HC Deb 11 May 1993 vol 224 cc651-60 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I propose to make a statement about future arrangements for national curriculum testing.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have already confirmed the Government's commitment to this summer's tests for seven and 14-year-olds. There is abundant evidence of the importance of testing the progress of our children. Our main competitor countries do so as a matter of course. So should we. It would be a betrayal of a future generation of pupils—[interruption]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Patten

Our main competitor countries do so as a matter of course. So should we. It would be a betrayal of a future generation of pupils to postpone what are acknowledged on all sides to be much needed educational reforms. It would be to set aside the tremendous efforts made by the great majority of hard-working teachers to implement the national curriculum since 1989.

Tests for seven-year-olds are in their third year. We know that they work. Tests in 1991 and 1992 have improved standards of teaching and learning. Last year's pilot tests for 14-year-olds were well received. Attendance by pupils actually went up on test days. Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools said only yesterday that the evidence provided by a good testing system was essential to assess the progress of our schools.

Children have been working towards the tests for several years. Abandoning the tests would leave conscientious teachers, concerned parents and the wider community in the dark about our schools, depriving them of vital information about the attainments of individual pupils and denying Sir Ron Dearing the information about the quality of the tests for which he himself has asked.

I come to the testing arrangements for 1994. Sir Ron Dearing has been given the widest possible remit. His task is to advise on how the curriculum and assessment framework in the round can be simplified and streamlined in response to the concerns of many teachers.

I have discussed with Sir Ron the implications for 1994. He has advised me that the tests next year should focus on the basics—exactly why I asked him to set up the review in the first instance. I agree with that advice. The Government have therefore decided on the following for 1994. First, mandatory tests in 1994 for seven and 14-year-olds should concentrate on the core subjects of English, mathematics and science, and on Welsh as a first language in Wales. We shall decide later whether to add technology at the age of 14, in the light of this summer's tests.

Secondly, the testing arrangements in these subjects will be streamlined, with some substantial changes to coverage and style. I have asked Sir Ron Dearing to advise me by July on how this can best be done, including the balance between the tests themselves and teachers' own assessments.

Thirdly, and very importantly, Sir Ron will, at my request, carefully consider the merits of external marking by external examiners of the tests of 11 and 14-year-olds.

Fourthly, the current obligation on teachers of seven-year-olds to make assessments of class room work in technology, history and geography will be lifted in 1994 and will not be introduced in music, art and physical education, allowing those teachers to concentrate on the basics.

Fifthly, next year's tests for 11-year-olds in English, mathematics and science will take the form of a national pilot, leading to mandatory tests in 1995.

Sixthly, the introduction of mandatory tests for 14-year-olds in history and geography which had been planned for 1994 will be postponed, pending Sir Ron Dearing's review.

Seventhly, to ensure that Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations about changes to the curriculum can be rapidly implemented, which is what many of my right hon. and hon. Friends want, the Government propose to suspend for a period the consultation procedures specified in sections 20 and 21 of the Education Reform Act 1988. We shall move an appropriate amendment to the Education Bill, now in another place.

This will preserve, during the interim, the duty on me and on the Secretary of State for Wales to consult about changes, but it will be designed to enable us to proceed to make those changes after a single stage of consultation in cases such as this in which the need for change has been widely recognised and the changes themselves are the product of extensive prior debate, such as that which has been going on in the country for a number of months.

I say two things in conclusion—[HON. MEMBERS: "I resign".] That is only to be expected from the Opposition, but I am anxious to complete my statement, Madam Speaker.

These decisions will significantly reduce the work load on teachers in 1994. It is in the interests of properly taught children, informed parents, employers and the nation that the testing arrangements which I have described today should go ahead without interruption. If they do not, we will have an education system without adequate rigour. and we shall have conceded a decade's advantage to our international competitors.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

Does the Secretary of State realise that his statement illustrates the utter confusion and chaos in Government circles on this year's tests? Only yesterday, the Secretary of State was saying that there would be no further statement. No. 10 said that there would be; then it said that there would not he—little knowing, apparently, that the Lord Privy Seal and the Prime Minister had decided that the crisis of confidence in the Secretary of State was so great that he would be forced to make this statement today. Clearly, however, the reason for the statement remains puzzling, as the Secretary of State has said that there are to be no changes in the testing arrangements for this year.

