Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



Mr Turner

  40. I was not clear whether the quinquennial review was to ask whether you were doing your job well, or whether it was necessary for you to do your job. You spend either £76 million or £127 million, and you have over 500 staff, over half of them in Central London: are you worth it, Sir William?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I think we do provide value for money, Chairman; there is no doubt about that. As I said at the very outset, a number of qualifications were awarded throughout the country, and I have described the use to which they were put, and I think that much public confidence is derived from that. That confidence stems largely from the work of the regulatory body. I think that without QCA you would be a much more worried nation, with respect to the examination system. You asked about how well we do our work. I think the answer is that it is both. The primary question is whether we should continue, and that is what I wanted an answer to before we appointed a chief executive. I think we would then be expected to look at what we were doing to see whether we could do it more efficiently or effectively.

  41. Some people would look at a quango and say, "are you necessary?" What conditions would be necessary for you to cease to exist?
  (Sir William Stubbs) It would be such benign conditions that I find it hard to imagine, Chairman. You would have total confidence in the integrity of bodies training to give a service that was crucial to young people's and adults' life chances and needed no oversight. That may be your expectation of the world in the immediate future, but it is not mine, Chairman. I think that there is a discipline associated with having a regulator in place, and we fulfil that. Maybe we should fulfil it more openly, but we certainly fulfil it. If we were not there, the system would be, quite frankly, in some respects dangerous because qualifications would be given without any scrutiny about the integrity of them. Qualifications, ultimately, are certificated evidence of the candidate's achievements and abilities. It is very important that one should have confidence in it.

  42. Mr Weller, what was wrong with the Secondary Education Council?
  (Mr Weller) That Council was responsible, as its name implies, for school examinations. It was not the curriculum—

  43. Within its area of responsibility.
  (Mr Weller) Within its area of responsibility, I think it functioned tolerably well, but it was not able to offer the progression links between qualifications of different kinds that QCA is able to do. People may not necessarily want to go through a linear route and may want to move to and from general and vocational qualifications. You could not do that without an oversight of relationships and the national qualifications framework. In its own sphere, it operated fairly successfully, albeit there were a very large number of committees which took much time to process things.


  44. Have you ever stormed into the Secretary of State's office and said: "Secretary of State, we have assessed the baccalaureate system, and you really should not take this seriously"?
  (Sir William Stubbs) The answer to the first part, have I ever stormed in, I have not stormed in.

  45. Have you done an assessment of the attractions—
  (Sir William Stubbs) The international baccalaureate has been looked at on our behalf by our equivalent in Wales, because the body that runs the international baccalaureate is based in Wales.

  46. Is that published?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I think it is published.
  (Mr Weller) There is an accreditation process. It was a question of establishing if the body was a fit awarding body.

  47. Could you let us have anything you have on that?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Yes.

Jeff Ennis

  48. There has been a quite spectacular increase in raising standards in relation to Key Stage2 over the last seven years. Does that represent a real increase and improvement in standards in our primary schools?
  (Sir William Stubbs) It certainly represents a real increase. By the way, when you lump them together, you are talking about English, maths and science collectively, but the rate of improvement in each of those subjects has been different. The rate of improvement in science has been the most marked. There has been some improvement. All the evidence that is complementary to the tests, and that is the evidence of direct observation from HMI principally, shows that the quality of education in schools has improved, and our evidence backs that up. Where there is dispute is about the reliability and accuracy of the percentage of improvement. That comes down to those who make the judgments. Much earlier on this morning, I said to you, Chairman, that we provided a variety of techniques in order to ensure that those judgments are as well organised and as rigorous and meticulous as one could reasonably expect. The fact that there has been real improvement is, I would think, very powerful indeed.

  49. Does that mean that our primary school children moving up to secondary school are now better placed to start their secondary education; and when will we see a spectacular increase in Key Stage 3, as we have done with Key Stage 2?
  (Sir William Stubbs) There is little doubt that we are better placed. As we all know, the transition from primary to secondary is not a serious process, transition from one institution to another and transition from one teaching staff to another, and moving into a much bigger organisation, moving into a learning organisation that has to deal with young people coming from a variety of schools with different experiences; and also what is expected of them. They move into a curriculum that is much more subject-based and there is a dip in attainment. To some extent, that results from secondary school teachers wanting the evidence of young people's achievement directly rather than relying on the evidence of their primary colleagues. That has been a problem for decades now, since my earliest days in education. Secondary schools wanted to re-test youngsters instead of using the evidence from primary schools. Effort is being made at Key Stage 3 by the Department and the Secretary of State concerned, to see Key Stage 3 improved, including transition arrangements. There are a number of novel schemes around the country. If they could make that transition utterly seamless, then what you are looking for would have a much higher probability of coming about. At the present, it is not without its difficulties.
  (Mr Jones) To answer the question directly about when one would expect to see a spectacular improvement in Key Stage 3, the point touched on by Sir William at the end is critical here. In relation to the improvements that we began to see coming through the system in Key Stage 2 in particular, it is reasonable to make some causal connection with the fact that there has been a massive effort to focus on the core of the Key Stage in the national strategies over the last four years. The work that we do in designing the curriculum and the tests, provides a framework but the input of supporting teachers and putting resources in and training, very much comes through the Department, in terms of their strategies, and one has begun to see that. As you are aware, Key Stage 3 in a sense, has just begun. The parallel strategy for bringing about improvement at Key Stage 3 is in its first year or so. So one might expect a year or two before one started to see similar effects in terms of the end of Key Stage 3 results.

