WEDNESDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2002
Mr Barry Sheerman, in the Chair
MR NEIL HOPKINS, Principal, Peter Symonds College (nominated by the Association of Colleges), MR EDWARD GOULD, Master, Malborough College (nominated by Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) and MR TONY NEAL, Headmaster, De Ashton School (nominated by Secondary Heads Association), examined.
(Mr Hopkins) If I may, Chairman, I would just like to put things in perspective slightly to give you some idea of the scale. As a college we have nearly 2,500 students, 2,300 studying AS and A2, so we make 27,000 entries to the three main examining boards by the time you count all the units and modules. We get something like 1,000 to 2,000 applications for re-marks each year which result in several hundred upgrades. As a result of the Tomlinson Inquiry we had one subject where we had 200 module re-marks which resulted in 17 final upgrades. I have to say that although things went wrong, the vast majority of the experience this summer was actually right.
(Mr Hopkins) We use all the three main examining boards and also the Welsh board for one subject.
(Mr Hopkins) My experience was that AS and A2 was introduced very quickly, too quickly frankly, and we worked very, very hard to make it work. There were some problems with it but in proportion I do not think the problems were that extreme.
(Mr Hopkins) We are in constant dialogue with the examining boards. It was a very frustrating period before September 2000 in particular, the preceding year, when we were talking to exam boards about the fact that the syllabuses and course specifications were very late at delivering, exam boards blamed QCA and we had no idea who was to blame, and materials and so on were very late in coming. There was a constant dialogue between us and the boards. One of the things about the size of my institution is when you talk to an examining board they are aware that you have got several hundred entries they are talking about, so there was this dialogue going on. In the end AS came through okay but what was frustrating was there was a degree of complacency over A2 across the whole country, "we have sorted it because we have got AS sorted out" and people forgot in some cases that A2 was also a new exam.
(Mr Gould) There was a problem in that the standard required for A2 was not defined. There was no clarification in terms of how an AS plus an A2 equalled an A-level. There was confusion in terms, therefore, of how the new A-level matched the legacy A-level. If you have an examination - I am trying to keep it as simple as possible, therefore as brief as possible for all your sakes - if you have a triangle and you have the word "standard" written at the top that has got to be defined in terms of quality of work, on the bottom left of the triangle you have the word "marks" and on the bottom right you have the word "grades", people either reach a standard or they do not reach a standard as defined by quality of work. Children take examinations and they are given marks which are converted into grades. If no standard is defined and you do not like the final grades, bands, in terms of As, Bs, Cs, Ds, Es, all you can play with are the marks. I would suggest what happened this year was because the standard was not defined, which in terms of HMC we flagged up, and I can probably produce some letters going back to 1998, we found the marks being altered. The three boards, awarding bodies, did it in different ways after there had been a meeting between the Chairman of QCA with the three chief executives of the awarding bodies present at which it was made clear that grade inflation was not to take place. That information was given to one of the members of the HMC committee by one of the people who was present at that meeting. That was further endorsed by a scrutineer from QCA and various senior examiners. I do not wish to trawl back over what happened, to quote your earlier remark, but, to answer your question, there was a failure to set standards. There was not a pilot of A2, there was no exemplar of material and there was no way in which it was explained to anyone how AS and A2 became an A-level.
(Mr Neal) The issue here is one of standards and the setting of standards. Having set the AS level standard in relation to what the pupil ought subsequently to achieve at A level, there ought to be no need to adjust the A2 standard in any way. The A2 standard could have and probably should have equated with the old legacy A-level standard. Certainly one of the benefits of the whole system should have been that A-level would have become accessible to students. By that I do not mean that the standard would have changed or it would have become easier, but changing the course structure should have meant that more students would be enabled to reach that standard. As it unfolded it became clear that that was going to happen and two things appear to have taken place. First of all, during the course itself there seemed to be some attempt to change the A2 standard to move it to a standard that was higher than the old A-level standard, and we can see no justification for that, and then there was the subsequent issue of the changing of grade boundaries to try and adjust the statistical profile of the outcomes after the event. The main issue does seem to resolve itself into the definition of the standards.
(Mr Neal) Since between arriving here this morning and coming into this room I have had a phone call from school saying that we have just had the results of 12 papers come back to the school and upgraded, I am not entirely sure what the resolution of this year's events yet is. There is still some mystification.
(Mr Gould) I would argue, if I may, Chairman, that there are still some unresolved issues, notably with OCR. I have all the time in the world for the way Mike Tomlinson has conducted his independent inquiry. Since he was given about ten days it was inevitable that he was going to have to set certain parameters for reporting to the boards. I think he did it absolutely admirably and I have nothing but praise for what he did but, still, inside his two parameters there are a number of unresolved issues. It does appear that OCR set their own standard with A-level minus one for AS level and A-level plus one for A2. Nowhere is that in the code of practice, nowhere is that standard defined, nowhere has that standard been relayed to schools, teachers or examiners beforehand. It all came about later and, of course, since the AS was in the bag for many children, whatever school they were at, and since some of them had the AS from the previous summer, some of them had the AS from January, they had very few papers with which they could alter the marks and then, bearing in mind what I have said previously, you do not have the grades and then you tamper with the marks if you do not have a standard.
(Mr Gould) Yes. If all we were dealing with with Edexcel was what has happened, I would not be sitting here. It would be like a normal year, if I can put it that way. We are happy with Edexcel by and large. With AQA we have some difficulties across the GSA, the Girls' Schools Association, and ourselves, and we have considerable problems still with OCR.
(Mr Hopkins) We have to deal with all the boards. Forty per cent of our work is with OCR and the other 60 per cent is split evenly between Edexcel and AQA. We have difficulties every year with all three boards and the quote I gave to my local press, if I can remind you of it again, was that we are no more satisfied this year than usual. These are ongoing routine remarks and I have to say that I think the problem is the quality of the marking and the quality of the examiners, nothing extraordinary this year in relation to the question of grades in particular.
(Mr Neal) The problem in a sense goes beyond that. I think the problem relates to uncertainties all round about what the standards were, uncertainties perhaps on the part of the boards, although we cannot know that for sure, but certainly uncertainties amongst teachers as to what the standards were.
(Mr Gould) I agree.
(Mr Gould) No. There are a number of factors involved. I will not bore you with the complete list which I think you should have seen by now. To define standards is needed and I happen to know that Ken Boston is in the throes of doing that and a draft has been produced and I am quite sure that that is eminently soluble. I think there needs to be independence to regain the level of confidence which I think your question was referring to. I think there needs to be independence at QCA from the Government, though if you asked me to give you evidence of Government interference with QCA I have no evidence for that whatsoever, which I have consistently said when I have been asked. I think that the QCA should confine itself to setting standards and then acting as the regulator of what happens with the Awarding Bodies which should themselves have a level of independence. They should be concerned with actually setting the various tests and exams through the ages. There needs to be a better balance between judgments made on quality of work versus statistics because this year I believe that statistics ruled, if I can phrase it like that and, because the standards were not there, therefore statistics took over, most notably in OCR.
(Mr Gould) I think there are too many targets. Trying to reduce a human being to a statistic is in the end a fairly pointless exercise. Education is certainly about more than that. I also think there is too much testing, too much assessment. I think one could look at the different ways of assessing people. It does not all need to be the external examination. I would estimate at the moment, although I have not done any figures on it, that you have probably got less than two-thirds of the two-year A-level course being spent in learning, ie, teachers teaching. There is over a third being used in assessment of some form or other, and that seems to me not particularly helpful.
(Mr Gould) Yes, I there have been for some time, even with the old A-levels, teachers making judgments on course work, which is a separate issue, so they are used to making these judgments. One of the things that was highlighted this year, particularly in the course work issue, was that informing as teachers made judgments, these were moderated externally by people who had been trained by the boards, and the moderators may well say that those marks are increased, decreased, they are not right. At any rate, the moderators finished their job and those marks by and large are accepted by the boards as part of the final awarding process, whereas this year in a number of subjects those marks got radically altered. That kind of illustration is going to confuse teachers and reduce confidence in teachers who have been working jolly hard against a very tight timetable in terms of the pace at which these new exams came in and is unhelpful in trying to restore confidence in the teaching profession, whatever school they are in.
(Mr Gould) I would have thought that alongside this there are one or two other issues that can come along and presumably Mike Tomlinson in part two may well address some of these points. The post-qualification application, PQA, I believe could well come in on the back of this because if everyone has their qualifications by the time they are applying to universities I think that would make the universities' job quite a lot simpler. It would be possible for the Government, if it was so minded, - and I accept that this would require cash - to alter, say, the university year (but you would expect me to say that) to run from January, ie, the calendar year, and then that period in the autumn when a boy or a girl has left school can be used for the university application season. I think that would help quite a bit. I also think that you could solve some of the six-year problem at the same time because if you did that you could adjust the length of your terms during the year to get back to a pattern whereby your first term in the academic year was not so long and overloaded. There are a number of issues in there which could come out which might be beneficial to the total education system.
