Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Graham George

1. Executive Summary

1.1 Now retired, I have had over 40 years teaching experience, mainly of A-level Physics in sixth form colleges.

1.2 I have nearly 40 years experience as an examiner, the last 25 as Principal/Chief Examiner for AS/A2 Physics, from which I retired two years ago.

1.3 Although my direct experience of the examination process has been through being a Principal/Chief Examiner, with one awarding body (Edexcel), I have had experience of other boards and other subjects in my role as Vice Principal of a sixth form college for 17 years.

1.4 During this time I have seen awarding bodies change from being academic institutions to large business corporations, with attendant advantages and disadvantages.

1.5 There are certain advantages of economy of scale, but not, it would appear, in the cost of examinations to schools. A degree of subject specialisation of examination board officers appears to have been lost in the business model approach.

1.6 A single awarding body, or franchising of individual examinations, would undermine the development of specifications, investment in the examination process (eg the development of technology) and support for schools through materials and training.

1.7 Technological advantages should reduce the risks rise of errors in question papers, but there is always a chance of human error. Ofqual (or similar) should monitor this rigorously, with powers to act as necessary.

1.8 Appropriate use of technology can also lead to improvements in the accuracy of marking. It is up to Ofqual (or similar) to ensure that this is the case.

1.9 The commercial activities of awarding bodies in providing materials and training for teachers is a welcome development that has had a positive effect on the preparation of candidates for examinations.

2.0 Against this, the commercial nature of the awarding bodies to become profitable organisations at the tax-payers expense is to be deplored. The Government must find some way to regulate examination entry fees, which are crippling schools and colleges who are struggling to cope in the current economic down-turn.

2. Introduction to the Submitter

2.1 I graduated with an honours degree (2.i) in Physics from the University of Durham, followed by a Post Graduate certificate in Education from the University of Cambridge.

2.2 I taught Physics at all levels for five years at the City of Norwich School, which was then a boys’ grammar school, before moving for two years to the Sweyne School, Rayleigh, a mixed 11-19 comprehensive school.

2.3 In 1972, I transferred as Head of Physics to the newly built South East Essex Sixth Form College (SEEVIC), responsible for some 300 students each year on GCSE/A level Physics and Electronics courses.

2.4 In 1987, I was promoted to Vice Principal of Woodhouse (Sixth Form) College in North Finchley, which I saw double in size from around 500 to over 1000 students by the time I retired in 2004. I continued to teach some A level Physics throughout this time.

2.5 I started examining (O level General Science and CSE) in 1968, moving on to A-level Physics in 1977.

2.6 I was appointed a Principal Examiner, with responsibility for A level Physics Practical papers in 1985, becoming Chief Examiner in 2003. I decided to relinquish this post in 2009 when the new specification was introduced, but I still act as a Reviser for two papers.

2.7 I served on the QCA committee that drafted the National Criteria for the “Curriculum 2000” AS and A2 Physics syllabuses.

2.8 I have written several Physics texts, including co-authoring the current AS and A2 text books endorsed by Edexcel, as well as speaking at numerous conferences for students and for teachers.

3. Arguments in Favour of and Against Having a Range of Awarding Bodies

3.1 When I started as an A level examiner with the then University of London Examinations Board, the Board facilitated GCSEs and A-levels. The Board was run by the University, with a high academic input and most of the Principal Examiners were from various universities. There were several such boards across the country, to some extent regionalised.

3.2 An advantage of this arrangement was that each organisation was relatively small and personal, lending itself to effective and efficient subject teams, usually led by an experienced subject specialist. The “Subject Officer” had responsibility for all aspects of the examination process, from commissioning papers to awarding grades. Thus one person had total control of, and responsibility for, the whole process. The only disadvantage of this was if the Subject Officer was not good at their job – but then this was up to the board to rectify.

