth what they were 20 years ago. Certainly, expectations are rising.
Q281 <Annette Brooke:> I think that that is a really important point, which I will come back to in a moment. I just wanted to look at the table that was in your paper, which shows employers' dissatisfaction with school leavers' key skills. In fact, self-management scores more highly than dissatisfaction with basic literacy and numeracy. What is wrong with our current examination system that leads employers to be dissatisfied with self-management skills?
<Susan Anderson:> I have to say that self-management skills can be sorted out pretty easily in the workplace. Employers do not see basic literacy and numeracy as their responsibility, however, and they are rather harder to fix. Helping someone manage their tasks on a weekly or daily basis is something that employers can pretty readily fix. It is rather hard to retro-fix when it comes to literacy and numeracy.
Q282 <Annette Brooke:> I am a bit surprised that it is highlighted so much in this table. It seems as if we are saying that these young people cannot do this, that and the other and you are saying, "Well, of course that is the case." Perhaps we could apply that same point at university level. I suppose that self-management is also very important. How do you take that on board when you are assessing to whom to make your offers?
<Professor Atkins:> When we look at the personal statement and the reference we get some idea of whether the applicant has those skills. On the whole, we find that references from schools give a slightly more authoritative view of the young person than those from colleges. School teachers seem to know their sixth formers slightly better. When we go through induction and the first month of the first year we spend a lot of time with all our new entrants going through self-management, study skills, balance of activities and so on. We regard that as part of our responsibility and it is important to do that. I do not think that we regard it as hugely problematic, but we do think there is a transition from school sixth forms particularly, where most of the day is divided up on a timetable and there is very little choice for the students in what they do, to a university setting, which is very different. There is a transition that has to be worked through there, but we think it is our responsibility to help young people to do that.
Q283 <Annette Brooke:> When examination results come out we celebrate rising standards and the achievements of our young people, but immediately the cold water is poured on it by claims that things are easier and that standards are not really rising. Could I ask both halves what comment you would make about standards 20 years ago? In things like the self-management aspect, has there been a change over that period in that we are perpetually testing our young people in school and not leaving them to their own devices so much? I am slightly answering the question myself.
<Professor Smith:> My turn. I think the answer is mixed. There is some evidence in the public domain that in many of the sciences the amount "learned" is of a different order, and there is some work coming out saying that a grade D 20 years ago would get a grade B now. That has to be balanced by the fact that people come along with a different skill set and the ability to apply knowledge. In that way we now know what they come with in terms of deficits. We offer them subject-based teaching. We also offer every student a series of study skills programmes and individualised support, if necessary. As long as we know, we can deal with it. It is not as simple as saying better or worse. The content has changed and it certainly is the case that more students are getting As. The number is rising by about 1% a year. That is in part because they can retake, and in part because the teaching in schools is probably now more linked to exams. It is a complicated issue and a genuinely mixed picture.
Q284 <Annette Brooke:> May I ask the CBI whether that has had any impact on self-management and independent thought?
<Susan Anderson:> Students are right to celebrate because they work very hard. The vast majority achieve very good results. That said, employers' expectations are rising. We have to recognise that there will be less demand for people with very poor literacy and numeracy skills. Similarly, there will be a growing demand for people with high-quality STEM skills. We can over-obsess about self-management, but it is an important employability skill. However, as my colleagues from the university have said and as I would say, these skills can be learned relatively easily. They are not as fundamental as not having enough physicists, chemists or, indeed, students with high levels of literacy and numeracy.
Q285 <Annette Brooke:> I have one final question. To return to a point you made, Professor Smith, you did not appear terribly enthusiastic about A*s and PQA in relation to widening access. Hard-working pupils from independent and grammar schools feel quite hard done by when somebody from a comprehensive school has a place that they might have had? How do you get the right balance between widening access and being fair?
<Professor Smith:> That is a very difficult issue and I do not think there is a technical solution. Admissions tutors make judgments. There is some stunning evidence from a report in 2004 that shows that of a cohort of 76,000 students tested, students from independent schools who got 3Bs are outperformed at final degree result by state school students who got 3Bs on entry, so much so that you would predict that the students from the state school system came in with two As and a B. For us, it is a difficult one. A-level grades are a given, but we have to take into context the situation in which the student has acquired those grades.
For universities, it is a constant battle to try, first, to work with schools to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply and then to try to do what we can to ensure that there is a level playing field at the margins in terms of taking into account school performance. I do not think we will ever get it right but clearly we cannot say, on the one hand, that aspiration is the key because we have A-level results to contend with and, on the other, that A-level results are very highly correlated with social class. It is the job of universities at the margins to try and find a way through this so that people who can benefit most from going to university get offered the place. I do not think we ever get it right; we never will, but there is no nice, neat rule that we can use to say, "Well, it's just A-levels or just the school type."
<Chairman:> Lynda, I think you have a quick question on 14-to-19 performance.
