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

Conclusions and recommendations

Fundamental reform of the exam system

1.  Overall, we conclude that the costs, heightened risk and disruption likely to be generated by moving to a single board outweigh the potential benefits. Furthermore, evidence suggests that some key issues identified with the current system, such as comparability of standards over time and across subjects and the role of examiners in training and textbooks, would remain. New problems, such as a lack of incentive to innovate, the risk of higher fees and a reduced quality of service to schools, may be generated. There may also be the potential for increased political interference, as well as the issue of whether to limit schools' choice of exams to those offered by the single board. (Paragraph 55)

2.  If the system of multiple exam boards is retained, substantial improvements are needed in order to increase confidence in the system and maintain its credibility. We have serious concerns about the incentives in the current system for exam boards to compete on standards, in particular on content standards. We think that significant changes are needed to alter these incentives. (Paragraph 60)

The way forward

Sylabus content

3.  We believe that the current system incentivises downward competition on content standards and we recommend that the Government act immediately to change these incentives. We consider that national syllabuses would offer a way of addressing downward competition on content and provide reassurance on standards, without the risks, lost benefits and disruption involved in moving to a single board. The Government should begin by piloting a national syllabus in one large entry subject as part of the forthcoming A level reforms. Ofqual should review the effectiveness of the pilot, with a view to extending the approach across GCSE and A levels if appropriate. We believe that national syllabuses, coupled with a stronger Ofqual and greater involvement of subject communities in GCSEs and A levels, should help to maximise the benefits of having multiple competing exam boards while minimising the shortcomings. (Paragraph 81)

4.  While we can see that the second option we outline—franchising of subjects to exam boards—offers a way to address downward competition on content, we have concerns about the long-term impact and suggest that there may be serious downsides to such a change that need to be better understood before it can be recommended. (Paragraph 82)

Grading standards and grade inflation

5.  Ofqual should continue to investigate grading issues as part of its programme of standards reviews and to engage publicly with debate on exam standards. Ofqual needs to be able to account for what AQA's Andrew Hall described as the "creep in grading standards", particularly in the commercially significant large entry subjects at GCSE, which are key to schools' performance in league tables and also in large entry A level subjects, commonly used for university entrance. (Paragraph 91)

6.  We welcome Ofqual's recent action to regulate grading standards and recommend that it continue with this approach for A level and, from summer 2012, for GCSE. The effect of this action is twofold: first it helps to control grade inflation and second it provides reassurance that the exam boards are not competing on grading standards. We recognise that the effect will take time to filter through the system and to help increase public confidence. (Paragraph 95)

The role of Ofqual

Ofqual's regulation of standards

7.  We recommend that Ofqual seek to build its assessment expertise and finds the resources to do so. We further recommend that Ofqual appoint an assessment expert to its board as soon as possible. (Paragraph 102)

Ofqual's international standards objective

8.  We are concerned that the amendment to Ofqual's qualification standards objective could over a period of time pull it simultaneously in different directions and recommend that the Government give a clear indication to Ofqual about which should be the priority: the comparability of standards over time in England or benchmarking against the standards of qualifications in other countries. (Paragraph 104)

Government policy changes

9.  We recommend that the Government make its priorities clear to Ofqual, whether these are the maintenance of standards over time or making exams tougher, and that both the Government and Ofqual be open about the consequences of these policies for young people. (Paragraph 105)

10.  If A levels are going to become more varied in structure, Ofqual needs to ensure that its collection of evidence and monitoring of standards are sufficiently robust to provide convincing reassurance that content standards are being maintained. (Paragraph 106)

GCSE changes and devolution

11.  We recommend that Ofqual review its arrangements for ensuring comparability of standards between England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that it continue to monitor standards in GCSE and A level examinations offered by WJEC and CCEA, as well as the English providers as part of its ongoing regulation of standards. We also believe that a debate is needed on the importance of standards comparability between the home nations, with a Ministerial conference to decide whether and what action is necessary. (Paragraph 107)


12.  We recommend that individual accreditation of all new syllabuses, including our recommended national syllabuses, remain a part of Ofqual's continuing regulation of GCSEs and A-levels and, indeed, of any qualifications that are deemed equivalent to GCSEs and A-levels. With this in mind, Ofqual needs to demonstrate that its accreditation procedures are rigorous and transparent, and that it draws on appropriate respected subject and assessment expertise when reviewing draft syllabuses and their associated materials. We recommend that Ofqual review and strengthen its regulation of content standards, including accreditation procedures, seeking and acting upon advice from its standards advisory group as appropriate. (Paragraph 110)

Ofqual and subject expertise

13.  While we accept Ofqual's rationale for its lack of in-house subject expertise, criticisms from the subject communities lead us to conclude that Ofqual needs to be more transparent about its consultation with and use of external subject experts. (Paragraph 112)

National subject committees

14.  We recommend that Ofqual convene national subject committees in large entry GCSE and A level subjects, drawing their membership from learned societies, subject associations, higher education and employers. Such committees should include in their remit syllabus development and accreditation, as well as on-going monitoring of question papers and mark schemes, and oversight of comparable qualifications offered in the devolved nations. (Paragraph 115)

Ofqual and the Joint Council for Qualifications

15.  Ofqual should instigate discussions with the JCQ to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas where there is a joint interest and publish information about this to schools and colleges as appropriate. (Paragraph 117)


