Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

SIR WILLIAM STUBBS, MS BEVERLEY EVANS, MR KEITH WELLER AND MR CHRIS JONES

WEDNESDAY 15 MAY 2002

  20. But in looking at yourselves you are saying that there are no major weaknesses in the QCA as currently constituted?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Absolutely correct. I see no major weaknesses. There are areas where no doubt we can improve and we will be anxious to improve when we see the evidence of it, and in some areas we have identified them ourselves and we have improved, but not major weaknesses, Chairman.
  (Ms Evans) I just wanted to add that although there is not a formal part of the Quinquennial Review process that invites us to self-assess in the way that you are describing, the process is interested to see what the organisation has achieved over a five year period as well as to try and identify if there are areas where we are not achieving and we are not organising ourselves well. From what I know about the way in which the process has been conducted, I feel confident that the report of the process will list our achievements, will discuss what we have achieved as an organisation in addition to making recommendations for change.

  21. And you have revealed that the QCA conducts its own evaluation. Within the last annual self-evaluation what were the issues that you identified as those most urgently needing attention?
  (Ms Evans) When you indicated earlier that some bodies who had written to the Committee had been critical of the QCA, we do have a role that is sometimes termed the regulator of awarding bodies and very often, if you were to ask the regulated how they feel about the regulator, you are likely to get comments that would be critical of the regulator because that is the nature of the way that that works. I do not think we would want to have a cosy relationship with the awarding bodies and I am sure you would not want us to have that role. If there are signs that you are picking up from bodies of that sort, that they are not particularly happy with the way the QCA goes about its business, we would be very interested to hear of any specific examples, if you were willing to share those with us. It could be for that very reason.

  22. I appreciate that but that does not answer my question. My question is, in your most recent annual self-evaluation what are the issues that you as an organisation identify as most urgently needing attention?
  (Ms Evans) We have some large executive activities in addition to the regulatory role. One of those activities is in relation to assessment tests which the Chairman has been talking about. That is a very large scale process that the QCA conducts every year. You will have spotted from press reports recently that sometimes these things go wrong, so a high priority for us in reviewing our performance is to examine whether there are any improvements that we could make in that process. That is a priority for us at the moment. I would say that another area is in relation to the way we work with awarding bodies, particularly with the unitary awarding bodies, through bodies that are responsible for GCSEs and GCE `A' levels. That is an area that has had a great deal of change with the introduction of the Government's reforms of `A' levels recently, so that is where we are spending a lot of our time, focusing on those arrangements to make sure they are being conducted properly.

  23. Your history is of an organisation emerging from a variety of predecessor organisations originating with the Schools Council. Do you think the Schools Council ethos or dominance of the schools work in the organisation is restricting what you are able to do with the adult population? In your introduction, Sir William, you mentioned the importance of adult schools. What is the balance of resource and staffing within the QCA between work on schools and work on adults?
  (Sir William Stubbs) As it so happens, Chairman, we have a former member of the staff of the Schools Council here who is now a senior colleague responsible for qualifications, including vocational qualifications. I would say to you in general, and I will ask Keith to follow it up, that for those who read the daily press, the weekly press and so forth, it would be very easy to come to the conclusion that we are preoccupied with schools, but that is how the press choose to treat vocational qualifications. That is the way they are concerned. There is no great excitement about NVQs and there are some great success stories to be told about NVQs. The progress that has been made on vocational qualifications over the last five years is a credit to a lot of people in business and industry and commerce and many of Keith's colleagues that the system is much more reliable than it ever was, but it does not make the front page for reasons we understand but may not agree with. That is the backdrop and I can assure you that there is much effort that goes into this. As to the specific question about staff, Keith will maybe wish to hark back to Schools Council days.
  (Mr Weller) I will not go back to the Schools Council; I will spare you that. I think it would be fair to say that there is a profile of expertise on the staff that is properly reflective of the range of tasks we have to do. There are very large numbers of colleagues who work with me on qualifications and in our quality audit division, who have their background in awarding bodies or in training organisations or in further education or in adult education or in industry. There is a fair spectrum of that, and of course we have people with schools expertise as well and local authority expertise too. It is a pretty wide profile of expertise. I could not pretend that we had all the expertise we need in-house. We could not possibly do that. What that means is that we must work with consultants and collaborate with those people who do know employment sectors, who do know their subjects and ensure that we take those things on board when we make the judgements that we have to make about the need for qualifications or, if required, any gaps that there are, and the quality of those qualifications, and we do that widely. We are in deep conversation with specialists outside the organisation more than we are with specialists inside the organisation. There is one thing I want to point to that we need to continue to work at and that is our links and connections with the world of employment. It is quite difficult to get employers to commit time on a regular basis to do work for an organisation like us. We try regularly. We have employers on the board itself and on our advisory committees. We have ex-employers on the staff and we have very close links with the training organisations and with the employers' associations. One of the first things we did when we were created was to set up a number of sector advisory groups that bring together the key employers, large employers, and training organisations in those sectors. The object of that was to give us authoritative advice on the range of qualifications that were needed for the sector, but it was always our intention while drawing on that advice and having all those people meet over the course of a couple of years in order to map the territory that we should hand that back to the sector itself. It is not for us to keep those as standing committees and in many cases those committees have now been replaced by a network of employers and training organisations outside.