  50. When I go into primary schools, quite often an issue that is raised by teachers is the fact that they feel the curriculum is becoming too overcrowded in the primary school. Have you any views on that?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I mentioned earlier on that there is something like just under 20 per cent available for schools, particularly primary schools, to use in terms of developing the curriculum. There is evidence that many schools imaginatively use that. In addition to the National Curriculum, we give advice to teachers, which, by the way from all our assessments is highly appreciated, on how to deliver subjects and so forth. I think where the difficulties come is where some schools, rather mechanistically, follow advice and follow the National Curriculum, perhaps sometimes because they are not confident enough to use the freedom; but there is certainly nothing within the National Curriculum framework which would not allow them to do that. Chris has been looking at that, particularly within primary.
  (Mr Jones) An unusual feature of our National Curriculum is that it does not specify amounts of time statutorily to be linked with subjects. With the first major review of the curriculum in 1995, the design was such that there was an expectation that the National Curriculum would occupy of the order of 80 per cent of schools' time. That depends to some extent on the amount of time that the school is in session and the amount of time the teacher has, and so on. The figures at the moment suggest that schools typically spend rather more than that, and that it is probably closer to 85 per cent of their time on the National Curriculum. It does vary from school to school. Some schools clearly find it difficult to fit everything in. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the more successful schools, schools that do well in terms of the sorts of measures that are in place, are often the ones that will comment that they find no trouble with fitting everything in. Schools vary in terms of their success in getting things together. We spend a good deal of time producing advice, based on what actually happens in successful schools and in effective schools, to spread those ideas around the system, both on paper and through our websites and so on, to enable other schools to learn from schools that have been successful in doing that. The figure is somewhere around 85 per cent to 90 per cent.

  51. Are there any subjects in danger of being squeezed out in the primary school? I am thinking primarily of subjects such as PE and Games.
  (Mr Jones) The last time we reviewed the National Curriculum and put a new National Curriculum in place was for the year 2000. We spent the previous three years building up to that review. Interestingly, in the two years preceding that new curriculum coming into place the Secretary of State effectively suspended a large part of the National Curriculum in primary schools in order to give particular attention to literacy, numeracy and so on. Therefore, there is an interesting two-year period leading up to that. In 2000 there was a question as to whether to carry on with an arrangement whereby schools had to do geography and history etcetera but did not have to follow the National Curriculum. We gave very clear advice to the Secretary of State at that point that that should not be the case, and that programmes of study nationally specified should be re-introduced, but slimmer than the ones before—less of it. The Secretary of State agreed with that, and that is what happened. There is not any evidence that the subjects are being squeezed out, but there is evidence certainly that primary schools have re-organised their priorities over the past three or four years. There is a greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy in Key Stages 1 and 2, particularly Key Stage 2, and that does put some pressure on schools in terms of finding the time to fit things together. One of the things that we have registered over a number of years is that schools, as you would expect, have got much, much better at planning and organising, and doing what they need to do in order to deliver what is a very ambitious National Curriculum. That is to the credit of schools. We are so much better at it now than we were five years ago. There is pressure there, but the schools are coping.

