Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by GL Assessment

1. About GL Assessment

1.1 GL Assessment is a leading independent provider of educational assessments, including literacy and numeracy assessments, SEN diagnostic tools, and attitudinal and stakeholder surveys. Assessments include the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) attitudinal survey and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT). In-depth interpretation services help to identify appropriate intervention strategies.

1.2 Distinct from awarding board materials, independent providers’ assessments are non-mandatory and purchased using a school’s discretionary resource budget rather than its formal examinations budget. The company has relationships with over 85% of UK primary and secondary schools and to date has delivered over three million nationally standardised online tests.

2. One or Many Awarding Bodies

2.1 Despite the initial steps taken by the current Government to broaden performance tables, the tendency remains to read tables in a narrow and decontextualised manner. This trend is exacerbated by the annual expectation of improved exam grades and coalesces with the commercial pressures felt by multiple awarding bodies.

2.2 The commercial attractiveness of students retaking modules is likely to have distorted standards over time. There is also potential for the commercial activities of awarding bodies, in particular through the publications supporting their examinations, to contribute to a narrowing of the curriculum. This seems to be at odds with the Government’s intention to slim the National Curriculum so that schools have greater freedom in its design and delivery, and the Government needs to consider how these two approaches will react with one another.

2.3 Having a single national awarding body may overcome a number of these weaknesses, and would also provide a consistency and comparability in standards. Arguably, given that earlier Key Stages are centrally administered, the necessity of changing this approach at Key Stage 4 and beyond should be questioned. However, the success of a single body is neither inevitable given the current set of incentives nor an approach without its own flaws. In particular, a single body could foreseeably become complacent in its dominance, leading to quality and content stagnating.

2.4 It may be that a hybrid approach should be considered. The Committee’s terms of reference suggest a body franchised to offer qualifications in a particular subject field. Another option could be that awarding bodies are regionalised, with bodies bidding for a particular area for a period of five years or so. This would go some way to creating educational consistency as well as encouraging the generation of best practice through positive competition in service delivery and qualification standards.

3. Further Influences on the Effectiveness of the Awarding Bodies System

3.1 The Committee’s inquiry focuses on the extent to which current system of awarding bodies delivers the best outcomes. However, to be effective, any changes must take into account the influences on that system besides the number and work of awarding bodies. Doing so includes, for example, heeding the potentially distorting impact of narrow performance tables.

3.2 Any changes to academic and vocational qualifications should be carried out in tandem. The framework outlined in the Wolf Review will have a positive effect on qualification standards, not least because it will help to ensure 14- to 19-year-olds have appropriate and worthwhile options available to them. The greatest benefit would come from a system designed to: enable pupils to pursue the best route for them, raise expectations, and hold teachers accountable for whether they get the best out of their pupils rather than judge them on getting pupils through examinations.

3.3 Longitudinal analysis and independent checks should also be used to establish the quality of examination papers and accuracy of grades. Key Stage results are often used predictively to look at a pupil’s likely GCSE grades, but this approach could be made more effective by incorporating triangulation into everyday teaching practice. This would help students fulfil their potential and evaluate the value a school is adding, as well as acting as a quality reference point.

3.4 Triangulation—that is, using a jigsaw of independent and teacher assessments to develop a rounded view of the pupil’s strengths and weaknesses—is an important bridge between a teacher’s curricular freedom and protecting the quality of national qualifications. Triangulation can give teachers independent evidence of their pupils’ abilities and help them to tailor their approach accordingly. In particular, with a less prescriptive curriculum, such independent assessment will be necessary for teachers to benchmark their pupils, with the implication that anomalies between such benchmarks and exam grades can be analysed and the appropriate changes made. Moreover, triangulation will give teachers greater confidence in pupil progress and depth of learning, as well as alleviating the pressure to respond only to a particular awarding body.

4. Conclusion

4.1 GL Assessment believes a hybrid approach, whereby a single examination body offers qualifications in particular regions or subjects but competes with others to establish best practice, is likely to have the most positive impact on educational outcomes. However, beyond the question of whether there are one or many awarding bodies, the further influences on the effectiveness of any awarding body system need to be addressed if the best and fairest educational outcomes are to be delivered. These include: the impact of performance tables, the range of appropriate options available to students, and the use of independent checks over time on student progress.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012