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House of Commons Hansard
10 May 2016
Volume 609

  • With permission, I will make a statement about key stage 2 tests.

    Last night the Department for Education was made aware of an issue involving the key stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test, which was mistakenly uploaded on to a secure website by Pearson. Pearson is the external marking supplier contracted by the Department to mark the tests.

    At this stage, we know that the test was mistakenly uploaded at about 5 o’clock yesterday evening. It was uploaded on to a secure site, which was not accessible to anyone without approval from Pearson. Pearson was informed that the test was on its site by markers during the course of the evening, and removed the material from the site at 9.1 pm. The Department was separately alerted to the situation at about 9.30 pm by the media, and contacted Pearson immediately to establish the facts. Pearson’s records show that during the short period when the materials were live, 93 markers—all with the appropriate clearance—accessed the material.

    It is worth emphasising that the only people with access to the site are contracted markers, all of whom are under a contractual obligation not to share sensitive information. I should also point out that it is standard and appropriate practice for key individuals to be given prior access to assessment material in order to ensure that the delivery of tests and marking of papers can occur in a smooth and timely way. Some 23 senior markers had access to the material from 1 April, and 153 team leaders had access to the material from 11 April.

    Clearly, in this system, it is essential that people in positions of trust can be relied on to act appropriately. Unfortunately, in this case, it appears that one person could not, and leaked the key stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test to a journalist. I have spoken to Rod Bristow, the president of Pearson UK, this morning to ask for a full explanation of how this mistake occurred. He has accepted full responsibility for the error and has committed to investigating the matter quickly and fully.

    Specifically, I have asked Rod Bristow to look at two issues. First, how did the material come to be uploaded on to the secure site in error? This was clearly a mistake which should not have been possible. Secondly, I have asked that all records be examined and all information interrogated so that the culprit who leaked this sensitive information can be identified. I am satisfied that Pearson understands the seriousness of the issue and the need to take action quickly to provide clear and unequivocal answers to these two questions. Once I have this information, I will consider what action it may be appropriate to take. I will explore the full range of options available to the Department, including looking at contractual and other routes to seek redress.

    I would like to reiterate that we have no evidence to suggest that any sensitive information entered the public domain before children started taking the test today, and the tests are going ahead as planned. My officials were monitoring social media and other platforms through the night and found no sign of materials being made available. The journalist in question took the decision not to publish the test papers and I am grateful to him for that. Although this is a serious breach—and I am determined to get to the bottom of how the error occurred—it is clear that the actions of almost every marker involved have been correct and proper, and that the integrity of the tests has not been compromised. Teachers and schools should have confidence in the content of the tests and in the processes underpinning the administration of the tests in schools and the subsequent marking.

    I would like to make a few comments about the wider context of primary assessment. I acknowledge that there have been errors in the administration of tests this year. While it is important that we address those errors, they should not detract from the central importance of testing in the life of a school. Tests are an appropriate and essential way for us to understand how well schools are doing, and where more support needs to be targeted so that every child is given the best possible opportunity to succeed throughout their time in school and to get the best preparation for adult life.

    We have taken clear action to strengthen the primary curriculum, to ensure that children today are being taught the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy that are vital for their future success. There are some who say that tests are inherently wrong, that we should not test children and that we are creating a regime that is overly stressful. I disagree. Yesterday, ComRes released a poll of 750 10 and 11-year-old pupils for the BBC, in which 62% of pupils responded that they either “don’t mind” or “enjoy” taking the tests. That is far more than those who said that they “don’t like” or “hate” taking the tests. Altogether, more of the polled pupils reported that they “enjoy” taking the tests than “hate” them.

    Testing is a vital part of teaching: it is the most accurate way, bar none, that a teacher, school or parent can know whether a pupil has or has not understood vital subject content. What is more, the process of taking a test actually improves pupil knowledge and understanding. As such, testing should be a routine and normalised part of school life. When the time for national curriculum assessments comes around, pupils should be entirely accustomed to the process.