Q286 <Lynda Waltho:> Wish-list time. We have heard from many witnesses about the reforms they would like to see. What about you?
<Professor Atkins:> We would like to see less testing through GCSE and the sixth form or college years 1 and 2, more synoptic testing and opportunities in those subjects that do not have it at A2 for a more extended piece of work that enables the students to engage in more complex areas of the subject than perhaps they do now.
We wish the diplomas well; we hope that the mathematics and numeracy content remains strong across the piece and that they do not become too atomised as they go through the design phase.
<Susan Anderson:> Raising literacy and numeracy must be the key and running that a very close second would be increasing the number of STEM graduates, which we recognise must be addressed at school level. It is not just about what the university is doing; primarily, action at the school level is needed.
<Professor Smith:> Overwhelmingly, I want to support the Government's raising of the target for five GCSE A-Cs, including maths and English. The last 10 years have seen a very healthy improvement of about 10% in those figures. But still, comparatively, it does not put the UK in a very good place. It is 24th out of 29 on OECD figures for the number of kids still in school at 17. That is the issue. Remember, 92% of students who get two A-levels go to university and 39% of 18-year-olds take A-levels. You cannot get that much higher when only 46% get five GCSEs A to C including maths and English. For me, that is the No. 1 requirement of the system in order to have social equity, which is precisely why diplomas have the support of organisations such as the CBI and the universities.
<Chairman:> This has been a very good session. I would like it to go on as there are many more questions that we would like to ask such a good group of witnesses, but the Division did rather disturb the pattern of questioning and answering, and we have to go on to the second section. I thank you, but please keep in contact with the Committee. If there are issues that you think were not covered sufficiently in the oral session, will you write to us? Often the best answers are the ones that you might think of as you are going home on the train or on the bus. Thank you.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sue Hackman, Chief Adviser on School Standards, Jon Coles, Director, 14-19 Reform, and David Bell, Permanent Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families, gave evidence.
Q287 <Chairman:> Can I welcome Jon Coles, David Bell and Sue Hackman to our deliberations? I apologise for the Division that has delayed the beginning of this session. You seemed to be enjoying that first session, from which we got some good information and feedback. We normally allow you to say something-it is very nice to see you here, permanent secretary, we were delighted that you were able to join us- so do you and your team want to say something to get us started, or do you want to go straight into questions?
<David Bell:> If I could just make some brief introductory remarks, I did enjoy that last session, I hope that I am going to enjoy this session just as much.
<Chairman:> I would not guarantee that.
<David Bell:> This year is an interesting year because it marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Education Reform Act 1988, which gave us, among other things, national tests. The key purposes of testing and examinations more generally have stood over that period. We want them to provide objective, reliable information about every child and young person's progress. We want them to enable parents to make reliable and informative judgments about the quality of schools and colleges. We want to use them at the national level, both to assist and identify where to put our support, and also, we use them to identify the state of the system and how things are moving. As part of that, both with national tests and public examinations, we are very alive to the need to have in place robust processes and procedures to ensure standards over time.
What it is important to stress, however, is the evolution of testing and assessment, and that is partly for the reasons that you have just heard-that demands, employers' expectations and society's expectations change. However, we also want to be thinking about better ways to ensure that testing and assessment enables children and young people to make appropriate progress.
Many of the issues that I know are the subject of the Committee's inquiry are close to our hearts and are issues that we are looking at. For example, in areas like single-level testing or the assessment arrangements around diplomas, we are trying to take account of change in expectations and demands. Throughout all this, rigour is essential in assessment and testing, and I assure you that both the Ministers and the officials of the Department are completely behind any changes that will improve the testing and assessment of children and young people in this country.
Q288 <Chairman:> Thank you for that. Shall we get started with the questions now? Jolly good. My question comes from the last remark by Professor Smith, from Exeter university. Why do you think we are not getting above this still-restricted number of people getting to A to C in GCSEs? He finished by saying that that there is one thing that restricts it; 90% of people who take A-levels get into university. Why is it that there is this restriction; why are we not getting more young people through? As you said, this is the 20th anniversary this year of the Education Reform Act, so why do we still seem to be performing lower than the demands of a modern economy would suggest we should be?
<David Bell:> It is important to stress that we have made considerable progress. If you take the percentage of youngsters who achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE, we know that that figure has improved over time with English and maths. The percentage of young children leaving primary school with the appropriate level of education has improved. What Professor Smith argued, and what we would argue, is that you have to keep the pressure on all the time to ensure that more and more young people achieve the required standard. There is not a single, simple answer. For example, trying to improve the teaching of reading in the earliest years of primary school is as important as ensuring that those youngsters who have not achieved the appropriate standard at age 11 are given support to get into secondary education, or ensuring that youngsters have the right kind of curriculum choice, whether that is diplomas, GCSE, A-level or whatever.
