Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Roger Porkess

The Respondent

1. This is an individual response and so I will start by saying something about my background. I was a classroom mathematics teacher for about 25 years and then moved into curriculum development, running Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) for 20 years. I retired from being MEI’s Chief Executive in 2010 but am still an active member of the mathematics subject community and involved with several mathematics organisations. However, this is a purely personal submission.

2. During my time at MEI, I was responsible for the development and maintenance of their A Level syllabus, and for support materials including textbooks. The MEI syllabus is examined by OCR; it is a major national syllabus. As a result I have a depth and breadth of experience that I believe to be relevant to this enquiry. I have been involved in the world of examining for over 30 years and continue to be involved in all its processes: marking, setting, revising and awarding. This extends to an understanding of how an awarding body operates.

3. I have also been the author, co-author or editor of approaching 100 textbooks, including five major series, and consequently have an intimate knowledge of that aspect of publishing.


4. We live in a time when socio-economic structures are undergoing rapid change. The need for manual labour has all but disappeared and the need for professional, scientific, technological and management skills has risen sharply and is continuing to do so. These changes have profound implications for our education system; we need to take everybody to a higher level than we did in the past.

5. This presents very considerable challenges in designing and assessing an appropriate overall curriculum. It will take us into new territory, providing many students with a level of education with which, in the past, they were often deemed incapable of engaging. Frequently we do not know what approaches will be most successful. For these reasons curriculum development is essential, and with it the space to try out different approaches. It is likely that some of the most successful will originate with classroom teachers finding what works best for the students in their classes.

6. Moving to a single examination board would remove the routes through which such curriculum development naturally occurs. Instead it would fossilise the status quo, with perhaps an occasional major change. Ordinary teachers would be excluded from the process. Having multiple awarding bodies increases the scope for development, particularly if, as is currently often the case, they offer more than one specification for a particular qualification.

7. Curriculum development is also required to keep syllabuses up-to-date with the ways the various subjects are used. The impact of modern technology means that what is seen as important in mathematics, science and technology is continually changing; in mathematics, for example, the presence of computers mean that numerical methods are routinely applied to problems that were previously intractable, and so the relative importance of numerical and exact methods is changing. Many subjects, including the social sciences, are now able to embrace statistics, using suitable software, and are doing so; this is changing their academic nature. School and college syllabuses need to keep abreast of these changes if they are to turn out students with the skills they will need in employment and in higher education.

8. Curriculum development is thus not some optional extra. It is key to the future success of this (and every other) country. It would be a national tragedy if we were to close down the very structures that, properly used, will allow this country to be a world leader.

9. It would be facile to claim that the present system works perfectly but the reasons for any problems need to be properly understood. In my view, the major causes are the regulatory system and the use of qualifications as accountability measures in performance tables. Without a proper analysis, we are in danger of treating the symptoms and not the disease.

The Number of Examination Boards

10. In the past there were many more examination boards and the qualifications they offered, and the associated syllabuses, were respected around the world. This high esteem was a result not just of their integrity, but also on the fact that some of them were among the most up-to-date in the world. So, for example, in the 1970s SMP Mathematics provided advice to countries as diverse as China, Uganda and the United States.

11. At that time, many universities were formally involved in school examinations. They had some influence on the curriculum development that went into the highest quality syllabuses but much of the drive and vision for them came from curriculum development bodies, charitable foundations and groups of teachers. All the parties involved (examination boards, universities, teachers and external sources) worked together.

12. Many changes have occurred since then: a massive increase in the amount of regulation, and its intrusiveness; a reduction in the number of examination boards; the almost complete withdrawal of universities from school examinations (only Cambridge now remains); (in my view) a reduction in the quality of many, but not all, syllabuses and an associated loss of richness of students’ experience.

13. It is hard to overstate the damage done by regulators, over many years. The operation of the present incumbent, Ofqual, is shrouded in secrecy. Many relevant meetings are subject to non-disclosure agreements so that those in a position to comment on the problems they are creating are not in a position to do so.

14. With the reduced number of examination boards, and the increases level of regulation, the opportunities for curriculum development are much reduced but do still exist. This has always been the basis for our best syllabuses and qualifications.

15. If the number of examination boards was to be reduced to one, I am in no doubt that it would signal the end of curriculum development. That would be a triumph of mediocrity. As a country we need to play to our strengths and curriculum development is one of them.

16. The use of national qualifications as accountability measures in performance tables creates many of the problems that are blamed on the examination boards. Reducing the number of examination boards would not solve these problems; they would resurface in other forms because the conflict of interests between schools and their students inherent in the dual use of qualifications would remain.

17. Present accountability measures are based on an assumption of comparability between different subjects, within subjects and over time. However, they fail to ensure comparability. It is my view that no external regulator could achieve comparability and so I recommend the model suggested on page 98 of A world-class mathematics education for all our young people (The Vorderman report).

The Quality of Examination Papers

18. Having been involved in the production of examination papers for some 25 years, I have no hesitation in saying that over this time there has been a marked and steady increase in the care and attention to detail that is devoted to all the processes involved.

19. There have always been mistakes in papers. The difference now is that they are reported in the media. Such an error is usually the result of a late change to a question.

20. The very considerable care that is devoted to examination papers cannot address the limitations of that form of assessment. In my own subject of mathematics a very high level of reliability is achieved, but at the expense of validity. Important aspects of the subject, written into syllabuses (often as learning outcomes), do not get tested and consequently are usually not taught.

21. Despite the professionalism that goes into setting most examination papers, it is nonetheless the case that some of them are not of the highest standard, with questions that are dull and inconsequential. There do not seem to be adequate mechanisms in place to prevent such papers continuing to be set, and so they can give the whole examination system a bad name.

22. Strict rules governing the awarding of grades are imposed by Ofqual. While I have every confidence in the sincerity of those examination board officials and senior examiners who carry out awards, I believe they are constrained by flawed procedures.

23. In the last few years there have been cases of lapses of security that should have resulted in papers being withdrawn. The fact that this did not happen raises serious questions about the role of the regulatory authorities at those times.


24. In recent years it has become common practice for examination boards to commission textbooks and to endorse them with their logos. In many cases these are not particularly good books but the endorsement ensures that they are bought in preference to other books that may be much better.

25. It has now become common practice for examination boards to enlist their senior examiners as authors for such books and for their positions to be used in marketing the books. The skills of setting examination questions and writing textbooks are completely different and so this is not the best way of ensuring quality books.

26. Potential textbook authors need to be encouraged and nurtured so that the best emerge as the writers of excellent books in the future. However, such talent is being squeezed out by the practice of systematically using examiners instead.

27. As a nation we place great trust in our examination boards and those who work for them. However, the activities with respect to textbooks can only be seen as an abuse of their privileged position.

28. Consequently examination boards should be disallowed from endorsing textbooks in any way, including allowing their logos to be used on them.

29. However, a clear distinction needs to be made between textbooks endorsed by the examination boards and those provided by such bodies (for example subject associations, charitable foundations and curriculum development bodies) who are also providing external syllabuses that are being examined by one of the boards. These have always been among the best available textbooks; they are written to give teachers and students access to the philosophy and pedagogy underlying the syllabuses and their origins are quite separate from the assessment. In mathematics, SMP and MEI have both produced series of high quality books. Such books should be allowed to carry the names and logos of the independent organisations that are responsible for them.

30. When examiners are involved in textbook authorship, the publishers should be disallowed from making any reference to their role as examiners. Some examiners happen also to be good authors and there is nothing wrong in their doing both, providing their dual role is not used for marketing purposes. We need to make use of the best available authors, whether or not they happen to be examiners.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012