The administration of examinations for 15 to 19 year olds in England

Written evidence submitted by The British Academy


1. The British Academy, the UK’s national Academy for the humanities and social sciences welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the House of Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into the administration of examinations for 15-19 year olds. We are grateful for the Committee’s invitation to do so despite the passing of the deadline for written evidence, so that it may consider the humanities and social sciences perspectives of the issues.

2. We would like to assure the Committee that there is a great deal of knowledge and experience with regard to the administration and understanding of examinations within the social sciences academic community. Contributors to the review of examining procedures published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2007 (Newton, 2007) [1] included many social scientists and the statistical methodology that has informed exams research has mainly come from within the social science community. Much of the methodological work has been carried out outside the traditional mathematics and science education community, by social statisticians and quantitative social researchers.

3. Though outside of the scope of this inquiry, we think it is important that the Committee gives some thought to the general culture of assessments for 15-19 year olds, in particular whether the quantity of assessment is appropriate. This age group is now – with GCSEs, AS levels and A levels – required to prepare for more examinations than in previous generations. This may result in a situation where preparing for exams detracts from opportunities to explore subjects in depth and develop independent learning skills.

4. It is also important that the inquiry considers the context of how appropriate the examinations are for purposes such as university applications. The improved standards achieved over the years mean that universities are often required to consider other ways of differentiating between candidates, and to assess the potential of individuals to flourish in the more independent learning environment of university.

A range of awarding bodies or one national body

5. It is vital that curriculum subject specialists and developers continue to be involved in examining, so that the exams remain relevant and in keeping with curriculum change. It is important that the conduct and control of examinations should be done by organisations that understand and are sympathetic to the social and educational value of what they produce.

6. A major argument against a single national body is that it would tend to discourage the experimentation that has been a real strength of the current system. Diversity helps to ensure a healthy system and needs to be preserved. Some specialisation is possible and does exist to some extent already, but care is needed that this does not result in real reductions of choice among providers. If a single body were to be proposed then the Scottish model (as implemented by the Scottish Qualifications Authority) is worth considering.

7. It is also important that examining bodies are independent of Government, so that examinations and assessment are motivated by educational factors, not by political factors. However, it is important to ensure that sufficient accountability to Government and Parliament is in place – there are many examples in models such as executive agencies, regulatory organisations and non-departmental public bodies.

Involvement of professional bodies and learned societies

8. The setting of examinations, and assessment generally, is an area where there is now a large body of knowledge within the educational community. This expertise should be used to guide and direct the development of assessment. Professional bodies and learned societies will also bring expertise on assessment, but it is likely to be specialised and applicable to a more narrowly defined group of people who aspire to professional qualifications, rather than national public examinations such as GCSE or A level.

Ensuring accuracy in setting and marking

9. We believe that over the years, experts in many organisations have developed a number of ways to ensure accuracy in setting and marking. The review in 2007 discussed this at length. Developing these techniques through the use of expertise, experience and analysis should have a high priority.

Commercial activities

10. The current examination boards in England (with one exception) are not-for-profit organisations. [2] Moving towards greater market-based competition is worthy of consideration, but there are risks involved in encouraging for-profit providers to the extent that they become the dominant model. Equally, market-based competition could also lead to consolidation of providers, which may ultimately lead to a single or excessively dominant provider. Both these risks need to be considered carefully when assessing changes to the current organisational models.

11. Recent media coverage has highlighted some of the risks that come with market-based competition. [3] The claims being made suggest that serious unintended consequences can stem from well-motivated policy developments. Commercialisation can bring great benefits – for example, innovation in assessment – and often leads to increased investment in education. However, an increase in the commercial activities of awarding bodies should not conflict with the primary concern of ensuring high quality, rigorous, effective conduct of examinations.

Conflicts of interest

12. Commercial activities can present particular issues in other ways. For example, involvement of organisations in different educational areas (curriculum advice, examination administration, textbook provision) may lead to competing interests. It is understandable that the expertise of individuals and organisations in sectors is shared and transferred, and involvement extended to many areas, some of which may overlap. Where this happens, it is important that appropriate organisations such as this Committee are able to scrutinise adequately activity to avoid any perception of conflict of interest. This may occur through boards strongly promoting textbooks linked to exam curricula with the risk that diversity of textbook material becomes constrained. Another issue would arise if senior representatives of boards became involved in national curriculum development, either within the UK or abroad where boards have interests.

13. For example, the Committee might wish to examine the relationship between Pearson International, one of the world's largest educational publishers and a major supplier of textbooks and teacher resources in the UK and worldwide, and operations such as Edexcel, BTec and City and Guilds, in all of which we understand that Pearson has a substantial financial stake. Or, taking Cambridge Assessment, which, through OCR, is the second of England's GCSE/A level examinations triumvirate, the Committee might usefully examine how far its work as a major examination/qualification provider in England, which also (according to its website) markets its expertise, qualifications and materials in 150 of the world's countries, sits with the leadership role currently being taken by one of its top executives in the Government's review of England's National Curriculum.

14. Such questions may be doubly pertinent when we note that the Government has talked about making greater use of standardised textbooks to ensure that schools comply with national curriculum requirements. Its advisers have also recommended that the content of England's National Curriculum be benchmarked against the curriculum of educationally high-performing jurisdictions, including Singapore, whose O level examinations are run jointly by Cambridge Assessment and Singapore's Ministry of Education.

15. No suggestion of impropriety attaches to our use of these two examples. However, given that the marketing of examinations, qualifications and the associated textbooks and teacher support materials is both a major financial operation and intensely competitive both nationally and globally, the integrity of the examination system and its providers might best be demonstrated if the not-for-profit administration of examinations is entirely separate from commercial activities such as textbook production, and if both are detached from policy leadership on the issues in question. We therefore believe that the current relationship between these various activities deserves the Committee's close attention. 

January 2012

[1] Newton, P., Baird, J., Goldstein, H., Patrick, H., & Tymms, P. Techniques for monitoring the comparability of examination standards (2007), London: Qualification and Curriculum Authority


[2] Edexcel was a not-for-profit organisations until June 2003, when it became part of Pearson PLC

[3] Recent cove rage includes allegations about exam boards disclosing examination details to teachers and schools - and [accessed 20 December 2011]

Prepared 12th January 2012