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That is true professionalism and the responsible road to take. So, I urge all those who put the interests of pupils and parents first to continue to work with us to reform the testing and accountability system.

Continuing key stage 2 tests in English and maths, alongside the wider reforms we are announcing today, is vital to give parents the information that they want and need; to enable head teachers and teachers to secure the progress of every child and their school as a whole; to allow the public to hold national and local government and governing bodies to account for the performance of schools; and to raise standards for all children. I commend this statement to the House.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement and the chance to read some of the expert group’s recommendations. I also join him in thanking the expert group for its work and commitment, which I know he shares, to doing everything that it can to improve state education for all children.

Today’s statement follows the fiasco of last year’s standard assessment tests—SATs—when the Government presided over a comprehensive shambles. It was both an administrative disaster, for which some have paid the price, and a challenge to all of us to think about how we can improve the testing and assessment regime in our schools. The Secretary of State was right to say that the regime that he inherited should not be set in stone, but, even as we constantly strive to improve how we assess our children, does he not agree that we should also ensure that the assessment process is built on certain enduring principles?

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Last October, the Secretary of State said that it was right that all the tests at key stage 2, including science, should be subject to external assessment. He specifically said that in his judgment,

That is the certainty that externally set and marked tests provide. He argued then against sampling, because that would deprive parents of

and would not deliver for “every parent” a reliable guide to their child’s progress. Further to that, he argued:

of teacher assessment would add to the bureaucratic load on teachers and simply

That is why he rejected the road of teacher assessment for English, maths and science at key stage 2. What has changed to make him abandon those principles now? Why should parents not have the certainty that external assessment in science provides? Why should parents now have less objective information about their children’s progress? Why should they now lose out on valuable information with which they can measure the performance of individual schools? Crucially, if teacher assessment is right for science, why is it not right for English and maths? I am delighted that the Secretary of State has the support of the Royal Society and others in designing a new, improved science test for key stage 2. However, if the new sample test is so good, why is every child not allowed to sit it?

Improving our performance in science education is crucial to improving our economic performance as a nation and vital if the next generation are to grow up as rational, questioning and informed citizens with the knowledge and skills to master the challenges of an ever more complex world, but today’s announcement comes against a backdrop of declining faith in the rigour of the science education that we offer young people. In GCSE science, students are asked whether people look at stars with microscopes or telescopes and whether the fact that nuclear power stations provide jobs is an argument in favour of nuclear power or against it. They are asked whether seat belts are a safety feature in cars, whether the sun orbits around the earth and whether battered sausages are healthier than grilled fish. Many of the questions are not tests of scientific knowledge and involve only straightforward English comprehension.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has said that changes to the science curriculum have been “a catastrophe”. Just last week, the Government announced the downgrading of science in the primary curriculum as part of a broader relegation of the importance of subject disciplines. Is now not precisely the wrong time to downgrade science and move away from rigour? Should the Secretary of State not be outlining ways in which assessment of all children, and not just a sample few, is to become clearly and unambiguously more authoritative, rigorous and stretching?

As the Secretary of State knows, parents want more rigour and better information about how their children are doing. That is why we welcome the principle of a report card that outlines in greater detail how schools are performing, so that parents have a more rounded picture of achievement. However, if it is right for there
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to be more information overall, how can it be right to have less information on how children are doing in science? If it is also right to ensure that we better reflect how children are stretched and challenged and how the less able are helped to improve in primary school, should that not apply to GCSE league tables as well? Should we not move away from the current focus on the C/D borderline so that we have a measure of testing how schools perform that rewards those that stretch the most able and also those that encourage less able children to do even better? I hope that the Secretary of State will be open-minded about such a change.

Like many, we share the Secretary of State’s concerns about teaching to the test, but is not the answer to improve the quality of the externally set tests rather than to abandon them? If the Government are really concerned about teaching to the test and about narrowing the curriculum, why are they pressing ahead with their plans for what they have called single-level tests? Would their plans not mean that, instead of a one-off measure of real performance, children would be sitting tests again and again throughout primary school, as schools strived to improve their league table performance? Would they not mean that teaching and learning would be crowded out by tests and cramming to prepare for the growth in testing?

We know that parents support clear, rigorous and transparent testing at the end of primary school. According to the Government’s own statistics, three quarters of parents believe that externally marked tests in every subject at the end of primary education are accurate and worth while. We need the most accurate possible information about how our children and our schools are doing. At a time of economic upheaval and transformation, we need a stronger emphasis on science in our schools, and we need the sharpest possible accountability in every area of academic performance. Sadly, I fear that by declining to stand up to outside pressure and by retreating on the principle of external assessment, the Secretary of State has failed the test of ensuring that he defends what is best for our children.

Ed Balls: I have been trying to work out from the hon. Gentleman’s reply whether he supports or opposes what we are doing today; to be honest, I have ended up a bit confused. We are taking forward robust assessment and testing of children through the continuation of key stage 2 tests, and we are going to introduce a report card designed precisely to ensure that primary and secondary schools are judged on the achievements of all their pupils, and not just on those of their pupils on the C/D borderline. As I said, I struggled to understand what the hon. Gentleman was saying in much of his response, although I think that, in the main, he was supporting what we are doing.

Jim Rose’s report last week made it absolutely clear that science is at the centre of the primary curriculum. However, the expert group on testing which I set up last autumn has said:

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I have accepted the advice of the expert group on the basis of its consultation with a range of experts from the science community, including the Association for Science Education, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and many others. They will work with us to take forward what they believe is the right way to strengthen science and its assessment. Once again, the experts and the widespread community will work with me to take forward the proposals in the teeth of opposition from the shadow Secretary of State, who is isolated on this point.