    I would like to finish by reiterating that the key stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test remains valid and is going ahead as planned. Teachers, schools, parents and others should have confidence in the test, and it will remain part of the primary assessment system. I commend this statement to the House.

  • I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement. The Government have taken their eye off the ball. Ministers have obsessed for months over a plan for forced academisation, a plan which was never about raising standards and which was self-evidently flawed from the start. Parents did not want or need forced academisation. They made that extremely clear and played a key role in forcing the Government into a humiliating policy U-turn last week, which was confirmed by the Secretary of State in her humiliating statement yesterday. What does matter to parents, however, is having an appropriate and supportive assessment regime for their child. They want to know how their child is performing at school, how they can help to close any gaps in their knowledge and how they can support them to do their best.

    The Government have let parents down at every step of the way. Today’s debacle is just the latest in a sorry line of chaos in primary assessment. First, with no proper consultation with parents, school leaders or teachers, the Government scrapped the assessment system of levels in schools with no regard to what would replace it, creating significant uncertainty and anxiety among the professionals delivering the primary curriculum. It created confusion for parents, with many schools simply attempting to reintroduce their own watered-down version of levels assessment that failed to adequately articulate exactly how well children were getting on. Ministers were then forced to push back the deadline for primary assessments after failing to deliver the necessary resources for teachers in time.

    Following that came the embarrassment of the Government’s failure to introduce baseline assessment. By rushing ahead with the policy without properly involving professionals or parents, the Government failed to spot the fundamental flaw in the design, which was that the tests that they had developed were insufficiently comparable. As a result, they were forced to abandon their approach to baseline tests entirely. Furthermore, just three weeks ago, we learned that the key stage 1 spelling and grammar test had been accidentally published online in December 2015 as a practice paper. Answers to parliamentary questions show that it was downloaded more than 18,000 times before Ministers realised that there was an issue. As a result, the Government were forced to cancel the test, invalidating the work of many children, teachers and parents.

    There has been a constant stream of chop and change in primary assessment under this Government. Since September, the Department for Education has updated or clarified on average at least one primary school assessment resource every other working day. The situation has become so ludicrous that the Department is now having to start clarifying its clarifications. Without a doubt, the confusion and chaos created in primary assessment has led to a damaging fall in confidence among parents and teachers about the reliability and validity of assessment in schools.

    As 10 and 11-year-olds are sitting down to take the key stage 2 spelling and grammar test this morning, we now learn that the test has already been published online. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one test may be regarded as a mistake, but to lose both looks like carelessness. It could not be made up. It is a serious breach on top of a series of multiple failures. How on earth can parents have confidence in the assessment regime when the Department for Education has completely lost control of the tests for which it is responsible? How can we be confident that the rest of the test process is secure? Remember, the tests are not only important for individual pupils, but part of the performance data by which schools are judged. We can have no confidence in their being used for that purpose after what we have heard today.

    The National Association of Head Teachers is right to say:

    “We cannot see how school level results can be published or a national benchmark set on such shaky data.”

    Headteachers and parents deserve a firm guarantee from the Minister today that no primary school will be forced to become an academy on the basis of these compromised tests. It is time for him to be honest with then, honest with himself and—[Interruption.] The reality is that parents, school leaders and teachers have lost confidence in this Government’s approach to assessment and exams. It is time for the Minister to be honest with them, honest with himself and honest with us. He needs to hold up his hands, admit that he has got it wrong and stop trying to blame others for his Department’s mistakes. It is time for him to engage properly with parents and teachers to establish an approach to primary assessment that has everybody’s confidence and not just his. He needs to look into the eyes of all those 10 and 11-year-olds who are taking the tests today and say sorry for getting it wrong and sorry for letting them down. After all, that is what we teach children to do: admit their mistakes, apologise for them, learn from them and move on. So will he now learn his lesson and turn his attention away from the misguided obsession with structures at the expense of raising standards in schools? Will he turn his focus and his energy on what really matters to parents, and get this right?

