Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM)

The arguments in favour of 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

1. The argument for a range of awarding organisations has always been that it offers choice and will help to maintain standards. In reality, market forces encourage competition and a race to the bottom—“what can we get away with” (Science and Learning expert group). Schools may have concerns about the extent to which the exams they enter students for reflect the statutory curriculum, but the drive for results at any cost means they opt for the exams that they perceive to be “easier”. According to Ofsted, “teaching to the test” in mathematics is both prevalent and increasing. Innovation is stifled as awarding organisations that attempt a more novel approach are likely to lose market share.

2. In high stakes subjects like GCSE mathematics and English a national system of exam development would be preferable. This doesn’t necessarily mean a national body for qualifications. Awarding organisations could continue to administer the nationally developed exam and provide support for centres, but by having a single exam issues around parity of esteem, maintenance of standards and quality of assessment design would be addressed.

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

3. There are limited numbers of expert examiners. The development of public examinations is a “cottage industry”. Unitisation/modularity means that exams may have to be developed two or more times a year, so expertise is spread very thinly. The process for scrutinising papers is reasonably rigorous but if assessors fail to work through exams thoroughly then errors will be missed.

4. In the development of National Curriculum tests, items are subject to review by curriculum and education experts and practising teachers, they are pre-tested with hundreds of children and then carefully compiled into papers that ensure a balanced assessment of the curriculum. Whilst this development process is expensive it means that the papers are accurate and the marking scheme robust. It would be worth considering the introduction of such a system for GCSE mathematics and English, given their high status.

5. Multiple awarding organisations competing for market share militate against ensuring consistency across specifications, across awarding organisations and across subjects. Examiner expertise is one of the key ways in which standards are maintained over time, working within a stringent regulatory framework. However the number of expert examiners is limited and the role of statistics in awarding, can lead to potential conflicts. Should the grade profile for each subject be the same year on year? Should the proportion of grade C and above in GCSE mathematics be much lower than the proportion for GCSE English? After all, the results for KS2 English and mathematics are similar.

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

6. In 2008-09 schools spent almost £300 million on exam entry fees. This is a huge amount of public money to the awarding organisations. According to Ofqual, the amount spent has increased considerably over the last six years with increasing numbers of unit/module resits, and repeated and multiple entries as schools strive to improve their performance in government accountability measures.

7. Some awarding organisations make special offers on fees to centres that choose to enter candidates for more than one exam (for example GCSE and functional skills). Other awarding organisations produce textbooks written by their examiners which are made available to centres that adopt their specifications at reduced rates. These textbooks better reflect the awarding organisation’s examinations than the statutory National Curriculum. This commoditisation of high stakes assessment reduces students to statistics for government performance measures. The development of genuine understanding and positive dispositions towards subjects in particular and learning in general, is seriously undermined by high stakes performativity.

8. The link between awarding organisations’ qualifications and textbooks needs to be broken as soon as possible. If the exams were produced centrally then awarding organisations could produce textbooks as part of their support package for centres. However, these text books would need to address the entire programme of study rather than providing preparation for specific exams.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012