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

2  Confidence and credibility: key issues with the current system

Perceptions of the current system

24. As noted in chapter one, the exam system features frequently in media reports, most often of a critical nature. From time to time, those more closely involved in the exam system have spoken out. For example, Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, was reported to have had a "Ratner moment" in his criticism of exam standards in 2010, when seeking to prompt a debate about the reasons for grade inflation in recent years. Mr Oates suggested that changes instigated by policy-makers might have contributed to grade inflation and that exam boards should look critically at the techniques they used rather than following orders blindly.[31] Mick Waters, former senior official at QCA, was widely quoted later the same year as saying that the exam system was "diseased" and "almost corrupt".[32] The independent schools sector has been publicly critical of the exam system on occasions.[33] Exam boards and more recently the regulator have attempted to stimulate public debate and facilitate understanding about the exam system and in particular the thorny issue of exam standards.[34]

25. The Department for Education suggested to us that "confidence among universities and employers in the rigour of key qualifications has fallen".[35] As end-users, employers and universities offer useful commentary and insight on how the exam system is working, as well as the wider education system. Ofqual has also looked more broadly at public perceptions of GCSEs and A levels, conducting annual research with teachers, students, parents and the general public, as well as on occasions with employers.

Employers' views

26. Employer organisations have expressed ongoing concerns about the poor literacy and numeracy skills of school leavers, despite rising numbers of students achieving GCSE grades A*-C in English and maths. The 2011 Vorderman report into mathematics education noted that "employers say that even those who pass GCSE are not functional in mathematics, meaning that they cannot apply what they have learnt in the workplace".[36] The confidence of employers and wider society is therefore being affected by concerns not just about grading standards and what is represented by a GCSE grade C in English or Maths, but also about the content of assessment and what children have been taught.

27. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) told us that "businesses lack confidence in the English education and training system, and particularly in qualifications".[37] Anne Tipple, National Skills Executive at the BCC, cited their most recent survey: "it was a large sample, 7,149 employers, or which just over 72% of the respondents said they did not feel confident in recruiting school leavers with A levels or equivalent".[38] We were struck by the examples the BCC provided of two employers reporting recent declines in the pass-rates of in-house literacy and numeracy tests used over a period of time in their selection procedures. [39]

28. The CBI conducts annual surveys of Education and Skills among employers. The findings are consistently critical of the literacy and numeracy skills of school leavers. A 2006 CBI report noted that "CBI surveys have repeatedly shown that many employers are dissatisfied with the level of skills among young people entering the workplace. In the 2005 Employment Trends Survey, for example, 42% of employers taking on school-leavers were not satisfied with their basic literacy and numeracy skills".[40] The most recent CBI survey reported that "two thirds of employers (65%) [...] see a pressing need to raise standards of literacy and numeracy among 14-19 year olds".[41] Employers have also been critical of the level of "softer skills", such as interpersonal skills and teamwork, communication skills and "work readiness" among young people.

29. We appreciate that the views of employers may need to be treated cautiously. As journalist Warwick Mansell has pointed out, "employers' objections about poor basic skills among school leavers are far from new".[42] The following excerpt from an HM inspector's report in 1876 suggests that employers' criticisms have changed very little in the last 150 years:

it has been said, for instance, that accuracy in the manipulation of figures does not reach the standard which was reached 20 years ago. Some employers express surprise and concern at the inability of young persons to perform simple numerical operations involved in business.[43]

In addition, getting beyond anecdotal evidence can be difficult on occasions, as Anne Tipple of the British Chambers of Commerce confirmed.[44]

30. Despite these caveats, we believe that employers are giving a clear and consistent message about GCSEs and A levels, which suggests that rising pass rates may not reflect true improvements in candidates' knowledge, skills and understanding or their ability to apply these in a work context. What is less clear, however, is the extent to which this issue is related to the administrative organisation of the examination system. Employers, as Anne Tipple told us, "do not see a tension between exam boards, because they are oblivious to the fact that schools and colleges can choose exam boards [...] they are oblivious to most of the architecture of the curriculum and examination system. They are interested in outcomes".[45]