  • I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)—or should I say the Lady Bracknell from Scunthorpe. I have to say to him that this Government are committed to raising standards in schools. Given the way the Opposition address this issue, I sometimes wonder whether they are as committed to raising standards as we are. In 2011, we conducted a review of the primary curriculum to ensure that it was closer to the curriculums being taught in the most successful education systems in the world. The review was overseen by the national curriculum review panel, which was made up of highly experienced headteachers and teachers in this country. We introduced the phonics check to ensure that six-year-olds were learning to read properly, and as a consequence of that reform 120,000 six-year-olds are reading more effectively today. We reviewed the reading curriculum—the English curriculum—to ensure that children became fluent readers who developed a habit of reading for pleasure. We reformed the maths curriculum so that children learn how to perform long multiplication by year 5 and long division by year 6, and so that they know their multiplication tables—up to 12 by 12—by heart by the end of year 4. Under the last Labour Government, one in three pupils were leaving primary school still unable to read, write and add up properly. Our Government are determined to address those issues.

    Let me address some of the issues the hon. Gentleman raised. He talked about the removal of levels, but level descriptors were only ever intended to be used for the end of key stage statutory assessments, and yet over time came to dominate all assessment and teaching practice. That had a damaging impact on teaching and failed to give parents an accurate understanding of how their children were doing at school. The removal of levels allowed classroom assessment to return to its real purpose of helping teachers evaluate pupils’ knowledge and understanding of curriculum content. When we introduced the reception baseline in September last year, we said we would carry out a comparability study to establish whether it was fit for purpose. The study is now complete, and it has shown that the three different assessments being used by schools this year are not sufficiently comparable for us to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress. We remain committed to the assessment of pupils in reception, and over the coming months we will be considering options for improving these assessment arrangements for beyond 2016-17. We will engage teachers, school leaders and parents in that work.

    The hon. Gentleman brought up the spelling test. The investigation has uncovered further weaknesses in some of the Standards and Testing Agency’s clearance processes. I initiated that investigation, and the STA is now taking appropriate management action with the members of staff involved. We have already reviewed and tightened up the publication clearance processes.

    This is a Government who are committed to reviewing the curriculum and to raising academic standards in our schools. This was always going to be a challenging month as schools got used to the new, more demanding curriculum and the new, more demanding assessments that follow that curriculum. I am confident—the Government are confident—that this is the right thing to do to raise academic standards in our schools to prepare young people for life in modern Britain and for an increasingly competitive global economy.

  • Parents in Kettering, of whom I am one, want their children, when they leave primary school, to be able to write neatly and legibly, spell correctly, read confidently, be able to add up, take away, multiply and divide, know all their times tables by heart, mix well with other children, realise that they in themselves have lots of potential, and have a thirst for knowledge that they can develop in their secondary school career. To what extent are we achieving that in modern Britain?

  • My hon. Friend rightly summarises the issues that we need to address. We need to ensure that we return to a knowledge-based curriculum, and that children become fluent in arithmetic and reading before they leave primary school. I am afraid that, under the previous Labour Government, too many young people left primary school without those skills to equip them for secondary education. I am convinced that our reforms will deliver the objectives that my hon. Friend set out. [Interruption.] The evidence is that 120,000 more six-year-olds are reading more effectively today than they were in 2012, and that 1.4 million more pupils are being taught in good and outstanding schools today than they were in 2010.

  • Having listened to the Minister today and heard the statement about the U-turn on academies recently, it seems to me that the Department for Education should now be put in special measures. When the Minister cannot even get the basics right in education, what confidence can we have that the Department will get the big issues right?

