- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 385-399)


8 JULY 2009

  Q385 Chairman: I welcome the Minister, Vernon Coaker, and Jon Coles. You know that this is the final session on our school accountability inquiry. We will be meeting the Secretary of State about the White Paper at a later date, so let us not stray off into the wider fields of the White Paper but keep our eye on the ball of accountability as far as we can. Minister, I understand that you want to make a very brief statement about a different item before we get going on the accountability session.

  Mr Coaker: Chairman, that is very helpful. Thank you for very much for allowing me to say something very briefly before we get into accountability, which is obviously extremely important. May I say again that we welcome the inquiry and we look forward to the recommendations that you come forward with. Externally marked tests also play an important role in our accountability system. The expert group on assessment reported that external validation of pupils' performance is vital and that national curriculum tests remain the best way of providing objective information on the performance of each pupil and each school. Last year's failures were unacceptable, and I am pleased to be able to tell the Committee that 99.9% of test results were made available to schools yesterday, as planned. Following this year's successful process, QCA will seek to award a single year contract for test delivery in 2010, which is similar in shape to this year's. We will look to put in place a longer contract from 2011 onwards, which will take more fully into account the recommendations of the expert group. I can confirm that tests will take place as planned in the week commencing 10 May 2010. Having taken account of the QCA's and Ofqual's advice, we will seek to implement the expert group's recommendation on moving the test to mid-June in 2011. Finally, I am aware that following my colleagues' appearance before the Committee on 20 May, when the 2008 national curriculum test problems were discussed, you, Chairman, and Mr Stuart both wrote to the Secretary of State asking for sight of documents relating to our handling of the process last year. A response to each of you is being sent today, which explains that we have decided to publish a wider package of documents relating to the Sutherland inquiry, and those documents will be available on the Department's website later today. May I thank you again, Chairman, for the opportunity to make those few brief remarks.

  Q386 Chairman: Minister, you are very welcome. Do you want to say anything in terms of accountability?

  Mr Coaker: Not really, Chairman. Let's just get straight into it. Accountability is obviously very important and I am sure that the Committee have a number of questions to ask.

  Q387 Chairman: Right. Let's get started. Jon, it is very nice to see you here. I think that it is the first time since you have been in your new role, isn't it?

  Jon Coles: No—we were here not so very long ago.

  Mr Coaker: We were both here about three weeks ago, Chairman. Did we make that big an impact?

  Chairman: I am afraid that the thought of starting an 80-mile walk tomorrow is preying on my mind.

  Fiona Mactaggart: Have you asked him for sponsorship yet?

  Q388 Chairman: I have already asked him—I am still waiting. Let's start with what is really at the heart of all this. A very short time ago, hardly anyone had heard of school report cards; they have suddenly become, not only a great fashion, but also at the heart of the White Paper and are going to, from what I've read, transform the notion of accountability of schools and the education system. Where does all this come from? Is it all just that someone went to New York and was impressed by the school report card in one city in one country? This Committee has been to look at school report cards in New York and we thought that they were very interesting, but is this all based just on the New York experience?

  Mr Coaker: Obviously, we know that the Committee went to New York, and we have looked at what New York has done with respect to report cards and at other examples. I think that you have to put this in a broader context. People wanted to look at something like report cards because they were concerned that what we needed to do was capture everything that a school did. It is not just about academic results. Let me stress this because otherwise you are getting into a bit of a sterile debate: everyone agrees that standards of attainment are crucial in a school and that exam results, SATs results and academic attainment are absolutely fundamental, and we can never take our eye off the importance of that. Alongside that, as you, the Committee and others know, people will say that schools are about much more than that—they are about the development of a child as an individual, how they progress and what the school does in terms of a whole range of other things. The drive was to say, "Is there a way in which we can keep a relentless pressure on standards in schools?" But it was also to try to capture something else about the ethos of a school—what a school is actually about. I think that the report card gives that opportunity. It also tries to give the opportunity to ask whether it is possible to actually measure and judge—in a broader sense—what progress a school is making in those other areas as well.

  Q389 Chairman: But there is no doubt that a reading of the White Paper, and of any of the material that has come out on this, would suggest that this is going to profoundly change the relationship of accountability for all the players—local authorities, Ofsted and the school improvement partners. It is very much going to change the whole landscape, isn't it? It's a very fundamental change.

