- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 151-159)


22 APRIL 2009

  Q151  Chairman: Could we have the next set of witnesses. I am sorry that you have had a slight delay. May I welcome Jerry Jarvis, Simon Lebus and Dr Vikki Smith to our proceedings. I am sorry that we are going to have a shorter session than we planned. You know exactly why, because you were sitting there listening earlier. We usually give people a chance to say something about accountability and the inspection system and how you view it. You are in a very powerful but privileged position in your organisations. Can I start from the left, Jerry, Simon, Vikki, if you do not mind me using your first names? Do you want to say something to get us started Jerry, or do you want to go straight into questions? It is up to you.

  Jerry Jarvis: I have not prepared anything in advance. I am very comfortable to take the questions as they are.

  Q152  Chairman: Why did you come here?

  Jerry Jarvis: I came here, first, because I was invited. I am head of one of the principal examination boards in the country. We have a huge responsibility. We have just gone through a very important set of evidence in the previous session. It is very important that people like me are held to account and make as big a contribution as we can to the well-being of the system. I am here out of duty.

  Q153  Chairman: Thank you very much, Jerry. I just say to all the witnesses that if you feel that anything asked by members of this Committee touches on a commercially sensitive area we understand that you might not be able to answer. One of you mentioned to me that there are some sensitivities in one particular area. Just make that clear in terms of your response. Simon?

  Simon Lebus: I am the group chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, a department of the University of Cambridge, which owns the exam boards OCR, Cambridge International Exams and Cambridge ESOL. We operate in 150 countries throughout the world, as well as in the UK, so have a very good perspective on the situation internationally. I am here, likewise, because I was asked—inevitably out of interest in your previous session—but also because I think the whole issue of accountability, and the use to which exams are put in terms of their application as an accountability measure, is critical. In terms of the overall system and the wash-back effect on educational exams that arise from their use as a measure of accountability, there are a number of impacts that are of concern and need reflection.

  Dr Smith: I am Vikki Smith, director of assessment and quality at City & Guilds. Again, we were invited to submit evidence, and we were pleased to be invited. For us, it signals a potential blurring of historical boundaries that tend to see a separate vocational qualification. I hope that the issue to be discussed will be how we move to a more holistic picture and better sharing of data that is of use and more accessible. Also, City & Guilds has made a very firm commitment to diplomas. If the market leads how diplomas develop and they become more vocational, as we believe they should, that will be core to us, and we will need to look at different ways of managing that accountability, because the diplomas will demand that. We are very pleased to be here.

  Chairman: Good. Let's get into the questions. Graham.

  Q154  Mr Stuart: In your view, what aspects of provisions should a school be accountable for, and to whom?

  Chairman: Who wants to take that? Jerry?

  Jerry Jarvis: I would almost prefer to answer that as someone from the street, if you like, rather than as head of an exam board. I believe that they have a responsibility to prepare students for higher education, but also to prepare for broader issues, such as the ability to take a place in society, to be ready for work and perhaps to develop those characteristics that engender achievement in people—to celebrate and develop things that people are good at. Part of the reason for this today, I guess, is that the achievement of academic qualifications clearly dominates, so I think that it would be advantageous if we could broaden the scope of that accountability away from the narrow focus on academic qualifications.

  Q155  Mr Stuart: It is a very broad question. I think when we did our testing and assessment report, there were 23 purposes of examinations and accountability that we came up with. I was trying to get your point of view, less as ordinary citizens, but more as experts in this area. What accountability can examinations provide, and what are the areas where examinations cannot provide that, and it would be better provided using some other method, such as sampling? Would one of you deal with that broad issue?

  Simon Lebus: I think, in a sense, the other name for exams is qualifications, and they are about the qualifications that individuals need to succeed in the various routes that they choose to pursue with their career and their life—that is their primary purpose and function. I think that a lot of the difficulty arises when multiple functions are then heaped on top of that. Clearly, parents, teachers, taxpayers and citizens all have an interest in seeing how well schools equip children to be successful in life, and exams have become a form of proxy for that. That, in itself, is not necessarily damaging. What is damaging is the apparatus that is put in behind that. Once that comes to be done in a systematic and mechanical way, all sorts of distorting factors come into play: various artificial equivalences, a whole philosophy of credentialism and an approach to the design of qualifications, all of which interfere with that primary, educational purpose. I do not think that it is an illegitimate thing for a variety of interested parties to be looking at qualifications and results to evaluate how well an institution is succeeding in its task of equipping learners for their later life. I think the difficulty arises when a whole edifice of construction is built on that using rather elaborate and artificial equivalences and measures.