  • As the hon. Lady will know, this process of testing 600,000 pupils is complex. We use contractors, and, on this occasion, an error was made in uploading that material on to a secure website. We took action swiftly when we discovered that error, as we did when the spelling test was put online three weeks ago. It is how a Government react to these issues that determines their competence, and we acted swiftly on both occasions. This whole approach to testing our six and seven-year-olds and our 10 and 11-year-olds does require an element of trust in those people engaged in the process. We must test and develop the test. A huge number of professionals see the content of these tests many weeks before they go live, and we have to trust those professionals to do their job properly and with integrity. On this occasion, one such professional decided not to act with integrity. I hope that the hon. Lady will take the same view that we do about professionals who act in that inappropriate way.

  • I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that testing forms an important and crucial part of our education system. If proof were needed that testing is important, one need look no further than the text of the statement that has been circulated in the Chamber today. It says:

    “Although this is a serious breech—”.

    Unfortunately, the word “breach” is spelled incorrectly.

  • Yes, well, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that error, and I will make sure that it is corrected for Hansard.

  • I speak as a former key stage 2 marker, and I support efficient, effective testing of children, but I do not think that the Government understand what testing is for. The Minister’s statement said that it was for the accountability of schools, but it seems to me that what testing should be about is measuring and developing a child’s learning. That is why we should not put so much emphasis on a national test that is about school accountability and leads to this kind of appalling behaviour from one teacher. We should focus on ensuring that children understand what they are learning and that we get appropriate tests for individual children.

  • I do not disagree with the right hon. Lady. It is important that children are tested frequently, which helps with memory and practice. Schools use informal formative testing as part of the learning process. There is also another purpose of testing, as summative testing for public accountability and to hold schools to account. That is why the key stage 2 assessments, or SATs, were introduced nearly 30 years ago: to hold schools to account. In doing so, we can target school improvement resources on those schools that are not delivering the quality of education that we want for our young people. We need to be able to do that. Children have only one chance at an education and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is committed to ensuring that we have educational excellence everywhere, in every part of the country. To be able to identify those areas and schools that need the extra support, we need external assessment of children as they leave primary school.

  • As a parent who has a child who will do key stage 1 this year and another doing key stage 2, I find it absolutely outrageous that an individual has put my child’s chances at risk with this leak. Does the Minister agree that it would be better for the Opposition to bear that point in mind rather than playing politics with children’s testing?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, the whole system depends on the integrity of professionals. We need our senior markers to have access to this material weeks before it goes live. We need our test developers to have access to individual questions months before the tests go live. We test these tests with a large number of pupils before we are sure that they have the right degree of demand. A range of people have access to this material long before it goes live in the classroom. If people do not have that professional integrity, there will be problems. We will be investigating to identify the individual and to ensure that Pearson’s processes are tightened up so that this cannot happen again.

  • The Minister needs to move to the bottom of the class, because he must try harder. This is not the first time that tests have been compromised in this academic year; it is the second time on his watch. Will he sincerely apologise to parents, teachers and those pupils who have taken the test today? Will he also assure them and us that every measure that he needs to take will be taken so that this will not happen on a third occasion?

  • I did apologise for the problem with the key stage 1 spelling test when that material was inadvertently put online. This issue has not damaged the integrity of the grammar, punctuation and spelling test being taken by 600,000 10 and 11-year-olds today. It was put on to a secure website, protected by password and available only to markers, and 93 of those markers examined the material. We have looked on the websites and at social media—officials were doing this work through the night—to see whether there was any compromising of the test. There is no such evidence.

    The Standards and Testing Agency is confident that the test has integrity and it will go ahead. This is a complex process of administering these tests for 600,000 pupils every year. This year was always going to be a challenging year, as it is the first to assess the new and more demanding national curriculum that came into force in September 2014 and that schools have had since July 2013. There is therefore an element of controversy to it. We do not apologise for that controversy, because we believe as a Government in raising academic standards in schools. That is what we came into office to achieve.

    We are a Government that will achieve and are achieving those high academic standards, but there are some—I assume that there are no such people on the Opposition Benches—who do not necessarily agree with us that it is important to raise academic standards. Somebody decided that their own opinions were more important than their professional integrity, and decided to breach the trust they had been given and the confidentiality contract into which they had entered, and leaked one of those tests to the media.

