Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Neil McNaughton

Positions and Experience

Currently Principal Examiner, AS Level Government and Politics for Edexcel.

Experienced examiner for 20 years with AQA (formerly AEB) and Edexcel (formerly ULEAC).

Former Head of Politics Department, University College School.

Former editor, Talking Politics, the journal of the Politics Association.

Current writer of many textbooks as well as teacher and student guides in Politics.

Currently Vice Chair of Governors, Westminster Academy.

I am unable to attend the December seminar, but wish to offer this written submission:

Note: My comments relate to A Level examinations only. They relate to my experience with two examination boards.


In my experience, every individual, from assistant examiners up to exam board executives, has demonstrated the highest level of integrity, all being dedicated to ensuring the accuracy of assessment and to serving the best interests of examination candidates. At the same time, every practice adopted by exam boards is aimed at producing fair assessment.

Commercialism and Quality

Although exam boards have the aim of operating in the best interests of their exam candidates, they also have to take into account commercial considerations. In the case of Pearson/Edexcel this is a profit motive, in the case of not-for-profit boards, there may not, strictly, be a profit motive, but, as they effectively in competition with other boards, they may have to adopt competitive practices and thus be in a quasi-commercial position.

While, as I have stated above, Exam boards display a high level of integrity, there are occasions and situations where it is inevitable that the quality of assessment may be jeopardised by commercial considerations. I have three concrete examples:

1.The “standardisation” of examiners used always to take place in intensive, face-to-face meetings. With Edexcel (and, I think other boards) these are being replaced by online meetings or other forms of “remote” standardisation. Naturally face-to-face meetings are far more expensive than “remote” meetings and practices. That is undoubtedly why the boards are attracted by them. All my close colleagues agree that this reduces the quality and accuracy of the standardisation process. However, it seems unlikely that we will return to face to face meetings.

2.The remuneration of examiners has gradually been eroded. This has led to difficulties with recruitment. Anecdotally, my senior examiner colleagues often complain that the “quality” and level of experience of examiners has declined. There may be several reasons for this, but we believe pay is a key factor. A further facet of this is that, we would like to work with senior, experienced teachers, on the grounds that they make the best examiners. However, many such individuals now pay higher rate tax so their exam fees have 40% taken off the top, further eroding incentives.

3.Examination boards are increasingly “endorsing” or commissioning specialised textbooks. I understand that, in some cases, the boards are receiving royalties. I am in the fortunate position of having published “endorsed” texts, but this practice may be making it more difficult for potentially talented writers to “break in” to the market.

I think, therefore, there is a strong case for insisting that examination boards are “not for profit” organisations. More on this below:

The Issue of Examination Board Competition

On a purely academic level there is no need for more than one examination board. If they all operate with integrity, as I think they do, by and large, there should be no difference in standards between them. Furthermore there is no reason why variety and choice cannot be provided by a single board. I know that teachers, on an informal basis, do believe that some boards are “easier” than others in their subject, that some are more amenable to raising marks on appeal and some are more administratively efficient. However, I think there is not much evidence that this is true. It certainly should not be true!

Competition may be justified on the grounds that it promotes efficiency, ie less efficient boards will decline and the better ones will prosper as a result of a kind of Darwinian process. However, I think the dangers of competition outweigh its benefits. If commercial pressures grow—and I think this is happening—the temptation for boards to attract more candidates by offering them an “easier passage” may well become overwhelming.

I therefore suggest a better outcome is one single examination board, offering maximum choice of specifications and perhaps even types of assessment, with tight regulation of the kind currently conducted by Ofsted and Ofqual.


As I have asserted, I think everybody concerned is trying to do their best for students and believes they are doing their best, but there are now structural reasons why this high degree of integrity may be, albeit involuntarily, jeopardised.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012