Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by National Union of Teachers


1. The National Union of Teachers welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Education Committee Inquiry into the Administration of Examinations for 15–19 Year Olds in England.

The arguments for and against having a range of awarding bodies for academic and applied qualifications (including A levels, GCSEs, Diplomas, BTECs and OCR Nationals) and the merits of alternative arrangements, such as having one national body, or examination boards franchised to offer qualifications in particular subjects or fields.

2. The NUT believes that schools and colleges should have a choice of awarding body, in order to best meet the particular needs of their students.

3. Although it could be argued that having fewer awarding bodies could reduce administration and workload, it is important that schools when selecting an awarding body be given the choice of selection based on the quality of the specifications offered. Having only one awarding body will reduce this choice to the detriment of teaching and learning in a school.

4. Having more than one awarding body also limits the risk of a single system’s failure affecting all candidates. Only this summer, there were a number of errors in a small number of GCSE, AS and A level question papers. This problem would have been exacerbated further under the auspices of one awarding body.

How to ensure accuracy in setting papers, marking scripts and awarding grades

5. The NUT believes that the function of the examination process is not primarily to rank students so that employers and universities have some sense of their abilities. Exam specifications should, in the first instance, be interesting and qualifications taken should be relevant to young people’s lives and support them in their development as lifelong learners.

6. Examinations should not be developed so that they act as obstacles or barriers to learning. For example, making examinations more “difficult” will not necessarily contribute to developing independent learning or critical thinking.

7. Students should, of course, be challenged when taking examinations, but making examinations more “difficult” in the hope that this will improve educational standards is short-sighted and will not produce qualifications that are fit for purpose for a variety of learners.

8. The NUT believes that, because of accountability measures such as the pressure of league tables within which examination results are used to compare schools against other schools and local authorities against other local authorities, there is too much emphasis on meeting examination targets and performing well in league tables. This pressure makes the accuracy of the award process even more crucial, as it affects not only individual students but also, potentially, entire institutions.

9. The quality of examination marking must be monitored closely and errors addressed swiftly. It is important that public confidence in the examination system is maintained, especially for students and their families. Assurances must be given to candidates that errors in examinations will be dealt with carefully and sensitively and that it will be made known that procedures are in place to ensure candidates are not unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged in circumstances where errors do occur in examination papers.

10. The awarding of grades can only be an approximate indication of student achievement. Any examination success relies not just on the quality of the specification or the quality of teaching and learning, but also on factors beyond anyone’s control, such as how one candidate can perform differently on different days and the use of judgements by those marking public examinations.

11. The NUT believes, therefore, that grade comparisons will always be approximate and that examination results should be treated as only one piece of evidence when ascertaining student achievement or how students might achieve in the future. The examinations process cannot be based on an “exact science” approach.

12. The NUT believes that Ofqual, as the Qualifications Regulator, must rule on specific examination standards to counter public perceptions on the “dumbing down” of examinations. This ruling must of course appear in the public domain.

13. Errors that occur in the examination process must be dealt with by the Qualifications Regulator effectively and it must be seen that checks are carried out to ascertain what has gone wrong and to assure all parties concerned that no further errors will occur.

14. It is right that Ofqual maintains a consistent level of attainment between regulated qualifications. It is crucial that, over time, examination standards remain consistent, particularly with the introduction of new types of qualifications.

15. It is also right that Ofqual checks thoroughly that examiners and assessors are appropriately trained to apply marking schemes correctly. This will help address the serious concerns of teachers in regard to the mismatching of tests and examinations. Examiners and assessors who mark examination papers must be properly trained and their approaches standardised.

16. When things go wrong in the testing and examination system, there needs to be a quick and clear response by the Qualifications Regulator to investigate what has happened in order that public confidence in the examination system is not undermined.