  24. In respect of the in-house staff could you give us a figure in terms of the approximate balance of in-house staff working on schools matters and working on other matters?
  (Mr Weller) Yes, I think I could do that. We have something of the order of 60 or 70 officers who are the specialists in the employment sectors and the school subjects. Of those about half to 60 per cent are working on specifically vocational areas and about half of the others have subject areas where there is both a vocational and an academic dimension, for example, foreign languages. We have a single team that works across the range of academic and vocational qualifications. It might interest the Committee to know, and I do not think last year was absolutely typical, but a huge amount of our resource of time spent by staff and financial resources was devoted to vocational qualifications, partly developing the occupational standards that qualifications are based on, but also developing a whole range of technical certificates using modern apprenticeships. I would have thought there was a ratio of nine to one of our financial resources devoted to vocational work last year.

Ms Munn

  25. We have heard about how the QCA has come together from a number of bodies and the history of the organisation. Often nowadays we live in a world of rapid change and sometimes change is associated with an idea that change must mean progress forward. I would like to ask two questions around this issue. First, how do you feel the role of the QCA has developed since it was established?
  (Sir William Stubbs) The role generally?

  26. Yes.
  (Sir William Stubbs) The great strength now is that the procedures, the thinking, the discipline that surrounds having in place rigorous qualifications with respect to, say, general education in school subjects, is now matched, as you have heard, in applying that to vocational qualifications. There is an integrity now about the national framework that was not there before. Number two is that the knowledge and understanding and the experience of the development of the school curriculum and the specialists that we have there informs, now directly, people down the corridor who are engaged on the assessment of that curriculum in schools. That is an integrity that was not there before. The organisation has done something that its predecessors just could not do so easily. It was not easy at the beginning or in different buildings. Now we are in one building and that is real progress. There is a comprehensive link running through the organisation from which the various parts draw strength.

  27. Given that we know that some of your predecessors have quite short life spans and that, whether they are justified or not, there are a lot of criticisms around and that people will always want to say that something could be better, what is your strategy for ensuring that you do continue and that you do continue to develop into the future if you see yourselves as a positive organisation which is doing a good job?
  (Sir William Stubbs) There is no point in continuing into the future for the purposes of continuing into the future. The purpose is when you can draw on what you are doing and you are convinced that there is a good and sound contribution that you have made to the quality of life. I am in no doubt from watching what has been happening, and I have been Chairman since the start of the organisation, that the contributions that the QCA has made to the quality of education in schools, colleges and the aspects of vocational and adult life we are concerned with have been quite distinct, and there is now about our national arrangements a confidence and a quality and a rigour that was not there before. We presented that as evidence to the Quinquennial Committee and it is a matter that the Secretary of State, I am sure, has in her mind from time to time when she is looking at our work.
  (Ms Evans) We have a strategy in terms of our internal policies in QCA to try and recruit the most able people that we can right across the range of our activities. The quality of our advice to ministers is going to be a very high priority for ministers in determining whether they want a body like QCA to advise them, and so the quality of the work that we do is important to us. I think the strategies we have in place for recruitment, for coaching and training of staff, for trying to ensure, thinking about your colleague's question earlier, are ways in which we can allow the very different range of people whom we employ in QCA to be working together, so that we bring the coherence, which was part of the original idea in setting QCA up and the reality of that into the way in which we are advising ministers. It is the quality of what we are doing that we are judged on.