This is a story of progress. As you have heard from other witnesses in this inquiry, we have gone from below average to above average, but there is a long way to go. This country's economic success depends on more people becoming highly skilled and we know that other nations, both developed and developing, are increasing their rate of progress in educational attainment.
Q289 <Chairman:> Earlier I said that I had been at Southfields Community College. One of the complaints that I heard there was that it was still getting a substantial number of children coming through at 11 who were not able to read and write properly. We have had numeracy and literacy programmes for a considerable time now. Is it the quality of teaching? Is it the way we teach? What is holding things back?
<David Bell:> Again, I would make the point that there has been considerable progress over that period. However, there is no getting away from the fact that we must make even greater progress. There are some things that are crucial: the quality of the teaching that children get is important in the primary years as is the content of the curriculum and what they are actually taught. Again, we have made changes to the teaching of reading in recent years. In the new arrangements for key stage 3 at the beginning of secondary education, we have tried to make more time and space available for schools who are still picking up youngsters who have not made sufficient progress in primary education. That is all very important.
When we get on discuss the single level tests-I know you will want to talk about them-one of the principles underpinning the pilot is the placing of greater emphasis on the progress that students are making and really ratcheting up the teacher's capacity to assess where students are, and to help them to make appropriate progress. The youngsters who are falling behind will be given additional support in English and maths. There are lots of ways in which we can continue to improve performance, but we need highly skilled teachers, head teachers and school leaders who are really focused on raising standards.
<Chairman:> Let us get on with the rest of the questions.
Q290 <Mr. Heppell:> You started by speaking about the different things that tests and so on are used for. We are all aware that the national curriculum tests and the public examinations at 16 and beyond are used for different methods. Some people might say that if they are designed initially to put a greater emphasis on pupil performance but are then used for accountability reasons, they will be less accurate and less relevant. Do you recognise people's concerns about that?
<David Bell:> I do recognise that, but I have never found it a particularly persuasive argument. It seems to imply that you can only use tests or assessment for one single purpose. I do not accept that. I think that our tests give a good measure of attainment and the progress that children or young people have made to get to a particular point. It does not seem to be incompatible with that to then aggregate up the performance levels to give a picture of how well the school is doing. Parents can use that information, and it does not seem to be too difficult to say that, on the basis of those school-level results, we get a picture of what is happening across the country as a whole. While I hear the argument that is often put about multiple purposes of testing and assessment, I do not think that it is problematic to expect tests or assessments to do different things.
Q291 <Mr. Heppell:> Will you accept that the use of test results for that purpose means that there is a tendency for teachers in schools to concentrate on improving their statistical performance and working for the tests at the expense of children's education in general?
<David Bell:> I would obviously want to make the point that enabling youngsters to be well prepared for a test or a public examination is quite important. Actually some schools had not previously given sufficient attention to that. Before we had national curriculum tests, the first time that some youngsters took a structured test or anything approaching a structured test examination was at the age of 16 when they came to sit their first public examinations. It is important as part of preparation for a test that youngsters are given some experience of that.
We also hear some people arguing that it skews the whole curriculum. Teachers become completely obsessed with the testing perhaps because they are concerned about the school's performance and the whole curriculum is changed. Our evidence, which I think is supported by inspection evidence, is that schools that are confident and know what they want children to learn can comfortably ensure that children are prepared for the test in a way that does not distort teaching and learning. I do not think that anyone would say that they want everything to stop just for the test. Again, examples from the best schools suggest that they can comfortably marry good progress made by children in tests with a rich and varied curriculum. [Interruption.]
<Chairman:> Sorry. There is some amusement among my colleagues, none of whom can read my writing. It is nothing insidious; I am just suggesting a time frame in relation to how many questions can be asked in so many minutes.
<David Bell:> We could arrange an extra 20 hours.
Q292 <Mrs. Hodgson:> I want to ask a couple of questions about teaching to the test. We have received significant evidence that schools and teachers are now so motivated to meet targets and do well in league tables that they resort to widespread teaching to the test. Consequently, there is a narrowing of the taught curriculum. What are your comments on that?
<David Bell:> Perhaps, Mr. Chairman, I could begin to bring some of my colleagues in?
<Chairman:> It would be a pleasure to hear from them-we know them well.
<Sue Hackman:> First of all, it is important that literacy and numeracy are robust because that is what the rest of the curriculum depends upon. There was never a great student in design and technology who did not have good maths as well. Someone cannot easily study history and geography unless they can read and write well. Literacy and numeracy are the cornerstones of the whole curriculum. Personally, I do not think that there is a huge problem with focusing on the core subjects. At the same time, we support a broad and balanced curriculum. That is part of what should be taught.
We have researched how much time schools spend in preparing for tests. In the four years of key stage 2 it is 0.14% and during key stage 3 it is 0.2%. That does not seem too much. In life, we need some experience of being challenged and stretched as well as of being supported and coached. That is part of the rich experience that we must provide. Having said that, we do give guidance to schools that they should not over-drill to the test. They should prepare for the test so children can show what they are capable of, but the biggest reason why children should not be trained just for the tests for long periods is that it does not work. What works is effective, consistent teaching and learning throughout the three or four years of the key stage. It is certainly not our policy to drive schools to spend too much time on teaching to the test.
