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".
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,
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.
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".
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.
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".
 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
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".
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.
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".
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".
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".
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
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
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".
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.
The Schools Minister told us that "the secondary purposebut
an important purpose[of GCSEs and A levels] is as an accountability
measure for the schools where those qualifications are taken".
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
190. Warwick Mansell has argued that "the exams
system cannot perform the function that politicians demand of
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. 
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.
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".
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".
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".
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".
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
Ev w112 Back
Ev 155, paragraph 7 Back
Warwick Mansell, Education by Numbers, Politico's, 2007, p181 Back
Ev w9, paragraph 3 Back
Early Entry to GCSE examinations, DfE, 2011 Back
Early and Multiple Entry to GCSE Mathematics, ACME, 2011 Back
Letter from Michael Gove to Sir Michael Wilshaw, 5 March 2012
Early and Multiple Entry to GCSE Mathematics, ACME, 2011 Back
Ev 170 Back
Ev w84 Back
The Sir Richard Sykes review, March 2010 Back
Michael Gove speech to Ofqual standards summit, 13 October 2011
Q642; the primary purpose identified by Mr Gibb was certification
of achievement Back
Q642 and Q643 Back
Warwick Mansell, Education By Numbers, Politico's, 2011, p178 Back
Testing and Assessment, Third Report from the Children,
Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 169-I, paragraphs
185 and 186 Back
Ev w128 Back
Q437 Warwick Mansell Back