Universities' views

31. Universities have been critical for some time of A levels both as a selection tool and as a preparation for undergraduate level study.[46] Research recently published by Ofqual found that although universities and employers were broadly satisfied that A levels did a good job, they felt that some key improvements were needed in order to "change the student experience of upper secondary education and go some way towards better preparing them for higher education and the world of work".[47] Suggestions included "a move towards a more linear system of examination, changes to the re-sit system, better incorporation of synoptic learning and changes to methods of assessment".[48] Ofqual's research echoes the initial findings of a study by Cambridge Assessment, which has called for reform of A levels to make them less predictable, contain more essay/open-ended-style questions and limit the number of re-sits. Cambridge Assessment found that universities want A levels "to include more advanced content for more able students; cover core subject areas in greater depth; and encourage critical thinking, independent study, experimentation, exploration and more extensive reading".[49] The findings of both studies seem to be broadly in line with Government thinking on A levels, outlined in the White Paper and more recently in Michael Gove's letter of 30 March to Ofqual.

32. Evidence we heard from university representatives supports the research findings on the views of the higher education sector. Ana Gutierrez, Head of Student Administration at Bournemouth University, told us that students "do not have the intellectual capability for research and synthesis of information when they come to us" and that "we have to put things in place to help with that transition [from school to university]".[50] Professor Nick Lieven, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Bristol University, identified two issues with A levels: first, how to "distinguish at the top end the people whom we want to recruit" and second that "modularisation has reduced the capacity of students to do synoptic learning, which draws together multiple strands to solve an often difficult[...] problem [...] we are finding that students assemble the tools but cannot interrelate [...] The A level system, through modularisation, simply does not equip students to do that".[51] Professor Graham Hutchings, Pro Vice Chancellor of Cardiff University, told us that "we have changed the way in which we teach subjects at first year [...] we have a non-inquiring cohort of students being brought out from this education system". [52]

33. Reasonably clear messages seem to emerge from higher education about A levels, consistent with research findings and recent reviews of qualifications and assessment, such as the Sir Richard Sykes review and the Walport report.[53] First, changes to A levels are necessary to help ensure young people are well prepared for university study. Second, many of the problems (and therefore the solutions) lie in the structure and content of A levels and their assessment. We return to the proposed A level reforms in chapter six.

Ofqual research into perceptions of GCSEs and A levels

34. Ofqual conducted research in 2010 which touched upon the question of reform and explored confidence in the system. The survey found that of teachers, students and employers, teachers were the most optimistic about the system, followed by students who were less happy, and employers the least optimistic. 61% of teachers, 57% of students and 48% of employers thought that the exam system was doing a good job but did need improving, with 12% of teachers,14% of students and 23% of employers thinking that the system was not doing a good job and should be reformed. Only 26% of teachers, 25% of students and 18% of employers were completely happy with the system and did not think it needed any change.[54]

35. Since 2003 Ofqual (or its predecessor) has commissioned an annual survey of perceptions of A levels and GCSEs, canvassing the views of teachers, the general public, students and parents. The reports provide a useful insight into confidence in the exam system and into common concerns about A levels and GCSEs among teachers.

36. The Wave 9 survey, published in 2011, found that "perceptions of the A level system are largely positive among teachers, parents, students and the general public—an on-going trend since the survey began in 2003" and that "confidence in the GCSE system overall remains high".[55] However, we were struck by the low confidence levels among the general public. In the most recent survey, just over a quarter (28%) of the general public was more confident in the GCSE system now than a few years ago. For A level the figure was 25%.[56] The survey found that the most common concern among teachers about A levels is the incorrect marking and grading of papers; at GCSE it is controlled assessment. There was also a negative shift in the opinion of teachers about the reliability of GCSE grading between 2010 and 2011. This is discussed further in chapter nine.