<Chairman:> Leave David to one side; he will come in when we need him. I really want to get Jon and Sue to pursue that matter.
<Jon Coles:> Can I just add something on that question of teaching to the test, which is an important issue? Broadening that in relation to public exams, which is my side of this discussion, it is obviously important to get the curriculum right, and to have the right curriculum that prepares young people in the right way.
A lot of what you were hearing from the previous witnesses was very much about how well the curriculum prepares young people for life. Then, of course, you need to test the whole of that curriculum, and you need testing that is valid and reliable in relation to that curriculum, and that tests the skills that people were talking about, not just a very narrow set of skills and abilities to answer the test. That means that the test needs to be properly trialled and robust; it needs to have the right assessment instruments for the sort of learning. The testing that you do for mathematics is very different from the testing that you do for construction or engineering. Evidently, some things can be assessed through written external tests, and some things cannot be. You need the test not to be too predictable, so that it is very difficult to narrow down on the questions that you need to prepare people for.
At that point, good quality test preparation and preparation for exams is making sure that young people can display what they know and can do in the assessment that they are about to face. I, for one, am glad that my teachers went to the trouble of preparing me to do the tests and exams that I had to do, because having taught me the curriculum properly, it was important that I was able to demonstrate my understanding of it in the exam. I think that that is what we would want for all our children-that they should be taught the curriculum properly and then taught to display what they know.
Q293 <Mrs. Hodgson:> What we have been trying to get to the bottom of in the evidence that we have taken so far is whether teaching to the test is a good or a bad thing. When we had the exam boards here, we asked them the same question, and the feeling from them was that it was more of a good thing. However, we have all had a detailed e-mail from Warwick Mansell, who is an author and reporter for The Times Educational Supplement.
<Chairman:> Warwick Mansell has written a very good new book on testing and assessment. We are getting a percentage.
<Jon Coles:> Like your previous witnesses, I have not read the book either.
Q294 <Mrs. Hodgson:> Warwick Mansell has obviously done a lot of research and interviewed a lot of people about the issue of teaching to the test. You mention literacy and numeracy, and that has such an impact across the whole curriculum. However, repetition is very important, because that is how you learn a subject. Biology and chemistry, however, are quite different and there is one example here of a sixth-former who says, "Most of my chemistry class excelled at chemistry exams, but knew very little about chemistry as a subject. The same was true in biology." My only worry is that children are being taught to pass the exams, which is good, because they need to be able to pass the exam, but are they developing independent thinking so that when they get to university, they will know how to study a subject fully on their own and to develop their own strand of thinking, rather than studying the best way to pass the exam?
<Jon Coles:> The point about A-level that your previous witnesses were making-that they worry that assessment has become too atomised and not sufficiently synoptic, because it does not test people's ability to make connections across the subject-is something that we have heard a lot. That is why we are making some significant changes to A-level, in particular, reducing the number of assessment units from six to four, which goes straight to the point about how much testing is going on. It also makes sure that people have to make connections across a bigger range of the subject, and changes to the forms of question in A-level will make sure that people are asked questions that have more variety and that require more extended writing, more analysis, and independent thought and study.
A number of things have strengthened A-level and made it an even stronger qualification since the introduction of Curriculum 2000. The A-levels that I suspect that most of us in this room did were possible to pass by being taught seven essays, and revising five of them, and expecting them to come up. That was a pretty good strategy for passing A-levels in the past. You cannot do that now because A-levels require you to know and understand the whole of the syllabus. They test the whole of the specification at every sitting.
The issue is whether A-levels have gone too far in testing all of the knowledge in small chunks. Do they do enough to test an understanding of the connections across the subject and an ability to analyse in depth? That is the purpose of the reforms that are now in train. The A-levels that will be taught from this September will be assessed in a new way with four units rather than the six that currently exist. There will be a bigger variety of question stems, more analytical questions and more extended writing. That is an important set of reforms. Set alongside the new extended project, that means that the sixth-form experience that people will get in the future will demand much more independent thinking and analysis of the subject.
Nobody would condone for a second the idea that students should be taught to answer exam questions and nothing else. Just as Sue said that that is a bad strategy at key stage 2, I want to emphasise that it is a bad strategy for teaching A-level because there is already a significant amount of synoptic assessment. It is not possible to get the best grades at A-level without demonstrating an understanding of the wider subject. I do not want you to take quite at face value the quotation that you read to me. We do not see the scenario across the country that people can pass exams, but have no understanding of the subject. I do not think that that is the reality in our schools and colleges.
<Chairman:> We will come back to that point.
