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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

In England / Whose Curriculum? A Conversation with Nicholas Tate

    The head of England's chief curriculum body describes the English national curriculum, national tests, and the promotion of moral education.

      In the 1980s, educators, parents, and government officials in England worried that education standards were falling in their country. As a result, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher and her Tory government introduced the Education Reform Act, mandating a national curriculum and corresponding system of testing. Students at ages 7, 11, and 14 were required to take tests in English, math, and science, and their scores were measured against national averages. In addition, school results were published in the national newspapers.
      Ten years later, with a new Labor government headed by Tony Blair, the national curriculum and tests are still going strong. Nicholas Tate is the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in England, a body set up in October 1997 by Parliament to oversee the national curriculum. Although Dr. Tate is a firm believer in the national curriculum, he also feels that the new government is infusing important changes, as well as a new energy, into the system.
      Tell us about the responsibilities of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
      Our responsibilities on the school side are to establish and keep under review a national curriculum for 5- to 16-year-olds. In practice, the national curriculum covers up to about 80 percent of what schools do. We administer national tests for 7-, 11-, and 14-year-olds. We also oversee the development of a nursery curriculum for 3- to 5-year-olds. We're responsible for all the vocational qualifications. In addition, we have duties to support schools in the assessments that teachers themselves do. At age 16, having studied the national curriculum, young people do examinations that are offered by one of three national awarding bodies. These are called the General Certificates of Secondary Education. We're responsible for defining the content of those examinations and laying down the kind of assessment that they ought to involve. So, finally, we're a regulatory body in that we accredit the qualifications that are put forward to us by independent awarding bodies.
      Who writes the national tests and who grades them?
      We commission research institutes, universities, or colleges of higher education to write the tests for us under our close supervision. We then print the tests, we distribute them to schools, and we organize the system of what we call "external marking." We employ huge armies of markers, most of them teachers working in their spare time. But the teachers are not allowed to mark the test papers from their own school.
      We decided a few years ago that we would return the marked test papers to schools. We made this bold decision so that schools could see how their children have done in relation to particular questions. And we instituted an appeals procedure if schools disagree with the marking.
      The test papers generally are not multiple choice. In practice, we've had very few problems in the marking of the science papers or maths problems. The English papers are a little bit more open-ended, particularly for the 14-year-olds, and therefore marking these essays is potentially quite a subjective process. [See figs. 1 and 2.] Our appeals procedure usually handles problems. But I couldn't say that the tests are problem-free, because inevitably there are disagreements as to whether our marking regime, for example, is the best one.

      Figure 1. Sample Test Item. 1998 Mathematics Paper 1 (tiers 3–5)

      (Calculator not allowed)
      The table shows the distance in miles along the railway line from Shrewsbury to some other stations.

      In England / Whose Curriculum? A Conversation with Nicholas Tate - table

      Railway Stations

      Miles from Shrewsbury

      Shrewsbury0 miles
      Welshpool20 miles
      Newtown34 miles
      Caersws39 miles
      Borth73 miles
      Aberystwyth82 miles
      (a) What is the distance between Shrewsbury and Welshpool?
      (b) What is the distance between Welshpool and Borth?
      (c) What is the distance between Borth and Aberystwyth?

      Figure 2. Sample Test Item. 1998 English Paper 2 (levels 4–7)

      Task 4. In Act 3, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena's world is turned upside-down. Imagine you are Helena. Write down your thoughts and the confusion you feel as you run away. You could begin: I am totally confused! I can trust no one...

      Before you begin to write you should think about Helena's views on:

      • the strange way Lysander and Demetrius have been behaving;

      • Hermia's unexpected behaviour and the terrible names Hermia has called her;

      • the reasons the characters have been speaking and behaving in this way;

      • how her friendship with Hermia has changed.

      Remember to write as if you are Helena.

      Read the task again before you begin to write your answer.

