Clause 153

– in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Review of regulated assessment arrangements

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment 380, in clause 153, page 85, line 38, at end add—

‘(3) Ofqual must keep under review the process of developing NC assessment arrangements with a view to ensuring that the academic standard of NC assessments is maintained.’.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 382, in clause 153, page 85, line 38, at end add—

‘(3) Ofqual must keep under review the process of developing and implementing NC assessment arrangements with a view to ensuring that NC assessments are delivered in a timely and orderly fashion.’.

Amendment 384, in clause 155, page 86, line 45, at end add—

‘(4) If it appears to Ofqual that there is, or is likely to be, a significant failing in NC assessment arrangements it must produce a public statement as soon as is practicable which specifies—

(a) the nature of the failing, and

(b) the reasons for the occurrence of the failing, and

(c) the actions it intends to take to rectify the failing.’.

Amendment 381, in clause 156, page 87, line 6, after ‘(1)’, insert

‘including a description of how it intends to maintain the academic standard of NC assessments’.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The clause relates to the administration of the national curriculum tests and the early years foundation stage profiles. The explanatory notes state that the arrangements under chapter 3 are intended to

“strengthen the assessment system, and to help improve public confidence following the problems with delivery of NC tests in 2008.”

Those problems were colossal. On 16 December 2008, the Secretary of State told the House:

“The delivery of this summer’s national curriculum tests for 11 and 14-year-olds was a shambles.”

During the same debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said:

“The Sutherland report is an epic catalogue of incompetence, inefficiency and blinkered inactivity in the delivery of a vital public service. It paints an unremittingly depressing picture of the fiasco that was this year’s national curriculum test process.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 991-94.]

The Sutherland report was published on 16 December 2008 and stated:

“The events of this summer also represent a failure on the part of one of the Government’s Non-Departmental Public Bodies, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), to deliver its remit.”

It went on to note:

“The QCA Board had insufficient oversight of the management and risks associated with the delivery of its biggest contract”, and that

“neither NAA senior personnel, the QCA Executive, or QCA Board appear to have assessed the mounting risks appropriately”.

The QCA board announced that its chief executive, Dr. Ken Boston, and the National Assessment Agency’s managing director, David Gee, had both been suspended pending a full inquiry into Lord Sutherland’s findings.  Will the Minister tell us when the full board of inquiry into Lord Sutherland’s findings will be completed and the report published? Can she confirm whether Ken Boston and David Gee are still suspended and whether they are on full pay?

The Sutherland inquiry made several important recommendations that the Government have accepted. One key recommendation states:

“The forthcoming legislation to establish Ofqual should ensure that it is given statutory powers to regulate the quality and delivery of National Curriculum tests, and clearly sets out reporting lines”.

That is on page 9 of the report. That is the purpose behind a number of the clauses in this part of the Bill. My concern relates to the issue of quality as well as delivery. Amendment 380 requires Ofqual not just to review all aspects of national curriculum assessment arrangements, but to ensure that the academic standards of national curriculum assessments are maintained. Amendment 382 seeks to implement the recommendation in the Sutherland report that

“The test delivery process and timetable should be designed to allow for maximum marking time and capacity”

Amendment 382 requires Ofqual to monitor the assessment arrangements to ensure that tests are delivered in a timely and orderly fashion. Amendment 384 requires Ofqual to make a public statement as soon as practicable if there is likely to be a significant failing in the delivery of national curriculum tests. It amends clause 155, which requires notification to be given only to the Secretary of State. That should be more widely publicised. Amendment 381 amends clause 156 and it is intended to ensure that the document that Ofqual is required to publish also sets out how it intends to maintain the academic standards of the national curriculum tests. These are sensible amendments designed to ensure efficiency, timeliness and rigour. I am sure therefore that the Minister will find it easy to accept all four of them.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I shall be brief, because the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has already made a good case for his amendments. They are clearly topical in the light of the key stage testing and marking shambles last year which he described in his opening comments. I simply add two questions that I hope the Minister can address. Has Ofqual carried out any further assessment of the quality of key stage test marking last year? Has any evaluation that it has carried out supported the assertion that it made fairly soon after the key stage test shambles first emerged that the quality of marking last year was as good as in previous years?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I think I shall begin by confirming what clause 153 requires. Ofqual must keep all aspects of national curriculum and early years foundation stage assessments under review. The reasons why Ofqual is required to do this are, by definition, to fulfil its objectives. There are two objectives that are relevant here. One is the assessments standards objective, which requires Ofqual to promote consistent and reliable assessments. The other is the objective to promote public confidence in assessments. Clearly a key part of public confidence is that assessments are delivered in a timely and orderly fashion: if there are problems or delays, as I am afraid we saw last summer, public confidence will inevitably be dented.

