HL Deb 12 July 1991 vol 530 cc1623-32

1.3 p.m.

Baroness David rose to move that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations (S.I. 1991, No. 1265), laid before the House 311 30th May, be annulled.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in praying against the regulations I want to make the Labour Party's position clear. In our document on the education standards commission, Raising the standard, we said, Crude examination results should be made publicly available, and should be given to governors and parents". To clarify that I shall read the whole paragraph, which states, Crude league tables allow under-performers at the top and bottom of the tables to escape scrutiny, and may also mean that excellence and effort by schools in areas where attainment on entry to a school is low goes unrecognised. Crude examination results should be made publicly available, and should be given to governors and parents. But in management terms, it is also of great importance to know of the progress which the school is making with the child. Eton College is always likely to achieve better crude results than a secondary school down the road in Slough. What everyone needs to know is whether the secondary school in Slough is doing as well as it should, or could, given its intake".

What matters is the interpretation that is put on the results published, as I argued in Committee on the Education Reform Bill. I said that results must be placed in the correct socio-economic context. Parents will need to make a judgment on the schools in their area and HMIs and LEAs will need that information in order to make judgments on the performance of teachers. I reiterate that crude exam results on their own will not allow for a proper and fair judgment by either.

I turn to the regulations. They appear as the first use of the power the Secretary of State was given by the Education Reform Act to require the publication of the educational achievements of pupils in such form and manner as he may decide. Therefore I believe that they deserve parliamentary scrutiny. The Government's original intention with this power was to require LEAs to produce annual reports. The consultation document, The National Curriculum 5–16, dated July 1987 stated that the reports should show, aggregated assessment results over a timed series for each age cohort in each authority's schools".

Thankfully, wiser counsel prevailed and, although there are faults in the regulations, there are welcome aspects too, particularly the decision to require the publication of non-GCSE, A/AS level examination results. Schools, quite rightly, should have to publish information on the full range of their pupils' achievements in City and Guilds, Royal Society of Arts and BTEC assessments.

The principle that parents and the community should have access to reliable information of a high quality about the comparative performance of schools is firmly supported, as I said. The group the Government established to advise on those matters —the Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT)—reported in December 1987. It stated that, there is a fear that results will be published in league tables of scores. We believe that most teachers and schools would not object to assessment results being reported to those who know the school and can interpret them in the light of a broader picture of its work and circumstances. They would object, however, to the publication of partial information which is not set in that context and is therefore potentially misleading—particularly where significant decisions are based upon that information".

Unfortunately, the regulations, although an improvement on the draft regulations circulated last November—they require, for instance, some information to be reported by gender—still invite unfair comparisons and give a partial picture of a school's work. Although there are criticisms about the information required in Regulation 5, it is the summary of GCSE results required by Regulation 6 and the summary of GCE A/AS level results required by Regulation 7 that are of most concern.

I shall consider first Regulation 6, the summary of GCSE results. The summary information requires schools to present the results of the previous year as well as the current year in a manner that suggests that valid comparisons can be made. That is misleading. Any change between the years is almost certain to have no statistical significance. If there is a difference it is likely to be due to the prior achievement of pupils on entry to the school. The comparison of a school's results with those of the LEA for the previous year is also unlikely to show anything of significance. A comparison with the national picture will merely indicate the difference in socio-economic characteristics between a given LEA and the rest of England. As such it will tell parents nothing of use about a school's results.

Regulation 6(1) (a) requires that the number to be used as the denominator for calculating percentages is the number on roll the previous January. Thus all Easter leavers will reduce a school's results. A school that is particularly successful in placing pupils in employment at Easter will be penalised although it is likely that Easterleaving has nothing to do with a school's quality but more to do with the prevailing socio-economic circumstances. Next year it will still be possible for pupils to leave at Easter.

No allowance is made for pupils with statements of special educational needs even if they have had the national curriculum modified or disapplied—this in spite of a statement by the then Secretary of State to the Commons Standing Committee examining the Bill. On 12th January, 1988 at col. 419, Mr. Baker said: The 'school report' could exclude results for children with special educational needs—SEN—at least in subjects for which the curriculum is modified". That omission from the regulations may mean that schools will be reluctant to take pupils with statements as they will reduce the school's comparative results. The new rate of the percentage calculation is defined in terms of the national curriculum year group. Perhaps the Minister can clarify whether pupils in the examination year group but born outside the 1st September to 31st August year of the majority of pupils taking the examinations will or will not have their results added to the school's total. For instance, in some inner city secondary schools there can be a sizeable group of pupils who have joined the school from other countries and who do not have English as their mother tongue. These pupils often delay taking their GCSE examinations for a year. They will not count towards the denominator of the percentage, but will they contribute to the numerator? If they do, this can mean that a school may have a success rate of over 100 per cent. If not, the achievements of these pupils will never contribute to the summary of a school's results.

