Time to test new shores;Briefing;People

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
The QCA's head of assessments has end-of-term fever as he packs his bag for a new job by the sea. Geraldine Hackett reports

David Hawker is at pains to conceal his delight to be leaving the corridors of the unhappy Government quango that advises Education Secretary David Blunkett on what should be taught and how it should be tested. As head of curriculum and assessment, he has been on the front-line in the battles over national tests almost since their introduction - and has survived. Now, aged 45, he is about to pack his bucket and spade and leave the Piccadilly offices of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for the shores of Brighton and Hove, where he has been appointed director of education.

For the past seven years his professional life has been dominated by tests, mainly those sat by seven, 11 and 14-year-olds. The annus horribilus was probably 1993 when teachers' protests about the English tests erupted into a national boycott of all tests. John Patten, the Conservative education secretary, never fully recovered and was sacked shortly afterwards.

In terms of personal angst, the non-appearance of last year's test results in time for them to be of use to parents selecting a primary school caused Mr Hawker particular problems. The contract to collect the data had been given to a company not previously tried by the QCA and in the end the authority had to call in one of the examination boards to complete the job. Ministers were furious about the delays.

In recent weeks, the wrath of Mr Blunkett - unhappy at explanations to journalists about the regrading of this year's English test for 11-year-olds has raised anxiety among the senior ranks of the QCA. The Education Secretary does not want any doubts sown about the integrity of the test and he has appointed a panel of experts to report to him on its reliability.

Over the years there must have been times when Mr Hawker has wished he had taken playing the clarinet more seriously. As a boy he was good enough to audition for the National Youth Orchestra, but they didn't ask him to join. Instead of pursuing a musical career, he went to Oxford University to study modern languages.

From his relatively modest background - his father was a shoe salesman and his mother a social worker - a scholarship to the university from a grammar school was a significant achievement, but he was not the first in his family to win one. His grandfather had not been able to take up a scholarship to Oxford because the war intervened.

After university he taught in a comprehensive school for eight years. He did stints at the Oxford examination board - where he met his wife, a French teacher - and at the Institute of Linguists, mainly working on test development. In the late 1980s he went to work in Halifax for Calderdale council. In 1992 he joined the government's advisory body on examinations and testing, the predecessor body to the QCA.

With only days to go before leaving the QCA, Mr Hawker's enthusiasm for the new job is obvious. He does, however, leave a notable legacy in terms of the major role he has played in constructing one of the most elaborate national testing regimes in existence. The resistance to tests from teachers has given way to grudging acceptance.

The extent to which the tide has turned can be judged by the number of schools doing more testing than they are legally required to do.

"The importance of testing is the extent to which it has an impact on children's education. Schools are now doing the optional tests as well because they are a guide to children's progress," he says.

The testing edifice is the basis of constructing ways to show how schools are adding value and enable national targets to be put in place. "I always stress the need to involve children in setting targets so that they know what they should be aiming at," he says.

It says something about David Hawker that the teachers' unions like him as well as respect him. In fact, his new bucket and spade is a present from them. John Bangs, head of the education department at the National Union of Teachers, says: "He was always been honest and upfront with us and tried to ensure that the assessment regime is as transparent as possible."

Within the QCA, there are those who make a less generous assessment, suggesting he insists on a level of control that makes him difficult to work with. There is no doubt that the organisation is under strain. Ministers are particularly sensitive about tests and the quango has not found favour with the Government.

While the QCA can be fraught, Brighton and Hove may present a different set of problems. It has been the most Blairite of local authorities since its creation three years ago. Its previous director, Denise Stokoe, operated at a frenetic pace. The energetic Mr Hawker takes on an education action zone that has had its problems and stacks of initiatives to follow through. He is confident it will work out.

His family are moving to the seaside. His daughter will go to a new primary and his son, at choir school, will eventually transfer to a local school.

With his departure from the QCA, the senior posts are being restructured and major changes are on the way. The new job is not an escape route; but Mr Hawker is probably happier than he admits to be leaving it all behind.

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