Q295 <Annette Brooke:> I have two quick questions. I want to return to how much time is spent on teaching to the test and the percentages that were given about that. If we were to do a survey of primary school teachers and we asked how they approach teaching year 7 compared with how they approach teaching year 6, do you not think that our survey would show that they feel constrained in their overall teaching of year 6?
<Sue Hackman:> In year 6, teachers prepare for the tests. That is the reality of life and it is appropriate that they prepare people for those tests. I dare say that there would be a difference. We might also reflect that teachers in year 7 have the same sense of urgency in teaching those pupils to get them ready for the rest of that key stage. There is a difference in teaching every year group because every year has a slightly different purpose; there might be a test, pupils might be starting out in a key stage or they might be consolidating what they have already done.
Q296 <Annette Brooke:> But is this not like one big hiccup, which interrupts the flow of general education? When a test is coming up, it is a critical time and the whole school will be judged on it.
<Sue Hackman:> Hopefully, with the single level tests, we are moving towards children being tested throughout their careers as they become ready for it, so that we can see how they develop as they go along. That would spread some of the pressure through the years.
<Annette Brooke:> I will leave my colleagues to ask about that.
<Chairman:> David Bell wants to come in on that point.
<David Bell:> I just want to make the point that a number of the folk in this room spend quite a lot of time visiting schools. As Sue mentioned, you do hear people saying that the pressures on youngsters get greater at year 6. People often tell you that they are teaching to the tests, that all of the imagination is gone and that there is no room for anything else. However, on talking to them further and on talking to the children, you will hear about the huge range of activities that are going on. That somehow gives the lie to the argument that the curriculum has become completely narrowed as a result of testing.
On this issue it is quite hard to get to what people actually do, as opposed to what they think. It is very unusual to go to schools where everything has been turned over for a large amount of time to focus just on the tests. I can speak from very considerable experience, having visited hundreds of schools.
Q297 <Annette Brooke:> I guess that it is a matter of proportion. Running through our evidence, we have heard about the wide degree of variation in the giving of grades in these assessments; 30% of the grades awarded being wrong is the figure that was mentioned. In most walks of life, when there is a potential degree of error, or perhaps a particular variation in the whole year cohort, there is a little note under the table explaining that. Do you think that we should have some footnotes when you publish your league tables?
<Jon Coles:> On the public examination system, I do not know where this figure of 30% comes from. I have seen it appear in your transcripts and I have not been able to track down its source.
<Chairman:> One of our witnesses gave evidence on that.
<Jon Coles:> They said that that was the case, but I do not know where they got their information from.
<Jon Coles:> Just in relation to our public exam system, I simply do not accept that there is anything approaching that degree of error in the grading of qualifications, such as GCSEs and A-levels. The OECD has examined the matter at some length and has concluded that we have the most carefully and appropriately regulated exam system in the world. You did not ask the chief executives of the award body whether they accepted that figure.
Q298 <Annette Brooke:> I did ask the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority what it was doing to investigate the matter. I was not very satisfied that it was checking out the figure. I think that it is important to check it out. Perhaps you could ask them to do it, and then you can put your hands up and say that there is not a 30% error rate.
<Jon Coles:> I can say that without asking QCA to do any further work, because QCA regulates the exam system robustly. I can say to you without a shadow of a doubt-I am absolutely convinced-that there is nothing like a 30% error rate in GCSEs and A-levels. If there is some evidence that that is the case, I would really welcome knowing what it is.
<Chairman:> Jon, let us agree that together we will get to the bottom of this.
<Jon Coles:> That would be excellent.
<Chairman:> We all want to pursue it. It was a figure that was given to the Committee and we will pursue it.
<Annette Brooke:> That is fine.
<Chairman:> I would like to move on to the broader question of standards.
Q299 <Stephen Williams:> Perhaps I could direct these questions at Sue Hackman as this is her area of responsibility. In his introductory remarks, the permanent secretary said that results have gone up. He was talking about those getting five GCSEs at A to C grades, including maths and English, and those getting A-levels. Is that the same as standards going up?
<Sue Hackman:> Statisticians would draw a distinction between the two. There are mechanisms to ensure that tests each year are anchored by means of pre-testing against the performance of the year before. There are also efforts to anchor standards at the level setting point, against the level that was achieved in the previous year. Therefore, there are safeguards in the system for anchoring the tests each year.
Q300 <Stephen Williams:> You think that standards have been held, but not necessarily improved?
<Sue Hackman:> I definitely think that standards have improved. We can corroborate that by the patterns that exist in other surveys of pupil abilities, and in the PIRLS and PISA tests, which also give us another take on how standards are developing as to Ofsted reports. We are pretty certain that standards are rising. However, having said that, no one will say that every test is perfect. There must be year-on-year fluctuations. It is the task of the QCA to ensure that they are regulated and watched.