(Mr Hopkins) Very much so. Curriculum 2000 is a good thing. It was introduced too quickly and we should have had some piloting of the confusions. There still are some confusions but it is settling down now. If you like, the victims I suppose of the pilot year were this year's students but the pilot in a sense has been done now and if there are any measures at all in this Committee please do not throw out the baby with the bath water. We do not want too many changes. We have had several now and we want to settle down and make some sense of this scheme. There have been some tremendous benefits. It has given accessibility via the AS to people who would not have got to an advanced level before. It needs some fine-tuning, yes, but it also needs a lot of attention paid to the EDCE, the trans-vocational certificate of education(?) which I think has been put to one side by the Curriculum 2000; we have had too much weight put on to the A-level debate. As far as the overall pattern is concerned for Curriculum 2000 it is beginning to work. Let us not change it.
(Mr Neal) I certainly agree in terms of supporting the principles of the change and that the system of AS and A2 is better for students and better for everyone than the old system, but I think it is more than fine-tuning because clarity on standards is absolutely at the heart of putting this right. We still do not have that clarity and there is an urgent need for that to be defined because teachers are still in the dark about where the A2 standard is going to be for this coming year.
(Mr Gould) I also support Curriculum 2000. I think it would be helpful if the universities would make their views clear on the breadth because as long as they keep doing everything on three A-levels it is a disincentive in some places for breadth to come in, which is perfectly possible with the AS level. Criticisms like that are purely related to assessment. They are not related to Curriculum 2000 which we welcome. I think it does provide a range of opportunities for young people and again I agree: I do not think it should be shaken up and rattled. I think the assessment process needs to be correct and then we are off.
(Mr Gould) I would totally disagree with the idea that AS should go.
(Mr Hopkins) This is an annual problem, is it not, this debate over standards dropping and so forth? I would like to draw the analogy of the four-minute mile. When Roger Bannister ran a four-minute mile it was a wonderful achievement, the best in the world. Now it is almost commonplace but nobody is going out and measuring the mile to see if it has got shorter, which in effect is what is happening to A-levels. We have got effective teaching, I have to say, and people learn how to teach you well. Students now work a lot harder than we used to and they are achieving better. It does not mean that they are the best in the world, the best four-minute milers.
(Mr Gould) I absolutely agree with that. This year I think there should have been a huge celebration of more children getting more success because they had reached the standard and, although the standard was not defined, even if they had used the standard that was there before, I still think that there would have been a large number of people clearing the hurdle, running inside the four minutes or climbing Everest, which would be my analogy, and it should have been a huge success story which everyone should have been pleased about.
(Mr Neal) I am getting tired sitting here and thinking about four-minute miles. There is an issue also of public expectations, is there not? I think that we could sensibly have expected more students to achieve better with the new course structures and perhaps thought should have been given earlier to the way the public might react to that because it does appear that concern about public expectations has been part of the problem.
(Mr Gould) To give you one illustration, with history, with OCR it was clear once the Audit Committee had done its stuff with the standards as they perceive them, ie, quality of work standards, not statistical standards, that there was going to be a 99 per cent pass rate. This caused a panic and I have the documentary evidence for that.
(Mr Gould) Certainly. I would answer yes to that question. We would have accepted the results that came through if we had not seen things which had been amended clearly at a very late stage, plus the evidence we were getting through from examiners, scrutineers, awarders. After all, a large number of those are teachers too. Yes, we did go to training sessions, which is another of the allegations that have been made, that we did not attend those. I do not necessarily mean where I am but schools in the organisation.
(Mr Gould) I do not know what evidence he is referring to.
(Mr Hopkins) Obviously I cannot comment on what happened in schools. All I can tell you is that we worked very hard out there, training every day, without even seeing the track if you like, to take the analogy beyond its useful life. We did a huge amount of training. We kept in constant dialogue with the boards. One of the advantages of Hampshire is that we have ten large sixth-form colleges and we got together and we put on our own training, we encouraged our staff to become examiners. Every one of those colleges had an examiner in some subjects somewhere and we got togther and trained each other.
(Mr Hopkins) You will not be surprised to hear that I am quite keen on the idea of sixth form colleges as being a successful idea..
(Mr Neal) All the training took place and all the teachers were involved in that. The teachers moved heaven and earth to make the system work, but throughout that period the contradictory messages were coming back about standards. There was a lack of exemplar material, so it actually was quite difficult for teachers to have a clear understanding of what the standards were that were being aimed for, of what the assessments were going to look like. That was a genuine difficulty throughout AS and A2.
(Mr Neal) For everyone.
(Mr Hopkins) I have to say that there was a shortage of exemplar material; it is absolutely true.
(Mr Hopkins) We managed.
(Mr Hopkins) Because I suppose we trained extremely hard, if you like. We are big enough. We got together, we worked together in collaborating. We made sure that we had examiners in the boards from each of the colleges and we found things out. It was not spoon fed to us, I have to say.
(Mr Gould) I personally would say that I do not go in for the blame culture. I have not been for the blame culture since I first articulated the concerns we have. I have no concerns with the examining bodies. I fully accept that when you bring in a new system there are likely to be growing pains with it. I am happy to accept that and I have no problem with that at all. The same thing happened to some extent with GCSE first forming when I was certainly around and was as well ahead then as I was prepared now. But you did not have the differences that took place late in the award stage. You did not have these differences between what came out of awarding meetings and what finally emerged. That is where there needs to be some clarification.
(Mr Neal) Straightforwardly, not seeking to blame anyone, but very concerned that things that went wrong last year do not go wrong again for the benefit of present and future students. It is as simple as that.
(Mr Neal) We are trying to reassure students because it is important that their confidence is kept as high as possible. There are certainly concerns clearly expressed both from students and from parents, not only at what has happened but where they stand in relation to the following year and a very high priority needs to be the reassurance of students in particular but also of parents.
(Mr Gould) I quite agree with that. It is dreadful, and I believe and trust and hope that the report coming out of the Tomlinson Inquiry Stage 2 will do a great deal overtly to restore confidence in what is going to happen from January onwards.
(Mr Hopkins) I agree with all that. The only thing I would have a slight disagreement with is that I think the parents' confidence has been knocked more than the students'. We have managed to reassure the students. It is the public and the parents and what they read in the press that has knocked their confidence.
(Mr Gould) I would say there is an element of confusion in some areas, not all. I think that is there and I hope there will be some clarification that will become obvious to help people through and I know that all the boards are aiming to have more training sessions and hopefully that will be constructive and not turn into apathy.
(Mr Hopkins) I am not sure it has got worse this year. We already have some degree of lack of confidence in the exam boards. I am no friend of the examiners. I do not want you to think it is all sweetness and light. You will find the three chief executives all know my name; they do not necessarily like me. I have had quite a lot of correspondence with them. We have difficulties with the exam boards. As I say, I do not think it is an extraordinary thing this year. It is to do with the quality of marking and the quality of their own procedures, their own quality assurance procedures.
(Mr Neal) Teachers are walking a fine line between their own uncertainties and trying not to communicate those uncertainties to students.
(Mr Hopkins) We tend allow the head of department to make their own choice or at least to make their own proposal and bring it to senior management as to the basis of that choice. It not only relates to the content of the syllabus or specification but perhaps the assessment method and what suits the department style of teaching.
(Mr Gould) Edexcel seem to have got their house in order over the last year. There is some evidence to support that.
(Mr Gould) No. I think which board we would use in any particular subject is exactly based on the answer from my right.
Valerie Davey: Are they the same reasons that your staff are using them or is it that they prefer a particular syllabus as opposed to a syllabus being more refined or more adaptable or more sophisticated?
Chairman: Or easier?
(Mr Hopkins) I do not think it is a matter of easier. I think it tends to be what the Department gets comfortable with, to be honest. I have had frustrations with my English department because we have had major problems with AQA over the last two years with over 100 upgrades each year and re-marks, but they will not move away from AQA because they like the specification, they like the way they choose the books, they like the way it is assessed. The fact that it is not assessed properly does not seem to worry them.
(Mr Hopkins) I think "convenience" is slightly the wrong word. It is that they have genuine belief that that is the right specification for them.
(Mr Neal) There is a strange antithesis there, is there not, between the convenience of the teachers and what is good for the students and I am not sure that that is an antithesis. Very often the two things go together because the teachers are working with and alongside the students. The reasons for choosing a particular syllabus and a particular board I would go along with exactly and that issue is not a new issue this year.
(Mr Hopkins) The idea of some competition is good because one of the problems for us is that there is not a clear complaints procedure any more. There are various systems and we have mentioned QCA a number of times. I am not sure that the average teacher is clear about its role as a regulatory body. If we have difficulties with exam boards, frankly the one big stick we have is that we will take our business somewhere else, so having some competition is a good thing. About three boards makes sense to me. I do not think the number is particularly critical.
(Mr Gould) I hope the number of boards will remain the same and the whole thing will settle down and we will all go with it.
(Mr Hopkins) That is my view. What goes on in those boards is largely a closed box as far as we are concerned. I read the evidence from last week and I discovered things about the way the boards work and that was the first time I had found that out.
(Mr Hopkins) They differ in their methods. I do think there is a role for QCA being a regulatory body.