The Secretary of State's statement that the tests must go ahead this year proves that he has learnt nothing and that he is still not willing to listen. Does he realise that no previous holder of his office so clearly united the independent schools with the NUT, or the Professional Association of Teachers with the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, all of which. with parents and governors of all political persuasions, are totally opposed to the Government's imposed tests?

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that no one is opposed to the testing and assessment of children but that the tests that he wants to impose are high on administration and low on educational value, and that no one has confidence in them?

If so many changes are to be made next year and in subsequent years, why does the Secretary of State persist in trying to make guinea pigs of our children this year? The logic of his own position must be to withdraw the compulsion to have tests this year. Why cannot he make the tests voluntary? Does he consider himself to be tied by his own legislation?

With regard to testing arrangements for future years, does not the Secretary of State realise that he cannot get the arrangements right if he does not admit that he has been wrong so far and if he does not understand his own mistakes? Will he now admit that he has been wrong? Will he admit his mistakes and consult widely, and not in haste, about the arrangements for the future?

We welcome the 11 specific points on which the Secretary of State has climbed down in respect of testing arrangements for future years. Thus, it is all the more incredible that he is forcing tests on children this year.

Looking to the future, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to understand that appointments to and the terms of reference and time scale of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority are critical, that the membership of SCAA must not be determined by the Secretary of State alone, that a majority of its members must be people responsible for educating children, and that the review must be genuinely independent of the Government.

To that end, will the Secretary of State agree that the Select Committee on Education should ratify membership of the review body? Will he acknowledge that the review must not be a hasty exercise? Will he accept that, unless parents, teachers and governors have full confidence in the independence and in the appropriateness of the timing of the review, we shall not be provided with a long-term solution to this problem?

The real issue is whether the Secretary of State has demonstrated a capacity to listen and to understand the problems that he has created. He still fails that test. His obstinate and arrogant refusal to change this year's tests is incredible. He does not enjoy the confidence of parents, teachers or governors—even of his own advisers. He should resign.

Mr. Patten

I am very confused by the hon. Lady's attitude and by that of her hon. Friends, such as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who is one of 100 lead signatories to early-day motion 1988, which says that there should be no national curriculum tests whatsoever for seven-year-olds. It is very difficult to understand the Labour party's attitude.

The reforms that have been introduced since 1988 have at each stage been modified in response to views from teachers and other professionals and educationists. That is exactly what happened with the 1991 tests for seven-year-olds. They were translated into new and improved tests for seven-year-olds for 1992. They are now being taken in many schools up and down the country, and I believe that they will show a critical improvement in standards.

Each reform should build on the preceding stage of the reform. It is critical that the tests should proceed this summer, in the interests of the children themselves. People in this country will be amazed when they see the published test questions and will wonder what on earth the fuss was about. Sir Ron Dearing, in response to my remit letter to him of several weeks ago, said—he repeated it yesterday—that he needed the evidence of this year's tests in order to inform his review.

Sometimes the Government are accused of not listening. I have been to a good number of schools up and down the land and I have talked to teachers in those schools and in my Department. They have stated their views about the national curriculum and assessment. I did listen; that is why, several weeks ago, I set up the review under Sir Ron Dearing. That was a classic case of responding, quite correctly, to professional concerns. But in the meantime, if the reforms are to succeed, they must proceed.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I hope that my right hon. Friend will reject the ill-considered advice that he has just received from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). Does he accept that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members and certainly parents will widely welcome his statement, which clearly shows that he has listened to parents and teachers and has simplified the national curriculum and testing? I hope that my right hon. Friend's announcement will be matched by an equivalent one from the trade unions withdrawing the boycott.

Mr. Patten

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. The response of professional teachers will be interesting. I hope that they will respond to my statement this afternoon. It will substantially reduce teachers' work load, about which they have complained, and possibly introduce external examiners for tests at 11 and 14. I hope that teachers will welcome the reforms. No teacher should ever think that the national curriculum or testing is wrong or will not produce results in the interests of our children.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Does the Secretary of State accept that at least two of the things that he has said today will be widely accepted in the House—first, his recognition that the current testing arrangements impose an excessive work load on teachers in our schools and, secondly, his clear admission that the current testing arrangements are wrong and desperately need to be changed?