Q301 <Stephen Williams:> If Sue Hackman thinks that standards are improving, how does that stack up with the evidence from Professor Smith in the earlier session? He said that universities increasingly have to lay on remedial classes, particularly in maths, or for anyone who wishes to do a physics degree, because the standard of entrance-even if a pupil has three straight As-is not sufficient to be a first year undergraduate. Therefore, how could standards have gone up?
<Sue Hackman:> National tests test every single child in the cohort. University intakes vary from year to year, so it did occur to me that university fluctuations might be to do with which pupils are choosing to come to your university over time. Having said that, I agree that when pupils are studying a science degree at university, they need a higher level of mathematics, and we must strive to produce pupils who can do that.
Q302 <Stephen Williams:> But if you look at the number of people applying to do a subject such as physics, it has gone down considerably over the last 20 years. So it is safe to assume that the people who are applying to do physics now are the hard core who want to do that subject and are committed to it. Yet university departments say that the standard coming in is not what it was-not only at Exeter, I have also heard it from many other admissions tutors around the country.
<Jon Coles:> There are some important considerations relating to how many people are doing a STEM subject, which is broadly science, technology, engineering, or maths, and there is a need to increase that number. You will know from previous inquiries, and from documents that the Department has submitted to the Committee, some of the background to what we are doing about the matter.
One thing that has been happening over the last 20 years at A-level and post-16 years old, is a significant widening of the choices available to young people and a significant increase in the range of options that they can take. A feature of that has been a decline in the number of people doing some of the traditional subjects, particularly science subjects. That is unquestionably a cause for concern. In recent years we have seen some reversal of that trend in relation to some key science subjects and to maths, which was affected after curriculum 2000. A range of issues needs to be addressed.
I do not think that any of what I have said suggests that standards themselves have fallen, but rather that there is a wider range of young people doing a wider range of subjects. Therefore, people who might once have chosen to do science subjects are choosing other subjects. That is a feature of our system, and you have to judge at every stage to what extent to allow people free choice of subjects or to attempt to constrain their choice.
Q303 <Chairman:> If you took students from the independent sector and grammar schools out of the number of young people qualifying to come through in STEM subjects, you would be very worried indeed. So something is going on in the state sector that you surely need to take seriously.
<Jon Coles:> That is absolutely right. I do not have the figures in front of me for numbers of school leavers doing STEM subjects by different types of school, although the Department certainly has them. That concern is an important policy direction.
As you know, a huge amount of work is going on to raise the numbers of students doing the sciences, particularly the physical sciences, maths and other technology subjects. That is important work. The good news is that, in the last couple of years, some reversal in that decline has begun and numbers are beginning to come up again. Numbers in maths have now recovered to above their pre-curriculum 2000 levels, which is serious progress. There is more to do, and of course the new science diploma will be part of encouraging more and a broader group of young people into science.
Q304 <Stephen Williams:> I think that we are drifting on to the choices people make at 16, rather than the standards once people have exercised those choices, which is what we are asking about. Looking at A-levels in the round and going back to some of the comments made in the earlier session by Professor Smith again, I wrote down what he said: increasingly students mark hunt; they do not have independent thinking and are afraid to give critical answers; and they play safe. Do you accept that it is a fault with the existing modular A-level system that students are simply trying to leap each hurdle in order to get the grade at the end, rather than having an in-depth understanding of the subject?
<Jon Coles:> As I was trying to say in an earlier answer, the A-level system tests people's knowledge of the whole syllabus better than before, and ensures that more young people have to know more from all of it.
I think that we agree there is a need to have more questions that test the abilities to think independently and critically, to analyse in depth, to give extended answers and so on. That is the purpose of the reforms in train at the moment, which will reduce the number of A-level modules from six to four and increase the amount of synoptic assessment. That is absolutely a driver of policy to get more of that into A-level.
Q305 <Stephen Williams:> I have one and a half questions. This is the last time that I will ever ask a question in this Committee.
<Chairman:> On this day.
<Stephen Williams:> First of all, it has been put to us that as a result of this teaching to the test, teachers have become more skilled at getting children or young people through exams, but the downside is that the students themselves become deskilled in the area I have just asked you about. Given that universities have these worries and employers have these worries, as we heard from the CBI, and given that universities are increasingly introducing or reintroducing their own supplementary exams and tests, are A-levels fit for the purpose for which they are perceived to be designed?
<Jon Coles:> Yes, I think they are. The changes we are making now will make them more fit for that purpose. The tougher questions that follow from the changes that I have been talking about and the introduction of an A* will address the concerns of those universities which struggle to discriminate between candidates. Those changes, together with the extended project, will mean that more and more young people are required to learn independently, to study in depth and to pursue their own thinking and ideas. Those are crucial things.
All of those things are being designed into diplomas from the outset. So the size of diploma assessment unit will be the size of the new, bigger A-level assessment units rather than the existing smaller ones. They will be designed to encourage critical thinking and reflection. That broad set of personal learning and thinking skills-the things about self-management you were pursuing in the last session-the ability to work in teams, to learn in depth and to research critically are all built into the diplomas and into the new extended project. So all young people pursuing that route will be required to pursue in depth and under their own steam an area of learning that is particular to them. It will force them to become independent learners in order to be successful. That is a set of changes that we have under way which are very important.