As the summary only takes account of GCSE results, the achievements of pupils who take pre-vocational studies will not only not contribute to the school's results, they will actually reduce them. I shall refer to this again on A/AS level results.

Regulation 7 specifies the method of calculation and presentation of summary information on GCE A/AS level results. The method is completely new and bears no resemblance to that upon which there had been consultation and is, quite frankly, a complete nonsense. The original proposal concentrated attention on the balance between A and AS levels which may not have been what the DES wanted. The regulation requires points to be awarded to each result. For example, on GCE A level, grade A equals 10 and grade B equals 8, and so on. For GCE AS level, grade A equals 5 points and so on. While that may be a suitable way for sifting candidates for university or polytechnic entrance, it is not a suitable way of comparing the achievements of schools. People who try to turn ordinal numbers—in this case, grade positions—into ratio numbers so that they can achieve average scores invariably get unsatisfactory answers. If nothing else, it might pressure schools into putting more candidates forward for A levels in the hope that they might get higher results.

A more fundamental objection is that in calculating percentages the denominator is the number on roll the previous January. While it is reasonable to argue that at present virtually all year 11 (16 year olds) are doing GCSE, this is not the case for year 13 (18 year olds). The whole emphasis in the recent White Paper Education and Training for the 21st Century is for the diversification of, and equality between, examination and assessment goals beyond the age of 16.

The White Paper states: We want academic and vocational qualifications to be held in equal esteem. Vocational qualifications are appropriate for many more young people than currently take them, but too few are prepared to look at alternatives to A levels". However, pupils not studying for AS/A levels will be treated as dead weight in calculating a school's average score and thus reduce it. A school with a small sixth form with pupils just studying for A levels is liable to get a high average score, but a large sixth form providing a comprehensive range of courses will have a low score. This is ridiculous. Is this really what the DES wants? Surely this is an example of the lack of co-ordination of policies between different departments.

I turn now to the matter of publishing better information. The link between school achievement and socio-economic factors is well-known. The TGAT report, while not favouring the statistical adjustment of examination results for socio-economic factors, recommended in paragraph 134: Any report by a school should include a general report for the area, prepared by the local authority, to indicate the nature of socio-economic and other influences which arc known to affect schools. This report should give a general indication of the known effects of such influences on performance". On this recommendation the then Secretary of State stated: It would be helpful for each school's results to be published in the context of a report about the work of the school as a whole, including a description of its circumstances and catchment area, and a general statement about the broad effect of socio-economic factors on performance. That will allow for an informed interpretation of assessment results" —[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee J, 12/1/88; col. 425.] Unfortunately, the DES has never formally consulted on this recommendation and it would be useful to hear why the DES has rejected it.

At Report stage of the Education Reform Bill, my noble friend Lady Blackstone moved Amendment No. 124 requiring the publication of results adjusted for socio-economic factors. Unfortunately, there was not a favourable ministerial reply.

The adjustment of examination results for socio-economic factors is increasing. The 1989 HMI report The Use Made by Local Education Authorities of Public Examination Results noted: The joint evaluation of examination and socio-economic data is undertaken with varying degrees of statistical intensity in several LEAs and appears to be under consideration in a growing number of them".

There is much research being undertaken in this area throughout the western world and there is increasing acceptance that the statistical technique of multi-level modelling is much better than other methods for adjusting examination scores. Can the Minister say why the department rejected the use of this technique to make fair comparisons of results? The DES appears to have withdrawn from research in this important area. Nothing has been produced by the DES statistical branch—now renamed the analytical services branch—since 1983 when it produced work that attempted to adjust LEA performance for socio-economic factors. It is regretted that the DES has not been able to support the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' admirable project on multi-level modelling of examination results.

The present Secretary of State's commitment to the fair comparison of school examination results is noted. In his recent speech to the City Technology College dinner he stated: Of course, considerable care will need to be taken in interpreting what public examination results achieved in CTCs mean in terms of the CTCs' success in enhancing the performance of pupils across the ability range. It is by fair comparisons that CTCs will be judged by pupils, parents and the general public".

That appeared in a DES press notice on 16th January 1991. It is regretted that the Secretary of State's enthusiasm for the fair comparison of examination results has not yet extended to those of maintained schools. How soon will the Secretary of State review the fairness of the reporting mechanisms in these regulations and inaugurate consultation on a better alternative? I hope that in his reply the Minister will respond to some of the questions I have put to him. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations (S.I. 1991, No. 1265), laid before the House on 30th May, be annulled.—(Baroness David.)

