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.
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".
The independent schools sector has been publicly critical of the
exam system on occasions.
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.
25. The Department for Education suggested to us
that "confidence among universities and employers in the
rigour of key qualifications has fallen".
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.
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".
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".
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".
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
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".
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".
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".
The following excerpt from an HM inspector's report in 1876 suggests
that employers' criticisms have changed very little in the last
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.
In addition, getting beyond anecdotal evidence can
be difficult on occasions, as Anne Tipple of the British Chambers
of Commerce confirmed.
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
31. Universities have been critical for some time
of A levels both as a selection tool and as a preparation for
undergraduate level study.
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".
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".
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".
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]".
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".
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". 
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.
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
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
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 publican on-going
trend since the survey began in 2003" and that "confidence
in the GCSE system overall remains high".
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%.
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".
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
- 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
"System of exam boards 'corrupt and diseased', says leading
schools adviser", The Independent, 17 September 2010 Back
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
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
Ev 170 Back
A world class mathematics education for all our young people,
2011 p53 Back
Ev 152 Back
Q108, referring to Skills for Business: more to learn?, October
2011, British Chambers of Commerce Back
See Ev 153 Back
Working on the Three Rs: Employers' Priorities for Functional
Skills in Maths and English, CBI, 2006 Back
Building for Growth, CBI, 2011 Back
Education By Numbers, Warwick Mansell, Politico's, 2007, p138 Back
See appendix 2, Exam Standards: the big debate, Cambridge Assessment,
See Q109 Back
Q118 Anne Tipple Back
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
Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers
and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual, 2012 Back
Q106 and Q132 Back
Q111 and Q116 Back
Q427 Professor Hutchings Back
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
Public Perceptions of Unreliability in Examination Results in
England: A New Perspective, Ofqual, 2010 Back
Perceptions of A levels and GCSEs, Wave 9, Ofqual, 2011 Back
Perceptions of A levels, GCSEs and other qualifications, Wave
10, Ofqual 2012 Back
Ev w38 Back