  • I begin by wishing the thousands of children undertaking their SATs this week the very best of luck. I am sure they are taking place in classrooms far calmer than our Chamber this morning. If there has indeed been a deliberate leaking of the SATs material, that is very serious. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure the continued viability of this year’s key stage 2 SATs?

  • Following the problem with the key stage 1 spelling test, we asked the Standards and Testing Agency to go through all the material with a fine-toothed comb to ensure that there were no further problems at either key stage 1 or key stage 2. We have been assured by the chief executive of the Standards and Testing Agency that those tests are safe and secure. Also, I spoke to Rod Bristow, the president of Pearson UK, this morning, and he assures me that Pearson UK is making sure that its processes are secure and tight so that such breaches cannot occur in the future.

  • Last Wednesday the Prime Minister was not able to tell the House his definition of a modal verb or what the past progressive tense is, or to distinguish a subordinating conjunctive from a co-ordinating conjunctive. I want to give the Minister a second chance. In the sentence “My baby was born in the hospital where my father works”, are the words “where my father works” a preposition phrase, a relative clause, a main clause or a noun phrase?

  • That is a very clever-clever question, but I have learned through bitter experience not to respond to such provocation.

  • Does the Minister agree that it is essential to measure the progress of both the child and the school to identify the gap and how best to fill it?

  • My hon. Friend is right. It is important to measure progress, as well as absolute attainment. One reason why some people regard the assessment this year as challenging is that there are questions in it that previously were not included in the standard test. They were called level 6 tests and were taken separately. We now include those challenging tests within this test so that schools can get credit for the progress of children who start their school with high levels of prior attainment.

  • The Secretary of State appeared before the Education Committee on 27 April and told me that the new testing regime for key stage 1 and key stage 2 had not been handled badly. I, and parents and teachers throughout the country, strongly disagree. Does the Minister accept that his Department’s actions are making the working lives of teachers more stressful and more difficult, and explain how he thinks that will help to solve the already very worrying teacher recruitment crisis?

  • Whenever I have a platform, I talk about how important it is to go into teaching. I say that it is a very important profession. There are more teachers—450,000—in the profession today than there have been in history. There are 13,000 more teachers today than there were in 2010, and 14,000 returners came into the teaching profession last year, which is more than the 11,000 who came in a few years before that. Of course, we want more professionals to come into teaching as the pupil population increases. That is why we have very effective advertising campaigns and why we are spending £1.3 billion on generous bursaries to attract the best graduates into teaching.

  • I, too, wish all the children doing their exams good luck. I know what that is like, having had three children who went through a state primary school. Tests are an imperative part of school life because we as parents want to know how to plan for our children’s education, and we want the schools to help us see where the gaps are and how our children are doing. Businesses in Taunton Deane would like our children to have better maths qualifications and better writing skills. Under Labour for all those years, education standards sank. Does the Minister agree that our driving force is better education to raise standards, and that tests are an imperative part of that?

  • Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been declining in the programme for international student assessment tables internationally. We have to continually improve our education system, because other countries are not standing still. They are continually improving their education systems, and unless we do the same, we will fall behind. That is why we reviewed the primary curriculum, why we increased the demands and rigour of mathematics and English, and why we are focusing so much on getting every child to become a fluent reader, who not only masters the mechanics early in their education but becomes a regular reader, reading books for pleasure and developing a lifelong love of reading. We have reformed the secondary curriculum, and we have reformed GCSEs so that they are more on a par with the qualifications in the best education jurisdictions in the world. We have also reformed A-levels, responding to the concerns of employers and universities about the standard of undergraduates and employees.

  • Returning to the tests, the Minister cannot do them, the Department cannot organise them and schools cannot understand them. Does the Minister agree with the headmaster of a major primary school in my area, Adrian Antell, who wrote to him saying,

    “The primary assessment system in our schools is nothing short of shambolic…Yet again, the professional judgements of experienced educational professionals is ignored by politicians trying to make a short term political gain”?

