Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ed Balls should not quit over the tests fiasco

The schools secretary Ed Balls has been forced to make a statement to the House of Commons on ETS's incompetent handling of this year's national tests. Since he is the secretary of state for schools, it is right that he should do so before Parliament shuts for the summer; indeed, he ought really to have volunteered to do so (in addition to his appearance at the select committee) despite having established the Sutherland inquiry.

But contrary to the argument advanced by Michael Gove in today's Guardian, this doesn't mean that responsibility for what ETS did - or didn't do - lies with him. After all, the Conservatives decided to create an arms-length agency responsible for the qualifications and curriculum system; Labour has kept that agency. Of course, government advances strategic policy - on Diplomas, for example, or even on whether there should be an A* - but since neither Ed Balls nor this government has yet made any significant changes to the key stage tests, it is absurd to argue that their policy decisions are responsible for the ineptitude of a company supposedly experienced in managing tests and exams. The QCA has the responsibility of managing its contract with ETS, which is being paid a lot of money to do what ought to be a pretty straightforward job; and to his credit, its director Ken Boston has accepted that responsibility and apologised for the authority's and ETS's failings.

Estelle Morris resigned when an exam board screwed up a few years ago. I'm not sure she was right to do so - the problems were grossly exaggerated by the media and private schools - but there were very clear policy changes, on AS levels, that were at least in part responsible for the issues that year. No such comparison can be made with this year's late marking problems. This is a case of a company that has not done what it was paid to do; it should lose its contract immediately and not receive a penny more for its trouble this year. After all, that's supposed to be the benefit of contracting out such activities (though government is poor at extracting it). But while Ed Balls should answer to parliament and apologise for the failings of his agencies, it is hard to see how the fiasco reflects on his ministerial decisions

Instead, he should ensure that externally marked testing is fit for purpose in the future - not least by radically modifying plans for single level progress tests, a disaster waiting to happen -but ignore the calls for him to quit.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you and I think that this is being blown up by the party opposite.
However whoever the responsibilty for the current system lies with,the ultimate responsibilty lies with the Secretary of State,If he inherited a bad system then he should change it.
What this whole episode has shown is the the Sat tests are flawed in both methology and practicality.If Ed Balls truly believes that is the case then he should take action to change the system.

oldandrew said...

I think you are absolutely right to suggest Ed Balls cannot be held responsible for what goes on in the education system.

I just think that's a pretty big issue in itself, and one that nobody wants to grasp.

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