16.  It is clear from the issues raised with us that further improvements are needed if Ofqual is to be a stronger, more challenging and more effective regulator. As AQA's Andrew Hall put it "Ofqual is, in fairness, on a journey". We believe that there is a strong argument in favour of allowing time for a strengthened Ofqual to take effect, as the changes it is making will take time to settle and bear fruit. But Ofqual must demonstrate that it is collecting the right sort of qualitative and quantitative evidence and using robust methodology to regulate effectively. Details of the evidence used by Ofqual in the regulation of standards, and any specific findings and regulatory action on standards, should be set out clearly in annexes to Ofqual's annual report to Parliament. Ofqual must continue to show that it is prepared to take vigorous action when needed, in order to help increase public confidence in the exam system. (Paragraph 119)

Forthcoming A level reform

17.  We recommend that the Government and Ofqual seek to increase the involvement of learned bodies as well as universities in the content of A levels, while allowing exam boards to retain control of question papers and examination design to ensure best assessment practice. The Government and Ofqual must also ensure that the whole of the university sector is consulted on the proposed A level reforms, as well as schools, colleges, learned bodies and employers. (Paragraph 128)

18.  We recommend that Ofqual involve national subject committees in the development of criteria for and accreditation of new A levels. (Paragraph 130)

Market share and price

Changes in market share

19.  We are pleased that Ofqual has recognised the need for closer monitoring of changes in market share between exam boards and recommend that it prioritise this work, in order to establish the reasons for changes at individual qualification level and whether there is any link to standards. (Paragraph 135)

Examination fees

20.  The area of pricing is complex and Ofqual studies so far in this area have been limited. This hinders Ofqual from making a robust public critique of the high costs to schools. We agree with the Government that reassurance is needed that fees are set at an appropriate level. Ofqual also needs to demonstrate that overall the charges made to the public purse by the exam system are fair and appropriate. We also stress that any changes to the system, in particular a move to franchising, will need close attention to pricing by Ofqual. (Paragraph 141)

Support: training and textbooks


21.   We welcome Ofqual's decision to end exam board training on specific qualifications. Ofqual needs to monitor the impact of its decision and the activities and materials produced by exam boards to replace their seminars. We also recommend that Ofqual monitor other training offered by exam boards, such as marketing events to promote new syllabuses, and more general training, for example on improving results, taking further action if needed. Ofqual must ensure that a school's loyalty to a particular exam board cannot be rewarded with access to information not available to others. (Paragraph 149)


22.  We are concerned that there is a potential conflict of interest for examiners involved in question paper setting also writing textbooks that are linked closely to the same syllabus. We welcome indications that exam boards may place tighter restrictions on the role of examiners in textbook authorship. We recommend that Ofqual make clear the expected future role of examiners in textbook authorship, in order to ensure a consistent industry-wide approach. (Paragraph 154)

23.  We recommend that Ofqual consider restricting exclusive endorsement arrangements between exam boards and publishers in future. (Paragraph 156)

24.  Ofqual needs to be satisfied that Pearson has sufficient firewalls in place to ensure that its publishing and examining activities are separate, including syllabus development, and to say so publicly. (Paragraph 157)

25.  We have serious misgivings about the language used to market some endorsed textbooks and would urge exam boards and publishers to move away from marketing textbooks in this way. (Paragraph 158)

26.  We welcome Pearson's statement that it is moving away from a shared design between Edexcel syllabus materials and Pearson textbooks, as we agree that this can unhelpfully overstate the link between the two. Pearson should give even-handed treatment to Edexcel Own and endorsed resources from other publishers on the Edexcel website. (Paragraph 159)

27.  In order to strengthen the links between textbooks and the curriculum, as well as assessment, we recommend that in future A level textbooks be endorsed by the universities involved in developing a particular syllabus rather than by the exam board. At GCSE much will depend on the outcomes of the National Curriculum review and the ensuing reforms to GCSE, but a possible way forward might involve learned bodies endorsing textbooks instead of exam boards. (Paragraph 167)

Ofqual's regulation of exam board support

28.   We agree with Ofqual that the market has not been regulated tightly enough with regard to training and textbooks and we believe that this has allowed conflicts of interest to arise. Ofqual's healthy markets work is welcome, if overdue, as it is clear that many of the issues raised with us have gone unchecked for some time. We welcome Ofqual's recent report on exam board seminars and look forward to its publication of an action plan relating to textbooks and study aids in September 2012. Proper regulatory control and scrutiny of these issues will help to increase public confidence in the exam system. (Paragraph 169)

29.  We recommend that Ofqual, as part of its healthy markets work, take a clear view on the broader question about how much exam boards should be involved in helping to improve results as well as in the impartial assessment of attainment. (Paragraph 170)

Service: question papers and marking

Question paper errors in summer 2011

30.  We welcome the findings of Ofqual's investigation into the errors in summer 2011. It is vital that Ofqual acts swiftly and robustly (including, where appropriate, using its power to fine) in the event of errors in order to protect the integrity of the system and the interests of young people. (Paragraph 172)

31.  Ofqual must investigate allegations of improper conduct by exam boards thoroughly, taking vigorous action if necessary, to ensure that candidates are awarded the grades they deserve and to protect the integrity of the exam system. (Paragraph 177)

Reliability of marking

32.  We welcome Ofqual's work to agree a common approach across exam boards to deal with concerns about marking and to ensure students are treated fairly across the system. (Paragraph 178)

Online standardisation

33.  We accept that there is some research evidence to show that online standardisation is as effective as (but, if our reading of the research is correct, not necessarily more effective than) face-to-face standardisation. We can also see that it brings other benefits, such as reduced costs, an accelerated marking process and real-time monitoring of marking. We believe, however, that exam boards should continue to monitor the effectiveness of online standardisation and should consider offering opportunities for face-to-face discussion between examiners. (Paragraph 181)

Exams and school accountability

The burden of assessment

34.  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. (Paragraph 185)

Early and multiple entries to GCSE examinations

35.  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 (Paragraph 188)

Wider changes

36.  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. (Paragraph 192)

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Prepared 3 July 2012