      U.S. educators have been struggling with the idea of national testing and, to a lesser degree, a national curriculum. Last year, President Clinton proposed national tests for 4th and 8th graders. But this initiative has come up against strong opposition, and one criticism is that the tests would be in a multiple-choice format. Many teachers feel this is an inadequate way of assessing students.
      Yes, and the main reason we didn't go for multiple-choice tests was because of the U.S. experience. We deliberately wanted tests that, in some ways, would be more difficult to mark and might be more controversial in terms of whether we got the marking right. But we didn't want to be accused of having narrow testing methods.
      What do teachers think about the tests?
      I think there's a fairly broad acceptance that the tests that we've got are valid, in the sense that they do genuinely sample the curriculum. Some of our teachers do not like the idea of national tests or that schools are publicly compared on the basis of their test results.
      A few teachers believe that the tests do have a negative effect on the curriculum. For example, they say that they are forced to spend much more time on Shakespeare than they want to spend because Shakespeare is the one author who is compulsory-tested at age 14. But I say to that, it is vital for the sake of England's cultural heritage to introduce our young people to Shakespeare. The evidence from our independent schools inspectorate is that since we introduced Shakespeare tests to 14-year-olds, the quality of teaching Shakespeare has vastly improved. The teachers are actually very good at getting children to act out scenes in the classroom, and they're taking them off to performances—all that's been booming.
      And what teachers said wouldn't happen has happened, which is that it's possible to teach Shakespeare right across the ability range. Pupils at the bottom end of the ability range are not finding the 16th-century language an obstacle to understanding the story line. After all, the stories are so graphic; they are about sex and violence and despair and teenage emotions.
      You mentioned that teachers also don't like that their schools are publicly compared with one another on the basis of test scores.
      Yes, the main reason that some teachers don't like the national tests for 11-year-olds is that these tests are converted into published performance tables, whereby, in each area, schools are ranked in terms of the proportion of young people who reach the target level. The national papers publish massive supplements showing all the schools' results for the whole of England.
      But they don't publish individual scores?
      No, they show the percentage of pupils at each school. Individual information is confidential.
      What are the advantages of publishing these test scores?
      The first advantage is that schools are able to compare how they're doing with the rest of the country. And that's very useful information—not just for schools, but for individual children and parents. Schools that aren't doing well are given an added incentive to raise their scores. The second advantage is that the publication of the results forces schools to keep on their toes. And, because we don't have narrow tests, schools must improve across a broad range, at least on the tested subjects.
      Of course, the public naming and shaming are painful—schools suffer, teachers suffer, the reputations of schools suffer as well—but on the whole, it seems like a sensible crisis response to a crisis situation.
      Would you say the curriculum now is test-driven?
      No, because there is a legal obligation to teach all the bits of the curriculum, including those that aren't tested. Schools, particularly secondary schools, are inspected on the full breadth of that curriculum. The tests within English, maths, and science, as I said, are fairly broad. The message I've put across over the last few years is that teaching the subjects that you're supposed to teach according to the set curriculum is the best way of preparing your young people for the test. Having said that, there is some evidence to suggest that there is a certain amount of unnecessary and excessive going over of old test papers, but not enough to feel that the whole curriculum has been distorted.
      You mention school inspections. What are they?
      Well, we have two ways of checking the quality of schools. One is the publication of the test results. The other is our independent school inspectors. We have a national schools inspectorate, by which every school, every four or five years, is subjected to a detailed, in-depth external inspection according to nationally published criteria. These reports are long, and they look at the whole of the curriculum—test results, lessons, particular departments. They are published and available to parents.
      What happens to schools that fail inspection or score poorly?
      The inspection report gives a whole series of recommendations. Schools are obliged within a set number of days to come up with an action plan detailing how they're going to remedy the problems that have been identified, some of which are problems that correspond to their national test results. Local education authorities give support to schools trying to implement the action plan. If the report of the inspectors is really negative and the test results are quite dreadful, then the schools are put on special measures. They're given a deadline to improve, and if they haven't improved by that deadline, they can be closed down or taken over—you know, their whole management can change. A team can be sent in to sort out the problems. That's only happening at a tiny number of schools.
      All schools, in addition, are now expected to set targets for improvement over the next few years. That progress is monitored by the local education authority.
      Schools vary in terms of location, size, student population, and so on. Because of these variations, schools often face very different challenges. How do you take into account the context of schools, for example, or the diversity of students, when comparing and assessing schools?
      Well, critics might rightly ask, "If you look at a school in the East End of London—where 90 percent of the children are of Bangladeshi origin, where English is not the language spoken in the home—how can you expect that by age 11, students in that school will have mastered English at the same level as students in a school in Surrey, for example, a leafy, suburban, middle-class area, where English is the language spoken in the home?" It is a powerful question, but not an excuse for low expectations.
      To mitigate the potential unfairness of absolute raw scores that don't take into account the background and circumstances of schools, we've done two things. One is to produce what we call "benchmark data," which is to categorize schools so that like schools are being compared. For example, the two key measures that we use are the proportion of pupils in a school on free school meals (this is a crude index of poverty, but it's the best index we have at the moment) and the percentage of pupils who come in with English as an additional, rather than their first, language. This way, schools can now see what is realistic to achieve in relation to the best-achieving schools of their own type.
      One of the most important things we have learned is that schools can make an enormous difference to student achievement. And the teacher who says, "What do you expect with the kind of kids that I've got, and the kind of area that I'm in?" is simply expressing fatalism. We find massive variations in schools of similar types. There are schools of this kind that I have mentioned in the East End of London that are doing outstandingly well.