(Mr Neal) Parity of standard, which is desirable, is not the same as parity of results, statistics. They are different.
(Mr Gould) Certainly we would look for more co-ordination of the procedures of the boards, particularly in terms of awarding, and we would say that routinely it should be the case that representatives of other boards should be present at the awarding meetings of a particular board in order to help to achieve that parity.
Chairman: One of your answers excited either indigestion or a "harrumph" from one of my members.
(Mr Hopkins) It is not collusion. I need to expand on that if I may. We have had difficulty with a particular exam, the AS in English Literature with AQA, where we had difficulty with the marking. It had been poorly marked. We have complained and they have put it right. It has happened two years on the run, which I think is unsatisfactory. I have had a dialogue with them about their quality assurance procedures and if they do what they say they will do and if they mark correctly we do not have a problem. It is a question of how long do you put up with poor quality marking.
(Mr Hopkins) Yes, exactly. It was put right very quickly. In fact, we got the new AS grades back in time for it not to affect the students' UCAS applications.
(Mr Hopkins) Yes.
(Mr Hopkins) I think that is probably true, yes.
(Mr Hopkins) I do not know if it will assist me. It made me realise how little I had known and I am from one of the biggest, if not the biggest, A-level centres, and if I know so little about it then I suspect other institutions know very little as well and there is something to be done about looking up those procedures.
(Mr Hopkins) I sincerely hope not. We have had reassurances. The chief examiner put it right. They had difficulties with the examiners. I said at the start that our difficulty is with the quality of the examiners that the boards are being forced to recruit because they are short of examiners.
(Mr Hopkins) Frankly I do not think it matters too much as long as we know and as long as it is clear. Personally I would like the AS to be a separate examination.
(Mr Hopkins) There could be more internal marking and assessment, but it does put a tremendous load on teachers. The Department of Design, for example, is 100 per cent internally marked already and then just moderated from outside. That is a tremendous burden on teachers. There is a temptation there I think for the boards to say that it is a good thing because it puts the problem somewhere else. Yes, there is a degree of internal marking, and certainly a greater degree of trust of teachers is a good thing, but there is a compromise that needs to be struck.
(Mr Gould) I would go for some internal assessment, yes, with moderation. I think there is a difference between a candidate who may be wishing to go on to take a full A-level and a candidate who is just taking AS-level and, so long as you know they have covered the units and specifications and have not skipped anything, that is a very light touch for someone who wants to use AS-level as an exit point, for whatever reason, from that subject. I think the amount of assessment has to command credibility with employers and places of higher education of all sorts, and therefore some perhaps slightly more robust form of assessment is required for those particular candidates. Otherwise I would uncouple. As has been said, whether it is 40/60 or 50/50, as long as we know and it is clear I will leave it to the wizards above.
(Mr Neal) Yes. I do not see how the difference between 40/60 and 50/50 would have made a significant difference to this year's outcomes and yes, we would go along with them because there is too much external assessment, because the whole system is buckling under the amount of external assessment, with 30 million papers flying around each year, and we can see all the time the ways in which the system is having difficulty in coping with that. A move towards internal assessment at AS level with an external assessment at A2 level we would support.
(Mr Neal) We have really no way of knowing. We did not know what the standards were during the course of the year we were teaching A2 and, to be honest, we still do not know what they are because we are still receiving amended results.
(Mr Neal) Yes, it should. The issue here is the AS standard. Assuming that the AS standard was right, and we have no reason to suppose that it was not, then a candidate who in the past, let us say, would have got a B at A-level, would have got a B on their AS modules because the aim of the AS modules was to replicate the A-level standard but allow for the fact that it was taken a year earlier and therefore the content and maturity of the candidates would be affected by that. If that candidate got a B on their AS modules, they would need then to get a B on their A2 modules to stay at the level they would have been for A-level, no need whatever therefore to change the level of A2. That could have and should have remained on a parity with the old A-level and indeed, when Curriculum 2000 was being discussed, there was never any suggestion that the A2 level was going to be raised.
(Mr Neal) And that is the weasel word, is it not? AS is not easier. The standard for AS is that it should be such that a candidate in the past who had achieved grade B, let us say, at A-level a year later would achieve grade B at AS-level.
(Mr Neal) The system was postulated on the notion that AS would be taken at the end of the first year and that the parity would be achieved taking account of the fact that it was taken at the end of the first year.
(Mr Gould) QCA should have set the standard. It is not for the individual Awarding Body to set the standard. We need a parity of standard across the board, not a parity of results, and it is not in my view according to the code of practice as I understand it of the QCA up to the Awarding Bodies' chief executives or the accountable officers to set the standard. The standard is set by QCA and therefore I do not think - and I have nothing against him - it was Ron McLone's job to set the standard of candidates sitting OCR. It was QCA's job and they had to monitor and regulate that standard and that is where I think things must be put right in future so that there is a parity of standard across boards so that all children are confident that whatever board the head of department puts them in for they will be treated fairly, consistently, accurately and with a quality result.
(Mr Hopkins) I certainly agree with that idea. However, I think the difficulty is because of this notion that the AS and A2 go together to make A-level. It transpired as it developed that A2 would be harder than the old A-level to make up for AS being easier or earlier. Is that the same thing? It is actually a very difficult intellectual standard to fit in. How does one do that? The problem would be solved if AS were a separate exam with its own level at the end of the year and those results were not then taken as part of the final A-level, and if then A2 could be at the legacy A-level standard. If they were two discrete examinations it would be far easier to cope with.
(Mr Gould) No, I do not agree with Dr McLone's approach.
(Mr Gould) Sorry; that is okay.
(Mr Gould) If, going back to your initial thesis, that you wanted consistency of standard, maintaining standards across time, bearing in mind there was no pilot, no exemplar material, no standards set, then the best thing you had in my view was the judgment of teachers who are examiners and awarders and scrutineers from right across the spectrum. Particularly in course work, where they have been doing it for years, - and there is nothing new about course work as a unit - they were able to do it this summer with moderators trained by the boards, I assume, who moderated the teachers' work and those awards, that were then turned into an AS, should remain consistent. That would be at least one way of ensuring a maintenance of a standard across the two years and moving from the legacy A-level to the current A-level.
(Mr Neal) Could I reiterate that there should not have been a difficulty about setting the A2 standard and that standard should have been in line with the legacy A-level standard and there should certainly not have been an intellectual difficulty with that. There are always practical issues in terms of setting any standard.
(Mr Hopkins) We are all looking at each other because we do not know how to answer that question. It requires people who are able to step back and look at the standards and try and define a peer standard. It is obvious from our conversation that no-one is quite clear what even an A-level standard is, never mind AS and A2. They need to be defined and it is very difficult to do.
(Mr Neal) Can I respond to that in this way. Perhaps the issue you are talking about, one of the issues at any rate, is the issue of clarifying the purpose of the assessment because currently the assessment is being used for two purposes which are to some extent contradictory. It is being used for its main purpose, which is and should be to assess the standard reached by the pupils. It is also being used as an accountability mechanism against the sorts of targets that you have talked about. Our answer to that would be that these assessments should serve their main purpose and the accountability mechanisms should be otherwise. Our specific proposal would be to look at the model which was set up by the Assessment Performance Unit in terms of statistically testing across the students throughout the country standards that are being achieved and uncouple that from the examination process.
(Mr Gould) If that is the way it is then I have nothing against the Select Committee. I am not about to say that with odds of ten to one against. It is not a good background.
(Mr Hopkins) I think it would be helpful to us, as you say, at the coal face if we were clear what QCA's role is. It seems to me it performs different roles at different times. It is in effect an exemplar on occasions; on other occasions it is a regulatory body. If we have a complaint about an exam board it is not even clear to whom we take that complaint. Does it have that role or not? Clarity of the role would be helpful and an independent regulatory body would be the role I would imagine for it.
(Mr Neal) We do believe that it should be independent and reporting to Parliament. We believe that its role should be setting standards and regulating assessments to those standards. We have suggested a panel of scrutineers to monitor that. QCA certainly should not be setting the tests itself is the issue there as opposed to in relation to national curriculum tests, which it does set, and the examination board should be independent of QCA.
(Mr Gould) As I understood it at the time, and I did not have any personal contact with her so it was all reported second-hand, I thought her question was reasonable except that we were into re-grading. Mike Tomlinson stage one was into re-grading, not into re-marking so, provided that her question was on the re-grading, which I thought it was from what I understood to be the case, then I think her question was perfectly reasonable.
(Mr Neal) I have no view beyond that of a layman's view in relation to that. Yes, I would agree that it seemed to be reasonable.
(Mr Hopkins) I have no comment to make. I do not think I know enough about it, to be honest.
(Mr Hopkins) I would be very much against it. I have nothing against the International Baccalaureate as a qualification, or indeed the European Baccalaureate or the French Baccalaureate or all the other baccalaureates. However, I just do not think it is worth throwing out the baby with the bath water. We have a perfectly good system. What people sometimes forget, I think, when they talk about the Baccalaureate is that it involves more examinations and assessment than the AS and A2, with which everybody in this country is already worked off their feet, and who is going to mark it? The same three exam boards.
