The administration of examinations for 15-19 year olds in England - Education Committee Contents


Summary



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 exam system.

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.

OFQUAL

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 young people.

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.


 
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Prepared 3 July 2012