Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Examination Officers’ Association (EOA)

The inquiry will consider the benefits and drawbacks of having several awarding bodies for qualifications taken by 15-19 year olds and the extent to which the current system delivers the best and fairest educational outcomes for young people.

Background on the Examination Officers’ Association (EOA) and its Community

The EOA represents over 2,000 exam centres in the UK and has been undertaking independent research on exam delivery and awarding body customer service since 2000–01. Exam office staff (support staff), provide an essential link between the internal activities of teaching and learning in centres and the external assessment process associated with public examinations. Exam Office Staff, therefore, provides the interface between centre activity and awarding body services.

The following quote below demonstrates the passion, commitment and informed professional perspective the EOA community have on delivering a more sustainable and cost effective exam system.

“Our exams system is held in high esteem and therefore its reputation is second to none in the world. If we are to maintain this reputation and the value of British qualifications, then we must not take any short cuts in the assessment process. As stated before, qualified and professional exams officers are an essential part of the current assessment process.”

Mohammad Mahboob (Exams Officer, Birmingham)

Request to Attend the Education Select Committee Meeting Focusing on this Inquiry

The EOA as the professional body for the exam officer community, represents the people responsible for the front line delivery of exams and would welcome the opportunity to give oral evidence to the committee: to explain the waste and inefficiency inherent in the current system and how this detracts from good educational outcomes; and the risks that the system currently faces at the front line that must be addressed if we are not to see further problems of the scale of last summer’s errors or worse. The exams system is currently under extreme pressure and improvements are critical.

Summary of Key Points that nNeeded to be Addressed to Reduce the Risk in Exam Delivery in Centres:

The EOA acknowledges the need for diversity and competition if they encourage real improvements in customer services to centres, especially at delivery level (eg. correct exam papers & stationery).

Multiple systems and practices by awarding bodies in the area of exam delivery result in unnecessary expense and workload for centres and are going to continue to disenfranchise the exam office workforce that are already under extreme pressure so adding a greater risk to the safe delivery of exams in their centres.

The lack of good communication and more appropriate CPD training on various educational and exam developments needs to be addressed if awarding bodies and government want to help reduce waste and encourage good practice in our exam centres. A poorly trained and over pressurised workforce will not respond appropriately, even if better communications and systems were implemented.

Statement 1: Arguments in favour of and against having a range of awarding bodies, and the merits of having one national body or examination boards franchised to offer qualifications in particular subjects or fields

1.1Our community think that the notion of one national body for all qualifications is unworkable.

1.2The majority of the exam office community feel that a change to a single national body would not reflect the national, regional and local diversity which different awarding bodies provide over a broad range of qualifications.

1.2.1Diversity in the examination environment is welcomed by all the education community, including the Exams Office Staff but if one is to persist with the existing multiple awarding body model the way in which these numerous awarding bodies operate, must change. Some of the issues outlined below are endemic within the education/exam culture and need to be addressed otherwise the consequences for the exam office community and the exam service they support will be at best, damaging - at worst, result in total meltdown.

1.2.2Currently, different awarding bodies are increasingly interpreting the rules, regulations and procedures creating an imbalance in service provision. Awarding bodies seem to have been given such a leading role in exam delivery that the issue over balancing national educational needs against commercial market forces must be addressed, otherwise those in centres trying to respond to all the directives by awarding bodies will never be able to cope, given their present staffing and funding constraints.

1.2.3This causes Exams Office Staff problems in ensuring that they get things right for each awarding body – different forms, different dates, different procedures all for the same qualifications and it’s getting worse and adding risk to an already overburdened workforce and system.

1.2.4Over 80% of schools have only one exam officer managing their entire exam system (often the second biggest budget after salaries) and some have to deal with over 40 awarding bodies with multiple systems and practices (on average salaries of £15,000). Due to the unnecessary pressure and work burden being imposed by these multiple individually driven awarding body systems, choice for candidates and exam centres are not being fully realised.