Does he further accept that many parents, teachers and governors will be bitterly disappointed by his statement today because, although he is offering changes in the future, he offers no changes at the present time, so the problems in our schools will continue? There is no end to the strife in our schools—strife of the Government's making. Does the Secretary of State really believe that by offering jam tomorrow he can get himself out of a pickle today?

Mr. Patten

The tests taken by any child at any stage of his or her career, be it GCSE or A-level, will always be subject to lively debate. People will often say that this or that question was not put in the right way or was flawed. It is certainly not my belief that the tests for 14-year-olds this summer are fundamentally flawed. It is a matter of professional debate.

Some people think that there are problems. Others, including professional advisers, such as the noble Lord Griffiths, who was chairman of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, do not. Lord Griffiths wrote to my on 18 April delivering the tests and saying that it was the view of his council that the tests had been well prepared. After all, they had been piloted during the previous three years.

Why should the tests at 14 go ahead this summer? I shall tell the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) why. Children have been working for the tests for the past two to three years. Children have a right and an expectation that they will take the tests. The hon. Gentleman should listen to Sir Ron Dearing, the widely respected independent chairman of the review I have set up, who has asked that the tests should go ahead this summer.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I would be obliged if we could have brisk questions and brisk answers so that we can get through questions from a number of hon. Members.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend ask Sir Ron Dearing to ensure that arrangements are made whereby heads of department in schools, especially English and technology departments, can put their views directly to him so that, by 1994, we shall have a better system of testing in schools?

Mr. Patten

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that that has already happened. Sir Ron Dearing is consulting not only head teachers in a series of regional meetings, but a range of heads of department in exactly the way that my hon. Friend wishes.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Will the Secretary of State accept that his retreat into flexibility for next year is fatally compromised by his determination to press ahead this year? Is it possible in a free society—a society that is different from that of Napoleonic France or, dare I say it, of Nazi Germany—for professional educators to be forced to do something to which they are opposed because of educational principle? Does the Secretary of State accept that he cannot get the reforms through for this year unless he is prepared to put General Patten's tanks on every playground in the country?

Mr. Patten

I believe that it would be so sad if there were a boycott this summer of, for example, the tests for seven-year-olds which have been largely completed. That is why I profoundly hope that the NUT ballot, of which we shall have the result on Thursday, is not in favour of the boycotting of all tests at seven, 11 and 14. That would be a tragedy for our children.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

Having met head teachers and heads of departments in my constituency, I know that they do not question at all the need to test. My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is the practical application that has gone wrong. If this were a business, the people charged with responsibility for the tests would have been sacked. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that point, because those people have presumably been drawing good salaries while putting the tests together.

Mr. Patten

I am Secretary of State for Education and I accept all responsibility for education in England. I know that my hon. Friend brought a deputation of heads to the Department to see my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Blatch. I welcome the fact that they accept the principle of testing. I urge my hon. Friend to urge them to recognise that, if we stop the process of reform, if we stop the national curriculum being implemented, if we stop the testing regime, if we pull up the plant and examine it for two or three years, we shall set back the whole process for a decade.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his fall from grace has been coming for a long time? Nobody has exuded more arrogance and contempt for his colleagues than he has. He has strutted round the Dispatch Box like a puffed-up peacock on heat. Today, he has come in like a bedraggled battery hen that has laid its last egg. His intellectual elitism has overwhelmed his common sense, and the people in the country know it.

Mr. Patten

That was not so much a question as a statement, from which, as the hon. Gentleman recognises, I readily dissent.

Mr. John Watts (Slough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the target of the neanderthal trade unions that have orchestrated opposition to the tests is not the flaws in the tests, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) referred, but the national curriculum itself? Would not the biggest possible betrayal of our children be to allow those trade unions to feel that they were once more in charge of education? They would preside over a lowering of standards, from which the country suffered for so many decades.

Mr. Patten

I am not sure why the national curriculum and the question whether we should have one or not has suddenly been brought back as a matter for debate. It is critical that we—like the Germans, the Japanese and the French—have a well established national curriculum. We should have had one decades ago, and it is critical not to be driven off course now.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

May I remind the Secretary of State that we are talking about the future of our nation's young people, and inform him that, in a previous capacity, I was responsible for the formulation, standardisation and application of various forms of educational testing, both for attainment and of a diagnostic nature. One of the things that we learnt at the time was that the over-application of such tests devalued them—they interefered with the education programme and were counter-productive.