Amendments 380 and 382 seek to guide Ofqual, in undertaking its reviews, to look particularly at standards and delivery of assessments. We agree that it should be looking at these things, but we do not need these amendments to achieve that, because the Bill already requires it to do that. It would not be fulfilling its statutory objectives if it did not. Amendment 384 seeks to amend clause 155. Clause 155 was inserted following a recommendation from Lord Sutherland report in December on last summer’s national curriculum test delivery problems.

If Ofqual considers that there is or is likely to be a significant failing in the assessment arrangements, the clause requires it to notify the Secretary of State and any other body that appears to have contributed to the failing. That duty ensures that, if Ofqual comes across problems with the arrangements, there is no ambiguity about the responsibility to report them to the Secretary of State, which will improve the chances of any future problems being identified early to maximise the prospect of them being dealt with. In similar circumstances, amendment 384 would require Ofqual to produce a public statement as soon as is practicable, which should specify the nature of the failing, why it occurred and the actions that Ofqual intends to take to rectify it.

The Bill will, of course, allow Ofqual to choose to make a public statement about its concerns, but it will equally give it the discretion not to do so. It may be entirely appropriate for it to decide not to say anything publicly; it may want to give QCDA, or the Secretary of State, an opportunity to rectify problems before talking about them publicly, to avoid damaging public confidence in the arrangements. If Ofqual thinks it spots smoke, that does not always mean that there is fire. It should have the discretion to check whether something really is burning before deciding whether it would be in the public interest to alarm people. I am concerned that the amendment would inhibit Ofqual’s ability to be an effective regulator.

The amendment would require Ofqual to report what actions it was taking to rectify failings, but if it finds a problem, it will not be Ofqual’s job to tackle it. Ofqual is the regulator, its role is to monitor and report, not to do. If Ofqual was asked to take responsibility for some aspect of delivery, it could not be an objective observer reporting on that process, and it would blur the lines of accountability for delivery, which, as Lord Sutherland found in his report, are important to have clear. Therefore, if Ofqual chose to report a problem, it might report, for example, what QCDA was doing about it and give its judgement about whether that was sufficient, but it should not be asked to report on what it was doing itself, which the amendment suggests.

Amendment 381 would amend clause 156, which requires Ofqual to publish and keep under regular review a national curriculum assessments regulatory framework. That framework must describe how Ofqual intends to keep all aspects of the national curriculum assessment arrangements under review and to give guidance to bodies with responsibilities for the development, implementation and monitoring of national curriculum assessment arrangements on how to perform their functions.

Amendment 381 proposes that that document should also include a description of how Ofqual intends to maintain the academic standards of national curriculum assessments. A similar point to the one I have just made applies here. Ofqual is the regulator. It is Ofqual’s responsibility to set out, through the regulatory framework, how the QCDA, and other bodies responsible for delivering assessments, should maintain standards. It is also Ofqual’s responsibility to monitor and report on whether standards are being maintained. As regulator, Ofqual cannot be responsible for maintaining standards; only those who are delivering the assessments can do that.

I entirely agree with the thinking behind the amendment, which is that maintaining standards should be at the core of Ofqual’s regulation of assessments. That is why promoting assessment standards is one of Ofqual’s objectives. Due to that objective, Ofqual will have to make maintaining standards one of the key aspects of the framework, but it does not need the amendment to do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions, which I shall answer. The Government responded to the Sutherland report in February. We hope to be able to announce the QCA inquiry soon, but we need to allow the QCA board to go through the due process. Ofqual published its conclusions on key stage 2 last week.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 3:45 pm, 26th March 2009

Will the Minister tell the Committee whether the conclusions were that the quality of the key stage test marking in 2008 was as good as in previous years?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

The statement made by Ofqual was that the quality of marking in 2008 was at least as good as in previous years.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Will the Minister confirm whether Ken Boston and David Gee are still suspended and whether they are on full pay, or have they moved on?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I think that the public will be interested in that final answer.

I was slightly disappointed by the Minister’s response to the amendments. I understand her point on reporting what action Ofqual will take in tackling a problem with the QCDA, but one of the activities that could be reported is a direction to the QCDA. That could be regarded as activity as well as sorting out the problem. None the less, I take on board her point.

I was disappointed by her response to amendment 380 on standards. If she was as serious about maintaining and raising standards as Conservative Members, she would not have a problem with accepting the amendment, notwithstanding that it might be regarded as otiose if it is implicit elsewhere in the Bill that Ofqual has a duty to maintain standards. Standards are so important that they cannot be understated in any legislation. I will therefore press the amendment to test whether the Committee is as serious as Conservative Members about maintaining and raising academic standards in our schools.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 153 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 154 and 155 ordered to stand part of the Bill.