1.2.5The present induction programme provided by the past QCDA organisation and supported by the EOA since 2004, only focused on new exam office staff coming into post and on the provision of general qualifications, excluding the vast day-to-day interaction of many exams office staff with vocational qualifications. Awarding bodies’ perspective on “training” exams office staff to deal with all their different systems is to provide courses and activities which are compliant driven and tailored around their commercial products and services. Neither provision, therefore, can ever support the exam office effectively while government allows so many delivery systems to continue unchecked.

1.2.6It would be easier to enforce standards across the board if there was just one awarding body, for example, in marking, in setting papers, and administration in general. Everything would be more transparent with no claims of commercial interests to keep things secret. Even government departments have struggled to access information on the general welfare of education/exam systems because some of that data is thought to be commercially sensitive. This poses the question - “should the future of our young people at this level be determined by external commercial interests?” The EOA feels one can still have a vibrant commercial market while at the same time introduce and maintain appropriately agreed practices and systems that will reduce work burden and increase efficiency.

1.2.7Since the demise of Curriculum 2000 there has been a growing commercial agenda set by the last government and responded to by awarding bodies to meet market needs but many feel at centre level that the exam system has become a vehicle led by awarding bodies and not a system that complements educational excellence. As the EOA was born out of the damaging experience of Curriculum 2000 it was stated at that time that the exam system would never experience that environment again and learn from its mistakes. Sadly, both the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and diploma experiences bear witness to the fact that despite the EOA’s quest for reform on many of these deep seated issues, lessons have not been learnt and what we have seen is a papering over of the cracks in the system.

1.2.8Exam Office Staff simply deliver the system they are directed to manage and administer. They are faced with yet another problem which is controlled, understandably by awarding bodies - the issue of appropriate fees. If one had one awarding body, a standard set of fees could be set for schools and colleges, with candidates and parents knowing what to expect, especially for re-sits costs. Under the existing system schools and colleges have little choice in where to go so the actual cost rarely comes into the decision process when deciding which awarding body to go with for a particular subject or qualification.

1.2.9Such decisions in schools and colleges are mostly made by teachers who have little idea of the fees involved and do not consult Exams Office Staff on such issues as the amount of administration involved in dealing with a particular awarding body. Teachers are mostly concerned with what is likely to be the best outcome for students by using a particular awarding body – “my students will get a better deal if I use X, their marking seems to be much fairer than Y”. Changing from one awarding body to another for a subject is not unusual. But is this playing of the system fair to all? Does our exam system operate in a fair and transparent manner, and is it available to all, equally?

1.2.10Last year over £20 million pounds was wasted on late fees by schools and colleges. The late fees issue, however, does not lie solely at the door of yet another awarding body directive. A number of exam centres have been identified as having very poor or dysfunctional exams offices by the out going QCDA CSO teams. In many of these cases the centre managements’ complete lack of understanding of the vital role Exams Office Staff play in the safe delivery of examinations has led to over 600 centres being without any established exams office staff to manage and administer the exams processes, or without adequate support at peak risk times.

1.2.11The issue over late fees has been around for a number of years and the problem over “rogue centres” continuing to get away with late fees was partly addressed by the outgoing QCDA CSO team who highlighted poor exam administration in already fragile centres. It was pointed out at an exams’ Task Force meeting a few years ago that once QCDA had stopped chasing centres on late fees, they began to climb again. What was not picked out, was the fact that every time the government introduced new exam development to which awarding bodies had to respond, late fees went up. This is because exams office staff were being asked to introduce and manage new systems without adequate training and, as the EOA surveys have pointed out consistently over the past 10 years, poor awarding body communications are a key factor.

1.2.12This is not purely an argument for advocating more training for exams officers. The EOA believe that if you provide appropriate CPD for the exams office community, and not awarding body driven compliance training as we have at present, one will have a more flexible workforce who are more receptive to both government and awarding body communications, related to change.