3.3 The disadvantage of having several boards, and therefore several A level examinations in each subject, was comparison between boards to ensure comparability. This was done by QCA (or its predecessor), but to what degree of success is open to question. Certainly, 25 years ago, some boards were seen to be “easier” than others. I can remember concern at London when another large board was awarding a considerably higher percentage of A grades in Physics. This led to London gradually increasing its percentage over a year or two to close the perceived gap. This is undoubtedly why the then Government pushed for fewer boards and amalgamations took place, giving us the current model.

3.4 The amalgamation of London with BTEC created a new animal. The marriage between an essentially academic board and a wholly vocational board led to a new business model. Indeed, the examination board now became primarily a business, and a big business at that, as did the other two amalgamated boards.

3.5 The main advantage of fewer boards is the reduction in the number of syllabuses/specifications for each subject, which makes comparison of standards a much simpler task for QCA. This became increasingly significant as the importance to parents and schools and colleges of success in “league tables” mushroomed – there was less chance/need to jump ships to get “better results”.

3.6 Another advantage should have been economies of scale – only one Subject Officer, one Chief Examiner per subject and one Principal Examiner per paper is necessary whether there are 2,000 or 20,000 candidates. I say “should have been” because this does not seem to be reflected in the current cost of entry fees. This is further considered under Section 5 on “Commercial Activities”.

3.7 The main disadvantage, from my perspective, of the increase in size of Edexcel (I can’t speak for the other boards) was the shift of emphasis from being an academic institution to being a business, for which there is a clear profit motive. It is interesting that, as far as I know, none of the current Principal Examiners in Physics works in a university, compared with a significant majority 25 years ago. Edexcel has become rather like the NHS – once hospitals were run (very effectively) by Matrons, who had wide-ranging medical expertise and experience, now they are “managed” (or mismanaged!) by Managers who are generally from a business background.

3.8 I would certainly not wish to see a further reduction in the number of boards as this would severely restrict syllabus development – the current number of 3 English boards provides for different approaches to the teaching of A level Physics, which is to be welcomed and keeps a degree of “competition” between boards. Although this does not appear be very effective in keeping examination entry fees down, it does encourage boards to improve their offer in terms of materials and training.

3.9 Although the concept of “franchising” may appear to be attractive, this was disastrous when applied to SATs a few years ago. It may control the cost through the tendering process, but the outcomes of the “final product” cannot be effectively assessed until it is too late to repair the damage. Provision of examinations is not like a building project – it cannot run over time and faulty or shoddy workmanship cannot be repaired after completion as students’ futures will have been jeopardised.

3.10 The whole question of specification development would be brought into question. This would be in the hands of a body such as Ofqual, whose ability to do this I would question. I cite as an example the recent ongoing problems between Ofqual and Edexcel regarding the assessment of A-level practical work. The current assessment criteria were agreed between the Board and QCA prior to the introduction of the new AS/A2 s two years ago. Now Ofqual are challenging the criteria as being inappropriate.

3.11 Prior to this, when the introduction of new AS/A2 specifications nationally was being considered, QCA laid down that there must be coursework assessment and that awarding bodies could not set practical examinations – this at a time when the then government was urging a reduction in coursework in order for there to be greater rigour in examinations. Having been a Principal Examiner for practical papers for over 20 years, I could bring a good deal of expertise to bear on this matter. I was horrified at the so-called research that QCA purported to have carried out and their conclusions from the “evidence” that they had collected. As I said to them at the time, a piece of coursework of the quality of their submission would have got very poor marks! Those concerned at QCA in this matter were little short of incompetent.

3.12 From the above, you can see that, based on experience, my enthusiasm for a national examinations body is not overwhelming! “Accountability” would go out of the window. The present system is, to a great extent, self-regulating insomuch as if a school or college is unhappy with a particular board, for whatever reason, it has the opportunity to go to another board.

