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

Part I: Introduction and key issues

1  Background to the inquiry

1. Examinations 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. One journalist has observed that "England's children are now the most tested in the world [...] no other country puts its pupils through as many major government-or-exam-board-designed assessments as England".[1] Many 15 to 19 year olds in England take exams at regular intervals throughout their final four years of full-time education. By implication exams (and the bodies that set them) exert huge influence on what young people learn at this stage of their schooling. In addition, there is the familiar so-called "August frenzy" of media reports that accompany the issue of GCSE and A level results each summer and perennial questions about whether standards have gone up or down. In summer 2011, a series of errors in A level and GCSE exam papers prompted further concern, with the Secretary of State ordering an inquiry by the regulator.

2. It was in the light of this latest crisis that we launched our inquiry. We have considered whether the current system of multiple competing exam boards for GCSEs and A levels is the best way to ensure fair outcomes for young people and have reviewed the arguments for and against other organisational models. Our predecessor Committee considered a broad range of assessments and qualifications as part of its inquiry into Testing and Assessment.[2] We have concentrated on the so-called "high stakes" general qualifications, most commonly taken in schools. Our inquiry has also focused on the commercial activities of exam boards, such as training and textbooks, and how these impact on schools and young people.[3]

3. Since we began our inquiry, many of the issues we have been considering have become the subject of closer scrutiny by politicians and the media. These include: competition between exam boards and the so-called "race to the bottom" on standards, messages given to teachers at exam board training seminars and the question of whether fundamental reform of the exam system is required. Our inquiry has therefore proved timely.

The evidence base for our inquiry

4. Following the announcement of the inquiry on 12 September 2011, we received 73 written submissions, from a wide range of sources, including exam boards, teaching unions, learned bodies and subject associations, educational publishers and assessment researchers, as well as from individual examiners, teachers and university lecturers. We also received evidence from the regulator, Ofqual, and from the Department for Education.

5. We held a series of oral evidence sessions with a range of witnesses.[4] These included: school and college leaders, representatives from higher education and employer organisations, examiners, assessment experts, representatives from learned bodies and from educational publishers, as well as senior officials from exam boards and from Ofqual. Finally, we heard evidence from the Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb MP. We also advertised, via the Times Educational Supplement and online, for practising examiners to attend a seminar at the House of Commons. We were very pleased to receive over 200 responses. Of these 17 were selected to attend the seminar, representing a range of subjects, qualifications, exam boards and examining roles. All other applicants were invited to complete a questionnaire and the 45 responses provided very useful additional information.[5]

6. During the inquiry we have considered a range of other evidence, including academic and research publications on assessment, exam board and Ofqual publications, media reports, surveys and reviews relating to the exam system and reports by our predecessor Committee, the Children, Schools and Families Committee. The House of Commons scrutiny unit also conducted an analysis of income data supplied by the exam boards, and statisticians in the House of Commons library prepared data on market share across the exam boards, based on the inter-board statistics published by the Joint Council for Qualifications.

7. Finally, six members of the Committee undertook a short visit to Singapore, where meetings took place with representatives from the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board, as well as headteachers, academics, Government ministers, officials and members of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Education. A note of our visit is annexed to this report.

8. As always, the Committee has benefited hugely from the expertise of its standing adviser on education, Professor Alan Smithers, and of its specialist adviser for this inquiry, Professor Mike Cresswell. We were also helped in the early stages of the inquiry by our standing adviser Professor Geoff Whitty. All three have shared their knowledge and experience of the examination system with us and this has proved invaluable.[6]

Background on the exam system in England for 15-19 year olds

9. The scale of the examination system in England is vast: in 2011 exam boards issued over 4.6 million GCSE grades, over 1.3 million GCE AS and nearly 800,000 GCE A level grades.[7] This involved the marking of about 15.1 million scripts.[8] GCSEs and A levels account for 85% of qualifications achieved in schools. Over the last five years vocational qualifications have grown in popularity in schools and now account for 15% of all qualification achievements in schools.[9] The most commonly taken suites of vocational qualification in schools are BTECs (offered by Edexcel) and OCR Nationals (offered by OCR).

10. In 1980, 14.9% of school leavers in England gained 2 or more A level passes and 12.7% of the population went to university.[10] By 2011, 35.5% of school leavers in England achieved 2 or more A level passes and 35.9% of the population went on to university.[11] In the last thirty years examinations have changed significantly and A levels and GCSEs, which replaced O levels and CSEs in 1988, have had to cater for increasing numbers of candidates across a broader ability range.