1.2.13Late fees will continue to eat away at education budgets as long as local authorities, through government, pay up while awarding bodies benefit from the impact of the multiple systems they’ve created in the first place, and in which exams office staff have to operate. Poorly managed and ineffective exam offices inject additional risks into an already creaking system.

1.2.14However, part of the awarding body response is associated with the historic cultural practice of always letting candidates sit an unplanned exam (defined as “pirate entries”) and then for exam office staff to sort out the paperwork and the repercussions later so as not to potentially compromise any candidate. Understandability, no awarding body would want to be attacked in the press for appearing to prevent students in centres taking their exams by rejecting late entries. Some awarding bodies would argue that the late fees they charge never cover the additional resources needed to deal with these centres.

1.2.15Up to the age of 16 years, students must remain at school and part of their educational experience is the taking of some form of assessment (s) which bench marks their level of attainment before going on to FE or into employment. Awarding bodies therefore are part of what many consider as “a give” in society and their exam services will always have to be provided whatever the costs. Clearly, that assumption by society as a whole does not match the reality with growing regulatory practices and administrative burdens being operated by existing exam service providers. A more realistic approach needs to be adopted before the whole system breaks down, especially in the present economic climate.

1.3Suggested solutions to help serve the needs of Exams Office Staff and the exam system as a whole.

1.3.1A more co-operative and collaborative approach on exam delivery, would cut costs, reduce work burden and focus more resources into teaching and learning. Awarding body competition should be encouraged in order to stimulate better customer service in all areas of delivery but not be used as it is to impose individualistic practices that are not cost effective to exam centres.

1.3.2By adopting a set of national standards for the management and administration of exams, set and overseen by Ofqual - all awarding bodies should use the same dates, procedures, forms and stationery (this common approach, which was welcomed and supported under the old National Assessment Agency modernisation programme 2004–06, is now being reversed with centres having to find additional storage space for different awarding body stationery). Similarly, common fees for qualifications and services would be advantageous. This would encourage a better customer driven environment between awarding bodies and centres. It would allow awarding bodies to offer their own qualifications but within a more controlled and strictly regulated environment.

1.3.3Too often awarding bodies make decisions about the management and administration of the exam system without fully understanding what actually happens in schools and colleges. Too few staff with practical experience of implementing complex exam procedures are now employed by them.

1.3.4The JCQ play a very important role in trying to bridge the differences between various awarding bodies but their regulatory documents on running exams are published with little or no consultation with the very exam office community that has to operate and police their rules in centres – rules which seem to focus more on the needs of awarding bodies rather than on the customer (some of the statements on centre security, for example, seem so draconian to members that many centres feel they are totally unrealistic and undeliverable).

1.3.5The announcement and implementation of the withdrawal of hard copy results went ahead despite the informed comment by the exam office community that some centres and awarding bodies were not set up to deal with this change and needed more time. Member centres pointed out that some colleges still do not accept non-awarding body results slips but the process went ahead regardless, resulting in some students being compromised. Surely these sweeping decisions which affect us all should be made in closer collaboration with those it will impact on, ultimately the students they serve.

Statement 2: How to ensure accuracy in setting papers, marking scripts, & awarding grades

2.1Accuracy is key when it comes to anything in the world of exams, whether it be for administration, publications, documentation, inputting data, processing documents, and anything else that involves human action in one form or another. All too often mistakes are made by individuals who are under pressure or are poorly trained, or who lack sufficient skills to carry out the job effectively.

2.2Some actions, however, require the individual to interpret information, for example, the marking of scripts. The subjective nature of the questions and answers can often lead to interpretations of the marking schemes which do not relate to what the question setter originally intended. Similarly a too rigid following of a marking scheme in which the marker makes no allowance for a candidate’s lateral or wider thinking can be equally problematic and disadvantage the candidate.