(Mr Gould) I am not in favour of moving headlong into the IB. I am in favour of developing an English Bacc, particularly along the Ken Boston model with which we are involved, because I think it actually brings together an education process from 14-19 for all children, including apprenticeships, A-levels, the whole range, and it provides a flexibility in doing that. The A-level is fine but a lot of children in this country do not take A-level whatsoever and I am concerned that there is vocational training (which may not affect A-level students) which I believe is very important for the education of children as a whole. That whole area, which has not been looked at all this morning, I believe to be important. If you are asking me whether I would favour an English Bacc in about ten years' time, for heaven's sake do not rock the boat with where we are at the moment. Let us keep it and let us keep working towards a more uniform system which will be inclusive for all children within England.
(Mr Neal) It is a pity that the 14-19 Green Paper said practically nothing about assessment other than its role in the accountability process and there certainly are some long term issues relating to the assessment of pupils right through from 14 to 19 and beyond which need to be addressed in the longer term. In the shorter term there are many benefits that can be derived from the AS and A2 process and because of what happened last year we have not yet derived all those benefits and that is the reality.
(Mr Gould) We are here talking about assessment as I understand it and that is where we are. There need to be national targets and that is a matter for DfES. I think what we ought to roll back the statistical barrier which I think has advanced too far. I would be for coming up with expanding grade restrictions for grades A, C and E; grade descriptors are well known. We have this year got some exemplar material from the exams that have been taken this summer and I believe if some work is done on those archive scripts and with the use of a grade D descriptor, which I accept would be a new thing, then it should be possible to move away from statistics to making the judgments about standards, that is, quality of work. If children jump that hurdle then we should reward and congratulate them.
(Mr Neal) We certainly do believe that there are too many targets, but perhaps the more fundamental questions are who are those targets for and how is the reaching of those targets measured? It is the confusion between that process and the assessment process that is causing many of our difficulties.
(Mr Hopkins) I am not sure that I concur that there are too many targets. They do not impinge on me as an individual institution, but there is too much assessment and anything that can be done to reduce the assessment burden is welcome.
Chairman: Can I thank all three of you for an excellent session. We would love to have gone on a little longer and touch on a few more subjects. We have learned a lot. It has been a very useful exchange and perhaps we should repeat it on a regular basis. Thank you very much for your attendance.
SIR WILLIAM STUBBS, further examined.
(Sir William Stubbs) Thank you, Chairman, and thank you for that clarification, although I would just like for the record to say, as we are in a new session and a new topic under discussion, that I was Chairman of the QCA for five years. Throughout the entire period I was part-time and for four of the five years I was unpaid. I only was paid from the time I retired from my full time employment about a year ago and I was asked to increase my involvement from two days a week to four days a week by Estelle Morris and, looking back at the letter, she said she wanted me to provide strong leadership. That is where I come from in all this. What I would like to do at the beginning, and the Clerk very kindly sent me a copy of the transcript of the interviews with the Awarding Bodies and the QCA, is to say something about the A-level crisis, a term which has been used both in the Committee and further afield. It seems to me the word "crisis" in relation to A-levels has two possible meanings: either the operation of the awarding system is so significantly defective as to give good grounds for concluding that the main outcomes are invalid, or, alternatively, confidence in the validity of the system has been so diminished that there is widespread anxiety among students, parents, universities and employers. The first meaning is clearly inappropriate on the basis of the evidence that was available five weeks ago and the evidence that has been uncovered since then. The system is sound and indeed some of the evidence I heard this morning confirms that. But a national exam system as complex as the one that we now have available relies significantly on trust in the overall process, trust in the markers and examiners, trust in the integrity of the exam boards, and trust in the integrity and independence of the regulator. Therefore at the outset, Chairman, I have to say that in recent weeks each of these elements of trust has been significantly and quite unnecessarily weakened. Therefore the challenge for those responsible for those matters in the future will be to restore that trust, but they do so on the basis that the underlying system is sound, and that is an enormous strength. So that is where we are coming from because I think it is important when the word 'crisis' is used, it is a crisis of confidence rather than anything else. At some stage, and I know you said you do not want to go into too much of the past, but one cannot understand the future without the past and I think in some of these discussions there will be something ---
(Sir William Stubbs) I know and I appreciate it.
(Sir William Stubbs) At some stage I would like to talk about the maintenance of standards in A-level but not necessarily in this opening statement. All I wanted to do at the beginning was say let's conduct a discussion on the basis of terms that we understand and that is the way I understand 'crisis', and I think that is the probably the way you understand it in the light of what has happened over the past few weeks.
(Sir William Stubbs) Absolutely, Chairman.
(Sir William Stubbs) I have got a little bit in reply, Chairman. I think the chronology starts from April 1998 when the then Minister responsible for qualifications, Baroness Blackstone, in agreeing the new system and saying this was the Government's policy, in 1998 said: "We are determined to ensure that A-level standards are safeguarded and that all students study to rigorous standards." From the outset at the time of the change continuity of A-level standards was absolutely in the Government's thinking. A year later in March 1999 a letter was sent to all schools from the department "no compromise on A-level standards". In August 1999 David Blunkett speaking as Secretary of State said, "I can assure you that there will be no reduction in A-level standards under this Government." In April 1999 a DfES official: "Ministers place the standard of the A-level examinations as the priority." There is absolutely no doubt where the Government was coming from. In May 1999, as we started to develop the intricate arrangements for the examinations, HMC wrote to the Minister responsible and said: "It would appear that the awarding bodies are contemplating various statistical treatments to ensure that the first set of A-level results for the new system will be very similar in outcome to the current percentage gaining each grade. We would maintain there should be a small but definite increase in the numbers passing and gaining higher grades under the new system." As an aside, the outcome last year was a 4.5 per cent increase in the pass rate and a 2.1 per cent increase in grade As. I would put it to you that that is exactly what HMC, GSA and SHA were asking in May 1999 of the Minister. On the basis of that, in June 1999 - and this seems to me absolutely significant - the QCA then published a statement on standards which was subsequently on their web site - "broadly speaking, the proportion of grades awarded in the current A-levels and those awarded to candidates completing the new A-levels will be expected to be similar. Where, however, on the basis of the quality of candidates' performance and changes in the nature of the candidature" - and as we know it did change - "a more substantial change in proportions is justified, this will be acceptable, provided the reasons for the change are fully justified and the standard of the full A-level is maintained." There was correspondence taking place at that time between HMC following an exchange with Tessa Blackstock whom I referred to and Nick Tate who was the Chief Executive of QCA, and they wrote to David Hargreaves, who had by then become the Chief Executive and this is what HMC said: "We cannot accept the lack of action over proper definition of grade boundaries for the new awards. Standards must be defined and some anchoring device must be established. Whilst it is good that the awarding bodies will provide examiners with a comprehensive package of statistical information, we would very much wish to know whether they are going as far as to establish grade boundaries. We would suggest it ought to be possible to use historic data on regression lines to ensure that the various boundaries will map on to a predicted grade boundary on a completion of A2." That is HMC. The reply they received from David Hargreaves - and this is my last statement on this chronology, Chairman - leaves absolutely no doubt on the record: "We are not clear why you suggest there has been a lack of action over a proper definition of grade boundaries in the new awards. A vast amount of work has taken place throughout the development of the new specifications, sample assessment materials and detailed statistical modelling of the new awards. The Joint Council is involved in an extensive programme of research to ensure that when the first awarding bodies meetings take place next year the examiners are provided with the most comprehensive set of statistical data that will ever have been used in our public examination system. Historic data on regression lines between GCSE and A-level are central to the work that has taken place and the mapping you describe has been going on for many months. You say that Nick Tate's statement 'the establishment of standards in any qualification is complex and the prediction of grade profiles cannot be precise' is unacceptable. No examination system which provides for an element of examiner judgment and a changing cohort would allow the precise prediction of grade profiles. This would be possible only with a completely non-reference system. You may be arguing for such an approach but that would represent a fundamental change in the way qualifications are awarded and a step away from equitable treatment of candidates over time." That, Chairman, effectively ended the correspondence on standards between the heads associations and the QCA. There have been since then, I am told, and I was not involved, something between 30 and 40 technical meetings to flesh out the arrangements. So I am in no doubt from the record that there was a clear understanding of standards, recognising that we did not have past papers. Standards are not like the metre where one could in the 18th century go and hold something against it. It is not like that; it is a combination of judgments made every year against criteria, against specifications and against the evidence of previous performance. I believe on a number of occasions it would have helped in giving examples to have had a run of exemplar A2 examinations beforehand, in other words pilots. That was just not possible in the time available and, indeed, would have been very complex because to be good pilots they would probably have had to have taken place after the AS examinations and you would have had to draw on the AS experience so you would then have an interregnum. I am not sure exactly how one could have run those terribly smoothly. We did not have that. As far as the standards were concerned, recognising we did not have past papers, there was a comprehensive understanding and indeed - and this is what I find utterly baffling - the results of two of the awarding bodies, having been held up to the daylight more than once and scrutinised, have come through with flying colours in judgments that I find must be exceedingly difficult for the chief executives to make. I think they have done a splendid job and we should be congratulating them. Edexcel came from its knees. When I last saw you Edexcel was in intensive care and indeed the board of Edexcel had decided as a matter of policy that it wanted to abandon A-levels and cease to award it as an awarding body and was in the course of discussion in the spring on selling that off to a private company. Yet through the valiant efforts of officials in Edexcel and colleagues in QCA, they came through in the summer and produced an unflawed system. I have said this to the Secretary of State not once but twice that I believe, like you, there is no evidence of widespread failing. There is evidence in one awarding body and there is evidence in only part of the judgments made by that awarding body. We now know that the chief executive of OCR miscalled it 16 or 18 times out of the several hundreds of judgments he had to make and he made a mistake. When I say made a mistake, when fellow professionals are called in and asked to look at it, they took a different view. I do not think there is a walk of professional life where you have taken a professional judgment, whether it be law, medicine or whatever, and hold it up to scrutiny by an independent second opinion that you will be guaranteed you will get them all confirmed as the view of the first opinion. In this case his judgment was found to be wanting, but it was confined to a relatively small number. What has caused the worry for not just tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands is they thought their certificates from other awarding bodies and from the unflawed part of OCR were invalid, and there is not a shred of evidence. I believe it is a scandal; it should never have happened. On standards therefore - and that is where we started - I am saying there was evidence there on the QCA web site and there have been plenty of technical meetings, but there is nothing on the record over the last two years from bodies that I have seen about it, although they all recognise that this was a difficult transitional year and I think in the main they have done well.
