Skip to main content

Testing and Assessment

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the educational testing and assessment regime. (250608)

Ofqual monitors standards of qualifications and assessments. It reported in July that standards are being maintained. As a result of the unacceptable problems with the delivery of last year’s national curriculum tests, we set up the Sutherland inquiry, and we expect to respond shortly to Lord Sutherland’s report. We have also established an expert group to advise on improvements to assessment arrangements, and we are trialling new ways of assessing key stage 2 pupils through the Making Good Progress pilots.

Can the Minister tell us what effective contingency plans he has put in place for this coming summer?

The procurement for this summer’s key stage 2 tests has gone well, as has been reported to the House, and it has now been awarded to Edexcel. The hon. Gentleman will know that Edexcel operated the standard assessment tests contract between 2005 and 2007, delivering double the number of SATs that it will have to deliver this summer. I am confident that we have everything in place to ensure that we have a successful round this summer.

Does the Minister understand that a lot of Members of Parliament across the political spectrum have sympathy for the teachers and head teachers who think that the Ofsted regime is run by people who could never hold down a classroom and who have been promoted out of their positions? I am talking about all those people from the chief inspector downwards. They ought to be obliged to return to a teaching situation for a year, every two years, before they can make any reasonable and valid assessment of the qualities of their peers who are struggling in the profession. This needs to be looked at, because some of the assessments that are being made are grossly unfair.

Naturally, I listen carefully to the concerns of head teachers and teachers. I also listen carefully to what the Select Committee says. Ofsted is a non-ministerial department, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is accountable through the Select Committee. I have every confidence in the work of the chief inspector and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just whispered to me, to suggest that she should go back into the classroom every two years would be like suggesting that Alex Ferguson should go back to playing football every couple of seasons.

May I ask the Minister also to consider the means of assessment and, in particular, the use of course work for GCSEs and AS-levels? As a parent of teenagers, I know that many of them regard this form of assessment as laughable. It might be assessing the candidates, but it might also be assessing the work of their elder sibling, their parents or their friends—no one can be confident that it is assessing the work of the candidates themselves. Will the Minister accept that this experiment is failing, because it is not providing fair assessment, and look again at how best to obtain accurate results in these important exams for young people?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that they are important exams. Indeed, my son is currently doing his course work for his second year of A-levels. He is taking the work extremely seriously—I hope—and this is the subject of much discussion. Course work is important, and it is important that it is completed properly. It varies between different subjects, and we have reduced the amount of course work as a component of certain GCSEs. I am confident that we have now struck the right balance in each of the different subjects. For example, as someone who studied geography to degree level, I know that course work is a really important element in that subject, and it should remain so.

My right hon. Friend will realise that SATs for 11-year-olds are not conducted in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. What is the educational rationale for conducting them in England, when we know how disruptive they are for 11-year-olds? Would an alternative not be better? Will he accept the recommendations and findings of the expert group, including those that head teachers are now putting forward?

Obviously we are looking forward to hearing what the expert group has to say to us. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question about the educational rationale, because it gives me an opportunity to say that it is about success and about what works. He will be aware that the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study—TIMMS—international evaluation of maths and science showed that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe in those subjects, in part thanks to the test regime.

May I first wish the Minister’s son good luck in his A-levels? I was surprised to hear that he is sitting his A-levels, because the Minister does not look old enough to have a son in the second year of the sixth form.

The Minister mentioned the exam regulator Ofqual, which is supposed to ensure that test standards are robust. Does he support its decision to order an exam board to lower marks in the latest set of GCSEs, and to make the exams easier with a pass mark of just 20 per cent.?

I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that particular debate. There are three examination boards, as I recall, in respect of GCSEs, and one of them had a different view from the other two. In order to carry out its function properly, Ofqual decided that it was necessary to have some consistency across the board. That was what informed its decision. It was not about dumbing down; Ofqual has been very robust about that.

Ofqual was not robust enough. As the Minister knows, it deliberately told one exam board to lower its marks. That exam board did so under protest and said that GCSEs would no longer be comparable with exams taken in the past. The Minister also knows that one of our leading headmasters has said that the new science GCSE has a

“terrifying absence of real science”.

Another leading headmaster said that its content had been reduced so that it was no longer appropriate for intelligent students. One hundred and eighty-seven independent schools now do not take the Government’s GCSEs and they do not bother with the Government’s league tables; they prefer the international GCSE, which the Government’s own watchdog has acknowledged is “more demanding”. We now have a system that has been compared by one headmaster to that of South Africa, where richer students can take more prestigious exams and poorer students are denied the same opportunities. Will the Minister ensure that opportunity is made more equal and insist that state schools can offer the more robust IGSCEs?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Ofqual has been clear that it is confident that standards have been maintained across the GCSEs. I also remind him that the study and taking of GCSEs in science in single subjects has doubled in recent years. I further remind him—and hope he celebrates the fact—that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe at science, thanks to the education they receive in our maintained schools. As far as the IGCSE is concerned, the jury is still out. As I recall, the maths IGSCE, which is very popular among certain members of the independent sector, does not have a non-calculator paper, whereas I think it is important that we assess mental arithmetic and give people that sort of rigour, free of the calculator.