House of Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families Inquiry into Testing and Assessment

06 March 2008

They opened their deliberations by questioning Professor Peter Tymms of the University of Durham’s CEM Centre and Sir Michael Barber, sometime Head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit and the man perhaps most closely associated with the growth of measurement in Britain’s schools.

Sir Michael was relentlessly upbeat about standards and the role that testing had played in driving them up. Tymms was much less so, raising questions based on the work of his colleague Robert Coe and of Alf Massey, late of Cambridge Assessment. It was an interesting session in which the committee covered a lot of ground very quickly and some useful points were highlighted. Sir Michael conceded that the Government had taken focus away from the Primary sector too early, in about 2000, thinking that they had magically solved all the problems. Professor Tymms was stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of a diatribe about grade inflation when asked what had happened to grades in his own institution, Durham University, during the same period.

An early marker was put down by Tymms who attacked the Making Good Progress pilots at every opportunity. It was theme that the Committee would return to.

The second session saw Ken Boston Chief Executive of the QCA in the hot seat. He appeared on the same day that the consultation document on splitting up his organisation was published, a move he said he wholeheartedly welcomed. Boston outlined three ways that he believed that achievement could get through the glass ceiling that he said that it had become stuck beneath; personalised learning, assessment for learning and the provision of better data. He bridled at the accusation that most of the innovation was coming from the Awarding Bodies and at the suggestion that he had been silent for the previous five years about the shortcomings in the regulatory model which he now identified. He took the curious view that there was nothing that the QCA could do about the problem of over testing; entirely separating it from any systemic problem and laying its genesis in schools.

The first session after Christmas was an opportunity for the teaching unions to have their say. The NUT and NASUWT chose not to send witnesses, about which the Committee professed itself unhappy. This perhaps set the session off on the wrong foot with members responding at times sceptically to some of the answers. There was much hymning of teacher assessment but little engagement with any of the outside world’s needs for assessment The witnesses gave the impression of being particularly keen to avoid talking about the need for school accountability other than to ritually damn league tables, repeatedly. Their arguments hit home powerfully though when they presented evidence of the negative washback on the curriculum of Key Stage tests and the time that was being devoted to them.

The 21st of January saw senior figures from the Awarding Bodies called before the committee. Edexcel’s Jerry Jervis spoke about his board’s commitment to technological investment and his personal belief in the importance of personalisation and formative assessment while Greg Watson, Chief Executive of OCR focussed on some of the structural problems that he said beset assessment; the constant revolution and multitude of purposes to which assessment was put were, he said, eroding confidence.

All the witnesses agreed that the changes in qualifications over the last ten years had been sufficiently substantial as to mean that comparisons outside that time frame were very difficult, a point which caused consequent media coverage.

All the Awarding Bodies were pleased with how the session went and felt that they were able to answer the questions that were put to them in ways likely to be helpful to the committee.

The next session was with what the Committee called the consumers of the product, employers and representatives from Higher Education. Susan Anderson of the CBI was joined by two vice Chancellors, Steve Smith of Exeter and Madeleine Atkins of Coventry. Barry Sheerman started the session with a wry observation that they had sought a representative from Universities UK but that body had felt unable to provide one as they didn’t believe that there was a consensus view in the sector. One consensus that did emerge, with all the witnesses testifying to its acuity, was that they all believed that there were problems with students coming through with Maths A Level.

After the consumers it was the ‘suppliers’ turn as the Department’s Civil Servants were questioned. There was a surprise here as, in addition to the long billed appearances of Sue Hackman, Chief Adviser on Schools Standards - to deal with National Assessment and John Coles, Director 14-19 Reform Group - to address the Public Examination system, David Bell the Permanent Secretary also appeared.

The three were given a hard time on the National Assessment system and the Making Good Progress pilots. The defence of the potentially failing pilots, that it was very early days and that nothing was settled, was not entirely convincing especially given the hail of criticism from other witnesses that had been directed at them.

The inquiry closed with the Minister of State Jim Knight, who was accompanied by Ralph Tabberer, Director General for Schools. Knight gave a bravura performance defending both the necessity of a National Assessment system and the Making Good Progress pilot – although he did confirm that if it didn’t work he would not persevere with it. He was ambushed by the committee, however, on two fronts; the utility and usability of Contextual Value Added data, which committee members said was far too obscure to be of much use to parents; and on the extent to which teachers had been consulted on the 14-19 changes – it turned out they hadn’t been, much.

The crystal ball...

It seems quite clear that the principal recommendation of the Committee is going to be that the National Assessment system, the Key Stage Tests, is thoroughly overhauled. Of course the Government shares this view and has commissioned the Making Good Progress pilot. However it is also clear the Committee is less than enamoured with that pilot. All the witnesses that they heard from, other than those from the DCSF and QCA, were unhappy with the pilot and the unfavourable media coverage that it attracted during the early months of 2008. The fact that the first round of results were withdrawn from publication cannot have helped. It is unlikely that the committee will come up with an alternative proposal, although it is receiving advice from Professor Dylan Wiliam, who proposed an alternative model of his own in 2006.

In respect of Public Examinations the Committee seems unlikely to make sweeping recommendations; they simply didn’t take enough information to make wide ranging judgements. The most negative witnesses were those from the teaching unions, but even they confined their most damaging evidence to the National Assessment system, sometimes tacking on an implied criticism of the Public Examinations.

Of course predicting what Parliamentary Committees are going to do is a dangerous pastime and there is always a potential danger that a minor, or hedged, recommendation is seized on by Government as a potential central pillar of reform; something many observers felt happened to the Committee’s recommendations on the teaching of phonics in the ‘Teaching Children to Read’ inquiry. The Qualifications system is undergoing structural reform at the present time and any destabilisation could be very damaging, the current fluidity meaning that any disequilibrium could be locked in to the new system when it become rigid. Everyone in the sector will hope that the Committee produces a sagacious and measured report.