Chairman: Sir William, that has been a most helpful chronology and explanation to the Committee. Now we will begin the questioning. Meg Munn?
(Sir William Stubbs) How does one say one is satisfied? If we were graded, it was beta plus or alpha minus or something like that; it was a good report. Indeed, one of the reasons last time why there was an interregnum about the chief executive, who I hope you will find a very good colleague to work with in the future (I think we have done very well) was that we wanted to wait in the making of that appointment until that quinquennial was out the road. I think it confirmed in an area where 99 per cent accuracy is not acceptable that the QCA, in the observation of most correspondents to that inquiry, is doing a good job. What it has got, though, and I heard from the heads just ten minutes ago and I saw in the evidence from Ken Boston, is an accretion of tasks that are not central to its purpose but were given to QCA because there was no other body in town that the government could trust to do it, and that is of course running key stage tests. They are a huge exercise, they are politically highly significant, with great involvement by DfES officials (in my view too great an involvement) and a way has to be found to deal with that and to distance it from QCA. You could give it to the awarding bodies but I think that would be unfair because it is different to their main tasks, but a way has to be found to get some kind of clear water between QCA and the key stage tests.
(Sir William Stubbs) I think that is absolutely right, Chairman. There the quinquennial report was echoing the comments in the report that was published in January by the international panel that looked into A-level standards and confirmed that QCA was doing as good a job as could be expected of it but it should do more to educate people about the system. I absolutely agree with that, I think that is one of the big tasks. To some extent there was evidence of success in that because when the results came out in August and there was a significant increase in the overall pass rate as well as the grade As, I think the amount of carping that took place in the press this year, if colleagues will forgive the expression, was less than had happened in previous years. There was more of an element of celebration about it. Students had worked hard and done well and I think we need to build on that. So yes, I do agree that more work needs to be done on that, but it is a complex matter to explain.
(Sir William Stubbs) It depends on where you see the boundary. I think if I were sitting here now in the context of QCA and I did not get involved in some of the detail of the awarding bodies you would be highly critical of QCA and say, "Look, you should be much closer to the action." I think what they were saying was you could validate the awarding body and give it a three-year licence and then it gets on and does its task. There may be a place for that in some respects in some qualifications, but for the high state qualifications I think the QCA as the regulator has got to be fairly well-informed and closer to the three principal exam bodies.
(Sir William Stubbs) The transparency goes back to the earlier question, that we need to explain it more. This year, as a result of the crisis of the nature that I described, there has been more independent observation of the grade boundary setting by the awarding bodies. It is not done within a closed room. I think that is absolutely healthy and I think one could build on that. So to that extent, I believe that we need to do more. At the end of the day, however, one has to see that for thousands of young people and for hundreds of teachers they are having to cope with partial success. Young people have put themselves forward in a demanding situation and some have got higher grades than others and indeed, sadly, some, but not many, fail entirely. They would all like to see themselves doing better but the system is designed to have rigorous standards they must meet, and some do not meet them. So there is always going to be an element of disappointment around but, yes, I think we could do more on that. But at the end of the day judgments still have to be made because this is about personal judgments, we are not dealing with a mechanised system, and there could be mistakes there. On your question, and it came up in your meeting the first time, I think 'cottage industry' was the phrase -
(Sir William Stubbs) --- Victorian cottage industry! We have not got a system of computerised examination as exists in some colleges and universities in the United States, which are largely multiple choice questions but not entirely which are computer marked. I cannot see that the A-level system would fulfil its expectations if it went down that route. It is going to rely on individual judgments to a significant extent, but it is possible through the development of new software to see how in five years' time there could be a greater contribution from IT in the mechanics and logistics of handling the process. By the way, someone in the last meeting said all QCA was doing was behaving like Consignia. I took that as a bit of an insult because the number of first-class letters that get lost every day is quite high! You can through the use of IT scan and transmit the papers to markers quickly and indeed to selected markers on selected subjects and then bring them together and aggregate them. That needs money and indeed that was one of the reasons why Edexcel considered earlier on in the year they might have to give up A-levels. I am not sure whether this is the place to disclose it but I did speak to the Secretary of State about that and said that I thought the department should invest significant sums of money running into ten of millions in order to assist the awarding bodies develop computerised systems that would go down that path. Without that investment I think it is quite unrealistic to think that they could do it themselves.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am not sure there is quite a yes or no to that. Yes, in parts. SHA has for some time been proposing the idea that teachers should be eligible to become certificated examiners or markers, and I support that, I think that would be a very sensible development. In my first meeting with David Miliband when he became the Minister responsible for qualification and examinations I said to him I did not think this system could be sustained over the next five years without increasing the risk of significant failure, by that I meant not just A-levels, I meant GCSEs, key stage tests, advanced extension awards and the whole gamut. By the way, I heard the bit about ISB and no markers there. That is just another world if we went down there. So I think a way has to be found to recognise the professionalism of teachers and give them a greater place in the market. In Australia they find it possible to do that and have an external check on the teacher' judgments, so there is not too much of a halo effect in the school about the individual students. If we are going to retain that same profile of examinations, Chairman, we will have to do something about that, so to that extent I agree with what is being said.
(Sir William Stubbs) Just for the record, I said five weeks ago there was only one awarding body with a problem. You have found that that is the case. In other words, it is not just me saying it now, the evidence has said it. It is only in OCR and only in a minority of subjects. Do I think next year we are going to have the same problems in the system? No, I do not take quite such a pessimistic view at all. I think we will now have, as HMC was saying this morning, real exam papers and real scripts there to guide the teachers, guide the awarding bodies, guide the markers and so forth. There is a greater understanding about what is expected and some of the uncertainties surrounding course work, which by the way Chairman, was the big crisis five weeks ago. Where it is now I ask you. It is not there, although further work needs to be done involving the people sitting behind me on a greater understanding of what is expected about course work. I think they can do that and I think they will be engaged in discussions with QCA about how to bring that about. So the only problem facing us not so much in January but certainly in the summer next year (because the scale is so much bigger in the summer) is whether they can get enough markers. Being a marker now is quite a demanding task, Chairman, because your work can be discovered. Students get scripts back and their parents and teachers can see it and if there is a mistake they can, quite rightly, challenge it. It is something that is truly a very professional task. When there is all this confidence crisis around I think Ken Boston was right to say to you there might be some doubt as to whether they can get the markers. I know that some people say extra pay could help. Maybe extra pay would help but that was tried in another place a few years ago and there was not a quantum leap in the number coming forward. I think as part of the professional development of teachers, if they see it as something they do in order to understand their subject and the learning process better, then there is a way forward.
(Sir William Stubbs) I would say first of all I have read the evidence from last week, I did not hear it all this morning but I heard a bit this morning and, as far as I know, he is the only person to come before you and say the system is flawed. No one else has said that and he is only saying it is flawed because of this notorious 40/60 50/50 split and you had a long and rather complex discussion about that at your last meeting. That decision was made a few years ago, I do not think it is going to be re-visited, I do not think it should be re-visited, and we move forward. I disagree with him. I think the system is now sound and we should not change it. Lord help me, the amount of training of teachers and the amount of understanding by markers and examiners, the new expectations to which young people would have to adjust are beyond comprehension. This system needs to be allowed to settle down. I predict quite confidently in a year or two years' time that we will be seeing great strengths from it. One of the great strengths of it is the anchor point of AS. It has proved to attract more young people to continue their studies into the sixth form than many of us thought was possible and it is showing encouraging but not convincing signs of encouraging some young people to broaden their studies in the lower sixth.
