Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST)

The GDST (Girls’ Day School Trust) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry on how exams for 15-19 year olds in England should be run.

About Us

1. The GDST is the UK’s leading network of independent girls’ schools, with nearly 4,000 staff, and 20,000 students between the ages of three and 18. As a charity that owns and runs a network of 24 schools and two Academies in England and Wales, we reinvest all our income in our schools. Founded in 1872, the GDST has a long history of pioneering innovation in the education of girls.

Examination System Concerns

2. We are sure that many of our concerns about the present examination system and potential solutions will be echoed by other organisations submitting evidence, so our contribution concentrates on our disquiet at the influence exerted by exam boards’ lobbying activities on the national educational debate, and the ambiguous ethics and conflicts of interest potentially represented by the boards’ commercial activities.

Arguments in Favour and Against Having a Range of Awarding Bodies

3. There are some distinct advantages to having multiple awarding bodies and exam boards in the UK education system.

4. If only one exam board existed we believe that it would in effect act as an arm of the government, prey to political pressure, and susceptible to one-size-fits-all solutions. We believe that it is the role of the state to set broad education strategy, not to decide on the content of specifications, or determine the questions in exam papers.

5. There is currently some genuine competition, not particularly on price, but certainly in terms of innovation; we don’t believe that qualifications like IGCSE, Cambridge Pre-U or the AQA Bac would have been developed by a single monolithic exam provider.

6. The big disadvantage is that the existence of several powerful and wealthy exam boards has led to the growth of a very powerful examination lobby, with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of expensive, high-stakes exams, even when the original justification for those exams (particularly at age 16) is becoming redundant.

7. This means that the best option for reducing costs – cutting down on the number of exams, or doing away with some of them entirely – is rarely up for discussion. Rather, politicians, civil servants and educators tweak the existing system – discussing what’s in and what’s out of the EBacc, or whether IGCSEs count towards school performance tables or not – rather than considering more fundamental, systemic changes.

8. For example, the National Curriculum Review’s terms of reference do not allow it to consider whether GCSE exams are needed at all (thereby disregarding the dissonance between government policies to ensure that education or training continues to 18 and the existence of summative exams at 16).

9. The irony is that it is taxpayers who are indirectly paying for the exam boards’ influence. The taxpayer (via the Department for Education) funds schools, the schools pay exams boards for exams and ancillary services (including textbooks, training and other commercial activities), the exam boards generate substantial profits or surpluses, a significant proportion of which is spent on influencing politicians and civil servants.

10. It has become a self-perpetuating cycle and it is taxpayers, schools and pupils who are getting a raw deal.

11. There is no similarly well-funded and organised lobby putting the case to support and reinforce deep learning and progression via alternative, less powerful exams, and for a less intrusive (though no less rigorous) testing regime with, for example, fewer set papers, or GCSEs with non-fixed teaching hours.


12. To improve accuracy, we would suggest that more practising teachers (rather than those who have retired from day-to-day teaching or who have never been teachers) get involved in exam setting and marking. There has, in recent years, been a decoupling of teaching from examining, and this is not a trend we welcome.

13. Increasing administration and modularisation has also led to mark schemes becoming more rigid, and this has a detrimental effect on pupils’ passion and progression – exams become about set phrases that tick boxes rather than showing what you really know about a topic.

14. At the same time, module grades and UMS scores are made available to candidates, schools and to some universities, and increasingly high demands are placed on the achievement of specific grades for both candidates’ University prospects and schools’ performance rankings. Given that marking and grading involves a great deal of professional judgement, there is a danger that fine distinctions might be made between candidates and schools on the basis of differences that fall well within the margin of error.

Commercial Activities

15. The leveraging of profit from exams is endemic to the current system. It is not only the quantity of exams that increases the cost to schools, but also the ancillary activities of the exam boards.

16. Examples include exam boards running courses on how to get the best grades, the endorsement of textbooks written by examiners for the exam boards (which is in our view a conflict of interest, not least in the lack of incentive to make improvements to syllabuses).

17. Again the impact on schools is to ratchet up costs and narrow the options.

Thank you again for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion. We look forward to the outcome of the Select Committee’s deliberations and would be happy to provide further input.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012