11. GCSEs and A levels are used for a variety of purposes: to certify achievement, to rank students, to provide feedback and diagnostic information to teachers, pupils and parents and to hold teachers, schools and government to account.[12] They are also used to prepare students for the next stage of learning or employment. It is clear that these multiple purposes place additional pressures on the exam system.

GCSE and A level exam boards

12. Exam boards design GCSE and A level specifications (formerly known as syllabuses)[13] based on centrally agreed criteria, set and mark question papers and award grades. There are three English exam boards offering GCSE and A level qualifications: the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), Edexcel and the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts examinations (OCR). Candidates in England may also enter for GCSEs and A levels offered by the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) and the Council for Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), based in Wales and Northern Ireland respectively. AQA, Edexcel and OCR account for over 85% of GCSE and A level awards, with AQA alone accounting for over 45% of GCSE and 42% of A level awards.[14]

13. Of the three English providers, two are not-for-profit organisations, while the third is run on a for-profit basis. AQA is a registered charity; OCR is a company limited by guarantee and part of the Cambridge Assessment Group, which is a department of the University of Cambridge. Edexcel, formerly linked to the University of London, was purchased by publishing group Pearson in 2003 and is now part of Pearson plc.

14. The current system of three main providers of GCSEs and A levels in England has evolved from many exam boards, often with links to universities. According to the Mathematical Association, "exam boards were established by the universities in second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1960s there was a huge number of exam boards for CSE, O level and A level and the trend since has been to consolidate, down to the three current bodies."[15]

The regulator

15. Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) is the independent regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and of vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland.[16] Ofqual was established on 1 April 2010 by the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 as a non-ministerial government department, reporting directly to Parliament.

16. Ofqual's Chief Executive, Glenys Stacey, was appointed in March 2011 and, following a change of legislation in the Education Act 2011, took over from Ofqual's Chair, Amanda Spielman, as Chief Regulator of Qualifications and Examinations on 1 April 2012.

17. Prior to the creation of Ofqual, the regulation of the exams system was undertaken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), a non-departmental public body, reporting to the Secretary of State. The separation of QCA's regulatory function and creation of an independent body was announced by the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, in September 2007. From April 2008 until April 2010, Ofqual operated in interim form as an independent regulator but part of QCA.[17]

Policy background

18. In summer 2010 an A level A* grade was introduced, instigated by the previous Government. The aim of the new grade was to help distinguish the most able candidates against a backdrop of increasing numbers of candidates achieving a grade A and to assist universities with selecting the best candidates. The indications are that, after some initial resistance, the A* grade has been well received and is working as intended. In a presentation to the Ofqual standards summit in October 2011, for example, Richard Partington, Senior Tutor at Churchill College Cambridge, reported a positive correlation between candidates achieving A* at A level and their performance in first year exams at Cambridge.[18]

19. The Coalition Government set out its policy aims with regard to GCSE and A level qualifications in the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching.[19] The main thrust of the proposals was to reduce the opportunities for re-sits, and at GCSE, a return to end-of-course exams (a move from modular to linear), along with improved assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar in English literature, history, geography and religious studies. The proposed changes to GCSEs will take effect for courses starting in September 2012 and will apply from the summer 2014 examinations. A full reform of GCSEs is planned following the current review of the National Curriculum in England.[20] Ofqual has indicated in its Corporate Plan 2012-15 that new GCSEs are likely from 2015. It has said that it plans to review the GCSE grading structure (which presently stretches from A*-G) and the range of subjects appropriate to the "GCSE brand" as part of these changes.[21]

20. At A level the Government signalled that it wishes to increase the involvement of universities and learned bodies in the development of A levels and to explore whether synoptic learning can be reinforced within A levels.[22] The White Paper stopped short of announcing full scale A level reform, promising instead that "we will consider with Ofqual in the light of evaluation evidence whether [reducing opportunities for re-sits] and other recent changes are sufficient to address concerns with A levels".[23]

21. On 30 March 2012 the Secretary of State wrote to Ofqual with more detail regarding the reform of A levels. He stated that he wished to see "new arrangements that allow Awarding Organisations to work with universities to develop qualifications in a way that is unconstrained—as far as possible—by centrally determined criteria". [24] While there will need to be some core design rules, in particular to secure standards within a subject, the Government and Ofqual will largely "take a step back", to allow universities to take a leading role. Mr Gove said he was keen that "universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed". He indicated that he wished to see rapid progress on the reforms, with new A levels, particularly in Russell Group 'facilitating subjects', introduced for first teaching in September 2014.[25] In her reply Glenys Stacey, Chief Executive of Ofqual, was broadly supportive of the changes, but emphasized that the full commitment of and support from universities would be essential for the new arrangements to work. [26]