  28. You are presenting a very positive picture there and defending your organisation, which I would expect you to do, but how undermined are these important aspects of your work by such things as the school test papers not being delivered on time, those kinds of administrative issues which are not being delivered in the way they should be? Obviously they are causing problems for a whole range of people and have quite a high profile, quite rightly, in the press.
  (Ms Evans) I have set out the positive things that we want to do. I would not want to say that those are not very challenging things to do, particularly the sharing of knowledge and experience across the organisation, which is very challenging for us, so I would not want you to think that we are complacent about the way we are moving forward in that area. We aim in areas like the assessment tests to ensure that all the test papers that we are responsible for developing and dispatching are there on time in the right order and in the right place at the right school, but clearly that does not always happen. That disappoints us greatly and that is why I said to your colleague earlier that we want to ensure that the systems that we have in place for that part of our business are as sound as we can make them.

  29. "As sound as we can make them"—does that mean you think you can do things on time or that you think it is always going to be a 98 per cent or 99 per cent achievable rate?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We cannot reduce the levels of probability formally to zero. Given the scale of the enterprise that is just not practically achievable, but what we have in place is a range of techniques that enable us to be assured that young people's interests are well protected and there are contingency arrangements in place at various stages but, sadly, there are occasions when there is a breakdown. The press report you mentioned seems to be one. That is regrettable and I apologise; it should not happen, but the test of a good organisation is, has it continuously held up to some extent and ameliorated the damage? If the case you are referring to is the case I have seen, the tests got to the school late and the tests could still be carried out within the school week. Also, the test of a good organisation is, can it learn from these errors and then next year make it even more secure? I think we can give you that assurance, Chairman. You can well imagine that there are lots of people, probably some sitting behind me now, who are looking carefully at our procedures and would not hesitate to bring public scrutiny, quite properly, to bear if there were breakdowns. I think the number of breakdowns that you actually see are very small indeed.

  30. All I am suggesting is that to a lay person it does not seem that difficult—and I might be completely wrong here—to get some examination papers from one place to another on time. We know the timescales in there. What I am suggesting is that a failure in something which on the face of it seems to be relatively simple undermines all the other good things you are talking about on integrating, regulation, assessment and all that kind of thing. Surely you can do a bit better.
  (Sir William Stubbs) If we could ensure that 16 million scripts—and that is what we are talking about—move around the country over the course of eight weeks, if we could guarantee that there would not be one go astray, Chairman, you can rest assured that by now we would be doing it. What I am saying to you, and I am choosing my language carefully, is that we have in place a range of procedures but we cannot reduce the level of probability to zero but I think we have done everything reasonably possible to minimise it. As I say, when something goes wrong an organisation must move promptly and sensitively to deal with it. It is when they meet a blank wall that it is worrying. I assure you that they do not but we still want to investigate.
  (Ms Evans) I can understand that it seems a very simple process and I cannot but agree with you that it is a straightforward process. The way in which we incur risk in this process is because of the scale involved. In fact it is 18 million scripts that are delivered to schools.

Mr Pollard

  31. You did not even get that right.
  (Ms Evans) It is the size of the exercise that means that we have to have as good a process as we can get. It is the size which introduces the difficulty for us because we are aiming to get something into every single school in that way over a very short period. We do not want mistakes to occur and we are looking to learn from everything that has happened this year so that we can try and do better next time.

Chairman

  32. I want to move on to examination boards but, before I move to that general area, one of the problems we still have is not in terms of delivery because it is a real competence you have of delivering 18 million scripts or recruiting excellent staff. We have great admiration for that because you have not been in front of this committee before. The fact of the matter is, what concerns people outside, and we have to reflect that, is that there seems to be a bit of a cosy relationship between QCA, which is about standards and the curriculum and all that, and the department. However brilliant Beverley Evans is, she is a civil servant. She is your Deputy Chief Executive, seconded from the Department of Education and Skills and in a sense that is symptomatic of a very close relationship. What people out there say to us, whether they are academics or professors or ordinary constituents, is that for a standards body is it not a bit cosy that the relationship between the department and your body is not as obviously independent as, say, Ofsted? What would you say to that?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I would say that the word "cosy" is a pejorative one. The phrase "close and understanding" is rather different. We do have a close relationship. There are aspects of departmental policy that we would like to discuss and influence in the early stages and there are aspects of our organisation and the things we do that the department wish to understand in order that the Secretary of State can be briefed. However, civil servants do not encroach into areas that would be improper; there is no question of that. If lying behind your question, or the remarks that have been put to you, is the idea that in some way the political will, or the departmental executive, runs in determining standards or levels of tests, and therefore it is a cosy relationship that way, I utterly refute it, Chairman. That would be, I think, a serious flaw in the arrangement.