Lord Addington

My Lords, may I very briefly say that the noble Baroness, Lady David, has put her finger on a very important point. It is patently absurd to have blanket results for schools if their intake is not known. The point made about special schools is particularly important. If, for instance, a school has a very good unit for dealing with dyslexic children, it may well be enhancing the school. However, in crude terms of results it may well mean that they have a lower aggregate score—we are effectively looking at a score table here.

Surely there must be some way that the Government can introduce a system which reflects far more the educational worth in something a little more subtle than simply saying, "You've got X number of passes this time round. Therefore you must be a better school".

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady David, for her welcome of those parts of the regulations of which she approves. Again, I shall attempt to respond as much as I can to what she said, although some of her points were of a technical nature. In any event, I shall respond, whether this afternoon or in writing. I shall send copies to any other noble Lords who have taken part.

Schools have up to now been required to publish information on their GCSE, A and AS level examinations, under the provisions of regulations laid in 1981. Schools were not required to publish what we regarded as important pieces of information. For example, schools did not have to publish examination results other than GCSE, A and AS levels; they did not have to give an indication of the number entered for or attempting an examination, nor the number who failed an examination. They could publish their results in any format of their choosing and this, as I am sure noble Lords will appreciate, could make comparisons difficult.

Our aims in laying these new regulations were threefold: to ensure that parents have access to a clear summary of schools' examination results, in a common and consistent form, as soon as they are readily available; that parents are able to assess the relative success of the school in examination terms and can make choices based on this information; and that the managers of the education service, at all levels, are able to make informed decisions based on the information available.

I am sure noble Lords will agree that all parents are concerned about the education of their children. Is it not better that parents are able to draw conclusions and make choices on the basis of clear and accessible information?

The regulations, as I have said, require schools to publish their GCSE, A and AS level results in a common and consistent form. Perhaps I may describe some of the information which the regulations require schools to produce: the number of boys, girls and all pupils in year groups 11 and 13; their results in all public examinations; the number of pupils entered for an examination, achieving each grade, failing to achieve a pass grade, and not attempting an examination for which they were entered; GCSE, A and AS level results for each school to be summarised in a consistent form each year and compared with those for the school, the LEA and England for the preceding year.

The regulations will enable parents properly to assess the examination performance of their child's school and to make comparisons between schools. I am sure noble Lords will agree when I say that how its pupils perform in public examinations is a key indicator of how well any school is doing in meeting its duties.

More and more young people are now studying for vocational qualifications in our schools. The regulations will ensure that their results are reported as well. It is our aim to achieve parity of esteem between what are commonly called academic and vocational qualifications; a point to which the noble Baroness referred. The regulations acknowledge the importance which we place on vocational qualifications by requiring schools to publish all of their examination results, not simply their results in academic subjects. The regulations recognise the achievements of those pupils who take vocational options.

These regulations did not simply materialise out of thin air. We have been accused of not having thought matters through; of encouraging schools to publish crude tables of results. However, the regulations were the result of carefully considered views and were finalised only after extensive public consultation. The consultation showed broad support for the principles which we put forward in the draft regulations. It should be remembered that it is as important for the education service to have clear information about pupils' attainments in public examinations, as it is for parents.

The regulations laid before the House have benefited from the comments received on the draft we issued for consultation. I have many examples of how we have listened in our consultations. The regulations now require schools to publish, for GCSE, for A/AS overall, and for national curriculum core subjects, the relative success of boys and girls in a school. That came about as a direct result of consultation. We are accused of forcing schools to present data without reference to factors such as size of school or the social and economic background of pupils at a particular school. We are told that we do not recognise the excellence of and effort made by schools in areas where attainment on entry into a school is low. But the regulations do not preclude schools, or indeed LEAs, from supplementing this information with any additional information which they would care to add. Nor do they preclude them from providing information to set their results in context. We encourage schools wherever possible to include whatever additional information they wish. It is important that parents are able to see as complete a picture as possible of pupils' achievements in public examinations.

The party opposite, which now claims to be moving towards us as the party of the consumer, after long domination by producer interests, cannot be opposed to the principle. How does the Labour Party propose to do it, if not in the way that we suggest? Does it intend to blind parents with science by giving them a complex set of data about social background and the like to set alongside exam results? Parents are not fools. If they see two schools which look otherwise alike, and one gets far better results than the other, they will draw their own conclusions. The fact is that schools which are otherwise alike—even, perhaps especially, in deprived areas—do achieve very different results. Those results are not the only test of quality, but they are bound to be what matters primarily to parents. Our proposals will enable parents to make their own judgments without being barraged with a lot of sociological gobbledegook. Raw data is better than cooked data. They will challenge schools not to hide behind excuses but to strive for the best results that they can attain. That must be good. It must be better than the vague proposals that we have heard about educational standards councils and sp on. Under our proposals the consumers—pupils and their parents—really are sovereign.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, asked whether it would be better to move towards reporting the progress made by pupils during their time at school rather than just what they achieve at the end. I have to accept that that would be ideal, but it is not possible now. There is no clear, accurate baseline against which to assess their progress. It will become possible as the results of the assessment made at the end of earlier key stages become available.

