Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Sats inquiry: Watchdog 'failed'

piles of test scripts
The league tables from this year's tests remain unpublished

The inquiry into this year's Sats test shambles has blamed the exam watchdog and private contractor ETS Europe.

Lord Sutherland's inquiry into the disruption to tests taken by 1.2 million of England's pupils says the QCA watchdog "failed its remit".

The QCA has disbanded its assessment agency and suspended chief executive Ken Boston - who had offered to resign.

Pupils, parents, schools and markers were badly let down, Lord Sutherland said. The impact had been "massive".

He told a news conference in London there had been a culture within the QCA and its National Assessment Agency (NAA) that "it'll be all right on the night".

Lord Sutherland
In practice, failures occurred at almost every stage of the test delivery process in 2008 from the registration of pupils to the presentation of results
Lord Sutherland

There had been problems in the past but it had come good in the end, was how they had seen things, suggested Lord Sutherland.

Asked if the QCA was fit for purpose, Lord Sutherland said: "You see my report. It has not delivered and there have been massive failures."

The QCA's board has not accepted Dr Boston's resignation. In a statement, chairman Christopher Trinick said it had suspended him until it had considered Lord Sutherland's report.

It has also suspended David Gee, the managing director of the NAA - and said the internal agency would be disbanded, with its functions absorbed back into the QCA.

Dr Boston will be replaced by Andrew Hall as interim chief executive. Mr Hall currently earns about £140,000 per year as the QCA's director of strategic resources management - plus £43,400 per year as an additional "living accommodation" allowance.

'Lack of planning'

Lord Sutherland's 178-page report blames ETS Europe and its "insufficient" capacity to deliver the tests.

It says there was a "lack of comprehensive planning and testing" of the systems used for the tests taken by 11 and 14-year-olds.

It said the QCA "failed to deliver its remit from government and did not manage the contract it held with ETS effectively".

In the recriminations that followed the Sats problems, ETS Europe had its £156m contract cancelled and ministers had the embarrassment of postponing the annual league tables based on the results.

Half of the Sats themselves - those taken by 14-year-olds - have also been scrapped by the Children's Secretary Ed Balls in a subsequent shake-up of testing.

The former contractor, Edexcel, has just been made preferred bidder to run next year's remaining tests, for 11-year-olds.

Online marking

Lord Sutherland said this would be a difficult job and would require close attention being paid to many of his recommendations.

The key recommendations are:

  • modernise the test process, in consultation with markers, including piloting online marking
  • delivery of the tests should be thoroughly tested and the project managed closely
  • the customer service to schools and markers must be vastly improved.

Mr Balls labelled this year's problems a "shambles" and he apologised to schools and families for "all their inconvenience, stress and frustration".

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Balls promised to implement the inquiry recommendations in full and report on progress in January.

He also told MPs that as late as 17 June that ministers were being given "strong assurances" by the QCA and NAA that marking was "on track" - and it was not until 30 June that they admitted that the deadlines would not be met.

Among the head teachers caught up in the problems was Paul Gabriel of Lancaster Road Primary School in Morecambe, Lancashire.

He told BBC News his pupils had had to wait until after the September term had begun for the results of their science Sats, and said Mr Balls had not acted as decisively as he had claimed.

"We were telling him there were problems long before we got to the marking stage," he said.

"I contacted people in the Department as soon as they arrived. The system they were trying to put in place was far too complicated. Somebody somewhere high up needs to hold up their hands."

The Conservatives' schools spokesman Michael Gove called on Mr Balls to apologise for "failing to prevent this year's fiasco".

"Ken Boston has pointed out that ministers were closely involved at every stage of the process. They cannot escape their role in the fiasco by claiming, as Ed Balls has done, that they were at 'arm's length' from this disaster."

The Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman, David Laws, also called for ministers and other officials to accept responsibility for the problems.

"Ministers themselves should also accept some blame for their complacent attitude to the delivery of the tests. It is clear that they were asleep at the wheel," said Mr Laws.

The National Association of Head Teachers welcomed the report but warned of "systemic flaws in current arrangements" and said there was a high risk of a repeat of such problems.



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