  33. That is my job and our Committee's job, to draw out this feeling that that if it was too cosy or too close, whichever way you have described it, here is a Government that says, "We are driving standards up. Aren't we good? You can re-elect us because we have increased literacy and numeracy, standards at 16", at the same time—and this is an insidious view perhaps—that they might be bringing pressure on you to relax the standards in order to make the figures look better.
  (Sir William Stubbs) Chairman, if there was any political interference with standards of examinations I would resign, but I have never seen an inkling that the two Secretaries of State I have worked with and their ministers have in any way sought to encroach into that territory. They have been very careful, and very wisely very careful, to keep away from that. There has to be an integrity about standards that can be seen. If you say we could be more overt, then I will listen to that and we can be more transparent, but the arrangements by which standards are set are open and transparent and the books are there to be seen and are seen, and I think you can draw confidence from that.

Mr Baron

  34. There is a little bit of growing concern about the reliability of examination boards, the three boards that serve England anyway. It is not just Edexcel. We know the three examination boards themselves are short of teachers to mark papers and so forth. I am slightly playing Devil's advocate here but is not the answer that we have a single examination board in order that we have a more effective and efficient service which can benefit candidates and teachers alike?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I do not think that a single awarding body necessarily guarantees sufficiency and effectiveness. We are well aware of a system not too far away from us where a single body ran into difficulties and to some extent I think the difficulty was because it was a single body because the computing system for that body failed or came close to failure. This is something that Sir Ron Dearing looked at when he was looking at 16-19 arrangements a few years ago. He was not persuaded that there were benefits from a single body, that there would be a net gain and that there were benefits from having more than one. At that time there were more than three and he recommended that they be reduced. They have been reduced to three. I think there is a protection in that. It is important to understand that there was a time in the past, Chairman, and we are talking about school qualifications again but that is where the media attention is so forgive me on that, when schools tended to link with one body. That was the body in their region or it was a body they had worked with for a long time. That has now gone and most schools deal with most unitary awarding bodies because they want the choice of subjects, the choice of examinations and so on. If there was a partial failure of one body it does not ripple through to the others and the school can continue to operate. That is a partial protection and I think if people want to go down the path of having one national body for school qualifications it would take some very careful preparation and certainly the transition from here to there would take very careful scrutiny and very careful management. It would be fraught with some risk.

  35. Accepting that broadly speaking you keep the three examination boards, what is the QCA going to do to try and instill greater confidence and instill greater awareness of the good work that examination boards do? There are plans to increase your powers, are there not, so that you can intervene directly in all exam boards to correct faults that are there without having to wait to be asked for an inquiry by the minister? Is that something which you think is a good thing?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I believe that is a good thing. Can I just point out that this discussion is taking place in the midst of a change in `A' levels which have been around now for—it was their golden jubilee of `A' levels last year, Chairman, although it was not on all the front pages. They have been around for 50 years but the change that is taking place last year and this year is the biggest ever. It is a huge change moving to modular examinations and with the interim qualification. That has undoubtedly placed stress on the awarding bodies. I pay credit to the way in which they have attempted to deal with that and in the main they did deal with it successfully. You have drawn attention to one where the strain became too great and it looked like it was going to fail, and indeed did fail partially. At that stage we were engaged in an audit of it and therefore my colleagues were involved in a close scrutiny of it and they saw signs that it could deteriorate. It then did. All we could do at that stage was advise. We had to be very careful that we did not get ourselves into the position of a shadow director in the commercial world where we had given a direction and then could be culpable and liable in the event that the organisation as a consequence traded at a loss and went bankrupt. That was a frustration. We could see things that needed to be done and we did advise on them. Sometimes they would take the advice, sometimes they were slow in taking the advice. I expressed concern to the Secretary of State that we should be in a stronger position when we detected a system failing like that so that we could intervene and direct, and that that then would give more security with regard to delivery of the examinations. After some discussion and after much scrutiny, I am pleased that she is seeking to put that in place in the education programme.