  52. On Key Stage 2 results, you said categorically that there was a definite rise in achievement over the last seven years. There are voices in the education world that say that some of this is an unreal rise. Talking to that range of teachers, they all say, certainly off the record, that year 6 is dominated for a whole year by teaching to the tests, with an eye to the school's league table position and al the rest of it. In my last year in teaching, before the election, I was a year 7 form tutor. As well as teaching those 33 pupils, I was also reviewing their progress in every subject every term. I would say beyond a shadow of a doubt that one third of those pupils came in that September with Key Stage 2 results that were higher than the level they were really on. Have you done any research into this?
  (Sir William Stubbs) This would be the progress that they might have made in the third term, before their transfer into the secondary school. I would think they would make no progress, and we should be concerned about that. I was asked earlier if there had been a real improvement over the last few years with respect to the achievements in English, maths and science: there has been real improvement. I also accept, by the way, that there is teaching to the tests, and that tests do affect school life. This term, I suspect, there has been greater emphasis given to Shakespeare plays than there would be in the last two years, and that is an anxiety to some extent. Most of the tests used in schools are not our tests, because schools want to use them for their own purposes. Schools asked us to construct non-statutory tests that would help them do that. A sensible, wisely-led school does not allow that to become disproportionate, but, when it does, the kind of fears that you express become real.

Valerie Davey

  53. The proportion of A-level students getting A grade has risen dramatically over the last ten years and has gone from 12 per cent to 19 per cent. The reason given for that is polarised between, "we have now got better teaching and learning skills" to "the exams are easier". Which end of the spectrum does QCA go for, or do you have another interpretation of those figures?
  (Sir William Stubbs) There has been a real improvement from 13 to 18 per cent over all subjects. It is not the same for all subjects, and I would like to come back to that at some stage in your questions. During that period, there has been significant change in the examination system so that it is possible for young people to not have one final examination but they have a series of modules. The purpose of bringing that in, which was schools learning from higher education, is that the experience in a limited examination can help their learning in other parts of the syllabus. The examinations are constructed deliberately in order to enable young people to be more effective in their learning. Secondly, young people and teachers now get the scripts back, so they can see the technique of examinations and what markers examiners are looking for. The last Secretary of State introduced that. Now, the scripts go back and the teachers can see them; and wise teachers learn from that, as do individual students. The third reason is—and it may not be one that sits with us comfortably, particularly with Mr Holmes's earlier comment about how we see ourselves versus those who went before—there is a considerable body of evidence that says young people are more intelligent than ten or fifteen years ago, and that their IQ is greater. We may not find that comfortable, but nonetheless there is evidence. Putting together the intelligence of young people, the changing of awarding and examining systems, the increased emphasis that is given to tests now, and the importance of young people achieving the A-level results, you can see that the motivation is significantly different. I do not see that it is a choice: I think you can attribute it to a real gain in young people's achievements. If you will permit me one comment with my back to the door, Chairman, as we are coming near to the end of the session, this is an English problem. The English have real difficulty in recognising the achievements of their young people in examinations. The Scots—and I am not, in Tony Hancock's phrase, "Rob Roy"—have seen an increase in the highest grades almost parallel with that in England. It is not something that worries them as a nation; they actually draw comfort from that. I think we should draw comfort from that, but we should be on the watch all the time to see that it is not false. I think we go to considerable effort to see that it is not false.

  54. I appreciate enormously the idea of celebrating success, and I agree with you that in the English context, we are not good at it and ought to do it more. QCA felt concerned enough last year to set up an independent panel to look at the quality assurance of you're a-level; so did you have some concern?
  (Sir William Stubbs) When the new Chief Executive came in, I said to him: "You had better prepare yourself for the annual season"—the season the Chairman referred to, which is opening about now—when there is great public scrutiny and criticism. Perhaps the time has come to look at this more carefully. That was the context. He said he could see the sense of that, but that the people who looked at it had to be independent. He brought them in, and that panel looked at it and, I am pleased to say, confirmed much of what we had been saying about quality. Can I give you an example, Chairman, about where it is most often expressed, and that is mathematics, because the proportion achieving grade A mathematics is 30 per cent. There is a great wringing of hands about that, particularly when they look over the Border and see that the proportion achieving the highest grades in mathematics in Scotland is of the order of 15 per cent. Immediately, one jumps to the conclusion that there are low standards in England, and that this is a scandal. The reality is that three times as many young people present themselves for higher maths in Scotland, whereas in England it is self-selecting. It is seen as a hard exam and not so many go in for it. Of those who do go in for it, naturally a higher proportion get grade A; but looked at over the population as a whole, three-quarters of 1 per cent of a cohort achieve grade A in England, which is almost half what it is in Scotland. It depends which end of the telescope you are looking down. There is much of which to be proud, and much from which to draw comfort.

  55. That is very helpful. One of the recommendations of that panel was that we should give A-level students their mark rather than their grade.
  (Sir William Stubbs) That was not quite the recommendation; they said that is what you could do. Indeed, young people can get their mark now, and it is open to the university if they want to ask them what their mark is. Once you start publicising the marks, then you put a lot of reliance on individual marks, and in the main the judgment is that it is better to have grades and to look very, very carefully at the boundary of those grades. That is where we have been putting our effort.