(Sir William Stubbs) Neither of those statements is true. You said standards did not exist; yes they did. No one has said that there were no standards. Of course there were standards. We would all have liked them to be clearer. We are using the statistics of this year to try and make them clearer. That is the first statement that is not true and the second statement that is not true is that statistical information from last year had to be applied rigorously. That is not true at all. So both of those statements are invalid. What we have been mandated by the Government - and I gave you the chronology of it - is "the A-level standard is here to stay under this Government and you must make sure as the regulator that that applies. That means you cannot ignore previous years and the achievement of previous years". Statistical information from previous years, I concede to you to some extent, must come into play. Indeed, I reminded the awarding bodies that there should be no grade drift or benign changes of the marking system that were not justified in the actual achievement of candidates. Those letters have been held up to scrutiny now and I am pleased to say that the Chairman of the Joint Council said those were perfectly reasonable letters and it was a perfectly proper view for the regulator to take. Indeed, Mike Tomlinson himself said that. Yes, there were always going to be difficulties in moving to a complex new system but we very nearly got it completely right. If it had not been for a small number of miscalls, I think you would be exploring another topic this autumn.
(Sir William Stubbs) I repeat yet again standards were absolutely clearly defined. The demand at A2 - and that is different - one attempted to do that as best one could. I see when you asked Ken Boston last week on that he came as a freshman to QCA and he did everything he could to make a clear statement about the A2 standards and how the AS standard related. We did everything we could to provide rich, meaningful statements about grades in all the subjects. So in an ideal world but an unreal world when you are introducing a new examination you would like to have papers in front of you but we could not have them. That will not recur. That is why I think when you look back you see that problem but when you look forward it will have diminished considerably.
(Sir William Stubbs) It will be easier to acknowledge. I think there will be a wider acceptance of it by young people themselves. They will also see increasingly the universities are more at ease with it, employers themselves make more reference to it and I think the troubled waters and choppy waters will have settled down. However, there are responsibilities that must be fulfilled and when there are worries expressed about standards, it is incumbent upon those who have responsibilities in these areas not to buckle but to stand firm, difficult though it may be. When this storm was blowing, when I heard that the head of news at the DfES, D J Collins, and the political media cannot adviser, Chris Boffey, were saying that the QCA was 'dead in the water' and all these other remarks, that was absolutely wrong. The instinct should be to support the regulator until proven wrong and not to find a scapegoat. Therefore confidence is about exercising responsibilities as well as spreading knowledge.
(Sir William Stubbs) We would not accept, forgive me, a directive from the universities in those terms. The directive from the Secretary of State was giving us, in Mr Baron's terms, our marching orders.
(Sir William Stubbs) The relationship with Universities UK was different. They gave evidence to the original paper on Curriculum 2002 and they gave that not to us, they gave that to the department. That was taken into account by the Minister at the time, Tessa Blackstock, and how it weighed on her, and indeed in detail what they said, I could not answer to that. I have not seen anything coming from the universities certainly passing my desk at QCA, and I am unaware of anyone else's desk, about anxieties about what was meant by an AS or what was meant by the new A-level. Individual academics from universities are involved at various stages. They are certainly involved in the examining bodies and they are involved in some of our committees dealing with qualifications and so forth, but we had no formal representation from Universities UK or any other body, with one exception I will come back to, expressing concern about standards. The one exception was to do with those in universities who have a professional interest in the standard of mathematics. When AS was introduced last year the AS examination was thought to be too difficult and as a result a disproportionate number of young people in comparison with previous years failed to get an AS. As a consequence of that, fewer carried on into the second year to go to the full A-level and that caused widespread concern among universities. I was just about to enter into a series of meetings with mathematicians from the Royal Society and mathematicians from the universities about how we could carefully and sensitively redress that misjudgment of grading on those courses. Other than that I do not recall anything.
(Sir William Stubbs) There was no standing committee that met regularly throughout the year, Chairman, that did not happen, but what does happen is organisations - and I mentioned the maths one but there are others concerned with vocational qualifications - from time to time enter into a series of discussions with us about aspects of the qualifications. If Universities UK had wanted to do that then the door was open.
(Sir William Stubbs) When you say universities, who do you mean?
(Sir William Stubbs) Do we mean vice chancellors? Universities UK is an organisation comprising vice chancellors, they are the only ones who are represented. Do we mean admissions officers? They are the ones that call it for individual students' applications. There is complexity around the voice of the universities and if you went into Universities UK and asked for a unanimous decision on this matter we might be here for some time.
(Sir William Stubbs) Because of course they take different views. Indeed, some of them are giving conditional places not on A-level but on ASs in the year that has just started.
(Sir William Stubbs) Two and a half years ago if we had been able to say that we are not fixing the results but it is going to come out as 4.5, I think they would have been quite relaxed.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am content with the outcome because I have seen no evidence that young people's achievements have been artificially downgraded in order to meet some mythical and arbitrary boundary.
(Sir William Stubbs) I do not think there were any letters from QCA saying there should not be a rise in the pass rate, not at all.
(Sir William Stubbs) Return to wherever you want, but there was no letter from the QCA saying that. What I read out to you was the QCA was saying that we expect any increase in standards to be as a result of increased attainment by young people, absolutely square and on the record. As far as you asked me ---
(Sir William Stubbs) Not only, Chairman, am I saying it but the people you cross-examined last week said it. The Chairman of the Joint Council said she was quite satisfied with the letters that she had got clarifying it in April and she thought as far as the meeting in July was concerned there was no pressure put on to go to any artificial targets and that has been echoed, indeed Tomlinson found that, so I cannot possibly concede that.
Chairman: Can I just intercede for a moment. I think that David is really referring in part to a letter you sent to Kathleen Tattersall on 19 April 2002. The middle paragraph says: "I am conscious of the importance of that candidates (reading as to the words)... judgments about, however in this summer's A-level awards the change to new specifications means that boards have less evidence to assist them than in normal circumstances. In this situation I do expect last year's A-level results to provide a very strong guide to this year's outcomes." Is that what you are particularly concerned about?
(Sir William Stubbs) In the evidence to you last week Kathleen Tattersall said, I think in response to a question from you, Chairman: "... as far as AQA was concerned, that [letter]" - my letter - "clarified the issue, we were all talking the same language; we were not talking about outcomes being the same, we were talking about judging the evidence on the basis of what candidates actually did in the examination."
(Sir William Stubbs) I am not sure about the first part of your question but the second part is absolutely right; any increase in the numbers passing or any increase in those getting the higher grades had to be rooted in the evidence of what the candidates did.
(Sir William Stubbs) What he said was - and by the way he must have arrived at his judgment on the basis of two days or three days of intensive work as he was asked to report within a week for that interim report - the letters from me were perfectly proper for the regulator to send. Indeed, I was charged to maintain standards and I did that, and those who received the letters have given evidence that that is perfectly reasonable, and I was doing what was expected of me. I have no difficulty in saying that ; those letters are on the record and I stand by them.
(Sir William Stubbs) You bet it was different this year from the previous year.
(Sir William Stubbs) The QCA took more of an interest and there were a lot of people expecting us to take more interest this year in how the system worked. Mechanically was it working in terms of markers, the number of centres, was there a proper system for corresponding with them and handling their concerns, the training of teachers.
(Sir William Stubbs) There are two points in this. One is when I gave advice - and that is in March you have quoted from that - that has been shown to be in keeping with the duty of the regulator. The second was when they came to us in July - they came to us, we did not go to them - because they were seeing a pattern emerging in AQA which they were uncertain whether it was being replicated across the other two bodies and they wanted to meet the other two bodies, indeed the other four bodies because I think the Irish and Welsh attended, and then having met them they wanted to share that with us. They then said to me, "Does this cause you concern?" I am on the record as saying to each of them, "Have you abided by the code of practice? Are you satisfied that the grades that have been given are on the basis of the evidence?" They all assured me yes and we went away. I did say if the increase of overall pass rates - I was not concerned about the proportion getting grade As - is maintained (and it was then thought to be about a three per cent increase in the pass rate and it turned out to be 4.5 per cent) I felt we would probably have to have an inquiry to satisfy ourselves that standards had been maintained. That caused the three English awarding bodies some anxiety because they said if you do this - this crisis of confidence matter - you will worry the world outside.
(Sir William Stubbs) I did not say above a certain level.
(Sir William Stubbs) They were telling me about the average increase across three awarding bodies - and, by the way, we are talking about an average increase because if you look at individual subjects it varies significantly - and I was saying if the increase was as significantly different as they thought it would be from previous years we would have to as QCA satisfy ourselves that that was justified on the basis of the evidence. I said we would have to have an inquiry and they said, "We don't want a public inquiry, can't you do it as part of your continuing studies?" Not at the meeting but subsequently we agreed that was probably the better way to do it, but we did not have a fixed view in mind about X per cent or Y per cent. We wanted to be sure that increases were justified.
(Sir William Stubbs) No there was not because I was not there to do it!
(Sir William Stubbs) But of course there would have been!
(Sir William Stubbs) I thought you might come to that. I think this is, Chairman, sailing a little bit close to the wind but it is a fair question to be asked and I am prepared to answer.