  36. Do you think that will be enough because there is this growing awareness that one or two of the examination bodies are severely struggling? Edexcel, to be fair to them, had 4 million marks in 2000 and it will be 10 million this year, which is quite a jump. We know that others are having trouble, including teachers. Is that new power that you have been given by the Secretary of State enough to re-instil confidence in the system?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Chairman, I see no reason for additional powers. Those powers will deal with the problems that we anticipate could arise if things went badly awry. I can say to you, however, that, as you would expect, we have been very close to Edexcel and have been meeting with senior colleagues and Edexcel since the turn of the year, and matters have improved considerably. They have spent much time and effort. Part of the difficulty in Edexcel was that the management became isolated, one part from another; and therefore knowledge and understanding of where things were going wrong, which is over here, was not transmitted to another part of the organisation. They have worked hard to change that and to improve their external relations. I am more sanguine that this summer will be very much quieter than the previous year.

  Chairman: That is very reassuring. Paul, are you reassured?

Paul Holmes

  37. In some areas. In relation to the argument for a single examination board, you were saying that the fact that there were three allows a fair degree of choice between syllabus and styles, but when I was first head of department in a school in 1984, there were 12 exam boards and I could choose GCSE A-Levels and some were radically different from others. All that has been squeezed out by the National Curriculum et cetera. Is it not spurious to say that three exam boards allow choice? It is not the sort of choice we had back in the 1980s.
  (Sir William Stubbs) I would not say the National Curriculum resulted in any reduction in the number of A-level awards on offer. That came about through one of our earliest tasks, where the Minister asked us to seek to determine the extent to which we could rationalise and reduce the number of qualifications. It was not just A-levels, but there were something like 17,000 qualifications alleged to be around at that time. We have reduced the number of A-levels and therefore the choice is less. It has come down by about 60 per cent, but there are now 186 different offers available to schools. The largest proportion is in modern languages. If we derive it down to subjects, there are 86 different subjects and 50, if you exclude modern languages. I would say to you, Chairman: does a school system need more than 186 different choices in exams? There is a body of opinion in many universities that would say that early specialisation is not in the interests of young people and they should keep it as broad as possible. Indeed, part of the reform that is taking place in A-levels now is to enable greater freedom. There is plenty of choice there. In fairness to your remark, if we thought there was demand in schools for an additional qualification, and it developed over time, then we would want to respond to that and be sensitive; but I think that most schools now are well satisfied with what they have.
  (Mr Weller) A multiplicity of syllabus and specifications does not necessarily mean there is a vast array of choice. The position a few years ago was that many of those specs were very similar indeed, and it gave a massive job to teachers in schools to work their way through them all to discover which one might meet their needs. Part of the process in accrediting recently new GCSEs and A-levels was to ensure that those specifications that did come through in a more rational system were distinctive and did offer a real choice. While there was a reduction in the A-level range of specifications by something of the order of 40 per cent, I do not think there was a significant reduction of real distinctive choice which made it easier for schools and colleges to pick their specification.

  38. I have to differ with you on that one. I was head of the history department and when the AS-level system came in, in my opinion the best courses were scrapped completely. The point I was really making was that since we have moved from 12 exam boards to three, and most of the choice has gone, why not go to one exam board and avoid all the complications?
  (Sir William Stubbs) There is a case, Chairman, that can be made in favour of one examining body. All I would say to you is, if that was the decision and where the country wanted to place itself, the transition from here to there would be exceedingly complicated and would need to be handled with much care. Therefore, you would need to satisfy yourself that the risks involved in that journey were worth the net gains that would come out. I am not saying you cannot work out a unitary, unified national examination system that covers everything, but it is not a straightforward matter to put in place and you will be well advised to think about it very carefully.

  39. The second question is that of the areas, with examples. As we get older, our memories play tricks on us. I cannot recall in the first ten to fifteen years when I was teaching an instance where exam papers did not turn up, pages were blank, questions were set that were impossible to answer. I cannot remember that ever happening. Is that my memory being selective, or are there more errors than there used to be back in the 1980s?
  (Sir William Stubbs) The cases that you have quoted are very much recent ones and very much associated with one examining body. They were regrettable, and intervention has taken place. I sincerely hope that they will not recur. As to whether there are more now than then, there are more papers now than then: we have modular papers, so you have six times as many. It is a very hard question to answer. Where there is strain on awarding bodies is not, I do not think, on construction of the tests and the printing and circulation of those because they have worked very hard to deal with that; the pressure is on markers. You have to get sufficient markers to handle the choice. There is no getting away from that, Chairman. They have struggled very hard. It remains a difficulty in two subjects. I do not think you will have guessed those subjects, but they are English and religious studies, where the A-level qualification has grown massively over the last two years, and they find difficulty in getting markers for that. They do their best but, undoubtedly, it is a very demanding task for them. That is what they are under stress for.


 
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