  56. You mentioned earlier that you had had the greatest change in the A-level system in the last couple of years with the introduction of AS-levels. What effect do you think that has had or will have on the system for young people?
  (Sir William Stubbs) It was introduced not in order to make the system more or less rigorous, or to make it bureaucratically more efficient; it was introduced for educational reasons. There has been anxiety for some time in England that young people were specialising too much and too early, so it was constructed in such a way in order to encourage young people to broaden their programme of studies in the sixth form. In the evidence of the first year, that has happened. It has not happened in quite the way we would want. The most popular choice is the three sciences and maths. There is some evidence that young people are taking the extra subjects—and they are taking between one and two extra subjects—that are allied to their core. The spirit of the reform is also that they would move to the humanities as well as the sciences. I expect we will see that, Chairman, but you should not expect young people to be too adventurous. After all, they are just at the cusp of their career and with the change in the examination system I think they are being understandably cautious; but there are encouraging signs. That is the first thing. The second thing is that we were terribly worried about the number of young people who were entering A-levels when it was not an appropriate examination for them, and they were dropping out and walking away with nothing. The system now enables people to have a reasonable aspiration, a qualification half-way through, and they can cash it in, get their AS-level, and use that for whatever purposes they want. That is a real gain too. Whether it is increasing the retention rate in the examination system, it is too early to say, but that is what we believe.

Mr Simmonds

  57. In regard to AS-levels, both pupils and teachers, and I suspect examiners, say that it has vastly increased the workload. Many pupils that I have talked to in schools are very unhappy with that. Do you think that that is detrimental to the education process?
  (Sir William Stubbs) It has undoubtedly increased the attention and effort—or, I suppose workload—that young people have to put into their studies in the first year in the sixth form. It used to be that you could rely on your assessment taking place in two three-hour periods at the end of two years. For many young people, that was a form of assessment that was high-risk, and if on the day you were not well or below par, then failure was a real possibility. That risk is now spread over two years, and the stakes on an individual are less—real, but less, because it is a series of hurdles rather than a high jump. That means that they have to make an effort in the lower sixth. I think that last year, which was the year in question, was a learning year and a nominal year, and probably in the main people erred on the side of putting in too much effort, and some of the ancillary effort to sports and other activities in schools was reduced. I think that that will gradually come back once there is some stability in the system and once young people and teachers feel more confident.

  58. Do you think that there are therefore no improvements that can be made in the existing AS structure, and if there are improvements to be made, what are they?
  (Sir William Stubbs) There are improvements that can be made, and one of them is to do with timetable. At present the AS examinations are examined first before the A2. That is the way it started, for good reasons, and we carried it on this year. I think we could have that later in the school year so that there is a longer period for learning and revision. When we have consulted in the past about changing that, the schools have been a bit ambivalent. Maybe they will have the confidence to say we should do that. The timetabling of the subjects was, quite frankly, wrong last year. There were too many conflicts in the subjects and it was too difficult for young people to take their choice without them butting up against each other, and sometimes overnight having to stay in seclusion before going to a special exam the next day. That has been reduced considerably because we have reduced the length of the paper in order to allow the timetabling to be made more possible.
  (Mr Weller) One of the great unknowns in the first round of AS examinations was the combinations of subjects that students would choose at the time that timetables were being set. Those patterns of combination were not known. The examiners know a lot more about that now and they will find it easier to set the timetable. There will always be some clash where there is choice.
  (Sir William Stubbs) There is one other change, Chairman, that we are beginning to look at. What has caused some of us anxiety each summer, in the season you referred to, is that on the same morning on which an individual young person opens the envelope and finds out their results, they see headlines in the newspapers saying that standards have gone down. I think that this is quite unreasonable. At present, it is necessary for the awarding bodies, when they produce the results of individual young people, to also produce national assessments of how the whole system has changed over the course of the last 12 months. I think we should separate these two. Young people should get their results earlier so that they can have a more measured approach to university; and that national analysis should follow on a few weeks later, disengaged from the misery or excitement or pleasure that young people get from the results of their A-levels.

  59. Can I ask one final question about AS exams. Has the introduction of the AS-level been a direct contributor to the fact of some of the poor performance, particularly by one individual examining body?
  (Sir William Stubbs) The one subject where, frankly, it was not satisfactory, but we are still not sure how to correct it, is maths. That was made marginally more difficult, and there was an outcry. We are not quite clear as to why that was. Was there too much content; was it a mixture of pure maths and the applied subjects? We are looking at that this year, when we will have two years' evidence, to see whether that needs adjusting. Other than that, in the main, for the other subjects, we are broadly content.

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