Q306 <Chairman:> The awarding bodies said right at the end of our session last week that they thought an A* would certainly favour the independent sector in getting into the research-rich universities. Does it not concern you that they said that?
<Jon Coles:> We have analysed that. It was a concern that we all had. It was something that was important to look at. At the moment the analysis I have suggests that just over 9,000 of the 26,000 of the candidates for A-level-some may be over 18-who get three As come from the independent sector. That is just over a third. Our analysis based on last summer's exam results of what proportion would get three A*s, suggests that about 1,150 of just over 3,050 candidates who would have got 3 A*s had that grade been introduced last year would be from the independent sector. Again, that is just over a third. It is a slightly greater proportion from the independent sector, but it is not dramatic.
Q307 <Chairman:> But that is not the point, is it? The point is that what we know in this Committee, and you must know it well, is that the longer you extend and the higher the hurdles you put up in that process of coming through education to higher education, the more kids from less privileged backgrounds drop by the wayside or lower their sights. That is why we are so obsessed as a Committee in all its incarnations that, for example, Oxford and Cambridge still get away with having different application system. As you said, David Bell, we all go to schools and we know that as soon as the kids from the poorer backgrounds find out that there is this posh route to Oxford and Cambridge they say, "I'm not going to be different from my friends and I'm not going to do that." So you lose them there. Then you are going to give them A*s, and that will put them off even further. That is the problem, is it not? It is more psychological than the careful analysis of figures you have just given us.
<Jon Coles:> I think that the point the awarding bodies were making in your discussion-it is absolutely right to raise it as an issue-is whether you would have a disproportionately greater proportion of people from the independent sector getting three A*s. This analysis suggests there is a slight increase in that proportion, but it is very slight.
Q308 <Chairman:> Why not just publish the results, give them the figures and let them judge? What is wrong with the figures? Why do you have to have an A*? Give them the figures. They can judge who has got what in their A-levels at present.
<Jon Coles:> Well-
<Chairman:> David, you are looking very quizzical.
<David Bell:> I will come in in a minute.
<Jon Coles:> At the moment, we certainly allow universities to have information about performance in AS modules and to have the marks in individuals AS modules if they want them-that is available to them.
Q309 <Chairman:> In AS?
<Jon Coles:> Of course, it is only AS marks that exist at the moment of making offers, which is the crucial moment for many of the selecting courses in HE. So, they do have that information available to them. The issue, of course, is that the rules around AS and cashing in mean that not every candidate has their AS grades at that point. We make available all the information that exists in the system now, but the point you are making is that some universities would like more information and a greater ability to make choices. This is an important issue.
The crucial point about the A* is that it is designed with respect to the more stretching assessments that we are putting in place; it is designed to make sure that the things that we are trying to do to stretch students and the broader range of skills that you are rightly focusing on are taught, rewarded and recognised in the assessments. It is no good putting in those more stretching questions, which require people to show that they can analyse in depth, if, having demonstrated that they can do so, they do not get the reward for that. That is an important part of why having an A* makes a difference educationally, as well as in terms of selection.
Q310 <Chairman:> We do fear that there will be an A** and an A*** on the way shortly.
<David Bell:> Very briefly, I just wanted to defend the honour of many universities, which actually go out of their way to put into place programmes-some are funded nationally and some are introduced on the instigation of universities themselves-to open up access as best they can. But, of course, the universities themselves rely on the supply of students from schools and colleges, which is why a lot of our attention has equally got to focus on encouraging schools to ensure that their youngsters get the right opportunities. The assessment is an important issue, as Jon has said, but a lot is being done across the system to ensure that students are given the best possible opportunities to go on to higher education.
<Chairman:> David, we take that point, but you know how this Committee has felt historically about the dual application process.
We move on to single level tests.
Q311 <Lynda Waltho:> I think that we are expecting the results of the first round of the pilot single level tests on 18 January. I have a quote. Apparently, a DCFS spokeswoman said: "there are some differences between subjects, levels and performance in different key stages that we need to understand better before we are confident about releasing results". Are you any closer to understanding the results and publishing them?
<David Bell:> I am pleased to confirm that that quote was correct, and we said in a letter to the schools that participated that there had been some unexpected patterns in the results. The first thing to say is that we would not and should not be surprised that, when you pilot a new form of testing, you might need to see what actually happened. We are doing some further work, and we have asked the National Assessment Agency to do some further work. We are not ready yet to come back with the results of that analysis or to say what has happened. To reinforce the point, however, we will make these findings public in due course. Obviously, we want to enable those schools and students who took part in the pilots to receive their results in due course. I cannot say any more than that at the moment. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if I misled the Committee by starting to speculate on the results of that kind of analysis.