      The second thing that we're doing is developing value-added measures that are based on the tests and examination data. Along with looking at the raw data and benchmarking, schools can also see how much value they have added to their students' academic achievements over a period of time. For example, we can look at students' progress from ages 7 to 11 and ascertain how the junior school has brought them up to a certain level. Again, this will enable some schools that are doing poorly in absolute terms to have their real achievements recognized. This system also punctures the complacency of some schools in privileged areas, where, by comparison with national averages, the children are doing very well. But if one looks at the attainments those children had when they came in, the conclusion is that these schools really ought to be doing much better with these kids.
      So you might look at a school whose scores are lower than average and find that they are actually achieving a great deal.
      Yes, and that's also important to know for the sake of the morale of teachers who are putting huge effort into the schools. We can then identify the characteristics of effective or improving schools, those schools that have bucked the trend and are achieving against the odds. We've disseminated the characteristics of these schools so that other schools in the same category can bring their improvement up as well. However, at the end of the day, for the individual child, it is his or her absolute level of attainment that counts, and we encourage all schools to have the highest expectations for all their pupils.
      But you focus on the whole school and on the context of the school—not just on raw scores and raising these scores?
      Yes, we focus on the whole school in two ways. One is because the tests aren't narrow within the subjects that are tested. However, teachers do complain that by concentrating on the basics, the tests have driven them to cut back on other subjects. In particular, there's controversy at the moment about what is the place of subjects like history and the arts in elementary school, and there's a feeling that we've cut back too far. There's a big national campaign to save the place of music in elementary schools, with famous conductors and musicians writing in The Times about it all. So, it's not uncontroversial.
      What is your response to criticisms about testing only three subjects in these early grades?
      The government's response and my response would be that we've absolutely got to get the basics right. That ought to be possible without depriving children of music education or history education. But, in the short term, it may be necessary to cut back to some extent on the time spent on these subjects in order to make sure that children can read and write by age 11. Although we do very well with our very able children, we have a bottom 30, even 40 percent of our student population who really are doing very poorly. They slip through.
      The other way in which we're focusing on the whole school is that our inspection system is a whole-school inspection. The inspectors have to report on how the school contributes to spiritual, moral, cultural, and social development. That has led to a great burgeoning of activity in schools. Schools now all have policy statements on promoting spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development.
      Measuring spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development is even more difficult than measuring academic achievement through national tests. Do you feel it is possible, or necessary, to incorporate character or values education formally into the national curriculum?
      Because work in this area can be so difficult to quantify and assess, we need to be as explicit about what we are trying to achieve as in other parts of the curriculum, as systematic in how we try to achieve it, and as rigorous in how we evaluate our success.
      On the one hand, until recently our national curriculum has talked only of subjects and lacked the statements of aims, values, and priorities characteristic of so many other national curricula. On the other hand, our schools continue voluntarily to make provision for personal and social education beyond the requirements of a demanding statutory curriculum and to place great emphasis on the role of the school's ethos and its extracurricular activities. We have aimed to develop young people's characters, and to teach values and virtues, through the ways schools are run and teachers teach and through the examples that are set, rather than through the content of what is taught.
      This was all very well when, as a society, we agreed or appeared to agree about the values and virtues we were trying to convey, when we knew what we meant by "character," and when we were able to take for granted that everyone would go along with the school's interpretation of these values. We no longer live in such a world. Today, we face the widespread belief that there are no underlying shared values in our society, that we no longer know what kind of character traits we are hoping to develop in young people, and that people are no longer willing to go along with what the school says. This is why, at last, we are beginning to make explicit what has hitherto been implicit.
      What changes have you made to make these values more explicit?
      Briefly, early in 1996, the England curriculum body, of which I was head, initiated a national debate on these matters. We found three things. First, there was an anxiety about the naive relativism that appeared to be gaining ground in the way people talked and thought about our values and way of life. The prevalent assumption was that because we were such a diverse society, there was very little any more that we had in common. The role of educators thus became one of assisting young people to make their choices as effectively as possible while remaining neutral about the actual choices they made. This was a mindset against which many of us rebelled.
      Second, there was a reaction against the overemphasis on rights at the expense of responsibilities. Concerns centered on low levels of civic engagement on the part of young people, especially their lack of involvement in political life, and on the implications of this for the workings of democracy and the maintenance of civil society.
      Third, there was concern that as a society we had lost a shared language with which to talk about moral matters. Traditional words such as virtue, goodness, evil, sin, and so on, no longer fell readily from our lips. The time therefore seemed right to make explicit what had previously been implicit.
      The outcome of the conference was the establishment of a National Forum for Values in Education and the Community, set up by our national school curriculum body but not confined to representatives from the world of education. The forum identified a substantial number of values that it felt are shared by all of us. It put together a statement of values, which has been disseminated more widely and in particular has been sent to a sample of schools to see how useful it might be as a basis for developing a whole-school approach to the promotion of pupils' spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development. We will be carefully evaluating the use of these guidelines in sample schools.
      So within your national curriculum, you feel that values education and national tests can complement each other?
      What I hope our work will demonstrate is that the two initiatives need to go hand in hand. Those who value themselves and other people and who feel that they belong to communities that support them and to which they have responsibilities are more likely to have the motivation to succeed in all their studies.
      Are you optimistic about the future of education in England?
      Oh, I think it's a very exciting time at the moment in England. We have national targets, we have a way of measuring how schools are doing, based on research about what constitutes an effective school. Now we have the possibility of genuinely raising the standards of achievement. Our new government has taken over many of the measures that were introduced by the previous government, but it has injected a new sense of dynamism into the whole process, and the will to succeed. Tony Blair, our prime minister, has said, "I have three priorities, which are education, education, and education."

      Carol Tell has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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