(Sir William Stubbs) I do draw on notes because I want to be careful on the record. On 25 September when the inquiry was called, on two earlier occasions I had informed the Secretary of State directly that there was no evidence to doubt the results from two of the awarding bodies, and that with OCR the number of students affected was relatively small. That advice was not accepted. I was speaking as the regulator on the basis of the evidence. On 19 September I had complained directly to the Secretary of State about the continuing damaging references that were being made by her staff about QCA to the press, and asked her to take action to stop them. Notwithstanding that request, during the period from the setting up of the Tomlinson inquiry until Wednesday 25 September, the Secretary of State herself made direct reference to QCA as a possible cause of 'the crisis' and her officials - and I have mentioned them already - were directly briefing the press that QCA was 'dead in the water' and that by the end of that week I would be gone as Chairman. When I gave evidence to Tomlinson he specifically asked if QCA had been in contact with the exam boards since the inquiry started. So he was alert to the possibility of compromise. On being informed that I had written a minute requesting all my meetings with QCA staff on Tomlinson matters to be witnessed by the Chief Executive, which I did as soon as I heard there was an inquiry, he asked to see a copy of that. In other words, he was concerned about the integrity of the process. Having given evidence at Tomlinson on the Wednesday, that evening I was informed by Ken Boston that officials at the department had approached chief executives of exam bodies to ask, amongst other matters, if they would be prepared to accept the recommendations of chief examiners which they had previously rejected. I agreed with Ken Boston that this was improper and that he should inform the Permanent Secretary. When the Permanent Secretary not only confirmed that this was happening but it had been done on the express instructions of the Secretary of State we were concerned. I recommended he check to see if Tomlinson knew of the approach. When he contacted Tomlinson, Tomlinson said he did not know and asked Ken Boston if he thought the inquiry was compromised and he should resign. Ken Boston, correctly in my judgment, although he did not ask when he made it, advised against that and said, "You should press on." So we faced a situation where (i) the Secretary of State had instructed her officials to contact the exam boards without informing the Chairman of the inquiry; (ii) the exam regulator had been bypassed; (iii) the Secretary of State had become directly involved in suggesting possible grade outcomes to awarding boards; and (iv) the Secretary of State clearly had in her mind a possible outcome that involved widespread re-gradings in bodies for which there was absolutely no evidence. So what should be done? I had no confidence by that time in the DfES in the light of continuing press briefings. We considered informing the Secretary to the Cabinet, given his overall responsibility for the Civil Service, but Sir Richard Wilson had just retired and we did not know that evening whether a successor was in post. Time was of the essence. The draft of the Tomlinson report was due the very next day and I did not know who Tomlinson still had to meet. I concluded that it was my responsibility as Chairman of the regulator, not Ken Boston as Chief Executive, to bring this action into the public domain. I had been due to speak that evening on my appearance before the Tomlinson inquiry and chose to do so then. I was a chairman independent of politics. You asked me last time, Chairman, if there are occasions when I should be banging the table more when unsatisfied with the Secretary of State's decisions. I said that was not my style after 30 years in education administration. However, on this matter I felt so strongly that the integrity of the whole independent process was being carried out in a way that was not impeccable and exceptionally I considered I should speak out in this instance. I would be surprised if that is not a factor in the Secretary of State's decision. The other factor that she took into account - the lack of perception by the awarding bodies - the more the spotlight is turned on those, the less we need to say about that, but she deemed I was unfit and unable to be Chairman of the QCA. That is where I now disagree and, as you know, a separate course has been taken on that. I hope you find that helpful.
(Sir William Stubbs) I do not like using the phrase 'storm in a tea cup' because for any young person to get an A-level result that was invalid is for them no storm in no tea cup; it is about their life. But when running national affairs one has to keep things in perspective and there is no doubt, as I said at the outset, there was no crisis, the system had not failed overall and the perception was given that it had failed. I believe that was wrong and as a result many young people were worried unnecessarily.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am in no doubt about it. In fact, not only did they buckle under pressure, they did not ask for the evidence before they called the second independent inquiry. We had one on the Monday, Ken Boston was asked to do one and by the Friday he had produced it. On the Wednesday the Secretary of State had decided to have a second inquiry and she had not seen the evidence because HMC, SHA, and the girls' association said they would give it to the independent inquiry. At least I am assuming that is the case. If that evidence was given to the Secretary of State and not to the regulator, it would be a scandal. I do not think it was given to the Secretary of State. So they did panic, they lost their nerve in the light of a storm of hostile press criticism, when I think those responsible for national affairs should keep their mind on the facts and behave calmly and steer the ship home, but they did not do that.
(Sir William Stubbs) Yes. I am of the view that that was said in a briefing given to the press by Chris Boffey, the political media adviser, I am not sure what his correct title is, and the civil servant who is head of news, D J Collins, must surely have taken a lead in this. Those were the ones I asked the Secretary of State the week before when there was malign briefing taking place, particularly during an independent inquiry, would she act to stop it. If she did act, they did not stop. If she did not act, I think that was abominable, but of course subsequently Estelle Morris has said that handling media matters was an area she was not very comfortable with. I believe that was a significant part of the problem, the idea you could close down an issue quickly by finding there is where all the action should be, there is where the problem is, we have dealt with it, there is going to be decapitation, and now we can move on and resume normal life. That is just a panic reaction. The facts, as you now see, do not support it.
(Sir William Stubbs) It is really how you approach the job in some ways and what you bring to it. I felt if there were things I wanted to speak out on and matters of principle I could do it but I was required to do it behind closed doors, notwithstanding the Chairman's encouragement last time we met to maybe do it more vigorously. The flaw in much of the arrangements over the first five years of the QCA's existence is Secretaries of State requiring that advice was given to them privately. Indeed, they used to keep it private for four months whilst they were talking publicly about developing policy and our advice was now being overtaken by events and would be published six months later and looked very dated. I do not think that is healthy. I think it should have been much more open. I never felt under the thumb of the Secretary of State. I felt I was under considerable pressure, and quite reasonably so in some cases. Estelle Morris was exceedingly worried about the likely going down of Edexcel. If that had happened this summer we really would have been in deep, deep trouble. So she and her officials were on my back about that in regular meetings. I think it is the way in which the meetings with the advisers were private. There were lots of meetings with officials and they drift from being formal, minuted meetings to informal discussions. I do not think that is wise at times because it drifts into then impressions and non-minuted advice. So I believe the system would gain from being more independent of the department in any event, but now that the political ambitions or political success of the department is being judged by the outcome of key stage tests and examinations - not only as political targets, there are school targets based on that and indeed even teachers' own pay rises are based on these matters to an extent - these examinations are being used for purposes for which they were never intended and never constructed. Under those circumstances I think there should be, to use Ken Boston's phrase, clearer blue water between the department and the QCA. It happens in other regulated industries, if you will forgive that phase being used for education, and I think it would be much healthier in education.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am not sure there can be anybody but Parliament.
(Sir William Stubbs) I assume that you are part of the majesty of Parliament in some way or other. In other words, I see it that way rather than the Privy Council because I do not think that is a public body.
(Sir William Stubbs) This is probably my swan song, I suspect, before bodies like this.
(Sir William Stubbs) I have reported to parliamentary committees over a number of years, both this Committee and other committees, and I have found it the most rigorous form of examination and accountability that I have ever had. Certainly reporting to ministers is not like that. Ministers' diaries press in and they have got things to do, they do their best but they have got a lot to do. With officials it is not the same relationship, but appearing before a select committee, either this or others, is something that officials, whether it be permanent secretaries or NDPBs or whatever, take very, very seriously and evidence is gathered. You know when you say something it has got to be right or you have got to correct it very quickly. To me that is proper accountability and I think we would be in a much healthier state if we had that through a body such as yours. I cannot see any other show in town - sorry that sounds very demeaning, Chairman, but it seems to me you are the appropriate body. I have no difficulty with that at all.
Chairman: Time is getting on and there are three colleagues who have not had a bite at this questioning. Jonathan?
(Sir William Stubbs) That was not a minuted meeting. We had had Tomlinson's evidence, I think it finished about 7 o'clock and we went upstairs and then this news broke through a phone call and then we were into, frankly, an emergency meeting.
(Sir William Stubbs) An official from the department phoned up to say they had been in touch with the awarding bodies and this was right out of a blue sky. It was not an organised meeting but I am perfectly clear what happened.
(Sir William Stubbs) So I see last week.
(Sir William Stubbs) I gave only one media outlet an interview. It happened to be the BBC News at Ten. Let's not create a crisis again. I was quite measured and I was quite reflective. We had a discussion. There was no doubt that Ken Boston concluded, I think it is in your evidence, that what happened was improper.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am answering your question. He said that what happened was improper, that the department should have gone through the regulator and not directly to the awarding bodies.
(Sir William Stubbs) He did say he did not think the Secretary of State had behaved improperly; there I disagree.
(Sir William Stubbs) I think it was exposing the deficiencies of the process. I am in no doubt about that. I have spelt out quite clearly this morning why I think there are deficiencies in it. I believe in the integrity of administration, and have over many years, and I did not want to see it sullied so that is why I acted.