2.3These situations have led to a number of Appeals on the grounds that the awarding body has not followed its own procedures, i.e. not followed the marking scheme correctly. The present appeals system only deals with a handful of cases each year out of thousands of enquiries. Most, never get beyond the individual awarding body committees and are regulated and orchestrated behind closed doors.

2.4In all of these scenarios it is clear that the training of individuals is paramount, especially for staff who are recruited on temporary contracts at busy exam periods – both markers, administrators and consultants.

2.5In the case of question paper setting, there must be a number of stages in place where both the accuracy of the question and the accuracy of the actual printed exam question paper is checked. There can be little excuse for the provision of numerous erratum notices after the exam papers have been issued to schools and colleges. As in the case of exam paper errors this year the existing systems in place only deal with issues retrospectively and do not take into consideration the full impact of such events on staff and students on the day. Exam papers should be prepared a year in advance. With modern technologies, the question of security of the exam question paper for such a long period of time should not be an issue.

2.6The inputting of incorrect data at awarding bodies has been an issue for a number of years. Whether the problem lies with the quantity of data involved and the pressure that data processors are under to deal with it in a very short space of time; or the software being used does not have fail safe error mechanisms built into them; or staff have little interest in what they are doing and lack an understanding of the consequences of their errors (often a problem with temporary staff), is not clear. There is probably an element of all of these issues in the errors that we see.

2.7Too often this year members have seen students being awarded incorrect marks and grades because of basic administrative errors by markers and awarding body staff. They have only been picked up by requests for a Review of Marking, or a request for a script, or the mark or grade is quite clearly wrong and the awarding body has been challenged on its accuracy. For example, an A grade student who received only one mark for a paper and had an A in all her other papers, and had answered all the questions on the paper.

2.7.1When challenged the awarding body admitted that they were in error. This took several days to resolve and the students and her parents were unnecessarily distressed throughout the period. The apology from the awarding body was a very bland letter which appeared to be a stock letter with personal and exam details filled in stating that there had been an administrative error. It is easy to pick up extreme cases as described but what about the others which are not so obvious and go uncorrected.

Statement 3: The commercial activities of awarding bodies, including examination fees and textbooks, and their impact on schools and pupils

3.1The awarding bodies have to generate some profit in order to survive and develop – they are businesses. The government, therefore, has a dilemma. While education of the nation is a government responsibility its exam delivery seems to be in the hands of commercial interests which now drive the quality and services being made available. It could therefore be suggested that the government should adopt a more pragmatic approach to the products and services provided by awarding bodies, by making them more accountable to the exam centres they serve (their customers) and not just to government, through Ofqual.

3.2It is inevitable that awarding bodies, even within the government policy framework, will take every opportunity to maximise financial income and decrease expenditure. As belts have had to be tightened in recent years, we have seen awarding bodies pass costs to schools and colleges which in the past have been included in entry fees and fees for other services.

3.3The EOA is committed to supporting “private candidates” and to give them the same access to the exam system as students in defined exam centres. The impact of entry fees on 16–19 year olds taking re-sits can be considerable for students and parents. Most schools and colleges will charge an additional administration fee to cover the costs of extra invigilation and processing of the re-sit entry. For less well off students, the costs, even without the administration fee are too much and they become disadvantaged as they cannot afford to take re-sits.

3.4Increasingly, schools and colleges have been told that they must download and print their own documents, results, etc putting considerable costs onto schools and colleges without any reduction in awarding body fees. Awarding bodies will of course argue, and to some extent they are right, that by doing this, they keep the costs of entries and other services down.

Report Information

The following report as been compiled from a variety of sources including – EOA surveys (2000–11), emails and phone calls in response to articles and requests made on the EOA website news section which are available to the whole exam office community and from its regular e-newsletters to members.

Compiled by Andrew Harland (Chief Executive), Alan Waymont, Exams Manager of Peter Symonds College, Winchester (ex-chair of the EOA) and members of the EOA Board of Trustees.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012