Ed Balls – 2008 Speech on National Curriculum Tests


Made on the 14th October by the Secretary of State for the Department of Children, Schools and Families in the House of Commons.


Mr Speaker, with your permission, I would like to make a statement on National Curriculum tests – and the next steps we will now take to strengthen school accountability.

The far-reaching reforms I am announcing today will:

– strengthen the role of Key Stage 2 national tests for 11 year olds;

– radically reform the current Key Stage 3 testing regime in secondary schools;

– and introduce a new, simpler and more comprehensive way of reporting to parents on primary and secondary school performance.

Mr Speaker, when I made my statement to the House on 22 July, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) was engaged in commercially sensitive contractual negotiations with ETS Europe.

On 15 August, the QCA terminated its five year contract with ETS Europe and recovered payments amounting to £24.1 million – two thirds of the monies due to ETS Europe for the first year of the contract repaid to the taxpayer.

I also announced that the QCA would tender for a single year contract for the delivery of the 2009 tests.

This new procurement is underway and has been informed by advice from Lord Sutherland – whose independent inquiry into the procurement and management of the contract for the delivery of this year’s tests will set out important lessons for all future contracts of this kind.

Lord Sutherland expects to complete his final report before the end of the year.

In my statement in July, I also made it clear that the current testing and assessment regime is not set in stone.

I know that some honourable members were disappointed that – at that time – I was not able to go further. But it was important that we evaluated the case for change before making decisions.

Over the summer, we have been able to study the Select Committee’s report on testing and assessment, which was debated in this House last week.

We have studied more detailed evidence from our Making Good Progress pilots.

And I have heard from a range of experts and partners – including Ofsted, head teachers, teachers and parents.

Mr Speaker, I fully agree with the Select Committee that the principle of national testing is sound.

But I do take seriously concerns raised by the Select Committee, teachers and parents.

Testing, assessment and accountability must encourage and reward the best teaching – so that that it properly supports pupils in their learning and development, and schools are judged fairly on how they support the progress and well-being of every child.

I believe that there are three key principles that must guide our approach.

Our system of testing and assessment should:

– First, give parents the information they need to compare different schools, choose the right school for their child and then track their child’s progress;

– Second, enable head teachers and teachers to secure the progress of every child and their school as a whole, without unnecessary burdens or bureaucracy;

– Third, allow the public to hold national and local government and governing bodies to account for the performance of schools.

Over the summer, and guided by these principles, the Schools Minister and I have looked carefully at our system of national testing and accountability across Key Stages 1, 2 and 3.

Mr Speaker, over more than a decade, testing and assessment has played a vital role in driving up standards in primary schools.

This year, 107,000 more pupils left primary school secure in English and maths than in 1997.

These are the basics that every parent knows their child needs if they are to succeed at secondary school.

And the National Curriculum tests at the end of Key Stage 2 are the only objective measure of attainment in primary schools for parents, head teachers and the public.

The current format of Key Stage tests at age 7 and 11 is not set in stone.

At Key Stage 1, we have rightly replaced externally marked tests with teacher assessment, and introduced new catch-up teaching for children at risk of falling behind.

We will now examine whether the current system of requiring teachers to use nationally set tasks as part of moderated teacher assessment is working effectively.

We are also currently piloting ‘stage not age’ single level tests at Key Stage 2.

While the emerging evidence from these continuing pilots is encouraging, it is too early to decide to proceed nationally.

But I am convinced that externally marked Key Stage 2 National Curriculum Tests are essential to giving parents, teachers and the public the information they need about the progress of each primary age child and of every primary school.

To abolish these tests, as some argue, would be the wrong thing to do.

Mr Speaker, the testing and assessment system has also supported rising standards in our secondary schools – 68,000 thousand more pupils gained five or more good GCSEs including English and maths in 2007 than in 1997.

But having looked hard at the current testing regime, we do not believe that the three principles I have set out justify the Key Stage 3 testing arrangements in their current form.

Parents want to be able to choose the right secondary school for their child and see how their school is performing – but it is usual for them to look at a school’s GCSE results to do so.

Parents also want to be able to track the progress of their children – but the measures we have already announced to improve real-time reporting of progress will mean that parents get much more regular information than just the results of a single national test.

And head teachers have repeatedly told me that a more flexible system of assessment throughout Key Stage 3 would allow schools to focus their efforts more effectively on personalised teaching and learning using the flexibility of the new secondary curriculum.

I have considered a shift to ‘stage not age’ tests in secondary schools, which we have also been piloting at Key Stage 3 over the past year.

But the emerging evidence shows that single level tests at Key Stage 3 are not working effectively – so on the advice of the National Assessment Agency, we will now bring the Key Stage 3 piloting of single level tests to an end.

Mr Speaker, I am today announcing that – as part of a wider overhaul of Key Stage 3 assessment – children will no longer be required to sit national tests at age 14.


– We will ensure every parent receives regular reports on their child’s progress in years 7, 8 and 9 – and that teachers have the training and support to help every child make good progress;

– We will continue to provide Key Stage 3 test papers to any schools that want to use them internally;

– We will ensure that schools properly focus in years 7 and 8 on the progress of those children who did not reach the expected standard at Key Stage 2, with effective one-to-one tuition and catch-up learning;

– And we will introduce an externally marked test, with a sample of pupils to measure national performance, so that the public can hold government to account.

Mr Speaker, some parents find it difficult to judge how well their local schools are doing from national tests or Ofsted reports alone.

So I also want to go further on school accountability.

With the support of Ofsted, and following discussions with social partners, it is our intention to introduce a new School Report Card for all primary and secondary schools.

The School Report Card will help parents to better understand how well schools are:

– raising standards and improving, compared to other schools in their area;

– supporting the progress of every pupil;

– and playing their role in supporting the wider development and wellbeing of children.

It will draw upon the successful model being used in New York City and elsewhere – but be designed to suit our schools.

We will set out detailed proposals for consultation before the end of the year – with a White Paper to follow in the Spring.

Mr Speaker, these are far-reaching reforms and it is vital that we get the details right.

We will draw upon the analysis and findings of the Select Committee report and we will work closely with our social partners to take them forward without un-necessarily adding to teacher workload.

And to advise us on the development of this new system, I am also today appointing a new Expert Group – and placing copies of its detailed terms of reference in the libraries of both Houses.

Mr Speaker, today’s reforms require changes to the procurement of national tests for 2009.

Consistent with our plans for future years:

– we will continue to require pupils to take the national curriculum tests at Key Stage 2;

– but we will not require pupils to take Key Stage 3 tests in 2009.

The QCA is now extending its procurement deadline accordingly.

Mr Speaker, the package of reforms I am announcing today will:

– give parents better, more regular and more comprehensive information about their child’s progress and their school;

– support head teachers and teachers to ensure that every child can succeed;

– and strengthen our ability to hold all schools to account, as well as the public’s ability to hold government to account.

And I commend this statement to the House.