The issue of whether I have changed my position since the autumn has been raised. The fact is that in the autumn the shadow schools Minister said in an Adjournment debate that it was essential that we kept key stage 3 tests. A few days later, the shadow Secretary of State changed his mind and completely contradicted that, supporting our position. I am rather hoping that, when he reflects on the issue of science, he will also decide to change his position.

We are moving forward on the basis of enduring principles: doing the best by parents, pupils, teachers and head teachers to make sure that they are properly accountable. The expert advice is that we should proceed in that way. That is what I am doing, consistently with my principles. The idea that I am backing down on the issue is complete nonsense. We will ensure that we continue with key stage 2 tests in English and maths, as the expert group recommends. We will make sure that there is proper accountability through the report card. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will reflect a little and decide to change his mind and support us.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): As my right hon. Friend may remember, the Children, Schools and Families Committee produced its report on testing and assessment a year ago next week. I congratulate him on having listened to the Committee’s recommendations and to the expert group that he set up. I welcome much of what he said today, as will many members of my Committee.

May I push the Secretary of State on the issue of report cards? He knows that the national curriculum, public and educational accountability, and the method of testing all hang together. I hope that he will look very soon at our recent report on the national curriculum in the same positive way as he has looked at testing and assessment. There is one particular concern about report cards—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Other Members want to ask questions about the statement.

Mr. Sheerman rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State can respond to the hon. Gentleman now.

Mr. Sheerman: Why is it that in this House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not challenge the Chair.

Mr. Sheerman: The Chair is wrong.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The statement has started, and there is a second statement after this one. In the Chamber, we can seem to have plenty of time one minute, but the next minute hon. Members are very cross because they
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have not been able to get their chance to question the Secretary of State. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels as he does, but that is the position.

Ed Balls: I very much appreciate the work done by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee over the past year on these issues. He is right to say that the primary curriculum, testing and accountability all hang together. It has been helpful to us that Sir Jim Rose has been doing the primary curriculum review and sitting on the expert group. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we must ensure that the accountability system works to reflect both the curriculum and the testing regime in a way that is fair to all schools. I hope that in the coming weeks before the White Paper we will have the chance to explore these issues, particularly the report card, in greater detail in the Select Committee. It is very important that we get this right. I hope that I have allowed more consultation on the report card and the difficult issue of a single grade so that we can go into this in depth. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s contribution.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): First, may I pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who is unable to be here today? I thank the Secretary of State for prior notice of the statement. I also thank the expert group for its work.

We welcome the scrapping of the key stage 2 science test in its current form, but we query the timing of this statement. If the test is useless, what message does that give to children who will presumably be taking it in the next week or two? Notwithstanding the Rose review’s areas of learning, we seek assurances that science will not be squeezed out of the primary curriculum.

On single-level tests, how many schools are participating in the pilot? How long does the Secretary of State expect the pilot to run? Does he share our concerns about increased testing?

The expert group used the phrase

That seems to be code for teaching to the test. The Select Committee and Ofsted have expressed concern about teaching to the test, and the Secretary of State says that he is going to issue guidance. I understand that there is already a memorandum. What is the difference between a memorandum and guidance?

What steps is the Secretary of State going to take to increase on-screen marking? What consideration will he give, and has he given, to more teacher assessment with external moderation? We agree that we need some external moderation at key stage 2, and, potentially, external sample testing. It is important to get the basics right. It is a scandal that one in three children is leaving primary school not having reached acceptable standards in literacy and numeracy. Along with the basics, I want rich experiences for primary school pupils to give them a real joy in learning and stimulate them to creativity. Most of all, I want us to have a firm foundation so that further down the line we will get excellence in all subjects, but particularly a good flow of students taking and expanding their studies in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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Ed Balls: I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s desire to ensure that all children enjoy and are stretched by the primary curriculum. I hope that she welcomes the Rose review, which is designed to achieve precisely that. I can assure her that it places science absolutely at the centre of the curriculum. Far from downgrading science, the reason this has been proposed by the expert group and supported by all the scientific expert organisations that I listed is that they know that it will strengthen young people’s enjoyment and achievement in science.

The hon. Lady is right that we must build on the progress that we have made. Ten years ago, 63 per cent. of young people in primary school were getting to the right level; that has gone up to 81 per cent. after years of stagnation with the Conservatives. In maths, the figure has gone up from 62 to 78 per cent. We need to ensure that every child succeeds, but only through our investment and our support for teachers and the progress of every child have we achieved these huge rises in standards after years of under-investment and stagnation with the Conservatives. We must not go back to the bad state of education in those previous years.

About 300 schools are working with us in the single-level testing pilots, which are about trying to ensure that tests are truly designed for the progress of every child. We have said—and the expert group says very clearly—that we will not move forward to any wider implementation of single-level tests until we have seen the evidence, particularly where that becomes the main focus of accountability, which will happen next year in schools where we will use the single-level test instead of the key stage 2 test for mathematics.

The hon. Lady is right that teacher assessment has an important role to play. Through the report, we are strengthening the role of teacher assessment in the transition from primary to secondary school. She will not like this, and nor will the Liberal education spokesperson, but the expert group says that there is no evidence to give us confidence that moderated teaching assessment can provide the objective measure of performance in primary schools that we need. That is why, I am afraid, it rejects the proposal to extend teacher assessment that the hon. Lady and her party support.

Of course we must not have teaching to the test, and the best schools do not do that. The way to avoid it is to ensure that we have not only great teachers but the right accountability system. That is why the report card is so important in focusing on the progress of every child. Although the hon. Lady did not mention it, I hope that she will welcome that when we publish our White Paper in the coming weeks.

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