Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the National Union of Students (NUS)


1. The National Union of Students (NUS) is a voluntary membership organisation which makes a real difference to the lives of students and its member students’ unions. We are a confederation of 600 students’ unions, amounting to more than 95% of all higher and further education unions in the UK.

2. Through our member students’ unions, we represent the interests of more than seven million students. Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of student and to develop and champion strong students’ unions, including those in higher education institutions to ensure learners’ interests are represented.

Executive Summary

3. NUS welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Education Select Committee’s call for evidence for the inquiry, “How Should Examinations for 15-19 Year olds in England be Run?”

4. NUS believes that a single, centralised examinations body would offer a better, more reliable and more efficient examinations system.

5. NUS also continues to argue that Ofqual should be given great powers to use as the examination system’s regulator.

Issues with having a Range of Awards Bodies for Academic and Applied Qualifications

6. NUS believes that the current system, based on competition between a number of examination bodies is a contributory factor in the high level of errors in exam papers over the summer. As such, NUS believes that a single, centralised non-profit examinations body would be best placed to provide a quality, reliable and consistent examinations system.

7. Fundamentally, examinations should be entirely funded through the state. The payment of examinations bodies to provide this service introduces a number of perverse incentives for education providers to get “value for money” from their examinations rather than choose the exam board that is best suited for their cohort of students. It also introduces an unavoidable disparity between examination boards who provide exams for equivalent qualifications.

8. The disparity that can arise in the behaviour of different examinations boards can to be seen in instances during and following the errors that arose in papers last summer 2011. For example, an NUS survey of 119 student effected by the examinations errors has highlighted that in some instances it would appear that the centres themselves were not effectively communicated with by the exam boards, where in others this communication was strong and effective.

9. As such, NUS would recommend as a very basic first step that that exam boards review their methods for communicating with centres, and that centres are adequately briefed about the nature of errors, the likely impact upon students, and provided with any further relevant details to pass on to students.

10. More fundamentally, such disparate approaches across the examinations system would suggest that there is a need for greater integration – such as through a move towards one central examinations body.

How we can Better Ensure Accuracy in Setting Papers, Marking Scripts and Awarding Grades

11. NUS believes that under a centralised, not for profit exam awarding system, accuracy and consistency are much more likely to be assured for candidates.

12. Huge amounts of time and resources are spent by exam awarding bodies in standardising their writing, marking and awarding systems and this inefficiency could easily be avoided by having one nationalised system.

13. NUS continue to call for greater powers to be given to Ofqual. Whilst they do good work currently in sharing and promoting best practice, it must be clear that their role is as a regulator, not as the representative body of examination boards. Thought must be put into ensuring that these roles are never conflated. As such, NUS believe that Ofqual should be given greater punitive powers which they should be encouraged to use far more forcefully in instances where examination bodies fail to live up to the high standards expected of them.

14. Whilst a point that is only related to the examinations process more generally, it is worth noting that NUS support the introduction of a system of post qualification applications (PQA) which avoids the current situation where over 40% of applicants are over estimated in their performance, and consequently are forced through a traumatic, chaotic and inefficient clearing system. The current situation based largely on predicted grades causes enormous complications to the examinations system, and is often difficult for the individual to effectively negotiate.

The Commercial Activities of Awarding Bodies, and the Impact that this has on Schools and Pupils

15. NUS argues that the idea of introducing a market into the examination system introduces perverse incentives for the end users and does nothing to address inequalitites between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. We fundamentally believe that it should never be the case that your ability to achieve in an examination is a direct result of your ability to pay and that any resources that are required to be able to pass examinations should be free, as well as the cost to the individual of the examination itself.

16. Indeed, it seems that the practice of examination bodies producing study and revision resources for sale constitutes a potential conflict of interest. In particular, it seems that this creates a number of internal markets (the market for resources aimed at a particular examination from a particular examination body) in which fair competition is extremely hard to achieve.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012