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".
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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
This involved the marking of about 15.1 million scripts.
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.
The most commonly taken suites of vocational qualification in
schools are BTECs (offered by Edexcel) and OCR Nationals (offered
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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. Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations
Regulation) is the independent regulator of qualifications, examinations
and assessments in England and of vocational qualifications in
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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 unconstrainedas far as possibleby
centrally determined criteria". 
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. 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. 
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".
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.
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".
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".
1 Warwick Mansell, Education By Numbers, Politico's,
Testing and Assessment, Third Report of the Children, Schools
and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, HC169-I Back
The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/how-should-examinations-for-15-19-year-olds-in-england-be-run/ Back
A list of witnesses and written evidence received can be found
at the back of this report. Back
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
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
JCQ press notices on GCSE and A level results, summer 2011 Back
Ev 171 Back
Ev 164 Back
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
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
Four primary purposes of formal assessment identified by the 2010
Sir Richard Sykes review Back
In this report we use the term "syllabus", with the
plural "syllabuses" (see Collins and Oxford English
Ev 164 Back
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
Introducing Ofqual, 2010/11, Ofqual, 2010 Back
Ofqual Annual Report and Accounts, 2010-2011 Back
http://www.ofqual.gov.uk/news-and-announcements/137/755 and see
also Fit for purpose? The view of the higher education sector,
teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual,
The Importance of Teaching-The Schools White Paper 2010,
Paragraphs 4.47-4.50 Back
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
GCSEs are currently offered in over 70 subjects, although schools
usually offer only a small number of these (Ofqual Corporate Plan
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
The Importance of Teaching, 2010, paragraphs 4.47 and 4.48 Back
Letter from Michael Gove to Glenys Stacey, 30 March 2012 Back
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
Letter from Glenys Stacey to Michael Gove, 3 April 2012 Back
"All vocational qualifications to be judged against strict
new rules", Department for Education press release, 27 October
"Only the highest quality qualifications to be included in
Performance Tables", Department for Education press release,
31 January 2012 Back
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
Statement issued in response to Daily Telegraph investigation,
December 2011, http://www.education.gov.uk/a00200596/michael-gove-responds-to-the-daily-telegraph-investigation Back