  Q156  Mr Stuart: Is there room for greater teacher assessment in place of the formal examinations that you provide?

  Simon Lebus: There is no question that there is room for greater teacher assessment. I think the difficulty, as ever, is the question of public trust. There have been various debates about coursework and the extent to which people are schooled in coursework so that they can do very well in it, and then how that compares to written qualifications. There is nothing educationally wrong with teacher assessment at all. The question is how ready people are to trust that. Also, just thinking from an international perspective, and looking at what has happened in qualifications over the last 10 years, we live in a global economy. People are increasingly mobile. Qualifications are a form of currency and a support for them in their mobility and their careers, and they need to be trusted. I think it is a case that where systems have very large elements of teacher assessment, degrees of trust tend to be slightly reduced.

  Q157  Mr Stuart: At primary level, for instance, do you have a view on the fact that there could be more teacher assessment and, in terms of schools accountability, that we would be better using alternative methods such as sampling? If the teachers are not contributing to their own assessment, so to speak, through the assessment of pupils, then that distortion will be removed and there would be less teaching to the test, and hopefully the assessments provided to secondary schools would be more useful than they currently are with a supposedly independent external examination. Do you agree with that?

  Jerry Jarvis: Ken repeatedly made the case for onscreen marking. We have virtually 100% onscreen marking running at the moment, and I provide a complete breakdown and analysis of every teacher's own performance in delivering the curriculum that they are required to deliver. It is, however, the case that probably less than 10% of those teachers actually use that analytical information sensibly and sincerely. Part of it is because of the way that we come about it. We expect a great deal of our teachers—we expect them to be the sorts of individuals who can inspire and lead and give us values. Certainly teachers did that for me when I was young. But we also need them to be accomplished managers of processes as well, because we have huge examination processes going on. The current system, as Simon is alluding to, clearly separates the role of an awarding organisation such as mine so that there is clearly regular separation from the delivery of the process, almost to the exclusion of a teacher unless it is to do with coursework and so on. But I will hark back to the technology again: you can blend the two if you use the technology intelligently. Continuous personalised assessment is a key issue of learning and yet we separate that from the formal process that we engage in, and the technology could actually blend those to great effect. As I say, we expect a great deal of our teachers. We expect them to be able to do both. Let me risk an analogy. If you were running an art gallery in which the material was hung by artists who were really committed to the purpose of their art and so on, you would not necessarily ask one of them to run the art gallery and take the money at the door. But we do expect our learning institutions to do both of those things that I have talked about, and we separate the way in which we measure those things to a huge extent.

  Q158  Mr Stuart: Can I move on to contextual value added. There seems to be more and more criticism that it gives no more accurate an assessment of a school's performance than conventional league tables. What views do you have on CVA?

  Simon Lebus: I think the issue to some extent is that it becomes very confusing. The more measures that are introduced the less clear the picture. There is a sense that one set of measures is introduced that does not necessarily give people the information they feel they want, or does not necessarily give the result, so another set of measures is introduced, and then a third set of measures is introduced. If you take something like CVA you can have the peculiarity of a school that performed very well on the CVA but not very well on the five to eight A*-C at GCSE. What conclusion do you draw from that? It is difficult to know what conclusion can be drawn from it as a taxpayer, a member of an LEA, a parent or a teacher. All those different groups will draw different conclusions. I do not think that there is anything wrong with CVA as such, but it is not clear that it adds a lot of value in terms of clarifying the position and enhancing understanding. That is simply a function of the replication of measures, not necessarily that measure itself.

  Q159  Annette Brooke: I should particularly like to ask Cambridge Assessment about its comments regarding "perverse incentives" for schools to choose easier qualifications as an outcome from the performance tables, and the game playing. First, has this intensified over recent years? I recall that in the past schools played examination boards, but perhaps now we are talking about subjects as well.

  Simon Lebus: League tables are a relatively recent phenomenon—they are only 15 years old. With the passage of time, institutions that are judged in performance terms by those league tables become more sophisticated at how they play the game. More and more judgment of school performance is based on performance in league tables, to the extent that schools have become very sophisticated. However, whether they have become more sophisticated over the last two or three years I could not say. Once the incentives are put up and the equivalences are created—so that one GNVQ is equivalent to four GCSEs or whatever, and there is a five-GCSE threshold—we set in train a pattern of behaviour that is bound to arise from using the results for accountability in that way. Whether that has intensified over the last two or three years I am not sure.

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