  • No, the tests were developed by educational professionals—a huge number of such professionals were involved. A large number of professional educators, headteachers and experienced teachers were involved in the review of the curriculum. The tests assess the ability of schools to deliver the new curriculum. That curriculum is more demanding, and we do not resile from that; it was a deliberate decision to raise academic standards in our primary schools and secondary schools as we respond to an increasingly demanding world and to the concerns of employers, universities and others.

  • The Government made a big song and dance about testing, which they cannot now deliver. This weekend I was in the Wirral talking to school governors about how to cope with forced academisation, but the Government had already U-turned. The next time the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box with a grand plan to improve education, why should teachers, parents and pupils in the Wirral believe what he has to say?

  • The hon. Lady simply overstates her case. Our plan for reforming the education system was put in place in 2010. We have reviewed the curriculum. That was overseen by a national curriculum review panel of experienced teachers and headteachers. The new curriculum was advised on by a panel of curriculum experts. It was consulted on widely between 2012 and 2013, informally and then formally. It was published in final draft in July 2013, giving schools over a year to prepare for the first teaching of it in September 2014. This has been a carefully planned review and reform of the curriculum. It has been as swift as it can be, because children need the best education possible, as quickly as possible. This is an important reform. This was always going to be a difficult month, as children were assessed for the first time on the new curriculum. However, schools have had a significant amount of material since July 2013, and they are ready—all our surveys have shown that they are confident about teaching the new curriculum.

  • I hope the Minister will agree that stability is key to a child thriving at primary school. As has been said, however, the Department for Education has changed documents and resources almost every other day recently, and that has been compounded by the disgraceful leak of the tests. Government Members are rewriting history—something the UK Statistics Authority told them to stop doing—because the Labour Government improved standards from 1997 to 2010. I will give the Minister another chance to apologise to teachers, parents and pupils, and to allow teachers to get on with teaching and children to thrive. Apologise!

  • Again, I think the hon. Lady overstates her case. The primary curriculum was published in final form in July 2013, sample questions were available as early as March 2014, and there were later sample questions in 2015. In reference to her point about changes being made to materials on-site, the Standards and Testing Agency has responded to telephone queries from teachers about certain aspects of the curriculum and the sample materials. To help teachers, it revised some of that material so that it responded to those concerns. There were other, very minor changes—for example, when, in response to representations from the NAHT, I changed the date on which the STA collected the teacher assessment materials. That decision was taken in response to the concerns expressed. There were real reasons why we wanted the date to be earlier to ensure fairness between the schools that were moderated by the local authority and those that were not. Of course, that required all the documents online to have a date change. The hon. Lady can make a song and dance about these changes, but they were all done for professional reasons by the very experienced professionals of the Standards and Testing Agency, and they were the right thing to do.

  • Labour Members are most concerned about the fact that this is the second case in a matter of weeks of major pupil testing errors, and that suggests quite strongly that the Government have taken their eye off the ball. How has their preoccupation with enforced academisation affected their ability to monitor their contractors?

  • We monitor contractors very carefully. The Standards and Testing Agency monitors these issues. This error was made by an individual who put the marking scheme and the test papers for one of the tests—the key stage 2 spelling, punctuation and grammar test—on to a secure site 24 hours before they should have done. As soon as one of the markers alerted them to that fact, they took it down. Ninety-three people had seen that material on-site, but all those 93 people were subject to a confidentiality agreement with Pearson, so this is not some widespread breach. We checked to see whether the individual who leaked this to a journalist had succeeded in spreading the test further. We saw no evidence overnight, through social media or other platforms, that some of that material leaked. The Standards and Testing Agency believes that the test has not been compromised, and we are continuing with it. These are very important assessments and this is a very complex operation. I believe that parents, teachers and the public can have confidence in the tests that have been set this week.