(Sir William Stubbs) I do not recall that being said to me at all.
(Sir William Stubbs) Are you talking about me or what I think Ken Boston said?
(Sir William Stubbs) That is a different matter.
(Sir William Stubbs) A hanging situation?
Chairman: No, High Noon.
(Sir William Stubbs) The net outcome is the same. I considered it was grave. As I said to you last time Chairman, it is not my instinct or my way of behaviour to behave flippantly or lightly or emotionally. My track record would show that I am a pretty serious, measured administrator and I was, quite frankly, shocked by what I discovered. I took care this morning to put it in the context of the way a department of state had been behaving over the previous weeks. I considered that needed to be in the public domain, when an independent report was due to come out within 24 hours. I did not know what other influences were used by the Secretary of State and who else was being spoken to? But the fact is if anyone who was involved in being under the scope of that review was speaking to anyone else, it was wrong.
(Sir William Stubbs) I had no reason to think I would not.
(Sir William Stubbs) If secretaries of state or ministers believe that they can act improperly and then when they are told they are acting improperly that the only way out is the High Noon, or whatever it is, situation, I think public life has come to a pretty sad pass.
(Sir William Stubbs) That is what he told you last week and so be it. I am not talking about Dr Boston. Dr Boston did not make the statement; I made it, I accept responsibility. I pointed out to you that I was the Chairman of the regulator, I was not the Chief Executive and furthermore I had been in the job five years not five days. There is a difference between us. If you think this morning I am in some way going to say something that would open up a dispute between Ken Boston and myself or in any way reduce his acceptability as a Chief Executive, then there is no chance of that happening at all. I have confidence in him, I listened to him, I listened to the Deputy Chief Executive who was there, and I think you spoke to him as well last week, and I took my decision.
(Sir William Stubbs) No, it is not, Chairman.
(Sir William Stubbs) I read that. You were asking me was I aware of the consequences and so forth and I am saying, as I repeat yet again, that if a person in public office believes that a senior politician is behaving improperly and says so, if the consequence of that is a burial party every time we are in a sad state in public affairs. Indeed, when I met the Secretary of State the first thing I asked for was a meeting in private because I thought a bit of healing and reconciliation was called for. I have said that in the public debate over the last four weeks. I think reconciliation can be achieved.
(Sir William Stubbs) I was perfectly firm; I said I saw no reason why I should not continue. When I met the Secretary of State I said that to her, "What we need to do is work together to get reconciliation and get confidence restored in the system and I would be pleased to work with you and your officials to do it." I firmly believed that that was the way forward.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am sorry if I have given you anything other than that impression. I was in no doubt I should stay on.
(Sir William Stubbs) That is right. In the context, Chairman, which is important, it was not as if we were dealing with something that was going to be resolved over the next few months. We were under severe constraints of time in which we had literally 24 hours before we started to see the emerging draft of the Tomlinson report. I did not know what Tomlinson was doing and there is no reason he should tell me. We would have gone to the Secretary of the Cabinet but that route was blocked for obvious reasons. Under those circumstances, as Chairman I saw only one route open to me and that was to bring it out into the public domain, and that is what I did, but I did not do it lightly.
(Sir William Stubbs) I formed that view as far as D J Collins was concerned on the basis of the way he had treated a number of stories about the QCA in which I had been directly involved, and therefore knew his style. When it came to the actual week in question, I was being told by the QCA press officer that journalists had phoned up and said this was what was happening. They did not need to tell us, frankly, because it had appeared in the press. That is against the background where I knew Collins would give stories to reporters and then imply, "If you do not report them in a way that is friendly you will be cut off and get no stories." I have been told that by reporters. This is what is called these days 'managing' the news. I think he is called manager or director of the news. I am sure that people sitting on the fringe here will be aware of the way in which some of their colleagues are treated, so I knew the way in which they were behaving. Then having had it reported to me direct what was happening, it appeared in the press not once or twice I think but five times, so I do not think there was much doubt there. One was a civil servant and one was a political adviser.
(Sir William Stubbs) You mean the way in which they behaved?
(Sir William Stubbs) I would sincerely hope it is not. If an independent inquiry is underway and they are saying this is the outcome by the way and this is what is going to happen, I would have said that is highly improper and wrong. Whether it is in a code is another matter. The point I am making to you is either these people were acting as free agents, in which case they are loose cannons in the departments and this is a big department of state, or they were acting under instructions. Either way that was a flawed system and it should not happen.
(Sir William Stubbs) It goes back. I think I gave an example in something I have written or said recently on the QCA quinquennial report that Ms Munn referred to, which concluded that the QCA was doing a good job and in certain things it should do better. It was presented to the press as QCA needed to raise its act and sort out the awarding bodies. That was not even the subject of the quinquennial review. It was a good report and a number of, I am not sure whether they are faces sitting on the edge of the room, people that printed the story that QCA should raise its act came to me afterwards and apologised and said they had to do it because if they did not do it they would not get stories in the future.
(Sir William Stubbs) I have no experience of the government other than in the particular part in which I have been involved. I read the press like everyone else and allegedly, as they say, there do seem to be examples of this, indeed one or two spectacular examples of it in last two or three years. I would not know enough about that. All I know was from the particular part I was dealing with, over a number of months and years now, that is a pattern of behaviour that was thought to be acceptable. My view of the administration of a great public service like education is that it should not be handled like that.
(Sir William Stubbs) Yes, Chairman, no doubt about that. Given the security that comes from being a creature of Parliament direct rather than --- indeed the Secretary of State wrongly said on the Monday after I had left that this was the worst example of breakdown by a departmental agency. We now know it was not the worst example, but she used the word 'agency' and I think that is the giveaway. Departments see these bodies as agents, and they are not. They are meant to be non-departmental public bodies, but there is a tendency to assume that they are there to do the bidding of the department . That was probably in your mind at the beginning of year when you said, "Are you sure you can tell the Secretary of State when you think she is straying offside?" If it is a creature of Parliament, from what I know of dealing with organisations like that, it would be a different attitude, and it would be a different organisation and a more self-confident organisation that it has been possible to be over the last five years.
(Sir William Stubbs) Two, Chairman.
(Sir William Stubbs) Yes I did.
(Sir William Stubbs) Yes.
(Sir William Stubbs) The first thing, Chairman, is I am very pleased you made those remarks about Beverley Evans. The inference in the questioning from this Committee last week was that civil servants seconded to an external body behave like a spy in the camp. In all my experience, it has been exactly the opposite, in funding councils and other bodies, and civil servants seconded out behave as people with integrity, and she is a woman who did just that, so I am pleased you put that on the record. When I saw you in May, first of all, I was more exposed than I should have been because I was a part-time Chairman and we did not have a permanent Chief Executive in place who should have been alongside us, and we had the quinquennial review and one was not quite sure where that was going to lead us, and we had had the disaster of the January round of examinations with Edexcel. I knew it was in the offing but could not say anything at that stage that Edexcel were thinking about coming out of A-level examinations, so if I was playing down that particular aspect you were probing on, it was in that context, but now matters are different and I am saying it to you as honestly and frankly as I believe it to be. I am sorry if I have given the impression that I am more robust than people who have come before you before. I am calling it as I see it and I have been around for a fair number of years and seen how it happens. The Education Service is changing significantly with new expectations, new involvement of government, a lower involvement of local authorities, and an increased responsibility for schools. The whole landscape is shifting. Under those circumstances I believe there is probably an increased requirement to have a body that is independent and that is seen to be independent, speaking directly to the body that gives it its money, and Parliament votes that money, albeit through the department. So it is in that context that I say I am now utterly convinced, Chairman, that we need a new form of accountability.
(Sir William Stubbs) We are dealing with different matters. The memorandum of understanding, which has not progressed much, is really to get a better understanding of who is responsible for what. There are ministers in the department who are now active in aspects of the school curriculum in ways which would seem to have been the responsibility of QCA, sometimes acting without even taking the advice of QCA. That is what is lying behind that recommendation, the feeling that the boundary between the responsibility of ministers, the responsibility of the department and the responsibility of QCA should be sharper than it has been in the past.
(Sir William Stubbs) I am sure that would help, but it would not solve the problem we are dealing with. The problem we are dealing with is where it is seen that a body which is supposed to be independent is being treated and perceived as an agent, that is unhealthy, it is not true but it is unhealthy, and I think that needs to be properly addressed in the way in which other witnesses have given evidence to you.
(Sir William Stubbs) Clearly the Secretary of State decides at the end of the day what is in the curriculum but he does it on the advice of the QCA, or should do it on the advice of the QCA. What is happening is there are significant groups that have been established inside the department, and civil servants and advisers appear - I do not mean advisers in the sense of political advisers but experts who come in and are advising ministers without being accountable in any way - and they start to form views about where they want matters to go and then ask QCA to flesh this out. I do not think that is the right way to go about this. I think they should say, "We are concerned about this, what is your view? We would like to strengthen or extend in this area; please may we have advice, and then we take it forward, but it is being blurred and that is what the person who carried out that review was getting at when he wrote that particular part.
(Sir William Stubbs) Thank you for your patience.