- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Professor Peter Tymms, Durham University

1.   Summary

  The questions posed by the Inquiry are vital to the future of our educational system, but it is clear that most of them cannot be answered satisfactorily given our present state of knowledge. What follows is a justification of this statement and a suggestion for a way forward.

2.   Background and expertise

 Professor Peter Tymms is an educational researcher based at Durham University where he directs the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) which works with thousands of schools providing direct feedback to them and their teachers in an attempt to improve the educational system. It runs parallel to the national system of examinations and inspection and has generated a considerable quantity of data. Analyses stemming from the monitoring have provided an independent view of the English and other education systems. Professor Tymms also contributes to and engages in debate outside the UK and is aware of the research carried out into accountability, monitoring and designs for school improvement worldwide.

3.   Responses

 (i)  "Under the accountability system, what should be the consequences?"

3.1  That is very clear. We should see an improving educational system in the sense that we should see slow but steady improved attainment levels amongst our pupils. We should see improved behaviour and social orientation. Indeed we should see improvement in all areas for which schools are responsible.

 (ii)  What is the value of:

    — the school's self-assessment; — the results of national tests; and

    — the school's contextual value added scores;

  3.2  These questions are hard to answer with any certainty. Whilst there is no shortage of verbal accounts, questionnaire results and inspectors' opinions it is not at all clear where the truth lies. Take, for example, questions about the consequences of schools using national test results and/or contextual value-added scores. To what extent have they made a difference? We simply cannot tell. This is because so many other things are happening simultaneously in our society and in our schools. There have been numerous initiatives: inspections have changed, the nature of the tests has changed, the population of school children has changed and so on. We are seeing changes in the schools but what has caused what? We simply cannot know, and that is a problem that faces us nationally and internationally. There are two very relevant publications. One is from 40 years ago and one very recent. They are:

    Campbell, D. T. (1969). Reforms as experiments. American Psychologist, 24, 409-429.

    Issue number 2 of the The Psychology of Education Review Volume (2008) 32 issue 2.

 (iii)  Is the school report card potentially a sound basis for:

    — informing parents; — providing a set of prioritised outcomes for schools;

    — providing a starting point for Ofsted inspection; and

    — providing a management tool for government?

  3.3  It is fairly easy to survey parents to see what they say they want or to ask Ofsted what they would like, but it is much harder to know the consequences of using such a report card. We can look and see what people say has happened in New York with their report card, but New York does not know for sure what impact it has had, although there are opinions and there are report cards all over the US. Which is best and are there better ways of doing things? An evidence-based assessment is lacking.

  3.4  There are, however, clear ways forward and these are outlined in Campbell's paper "Reforms as Experiments" which was referenced above. It would be a major advance to consider his ideas seriously and his suggestions for ways forward. In essence what he says is this: Governments across the world in many areas of policy really do not know what the consequences of their policies will be. They know where they want to go and they know what people say they want but when we put a policy into place we rarely know its consequences. What we should be doing is to formulate policies from which we learn and explicitly aim to change them in the light of evidence. The best way forward is to try out several different things systematically. When we are thinking about report cards we should have trials with a variety of systems. We need that diversity so that we can learn.

  3.5.  I have recently been at an invited conference in Germany where they are thinking of setting up national testing and high-accountability systems. I was privileged to be part of an international delegation including people from Sweden, Holland, the United States, the UK, and various Länder in Germany discussing what we know about the way forward. The one thing that was clear was our ignorance and that we need to learn from each other. We need to co-ordinate our efforts, investigate systematically and build a knowledge base so that our educational systems can make the kinds of advances that we all want.

January 2009

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