The commercial activities of awarding bodies, including examination fees and text books, and their impact on schools and pupils

17. England’s examination system is the most expensive and elaborate in the world. The cost of testing pupils in any school year can be up to £610 million a year. The examination bill includes £240 million for staff time in administering examinations in schools. School budgets are likely to be squeezed after 2011, with exam fees amounting to a huge proportion of a school’s overheads, Ofqual’s power to cap fees in principle is to be welcomed, but this must be balanced against the need for innovation within the awarding process.

18. Teachers are increasingly concerned about the extent to which school budgets are being taken up by the cost of qualifications. A report from Ofqual, as the Qualifications Regulator, showed that examination fees for a number of widely used examinations had increased above inflation over a number of years.

19. The NUT believes that best value for money should be obtained for schools and colleges in the delivery and development of qualifications. As Ofqual reviews examination fees so that an efficient market operates, it is important that, in this area, robust analysis and research is undertaken by the regulator.

20. With the introduction of new qualifications which add to the fragmentation of a coherent 14–19 examination system, schools and colleges will face difficult decisions in terms of having the resources in place to match the right qualification to the individual learner. The NUT believes that with the introduction of new qualifications, school funding should not be directed away from teaching and learning to pay for the implementation of these new qualifications.

21. Across the country, most awarding bodies run a variety of face-to-face courses associated with the implementation of new qualifications. This service contributes effectively to the professional development of teachers in their own particular subject area and to the teaching and learning in their institutions.

22. If school funding budgets are reduced by Government, then schools will be faced with making difficult decisions regarding choice of syllabuses or individual student entries on the grounds of cost alone.

23. It is important that awarding bodies provide CPD opportunities, such as the setting up of standardisation meetings, so that teachers can compare examination scripts and agree what a particular grade should be awarded. This supports teachers in improving the quality of their teaching and is also beneficial to students as well.

24. With the constant changes to specifications and assessment methods, schools expect awarding bodies to provide the materials necessary to keep them fully informed. The NUT believes that any changes to the examination system that imposes a greater burden on awarding bodies should not be at the expense of the support that schools deserve and expect from examination bodies.

25. The NUT believes that with regard to the commercial activities of awarding bodies, there must be a balance between pursuing commercial interests, such as the promotion of text books or examination software, and developing qualifications to the highest standard possible. The support and service to examination centres must not be threatened by the commercial market-led activities of awarding bodies.

26. The Institute of Mathematics has expressed its concern that there is a tendency for examination textbooks that are endorsed by awarding bodies to be too “exam focused” which encourages “teaching to the test”. Endorsement of such textbooks by awarding bodies is acting as a restraint rather than an aid to teaching and learning. The NUT recommends therefore that Ofqual restricts awarding bodies from gaining any commercial advantage from the sale of textbooks as a condition for accreditation. The NUT believes that there is a conflict of interest here that needs to be resolved. If chief examiners from individual Awarding Bodies promote their own examination textbooks, chief examiners should not exploit their relationship with Awarding Bodies for commercial purposes.

27. The NUT believes that awarding bodies should continue to provide guidance and materials when new specifications are introduced. Such support clearly exemplifies the coverage and depth needed for the introduction of these qualifications.

28. The relationship between awarding bodies and teachers should not be based on a business model where the syllabus becomes a “specification”, the teacher becomes a “customer” and the examination becomes “a market”. Such a commercial approach can undermine a relationship between an awarding body and teachers, based on trust and support, when new qualifications are introduced. It is important that teachers, lecturers and examination officers in centres share with awarding organisations the responsibility of ensuring that examinations are undertaken fairly and efficiently.

29. The NUT believes that awarding bodies must, in the first instance, ensure that qualifications are provided efficiently and that any sums payable to an awarding body in respect of an examination and its authentication must represent value for money.


30. The NUT believes that examinations have been inappropriately used for school accountability purposes and for the performance management of teachers. These same assessments, however, are also used to inform teachers’ performance related pay, teachers’ performance management, school and college performance tables and setting school and national targets. Such use of assessment skews the assessment system.

31. Awarding bodies must continue to monitor and maintain examination standards. They have a duty to find the appropriate balance between statistical evidence and professional judgement to ensure standards are maintained across different syllabuses and qualifications.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012