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

Part IV: Wider issues

10  Exams and school accountability

182. Glenys Stacey said in a recent speech that "we ask a lot of final examinations" and that "some of society's demands on qualifications are contradictory and some can, we know, create a backwash [...] effect".[309] Many of the problems identified with the exam system are very closely linked to the pressures generated by the accountability system. The pervasive impact of the accountability system can be felt in endorsed textbooks, exam board training and arguments around the reasons for grade inflation. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) stressed that, when considering the exam system, it is important to take account of the broader educational picture, arguing that

the pressures of a high-stakes accountability atmosphere, coupled with the overly-commercial behaviour of awarding bodies lead to perverse but perfectly rational decision-making by teachers which threatens to undermine the quality of education offered to young people.[310]

183. The Daily Telegraph suggested in December 2011 that exam boards are conniving in a "gaming" of the system, by offering training and support to teachers that may encourage teaching to the test. Schools thereby improve their results and performance against government accountability measures, while exam boards retain their market share. As SCORE put it, "the current system, in which a school's performance is measured mainly by the raw grades of its students, encourages them [schools] to connive in a broken market".[311] Warwick Mansell observed that

because all the actors in this complex system are accountable, directly or indirectly, for raising numbers, they also have a vested interest in this happening. And no-one has an interest in looking seriously at any side-effects of a decision which could help raise the scores.[312]

184. In this chapter we consider the interaction between the exam system and accountability measures, in particular the issue of early and multiple entries to GCSEs and the wider question of whether exam results are the best way to measure national standards of attainment as well the performance of individual students and schools.

The burden of assessment

185. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told us that "the main problem facing our examination system is one of overload. Young people in England in this age group take more external assessments than in any other country." This means that "young people are losing valuable learning time [...] by being faced with so many examinations". [313] We can see that, however well-intended, modularisation of GCSEs and A levels and increased opportunities for re-sits have increased the burden of assessment on young people. The Government is introducing changes that will reduce the number of exams, returning to end-of-course assessment at GCSE and limiting re-sit opportunities and we welcome these moves. We have seen no evidence to suggest that having competing exam boards has contributed to the burden of assessment. The number of exams taken by young people is linked to Government policy and to decisions made by schools responding to pressures from the accountability system. We doubt that changes to the way the system is administered will impact greatly on this area.

Early and multiple entries to GCSE examinations

186. Early and multiple entry to GCSE examinations, particularly in mathematics and English, provide an illustration of the interaction between the exam system and the accountability system and how this may not always be in the best interests of young people. Early entry is when a student is entered for a GCSE at the end of year 10 or part way through year 11. Multiple entry is when a student is entered for the same GCSE with more than one exam board, with the aim of maximising his or her grade.

187. A DfE report on early entry to GCSE examinations found that "whilst there has been a long history of this practice for the highest achieving pupils, the trend is increasing for pupils of all abilities. For many, this can be detrimental to their overall performance".[314] According to ACME, early entry to GCSE Mathematics is particularly common in National Challenge schools. These schools are often under the most pressure to improve their results. ACME concluded in a report last year that:

the practice of early entry has a negative effect on most students' mathematical education, hindering their progression to a wide range of subjects post-16 and in Higher Education. It is an unfortunate example of how league tables and National Challenge status can encourage school leaders to put the interests of the school above those of the students themselves.[315]

The Secretary of State for Education has written recently to Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, seeking advice on "what more Ofsted and the Department [of Education] can do to ensure that early entry does not impact negatively on pupils achieving their full potential".[316]

188. We suggest that a focus on multiple entry is also necessary. Multiple entry illustrates how the accountability system encourages schools to use the exam system to improve their league table performance, in a way that may benefit schools and exam boards commercially, but may not necessarily be in the best interests of young people. As ACME noted, "artificial improvement of GCSE pass rates through multiple entry is a poor use of public money and does nothing to improve the true educational standards of any school".[317] Ofqual does not currently collect data on multiple entries, as it says there are significant logistical difficulties involved in doing this. Ofqual told us, however, that they "suspect the cost and practical issues mean that the number is tiny".[318] We recommend that the Government ask Ofqual to gather data from the exam boards to enable it to identify the extent of multiple entry and then offer advice on whether, and what, action is needed to limit the practice.

