Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)



  420. I do not think we will get much further on that on this occasion. Can I refer you to page 29 of the Report, which the Chairman has touched on at the beginning and others have touched on, at paragraph 5.9: "Focus groups and discussions with higher education revealed a widespread concern over the number of students who struggle with numeracy skills." Mr Newby, you said that you are tackling that problem by concentrating on numeracy in primary schools that leads to the numeracy hour, and you are also focussing on maths and English teaching between 11 and 14. What exactly does that mean, "focussing on maths and English teaching"?
  (Mr Normington) What I mean is that the Government has launched a strategy for Key Stage 3 which has a programme for retraining all Key Stage 3 teachers in maths and English—obviously there are various levels—against best practice of how you teach maths and how you get the best out of the students. There is a great investment going at this moment into the teachers in secondary schools.

  421. When will we see the first teachers from these better schools actually teaching?
  (Mr Normington) We will see, we will measure, the first Key Stage 3 results, this summer. We will begin to measure them over a period.

  422. Will that be measured in the first year or the first two years?
  (Mr Normington) It will be measuring the effect of doing it for the first year, one year.

  423. If we had had these focus groups and discussions over a period of years, about the numeracy skills in universities, what would we have seen in those focus groups and discussions in previous years? Basically, has the position been improving or deteriorating up until the date of this Report?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know, but I think it is likely that it has been deteriorating over quite some period.

  424. Right. How does that tie in with the great, huge improvements we are seeing in A-level standards and absolute levels of achievement in the sixth forms of 30 to 40 per cent, that we have demonstrated over the last ten to 15 years or the ten years from 1992 to 2000?
  (Mr Normington) There is an issue about maths teaching and about what the content of maths A-level is and whether it is preparing people for university. There is that issue, I agree.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) If I might add, there has also been a decline over that same period in the number of students taking maths and science A-levels.

  425. It does not seem to tally. Maths is quite a common subject at A-level.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) With respect, it is not any longer.

  426. But it is more common than, say, Latin?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  427. Or Greek or Russian?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, but that is not saying much.

  428. Or probably German. It is pretty bog standard, is it not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) With respect, it is not a bog standard A-level, as you put it.
  (Mr Normington) It is a very difficult A-level.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There is a smaller, certainly declining number of students taking it at A-level.

  429. It seems odd that there is a decline in that numeracy at maths, when I think you said, Mr Normington, that there had been improvements over the last ten to 15 years, and here these A-level figures seem to be saying they are improving over these years. It seems odd that the maths—that is, the one that we can see an outcome of being measured—is declining. Why? Do you not feel that there is something odd about this claim that the output from our sixth forms is really improving over the last eight to ten years? Does that not raise alarm bells that perhaps the hope that the standards are improving is actually the case?
  (Mr Normington) There are some alarm bells ringing about maths. We can see that in terms of what happened with the maths AS-level this year where there was a very significant failure rate in maths, much higher than in any other subject. That is raising alarm bells about what the standard is and what is being taught in the schools. That is the subject at the moment of quite an investigation by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, because it is a matter of great concern if we have not got the standard right in maths AS-levels and/or a significant number of students are not attaining that, because of course we need people to get maths A-levels, we need more maths teachers in the schools. So it is an issue.

  430. But it does not lead you to have alarm bells about the value of the A-level point in terms of its absolute level of achievement?
  (Mr Normington) There has just been a report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority which put this question in the hands of some international experts who have been looking at standards over time at A-levels. Their view has been that there has not been a decline in A-level standards.

  431. What about international comparisons of this level of numeracy problems in our universities? Have there been any comparisons about the problem highlighted in 5.9 with other universities in other countries? Are they experiencing the same problems?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The answer is that yes, they are.

  432. At the same level as we are?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It varies obviously from country to country, but this is a problem which is widely recognised in higher education worldwide at the present time. The only part of the world where the numbers of students in mathematics and maths-based subjects like engineering and physics and so on are holding up, is in the Far East.

  433. Going back to some of the questions that we had on Monday, Mr Normington, you raised this OECD Report. I did not realise, until I went away and looked, that that report actually includes the private sector in Britain as well as the comparative countries, which I think invalidates the whole comparison as far as I am concerned, because I do not believe there is a concern—I do not have a concern—about standards in the private sector. I wondered whether there were any similar studies which compare just the state sectors of education in those countries, which you have seen?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know that. This was a valid sample of 15 year olds in this country.

  434. With 4,000 it would be.
  (Mr Normington) Yes, but it is a statistically valid sample, and it would include some people at private school.

  435. Yes, but then it is not measuring the state sector, it is measuring the state sector and the private sector?
  (Mr Normington) It is measuring the achievements of our 15 year olds, and many, many of them, the vast majority of them, go to state schools, so they are included in that.

  436. I am sure, and I am sure they are all very good people. I am not interested in measuring good people, I am interested in measuring the state system. I just wondered whether there were any studies that just measure the state sector?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know. Not that I know of. I think that this is the biggest international study there has ever been. I do not know whether the previous one, which was of maths, did include the private sector. I imagine it did, because it was of pupils. I do not know the answer, but I can find out.[12]

  437. We also talked a little bit about the ethos of comprehensive schools in Britain, the general ethos in schools. I asked you whether you thought that the ethos of Bradford Grammar School could be used and taken to the comprehensive sector more widely. There are some comprehensives which do have that ethos, and those are the ones that people bust a gut to move into the catchment area of . You said in your response to me that Bradford Grammar School can always be highly selective. Do you believe that children of lower academic ability, from whatever social class they are from, would not benefit from the type of ethos that exists in schools like Bradford Grammar School?
  (Mr Normington) They certainly would benefit.

  438. Then why can we not extend that ethos across to the comprehensive group? By "ethos" I do not just mean let us all do better and work harder. You know what I mean. Why can we not extend that ethos across to comprehensive schools?
  (Mr Normington) I agree with you that we need, in our state sector, very effective leaders creating an ethos of discipline and learning. That is the key. Actually the key to the effective comprehensives is to have very effective leaders with a very effective team of teachers around them. That is where you start, and they do then address issues of ethos, of discipline, of the quality of teaching, of links with parents and so on. That is how you do it. Of course, wherever you get a school like that, it is going to perform well.

  439. I wish I had detected that. I have been round schools all over the country and some leading headmasters just do not accept that ethos, they find it elitist, non-egalitarian, they object to it in principle. Do you come across that attitude at all in the educational establishment?
  (Mr Normington) Sometimes.


12   Ev 49-50, Appendix 1. Back

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