Exams have such an influence on people's lives and
the choices that they can make that the running of them is a matter
of permanent concern. Exams and exam boards exert huge influence
over what young people study at school or college from 15 to 19.
Confidence in GCSEs and A levels has been undermined by criticisms
from universities and employers, by errors on question papers
in summer 2011 and by years of grade inflation at GCSE and A level.
There is also a perception that our system of multiple competing
exam boards has led to downward competition on standards and that
the market has been insufficiently regulated, with exam boards
offering inappropriate support to teachers at training seminars
and textbooks endorsed by exam boards encouraging a narrow approach
to teaching and learning.
CHANGES TO THE EXAM SYSTEM
We have serious concerns about incentives in the
exam system which lead to downward competition on standards. While
we are reassured that Ofqual is taking action that helps to mitigate
competition on grading standards, we remain concerned about competition
on syllabus content. Competition between the exam boards for market
share, combined with the influence of the accountability system,
leads to significant downward pressure and we recommend that the
Government act immediately to change the incentives in the system.
We have considered several ways in which these incentives
might be changed.
A single board offers a simpler system, with no risk
of competition on standards between boards. However, we feel that
the cost, heightened risk and disruption likely to be generated
by a move to a single board outweigh the potential benefits. Evidence
suggests that some key issues, such as standards over time and
across subjects, would remain, while other problems, such as a
lack of incentive to innovate, the risk of higher fees and of
reduced quality of service may be generated.
Another alternative is franchising of subjects to
exam boards, which would allow for a concentration of subject
expertise and would remove competition on syllabus development
between boards. However, franchising is a "one way street"
with significant downsides and long-term implications for the
If multiple boards are to be retained, substantial
improvements are needed to change the incentives in the system.
We considered which exam board functions benefit most from competition,
splitting these functions into three broad areas: syllabus development,
the setting and marking of exams and associated administration
and finally exam board support. We can see no benefit to competition
on syllabus content. By contrast, properly regulated, we believe
that competition on the other two functions generates incentives
to drive up quality and offer value for money to schools and colleges.
We recommend the development of national syllabuses,
accredited by Ofqual. National syllabuses would be developed by
exam boards in conjunction with learned bodies and employer organisations
and, at A level, higher education. They would be regarded as a
national resource that could be examined by any of the English
exam boards. They would remove the incentive for exam boards to
compete on content and the associated downward pressure on standards,
but would retain the benefits of competition on quality and the
incentive for exam boards to innovate. There could be more than
one national syllabus in a subject, to provide some choice to
schools. We believe that national syllabuses, coupled with a stronger
Ofqual and the introduction of national subject committees, should
help to maximise the benefits of having multiple exam boards while
minimising the downsides and avoiding the cost, risk and disruption
involved in major structural reform.
The role of the regulator, Ofqual, is pivotal in
the examination system. It is clear that a stronger Ofqual is
needed, however the system is organised. There are encouraging
signs that Ofqual is becoming more rigorous in its regulation
of standards, in particular of grading standards. The effect of
this is twofold: first it helps to control grade inflation and
second it provides reassurance that the exam boards are not competing
on grading standards.
There is still, however, more to be done to improve
Ofqual's strength and effectiveness as a regulator. Ofqual needs
to ensure it has sufficient assessment expertise, including on
its Board, and to demonstrate that the methodologies it uses to
regulate standards and accredit qualifications are robust and
that it draws on appropriate respected subject and assessment
expertise. Ofqual also needs to monitor changes in market share
between the exam boards more closely, in order to account for
shifts at individual qualification level and to establish whether
there is any link to standards.
The Government needs to give a clear direction to
Ofqual about its priorities on standards in GCSEs and A levels,
and whether this is to maintain standards over time, to benchmark
against comparable qualifications in other countries or to "toughen"
exams. Both the Government and Ofqual need to be explicit about
any recalibration of exam standards and of the consequences for
We welcome signs that Ofqual is becoming a more robust
regulator. We believe that Ofqual should be given time to allow
recent changes to settle, to make further improvements based on
our recommendations and to demonstrate that it is prepared to
bear its sharper teeth, taking vigorous action when needed.
NATIONAL SUBJECT COMMITTEES
We believe that national subject committees, convened
by Ofqual, would offer a way to increase the involvement of subject
communities as well as universities and employers in GCSEs and
A levels. National subject committees should draw their membership
from learned bodies, subject associations, higher education and
employers. Their remit should include syllabus development and
accreditation, starting with the forthcoming revised A levels,
as well as on-going monitoring of question papers and mark schemes.
OTHER AREAS OF COMPETITION BETWEEN EXAM BOARDS
We also considered a range of issues relating to
competition between exam boards, including the role of examiners
in training and textbooks and the links between exam boards and
publishers. This is an area that has been under-regulated in the
past and Ofqual's "healthy markets" work is welcome,
if overdue. Recent action by Ofqual to restrict exam board training
is along the right lines. Ofqual needs to say publicly that it
is satisfied that there is sufficient distance between publishing
and examining across all boards and take action to address any
aspects of exam board support that inhibit the availability of
a wide range of high quality resources to schools and colleges.
EXAMS AND SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY
The Government should not underestimate the extent
to which the accountability system incentivises schools to act
in certain ways with regard to exams. We are concerned that the
impact of national syllabuses and a strengthened Ofqual will be
limited, if these are not accompanied by changes to the accountability
system that drives much behaviour in schools. The Government needs
to look afresh at current accountability measures, in order to
reduce the dominance of the 5 GCSE A*-C or equivalent with English
and maths measure, and to increase the credit given to schools
for the progress made by all children across the ability range.