Wider changes

189. Changes to early and multiple entries would, however, only deal with side-effects of the accountability system. There is a need to address the core problem. As a teacher in a National Challenge schools suggested, "banning multiple entry wouldn't tackle the cause of the problem here, which is the focus on arbitrary performance targets that don't take account of value added".[319] We believe that there is a genuine question as to what extent reform of the exam system and strengthened regulation would solve the problems identified in our report, without significant changes to the accountability system that drives much behaviour in schools. This is linked to the multiple purposes served by A levels and in particular GCSEs, namely certifying achievement, ranking students and holding teachers, schools and government to account, as well as preparing young people for the next stage of education or employment. The 2010 Sir Richard Sykes review was critical of the "implicit and damaging assumption [...] that all examinations and tests can and should be used for all these purposes".[320] Ministers are explicit about these multiple purposes and, on occasions, about the unintended consequences and "gaming" of the system. Michael Gove referred in a recent speech to GCSEs and A levels having a sorting function, a preparation function and an accountability function.[321] The Schools Minister told us that "the secondary purpose—but an important purpose—[of GCSEs and A levels] is as an accountability measure for the schools where those qualifications are taken".[322] While Mr Gibb indicated that Minsters "are definitely open" to issues concerning the accountability system, he made it clear that the Government is committed to having "rigorous external accountability measures".[323]

190. Warwick Mansell has argued that "the exams system cannot perform the function that politicians demand of it", [324] namely, to provide a reliable indicator of whether standards are improving at national level as well as being used to judge the performance of individual schools. He suggested to us that:

if you wanted national accountability in terms of actually finding out what is going on with education, you would not do it through the current system. You might have a system more akin to PISA, where children are set tests that do not change particularly over the years. There is nothing high stakes about the system, so you can retain question between years. You could do it in a broader, more in-depth way than PISA by looking at a much broader range of subjects and getting much better information than you get from the system at the moment. [325]

Crucially, schools would not be held accountable against such a measure, thereby breaking the link between the test and accountability.

191. Our predecessor Committee, in a report on Testing and Assessment, recommended that school accountability should be separated from the system of pupil testing and that the purpose of national monitoring of the education system would be best served by sample testing.[326] While the intricacies of sample testing are beyond the scope of this inquiry, we can see merit in the idea of sample testing as a way of gauging information on standards, where neither individual pupils nor schools are being judged on the outcome. Similarly the assessment of school performance should be less dependent upon raw GCSE results. Professor Stephen Ball of the British Academy told us that "the amount of ingenuity, effort, resources, time and energy that are being put into getting more students across the C/D boundary is stunning [...] there is a systematic effect of concentrating attention on some students".[327]

192. Young people's educational experience from age 14 onwards is dominated by the qualifications they study. Altain Education, an educational consultancy, suggested to us that "examinations and exam boards have perhaps unwittingly come to occupy too much of the centre stage".[328] We are concerned that the exam system is struggling to bear the weight of pressures exerted by the accountability system. Glenys Stacey of Ofqual has told us that Ofqual is keen to discuss with Government the "ways in which we can mitigate those pressures." She added that "it is not so much an issue between Ofqual and the awarding bodies as between Ofqual, Government and those other players in a wider system".[329] As Warwick Mansell told us, by judging teachers and schools on GCSE results, as well as students, the "reaction to that is that they seek to take more control over that process; they guide closely towards exams, particular exams and content of exams. They are strategic about who they enter for exams".[330] The Government should not underestimate the extent to which the accountability system incentivises schools to act in certain ways with regard to exams. Sometimes these may be in students' interests; sometimes, however, they are not. We recommend that the Government look afresh at current accountability measures, with a view to reducing the dominant influence of the measure of 5 GCSE A*-C or equivalent including English and mathematics and to increasing the credit given to schools for the progress made by all children across the ability range.

309   A new look at standards, Glenys Stacey to Ofqual standards summit, 13 October 2011 Back

310   Ev w112 Back

311   Ev 155, paragraph 7 Back

312   Warwick Mansell, Education by Numbers, Politico's, 2007, p181 Back

313   Ev w9, paragraph 3 Back

314   Early Entry to GCSE examinations, DfE, 2011  Back

315   Early and Multiple Entry to GCSE Mathematics, ACME, 2011 Back

316   Letter from Michael Gove to Sir Michael Wilshaw, 5 March 2012  Back

317   Early and Multiple Entry to GCSE Mathematics, ACME, 2011  Back

318   Ev 170 Back

319   Ev w84 Back

320   The Sir Richard Sykes review, March 2010  Back

321   Michael Gove speech to Ofqual standards summit, 13 October 2011  Back

322   Q642; the primary purpose identified by Mr Gibb was certification of achievement Back

323   Q642 and Q643 Back

324   Warwick Mansell, Education By Numbers, Politico's, 2011, p178 Back

325   Q422 Back

326   Testing and Assessment, Third Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 169-I, paragraphs 185 and 186 Back

327   Q412  Back

328   Ev w128 Back

329   Q581 Back

330   Q437 Warwick Mansell  Back

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Prepared 3 July 2012