I was asked whether LEAs or schools are required to publish league tables of results. The regulations are about what schools publish in their prospectuses and the annual report to governors. They do not apply to the provision of LEA-wide information except for GCSE and A/AS summary data; but that is in average only. However, how comparative information between institutions can be made more widely available to parents, students, employers and others is under active consideration.

I was asked whether vocational examination results are to be included in the summary data. The changing pattern of provision of vocational qualifications makes it impossible for them to be included in summary data at this time. However, we shall keep the matter under review. The noble Baroness asked for a year group definition. All pupils in a given year will have their results counted.

On the question of the summary of GCSE, A and AS results, the noble Baroness suggested that comparisons could not be valid. Some variation is to be expected. Parents will want to see an indicator of progress and schools will be free to set out the changes which have been made and put it into context. The suggestion was made that Easter leavers will affect the results. It is essential to take a common baseline for comparisons. A census date must be set. The date given corresponds to the standard census already set.

The noble Baroness referred to compensating for socio-economic differences. The information must be clear and accessible. I remain to be convinced that any adjustments to take account of ill-defined background variables would not distort the picture.

I was asked for the results of pupils with statements of special educational needs to be reported. The achievements of pupils with such needs will not always be poorer than those of their peers. Indeed some pupils with special educational needs are gifted. Schools are free to record the number of statemented pupils in the relevant year group if they wish. The existing regulations already require special educational need pupils' results to be recorded.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned dyslexia, as one would expect with his keen interest in the subject. The GCSE examining groups have a well-established common policy for dealing with candidates who face disadvantage in their examinations due to various difficulties, including dyslexia. The A level boards have a similar policy. Both will consider making special arrangements for dyslexic pupils if a candidate's examination centre submits a report from an education psychologist. The usual arrangement is to allow dyslexic pupils up to 25 per cent. extra time in the examinations, giving them longer to read papers, to plan, and to correct their answers. Any additional arrangements are made at the discretion of groups and boards.

This summer has seen the first national testing of seven year-olds in English, maths and science under the new national curriculum. We hope that the testing of 11 and 14 year-olds will be introduced over the next year. We are convinced of the need for schools to publish their school-level results at the end of each key stage, Making this information readily accessible as soon as is practicable on a consistent basis is essential to inform both the choices made by the clients of the education service and the decisions made by its managers at all levels. It is our intention that the regulations now before the House will in due course be complemented by and, as regards the results of year 11 pupils, subsumed within those of regulations governing the publication and tranmission of national curriculum assessment results at all key stages. These regulations then represent the beginning of a process whereby evidence of pupils' attainments at all key stages will increasingly become available, permitting secure comparisons to be made over time.

The publication of examination results is a complex issue and one which requires careful handling. The requirements which these regulations place on schools is a sensible balance between simplicity and comprehensiveness. They provide a sound basis for schools reporting their results. Parents have a right to know Low the results of one school compare with another. These regulations mean that parents now have access to a clear summary of schools' examination results, in a common and consistent form as soon as they are available. They also allow parents to assess the relative success of the school in examination terms and to make better-informed choices about what is best for their children, based on this information. I therefore commend these regulations to the House.

1.32 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his support and the Minister for his reply. I apologise for the technical nature of the matter. I agree that it is difficult. However, I believe that the issues I raised were both important and legitimate. I am glad that we have been able to put them on the record. I shall study the Minister's reply with great care. I believe that there are a few points to which he did not reply; for example, I asked what would be the effect on the results if one had children who were not in the year group. I cited the example of students whose first language was not English. They will probably be a year older. As I said, I believe that some of my points were not answered. However, I hope that the Minister will study what I said and write to me if certain aspects were not covered.

The main aim is to ensure that the publication of these results is firmly based so that they can be properly interpreted both by parents and by the LEA. I do not think that the Minister referred to any DES activity in the statistical way. If he writes to me, I should be interested to know whether any change will take place in that connection. It seems rather a shame: either the department is not doing it, or it appears not to be taking note of extremely good work which is being carried out elsewhere. However, I do not think that that topic has any great fascination for the House. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.