An investigation into the Standards and Testing Agency following the leak of test papers online has found resource constraints and a “defensive and silo culture” at the organisation, and warned of an increased probability of future errors.
The review also highlighted high vacancy rates and “difficult contractual relationships”, and said staff were operating under “significant pressure and risk” and “sub-optimal contracts”.
The agency is the arm of the education department responsible for desigining and administering government tests, including the phonics check and testing at key stages 1 and 2.
The review by the Department for Education has concluded that the agency is “broadly fit for purpose” and rules it can continue to develop and deliver tests in the short term, but that issues with its model pose a risk to the delivery of tests.
There is a culture of defensiveness, with little sense of corporate ownership or initiative across the agency.
The ‘root-and-branch’ investigation was ordered by the schools minister Nick Gibb in April after the government was forced to cancel this year’s key stage 1 spelling, punctuation and grammar test following the leak of the paper online.
The document had been uploaded by mistake to the STA’s website last December and was available to parents and schools for several months.
A second security breach, which saw a different test uploaded to a secure server did not result in the cancellation of the assessment, was also taken into account – although this was an error by the contraced test provider, and not the STA directly.
In its review, the Department for Education said the issues identified increased the “probability of an error occurring in the future”.
The review found a high vacancy rate at the agency – 15 per cent last year – adding that the problem was “particularly acute” for specialist roles such as psychometrics.
The agency also said that the new primary tests, introduced this year, made it “one of the most challenging delivery cycles the agency has managed”, however it was criticised by the department for an “unsustainable” reliance on staff goodwill, relating particularly to overtime.
The review states that while the agency was good at running technical processes, it was “less adept” at thinking about its customers in its process design. Feedback reflected a “perception that STA thinks about tests as the outcome, rather than considering the impact and implications for the classroom”.
It said problems stemmed from a “defensive and silo culture”, shortage of commercial skills and “ineffective assurance process and culture”, and warned that the issues increased the probability of an error occurring in the future.
Positive steps have been taken to improve processes, according to the review, but these had not yet addressed “underlying cultural issues” which are necessary to minimise the risk of another security breach.
The review recommended the agency develops new infrastructure to enable stronger strategic leadership, with clear end-to-end oversight and access to “meaningful performance data and analysis”, as well as strengthened commercial and financial capability and a “clear value for money framework”.
“Our judgement is that STA will need support from the Department for Education (DfE) to deliver these recommendations,” the report said.
“In particular, STA may need additional resource in the short to medium term to design and drive their transformation, and support delivery of these recommendations.”
Claire Burton, the agency’s new chief executive, said the STA “fully accepted” the findings of the review, and said it had already taken steps to respond to the security breaches, including a management restructure.
“Over the coming months we will continue to make improvements to respond to the full recommendations,” she said.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, described the breaches earlier this year as “unacceptable”, and said the agency was making changes.
“Ensuring we have a primary assessment system that is fit for purpose and has the confidence of teachers and parents is vital to raising standards and ensuring all children leave primary school as accomplished readers, fluent in arithmetic and with good general knowledge.
“The review found that the STA does have the ability to deliver high quality primary assessment and we will monitor closely to ensure it does that.”