Just how many of the Secretary of State's advisers have that kind of experience and take into account that kind of result or lack of result? I simply want the Secretary of State to justify his position logically, rather than coming out with the party political rhetoric to which he seems so fond of resorting. Where is the rationale, the logic? As yet, it is not in evidence. Ask the profession—those who are responsible.

Mr. Patten

Given the chance, I will.

On both the National Curriculum Council, which is concerned with curricular activities, and the School Examinations and Assessment Council, which is concerned with examination and assessment, there are six lecturers and six teachers. Each of the subject groups that has helped to set up and design the tests for seven-year-olds and 14-year-olds has included a substantial number of teachers—I believe, an overwhelming majority of teachers. That is the straight answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.

Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby)

I can assure my right hon. Friend that the lively debate to which he referred will continue—certainly as regards this year's tests. He will know from the views that I have expressed of my disappointment on that score. I have listened carefully to his statement and would say firmly to him that the package of measures that has been announced goes a very substantial way towards meeting the criticisms that have legitimately been made in connection with the way in which the tests should be conducted in future and as regards the content of the national curriculum.

In those circumstances, does not my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no possible justification for any attempt to disrupt and boycott in our schools this year? Does he agree that such action will not only serve to damage the education of our children—which is the most important thing—but will cause the Ron Dearing review, upon which so much depends, to get off to such a bad start as to make Ron Dearing's task almost impossible?

Mr. Patten

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I warmly welcome what he has said. Like him, I believe that industrial action and boycotting have no place in the classroom. I appeal to teachers to listen to Sir Ron Dearing and to his request for their co-operation. That is something that the teaching world owes the chairman of the independent review.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Contrary to what the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education says, the Secretary of State has almost admitted—in the most amazing statement that I have ever heard—that the tests are flawed, because he has agreed that next year they will not take place. If the tests are to continue, the education of children in our schools will be affected. Bearing in mind the fact that the vast majority of teachers, regardless of their union, are opposed to the tests, why is the right hon. Gentleman forcing ahead with them now? And what will he do when teachers boycott the tests, as they will?

Mr. Patten

Each test each year is a preparation for a test the next year, as well as being a test in itself. There has been an occasion in the history of examinations—of A-levels and 0-levels and now GCSEs—when each year did not involve preparation for the next. That is why it is critical for the tests to proceed, and that is why Sir Ron Dearing has asked for exactly that to happen.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing is more damaging to children than vacillation and uncertainty in their education, as in all areas of their lives, and therfore it is important to be consistent? Will he further agree that equality of opportunity is absolutely fundamental to the Government's aims for all children in education and everywhere else in their lives?

Therefore, would it not be wrong for some children to have tests and others not to have tests by some form of boycott? Is my right hon. Friend considering compiling a list of volunteers who might assist in the testing process when teachers or others involved are prepared to operate a boycott in a ruthless manner?

Mr. Patten

The whole purpose of the national curriculum and the associated testing regime is to deliver a minimum entitlement of education to all our children wherever they are and from whatever background they come. That is why it is so wrong, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton) said, that there should be any boycotting in the summer. Of course, we know that the tests will proceed in a number of areas—for example, the tests will be taken in London boroughs such as Wandsworth. When the results are published and when people see what the test questions are like, they will wonder what the fuss was about in the first place.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

Will the Secretary of State, as a member of a Government who know the cost of everything but the value of very little, now step back and do a simple cost-benefit analysis? It is clear to all that the testing programme is in such disarray that any diagnostic value that it might have had for Sir Ron Dearing will be absolutely worthless.

Having marshalled more opposition throughout the world of education than has ever been witnessed before, will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether there might be an enormous cost benefit to him in withdrawing his insistence on pressing ahead with the tests this year and winning back some of the good will and morale throughout the world of education without which anything that he wishes to deliver for the children of this country cannot be delivered at all?