Q312 <Lynda Waltho:> It is about the time frame, really. The Government have not actually stated that the single level test will be rolled-out depending on positive evidence from the pilot, but what are we talking about when we say, "positive evidence"?
<David Bell:> We said two things: first, as you suggested, there was positive evidence from the pilot, to which I will return in a moment; secondly, there is an endorsement of the approach from the regulator. It is a very important second point that we would need to ensure that the tests passed the standard. In terms of positive evidence, there are a number of things that you want them to do. You ask whether they are robust, reliable and valid, what is their impact on students' and teachers' behaviour, and so on. We have to consider a range of things in this round of testing.
We are very fortunate in having 40,000 students taking part at this stage, so there is a good base. We also said that we would expect at least four rounds in the pilot phase, so that we learn as we go-I did a bit of homework on this before I came in-and we should not be surprised that it takes time to do that, because if you look back to the introduction of the national curriculum tests, it took quite a bit of time to get them right.
We are quite careful in saying that we are doing a national pilot; we will examine it carefully; it will be independently reviewed; and we will need the advice of the regulator before we go forward nationally. However, as Sue said earlier, we think that the basic principle is sound in offering youngsters a test when they are ready to take it, to build it much more naturally into the flow of teaching and learning. You have to go from what seems the right principle to something that works in practice, hence the need for the national test in the pilot.
Q313 <Lynda Waltho:> As the head of the whole thing, do you have a time frame that you think would be a good idea to aim at-a time when you would want it to be finished?
<David Bell:> We have the four rounds of the pilots, and perhaps Sue will give more detail on the timetable. We are cautious about saying that it will be done by this summer and that we will try to roll it out and so on, because we want to be very clear that we have the evidence to make a decision should Ministers decide to go in this direction.
Q314 <Chairman:> Should Sue's head be on the block for this? Sue, is it your section's responsibility that this project is not making sufficient progress?
<Sue Hackman:> Team work is my responsibility.
<David Bell:> I must come in and defend a member of staff. In the end, the permanent secretary has to take responsibility in the civil service.
<Sue Hackman:> We have given ourselves two years. There are two test windows a year for test runs. At the end of that time, we would know if this thing is workable, but then there is a run-in time to prepare future tests, so it would not automatically happen that, at the end of two years, you would go straight into a single testing system. We would commit to saying that, after two years, we would take a decision on whether to carry on or not.
Q315 <Lynda Waltho:> You were quite definite about it being possible by the 18th-
<David Bell:> Just to be clear, we had given a date for the release of the results to individual schools and pupils on the basis of the December pilot. That is the work we need to do, based on the first pattern of results. As Sue said, in terms of making a decision about the future of the whole programme, we are working to that longer time scale.
Q316 <Ms Butler:> So is it intended that, at the end of two years, the single level test would replace all the other key stage tests nationally?
<Sue Hackman:> Yes. The pupils in the pilot are doing both; they are testing the new tests and sitting the key stage tests. If it were successful, the aim would be that it would replace the current testing regime and there would be single level tests for pupils as they move through the system.
Q317 <Ms Butler:> What safeguards are in place-I ask this in the context of Bernard Coard's 1970 report on the education of black boys-to ensure that black boys will not be held back by teachers' perception that they are not ready to take the test?
<Sue Hackman:> Underpinning the single level test is a big project to secure assessment for learning in schools based on a piece of work that QCA is doing for us on APP-assessing pupil progress. That is a ladder of progress in reading, writing and mathematics, and it will apply in due course to other curriculum subjects. Those criteria will help teachers to arrive at accurate rather than impressionistic judgments, and they are the same criteria that underpin the single level tests, so there will be a close tie between teacher assessments.
Single level tests are attractive and attract a lot of attention, but the progression pilot is a project that starts with classroom assessment with strong strategies of exactly what children can do and what they need to do next. It also helps with periodic judgments based on the criteria that I have just described. When the teacher and the pupil feel that the pupil is ready for the next level, they would be entered for the next level, a little like they do in music tests. The test will confirm the teacher assessment. With this model, teacher assessment will have more credibility and more importance than currently.
The answer to your question is that assessment for learning is really important, and the test and the teacher assessment go hand in hand on the ground as part of the pilot.
<Chairman:> A lot of people are worried about that comparison with music tests. The Secretary of State uses it often-sorry Dawn.
Q318 <Ms Butler:> May I drill down that a little? Are you saying that you are introducing further smaller tests to assess whether pupils are ready or the single level test?
<Sue Hackman:> No. I am describing the single level test. There is just one set of tests.
Q319 <Ms Butler:> So what is the APP?
<Sue Hackman:> The APP is the material to help teachers to arrive at accurate judgments in their everyday assessments. It is classroom assessment-ongoing assessment.
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? I am 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 interesting 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, 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 atomistic and reliable questions, and 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 the 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 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 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 witnesses suggested, 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.