22. On 27 October 2011 the Government announced changes to the rules concerning which vocational qualifications could count in performance tables. The changes follow recommendations in the Wolf report on vocational qualifications. From 2014 "only valued vocational qualifications that meet strict new criteria will be recognised in the tables. GCSEs, established iGCSEs and AS levels will continue to be included. All these qualifications will count equally on a one-for-one basis".[27] Qualifications will only count in performance tables if they offer pupils proven progression, are the size of a GCSE or bigger, have a substantial proportion of external assessment and are graded A*-G. They must also have good take-up levels among 14-16 year olds. In January 2012 the Department for Education published the full list of qualifications that will count in performance tables from 2014. The list heralded a reduction in the number of vocational qualifications that will count in the 5 A* to C GCSE accountability measure from 3175 to 70.[28]

23. The Secretary of State for Education has recently suggested that "we are going to make exams tougher" and "there will be years where performance will dip".[29] He has also raised the prospect of wider reform of the exam system. Responding to a Daily Telegraph investigation in December 2011, Mr Gove said that the current exam system is "discredited" and needs "fundamental reform".[30]

1   Warwick Mansell, Education By Numbers, Politico's, 2007 Back

2   Testing and Assessment, Third Report of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, HC169-I Back

3   The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found at: Back

4   A list of witnesses and written evidence received can be found at the back of this report.  Back

5   A note of views expressed at the seminar and a summary of the questionnaire responses can be found at annex 1 and 2 respectively. Examiners participated in the seminar and completed questionnaires on a non-attributable basis and comments quoted in the report are therefore not referenced to individuals. Back

6   Professor Whitty, Director Emeritus of the Institute of Education, University of London, and Professor of Public Policy and Management, University of Bath, declared interests as a Trustee of the IFS School of Finance and as a Board Member of Ofsted. Professor Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham, declared no interests. Professor Cresswell declared an interest as an occasional consultant for Doublestruck, part of AQA. Back

7   JCQ press notices on GCSE and A level results, summer 2011 Back

8   Ev 171 Back

9   Ev 164 Back

10   Statistics of education. Statistics of school leavers CSE and GCE England 1982, DES and Higher education in Great Britain: Early figures for 1981/82, DES statistical bulletin 9/82 Back

11   National Pupil Database-Key Stage 5 2011 (final), DfE, 2010-based population projections, ONS and Participation rates in higher education: academic years 2006/2007-2010/2011 (provisional), BIS Back

12   Four primary purposes of formal assessment identified by the 2010 Sir Richard Sykes review Back

13   In this report we use the term "syllabus", with the plural "syllabuses" (see Collins and Oxford English Dictionaries) Back

14   Ev 164 Back

15   Ev w39, paragraph 19. For a comprehensive account of the history of the exam boards and a list of predecessor bodies, see chapter 2 of Techniques for monitoring the comparability of examination standards, QCA, 2007.  Back

16   Introducing Ofqual, 2010/11, Ofqual, 2010 Back

17, Ofqual Annual Report and Accounts, 2010-2011 Back

18 and see also Fit for purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual, 2012 Back

19   The Importance of Teaching-The Schools White Paper 2010, Paragraphs 4.47-4.50 Back

20   At the time of writing, the Department of Education has said that it expects "to announce in the near future the timescale for introducing new GCSEs in National Curriculum subjects, alongside decisions on the introduction of the new programmes of study"; taken from DfE General Article, Changes to GCSEs from 2012, updated 26 April 2012 Back

21   GCSEs are currently offered in over 70 subjects, although schools usually offer only a small number of these (Ofqual Corporate Plan 2012-15). Back

22   Ofqual's predecessor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), defined synoptic assessment as "a form of assessment which tests candidates' understanding of the connections between the different elements of a subject." Arrangements for the statutory regulation of external qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, London, QCA, 2000.  Back

23   The Importance of Teaching, 2010, paragraphs 4.47 and 4.48 Back

24   Letter from Michael Gove to Glenys Stacey, 30 March 2012 Back

25   A list of facilitating subjects can be found on page 27 of Informed Choices: a Russell Group guide to making decisions about post-16 education, 2012. They are: mathematics, English Literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and languages (modern and classical). Back

26   Letter from Glenys Stacey to Michael Gove, 3 April 2012 Back

27   "All vocational qualifications to be judged against strict new rules", Department for Education press release, 27 October 2011  Back

28   "Only the highest quality qualifications to be included in Performance Tables", Department for Education press release, 31 January 2012  Back

29   Michael Gove speech to Ofqual standards summit, 13 October 2011 and "Michael Gove: Get set for new age of exam failures" The Independent, 22 February 2012 Back

30   Statement issued in response to Daily Telegraph investigation, December 2011, Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 3 July 2012