Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Sutherland Inquiry into National Curriculum Testing in 2008

The full report can be accessed here.

The responsibilities for failure are made crystal clear.

Page 1
“The primary responsibility must therefore rest with the American organisation, ETS Global BV (ETS), which won the public contract to deliver the tests and failed its customers.”

“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. ... In practice, the first time QCA notified Ministers that ETS would not deliver test results on time was 30 June 2008. The whole episode was punctuated by similar instances of poor communications, whether to schools, to the marking community, or between the organisations involved.”

Nowhere is it suggested in the report that the number of links in the chain of command makes the effective completion of the marking of tests more difficult. I find it revealing where Jim Knight comments on what happened in July 2008
“That is when the whole business of the relationship between us and QCA, NAA and then the contractor started to come sharply into focus, because clearly we were asking for things from QCA that we then were not getting. You then had to decide whether or not to forgive the QCA because it was actually the contractor’s fault, or whether it was a problem with the QCA. In the end, I had to take the view that our relationship was with QCA, it wasn’t with the contractor. It was up to QCA to come up with the answers and solutions to the problems. How they did it was up to them, they just had to deliver. And frankly, they weren’t.” (Page 80)
In other words DCSF – QCA – ETS chain meant that the government was dealing with the developing crisis at one remove from the operational end.

The inquiry report doesn’t consider the whole contracting approach to tests as a possible source of difficulty. Private sector commissioning of public sector activity is so habituated within government strategy that the question doesn’t even seem to have been asked. Rather Sutherland focuses on the detailed arrangements between all these parties assuming that the solution to the problem lies within them.

Page 35 “The Secretary of State the Rt Hon Ed Balls MP has described:
‘…in terms of the delivery of tests, I don’t think there was ever any doubt that there should be an agency function. It is not sensible for ministers to get involved in the details of the procurement process, but actually the kind of expertise that you need in order to manage a complex contract, isn’t the same as the kind of expertise you need to make good policy…’”

So the advisability of external commissioning of testing is not questioned, only the separation of strategic and operational functions.

Page 36
“DCSF Permanent Secretary David Bell has described the department and QCA’s respective roles:
‘…what we do is delegate by remit letter essentially a large number of our delivery responsibilities. And to some extent that reflects the theology of the last twenty years or so as central government departments have increasingly passed over responsibility to other government agencies…’”
What an interesting choice of words, ‘theology’.

Page 37
“QCA Chief Executive Dr Ken Boston has stated that:
‘Government is at arm’s length only from the detail of the test questions and from the marking and level-setting… Throughout the process of procuring the contract and delivering the tests according to DCSF specification, ministers and officials had access to exactly the same data and information as the NAA and the QCA; they were active participants in the process; and they provided a separate source of advice to ministers. They were properly part of the process, and in no way at ‘arm’s length’.’”
If this is the case it makes Ed Balls comments from page 35 seem misguided.

Questioning the use of private sector providers for public sector functions as vital as national testing, seems unlikely, given David Bell’s view of the current ‘theology’. If private sector involvement had been within the scope of the Sutherland Inquiry and present difficulties had been contrasted with performance when these functions were delivered by the public sector, the conclusions might have been very different.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Interim Report on the Primary Curriculum

This has just been released and can be downloaded from here.

The press attention has been around the recommendation that primary schools change their organisation from a subject to a more thematic approach. This reflects much of what has been going on in the secondary curriculum of late and is very relevant to the House Committee on Children, Schools And Families examinations that were reported in my last post.

Sir Jim Rose acknowledges the tensions between the two approaches to organising learning and states; "six areas of learning are proposed to give schools optimum flexibility for planning cross- curricular studies, and ample opportunities to teach essential content discretely and directly". In other words lets give schools the ability to do some thematic work but at the same time design the curriculum so that they are influenced to teach the really important building blocks of content. A recommendation is..

"Given the excellent examples of both witnessed by the Review, neither discrete subject teaching nor cross-curricular studies must disappear from primary schools. Schools should protect time when learning is best served by teaching subject content discretely and systematically, and give children ample opportunities to use and apply their developing subject knowledge, skills and understanding in cross-curricular studies."

I am pleased that he highlights the need to develop young peoples' ability to speak and listen.
"Discussion of reading, writing and numeracy in primary education often fails to recognise the central importance of developing children’s spoken communication."

ICT is also given a strong role in helping improve the learning that goes on in primaries. He states "One highly promising route to meeting the demand for in-depth teaching and learning is undoubtedly emerging through ICT." It is clear that he believes that ICT capabilities need to be explicitly addressed and also that ICT itself is an enabler of enhanced learning across all subjects (and themes).

I await the final report with keen anticipation
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