Mr. Patten

I am sure that the 430,000 hard-working teachers in England for whom I am responsible—I am not responsible for Scotland—recognise that their efforts are warmly welcomed. Those teachers have already put in an enormous investment of time to prepare children for tests at seven and 14. It would be a tragedy if that investment were wasted.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

Did my right hon. Friend notice the opinion poll the other day that showed that four out of five parents want the tests to go ahead? Does he agree that that reflects the severe concern that children have been preparing for the tests for the past three years and the important point—which the Labour party has clearly missed—that the national curriculum can be improved only if the testing goes ahead? Teachers, as professionals, have a duty to ensure that they do the best they can with the tests, so that Sir Ron Dearing and others can ensure that the problems are rectified.

Mr. Patten

No one in England and Wales will ever know whether the national curriculum is workirig unless there is a testing regime and the results are published. That is the only way in which we will know whether education in this country is performing at the same level as that of our international competitors such as Germany and France.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

May I be helpful to the Secretary of State by saying that the Government got a bloody nose in Scotland a few years ago on the issue of testing not from teachers or teachers' unions but from parents? Four out of five parents kept their children away from tests.

That parental revolt made the Government see late in the day that the best way forward was to allow teacher discretion on testing in the classroom and provide a partnership among teachers, parents and education so that the education of young people could be fruitful and go forward. Will the Secretary of State learn that lesson which the Government learned so dearly at their expense in Scotland?

Mr. Patten

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system in Scotland is different; there is no Education Reform Act, and no national curriculum is laid down by statute. The education north and south of the border is completely different.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

My right hon. Friend's restatement of the principle of testing and of curriculum form are welcome in the House and in the schools. Will my right hon. Friend confirm again that it is his longer-term intention to remove a great deal of the overweening bureaucracy that has crept into the tests and to concentrate on basics, which I welcome? If he can confirm that, his statement will be even more welcome in the House.

Mr. Patten

That is so. I am sure that that is what will come from the Dearing review. I know that my hon. Friend speaks with experience—if my memory serves me aright, 23 years as a classroom teacher—so I take his views very seriously.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

Has the Secretary of State considered the cost of the astonishing proposal that the tests at 11 and 14 years of age should be externally marked? Does not that constitute an admission that for seven years we have been getting the marking of external examinations done for nothing by teachers on the cheap? Would it not be better to use that money to provide better resources in schools, particularly human resources, to enhance the quality of teaching, which is the only thing that produces better standards in education?

Mr. Patten

If the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back to a survey in England—not in Wales—in March 1992, we asked 93 education authorities whether they tested regularly up to the age of 11. Only 41 said that they did so. If teachers are saying that they have been testing all along, national testing is simply a substitute for the testing that should have been taking place throughout that time in primary and secondary schools.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that I brought a delegation of head and assistant head teachers to his Department some months ago and they were delighted with the changes that our noble Friend Baroness Blatch had already introduced? I have been ringing around my constituency trying to find our how many teachers were carrying out the tests. The majority are doing so—apart from one highly politically motivated gentleman. Children in the majority of schools have taken the tests and they are being marked. Teachers said, however, that they would like the tests to be simplified next year. They will therefore be delighted with my right hon. Friend's statement.

Mr. Patten

I am grateful for that, and I am sure that in most primary schools the tests for seven-year-olds will be taken, in Lancaster as elsewhere.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

The Secretary of State, in his statement and his information to hon. Members at Question Time, has shown that he has failed the listening test; secondly, that he has failed the speech test; and in his reference to the early-day motion which I tabled last night with 104 other people, he has failed the reading and understanding test. I did not say that the tests should be abandoned. That was the opinion of parents who were polled by The Independent and NOP. My demand was a rather modest one—for this year's tests to be made voluntary.

I cannot understand why the Secretary of State made a statement about next year, implying that this year's tests must be badly flawed and damaging for children and teachers, and yet was unable to make this year's tests voluntary. In the light of the arrangements that he is making for next year, which we admit show a considerable improvement in his attitude, does he intend not to bring any pressure on local education authorities, head teachers and governors in schools where teachers decide not to carry out the tests this year?

Mr. Patten

I have only two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, the Government have listened to the views of teachers and others, which is why, several weeks ago, I set up the Dearing review. Secondly, I have carefully considered early-day motion 1988 standing in the name of the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends: that children should be assessed but not given National Curriculum tests at seven". That shows what the Labour party is concerned about.