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

Part V: Conclusion and recommendations

11  Conclusion

193. From our detailed study of the examination system in England, we have come to the conclusion that competition between the exam boards for market share, combined with the influence of the accountability system, leads to significant downward pressure on standards. Ofqual is taking action to address competition on grading standards and grade inflation. But current incentives in the system encourage the exam boards to compete for schools' business by having the most "accessible" syllabus. Schools buy into the syllabus that will help them achieve the best results. This perpetuates a "race to the bottom" on content. It is essential that the Government takes action to change these damaging incentives.

194. There are several ways of addressing this situation, all of which we have examined carefully. A single exam board is the obvious option, but this has significant downsides. Franchising subjects to exam boards is another alternative, but this too has significant downsides. We therefore support piloting a change to national syllabuses, which would remove the incentive for exam boards to compete on content and the associated downward pressure on standards, while retaining the benefits of competition on quality of service and the incentive to innovate. We stress that this is not an argument against multiple syllabuses in a subject: there could be more than one national syllabus in a subject, to provide choice to schools.

195. National syllabuses, coupled with a strengthened Ofqual and the introduction of national subject committees, should help to maximise the benefits of multiple exam boards while minimising the downsides and avoiding the cost, risk and disruption involved in major structural reform. However, as with all options for reform of exam administration, they can have only limited impact while the school accountability system continues to drive behaviour in the classroom. Only when issues with the accountability system, such as the dominance of the C/D borderline, are directly addressed, can we hope to see an end to "teaching to the test" and appropriate attention given to the progress of every child. We therefore call upon the Government to re-examine the school accountability system as a matter of utmost urgency.

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Prepared 3 July 2012