Key issues affecting confidence

37. The Mathematical Association suggested to us that "with regard to the maintenance of standards and confidence in standards, perception is at least as important as substance".[57] We would suggest that this observation could be extended to confidence in the exam system as a whole. The cumulative impression we have gathered is of relatively low public confidence in the exam system, alongside serious concerns about particular aspects of the system among various groups, including employers, universities and teachers. In the long term, this risks compromising the credibility of the system and devaluing the qualifications achieved by young people.

38. Evidence to our inquiry, alongside recent debates generated by Ofqual and the exam boards, as well as recent media reports on the exam system, suggest the following concerns (whether real or perceived) are widespread and have contributed to a lack of overall confidence in the system:

  • Impact of competition between exam boards and the so-called "race to the bottom"
  • Grade inflation
  • The role of Ofqual and the effectiveness of its regulation
  • The cost of exams to schools and colleges
  • Problems with training and textbooks and conflicts of interest in the system
  • Narrowing of teaching and learning, "teaching to the test" and the impact of the accountability system
  • Question paper errors in summer 2011
  • Reliability of marking
  • The number of exams taken by young people
  • Reduced involvement of universities in A levels

39. We believe that changes are needed in order to increase confidence in the system and maintain its credibility. The key question is whether improvements are best achieved through fundamental administrative reform or by improving the current system. In chapter three we consider the benefits and drawbacks of fundamental reform and whether, in the light of the evidence we have received, we think that reform to a single board, as advocated by some observers, is required. In chapters four to ten, we explore the concerns listed above. We also consider to what extent the concerns are linked to having multiple exam boards and how effectively it would be addressed by organisational reform, although we are clear that some issues are features of the system that would need to be managed, whatever organisational model is adopted.

31   "Exam chief's 'Ratner moment' over grade inflation", Times Educational Supplement, 26 March 2010 Back

32   "System of exam boards 'corrupt and diseased', says leading schools adviser", The Independent, 17 September 2010 Back

33   For example: "Exam system too commercial, says private schools body", BBC News, 9 January 2012, "'Tougher' AS-level marking makes private schools cry foul", The Observer, 4 October 2009 Back

34   Cambridge Assessment hosted a series of debates culminating in its report: Exam Standards: the big debate in 2010, Ofqual hosted a standards summit on 13 October 2011 and in February 2012 Pearson launched a consultation "Leading on standards".  Back

35   Ev 170 Back

36   A world class mathematics education for all our young people, 2011 p53 Back

37   Ev 152 Back

38   Q108, referring to Skills for Business: more to learn?, October 2011, British Chambers of Commerce Back

39   See Ev 153 Back

40   Working on the Three Rs: Employers' Priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English, CBI, 2006 Back

41   Building for Growth, CBI, 2011 Back

42   Education By Numbers, Warwick Mansell, Politico's, 2007, p138 Back

43   See appendix 2, Exam Standards: the big debate, Cambridge Assessment, 2010 Back

44   See Q109 Back

45   Q118 Anne Tipple Back

46   For example, in focus groups carried out as part of the Nuffield review of 14-19 education, see Nuffield Review Higher Education Focus Groups Preliminary Report, Oxford: Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education, 2006 Back

47   Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual, 2012  Back

48   Ibid. Back

49 Back

50   Q106 and Q132 Back

51   Q111 and Q116 Back

52   Q427 Professor Hutchings  Back

53   The Sykes review suggested that "since universities are the major users of A levels, they should have considerable input into their content and their structure" and the Walport report recommended that the design and delivery of science and mathematics qualifications should be reconnected with HE and other stakeholders. Back

54   Public Perceptions of Unreliability in Examination Results in England: A New Perspective, Ofqual, 2010 Back

55   Perceptions of A levels and GCSEs, Wave 9, Ofqual, 2011 Back

56   Perceptions of A levels, GCSEs and other qualifications, Wave 10, Ofqual 2012 Back

57   Ev w38 Back

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Prepared 3 July 2012