  Mr Coaker: It is a huge change, Chairman. It is a radical, reforming change. When people read it and look at it, they will say that this is a real attempt and a real desire on the part of the Government to capture that broader picture of what a school is about, and to actually say that we are going to look not only at exam standards, but at the well-being of pupils in the school, the perceptions of parents and pupils and the narrowing of the gap in pupil performance. Of course, that will then not only alter how we hold schools accountable, but also the way local authorities and the school improvement partners work with schools. It will change all of those sorts of relationships. As I say, when people read what it is that we are trying to do, they will see that it is a move away from just saying that we should have one indicator which we concentrate on, as important as that is, because it does not always reflect everything else that goes on in a school and does not always reflect the fantastic progress that some schools make in difficult circumstances. What it will also do, Chairman, is to allow us to see where schools seem to be doing well, but actually could do better if they were pushed. I think that sort of contextualisation, that sort of approach, gives us a much more mature way of looking at what schools are actually doing.

  Q390 Chairman: Are you really attempting to take people's mind off the other stuff? Is it really throwing dust in the public's eyes?

  Mr Coaker: No. Not at all.

  Q391 Chairman: Is it a gimmick? You hear people say, "Oh, look at that school report thing, the Ofsted report. They don't look at the SIPs information, they don't look at the—

  Mr Coaker: Not at all, Chairman, because alongside—

  Q392 Chairman: It's the only really striking thing in the White Paper. It has everything including the kitchen sink, but this is the thing that people have talked about most.

  Mr Coaker: It is the thing that has captured people's imagination and quite rightly, because it is, as I say, a reforming document. It is not a gimmick. It is not about throwing dust in people's eyes, but about trying to respond to many of the things that people have said. Of course standards are important, but why not try and capture some of the other things that a school is about as well? Why not try and inform parents about that? Why not try and inform the community about that and hold the school to account for what it does on a whole range of other areas as well as its academic attainment?

  Q393 Chairman: What would happen in your constituency and mine, Minister, if a modest school was plodding around "satisfactory"—I take it there will be an A, B, C, D or E, or whatever in terms of their school report card—and on these new criteria that school got a C or a D? What happens to the parents' perception of sending their children to that school?

  Mr Coaker: Parents will make an overall judgment, as they do now, about schools. They will look at the report card, because the score has not just come about because of the academic results; it has come about because of a whole range of different things. But, of course, alongside that you will look to see what the reasons are for that—whether the school is improving, what is going on in the school. Of course, it will be a challenge for others—the local authority, the school improvement partner and so on—to actually work with the school to try and build on that. But it is that bigger picture that people will look for. You and I know that some schools, on the face of it, just on raw exam scores, do not appear to be doing particularly well, and yet people still want their children to go there, because they have taken a whole range of things into account. What people want to know from a school is that a school is doing the best for each of the individual children in that school and that each of them can achieve the best that they possibly can.

  Q394 Chairman: Jon, Ministers come and go with some regularity. You have been around for quite a long time. When was the eureka moment when someone in the Department suddenly said, "Eureka! It's school report cards." When was it?

  Jon Coles: I am not sure I can answer that.

  Q395 Chairman: That is very worrying. You do not remember the first time someone said, "Why don't we look at these school report cards?"

  Jon Coles: I am not sure I can remember the first time it was discussed. It has been discussed in the Department for some months. We have certainly been discussing it for over a year in the Department.

  Q396 Chairman: Was it after someone's trip to America?

  Jon Coles: No, it was before anybody went to America that we started talking about it. We are looking at practice all around the place and it is something that has been done not just in New York but in other countries, and in other parts of North America as well. It is true that there are some schools—you referred to this quite rightly—that would be challenged by report cards in a much sharper way than they have ever been challenged before, because there are schools where attainment might look satisfactory but actually pupil's progress is not all that it should be, and not as sharply challenged in the system as it should be. That is a really important thing for parents.

  Q397 Chairman: But you are known as the man with the iron fist in the Department. I can remember people saying, "It's that Jon Coles. He believes in evidence-based policy. You won't get anything past him unless it's evidence-based." Come on, Jon. Is this based on evidence?

  Jon Coles: I think there is a good evidence base for it.

  Q398 Chairman: What evidence?

  Jon Coles: We do have international evidence about the effectiveness of this.

  Q399 Chairman: No, we don't have evidence. We have been to New York. There is no evidence. They are all arguing about it. Someone told us that you need a PhD to understand some of the school report cards in New York.

  Jon Coles: Accountability systems are always controversial but that does not mean that there is not evidence.

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