3.13 A variation of “franchising could be for the three main English boards to come to some mutual agreement, perhaps through Ofqual, that each board will have responsibility for a particular subject, so that there would be just one specification for each A-level subject. However, whilst standards would be easier to monitor, the lack of diversity of specifications would undermine progression the teaching and assessment of the subject. Furthermore, teachers have always appreciated the opportunity of choice afforded by the present system.

4. How to Ensure Accuracy in Setting Papers, Marking Scripts and Awarding Grades

4.1 We have to face up to the fact that whatever examination systems we have, at the end of the day examinations will be administered by human beings and, with the best will in the world, humans make errors. We can only try to keep such errors and their effects on young people to an absolute minimum.

4.2 Coupled with this, we must recognise that nowadays there are more examinations than ever, with literally millions of papers being sat and marked each year. No system can ever be totally foolproof and, statistically, the number of errors each year is fractionally minute and often blown out of proportion, often by the press. I would ask if the number of errors is monitored, board by board, level by level and year by year so that the true nature of the problem (if, indeed, it exists) can be ascertained.

4.3 If, and when, such errors occur, is there a body (Ofqual?) that can demand to see, and subsequently monitor, an action plan from the awarding body concerned?

4.4 Despite my reservations at Edexcel concerning the shift in emphasis from subject expertise to business management, the setting of papers, marking of scripts and awarding of grades are all extremely rigorous processes. Their reliability is very much dependent on the quality of the “part-time” Chief Examiners, Principal Examiners and Assistant Examiners—the buck now finally stops with the Chief Examiner, with no longstop in the form of a Subject Officer with subject expertise. The danger is that these examiners are all busy people, often with demanding responsibilities in other full-time employment.

4.5 Technological advances should enable error free question papers to be more easily produced and the paper production process at Edexcel (certainly in AS/A2 Physics) is certainly thorough and rigorous. Boards have a responsibility to ensure that this is the case in all subjects and at all levels. The Government (through Ofqual?) has a responsibility to ensure that such a culture pervades throughout all the boards and should have the powers to act as necessary to rectify any inadequacies.

4.6 Edexcel instigated “on line” marking some years ago now – indeed A-level Physics, of which I was Chief Examiner, was one of the guinea pigs. This has, I believe, now been followed by other boards.

4.7 Online marking is a very powerful tool with a number of advantages. Properly managed, it can give a much greater consistency in marking, with much closer moderation of Assistant Examiners possible. I remain to be convinced of the efficacy of the standardisation process adopted by Edexcel, but I am assured by them that it is effective.

4.8 Another significant advantage of the on-line system is the mine of information about individual, and groups of, candidates that it can provide to schools and teachers. This is discussed further in Section 5.

4.9 With the advantages in technology, awarding has become a much more exact science – or at least it should be. This is an area of major improvement that I have observed over my 25 years at Edexcel.

4.10 The combination of statistical analysis (statistically significant with an entry of several thousand candidates) and the expertise of a team of several very experienced examiners should lend itself to the accuracy of awarding. This is certainly the case with Edexcel AS/A2 Physics papers, although I personally regret that this is now done by Edexcel “on line” rather than by direct human contact of being “round a table”. I do get the impression, however, that we are now being driven by statistics. Here again Ofqual, or its equivalent, should have an important part to play.

5. The Commercial Activities of Awarding Bodies

5.1 In paragraph 3.4 I referred to Edexcel morphing from an academic institution to a large business organisation over the last 20 or so years, which I suspect has also been the case with the other two main English awarding bodies. There are advantages and disadvantages resulting from this, to which I have alluded in Sections 3 and 4.

5.2 One significant advantage, referred to in paragraph 3.6 is the cost savings that should be obtained from economy of scale. That this has not happened is of major concern to schools and colleges throughout the country. After staffing, the cost of examinations is probably one of the next largest cost centres in school budgets. This was independently flagged up by the Governing Bodies of the two sixth form colleges of which I have, until recently, been Clerk. I personally find it highly objectionable that Edexcel has ploughed some £75 million of British taxpayers’ money into the pockets of Pearson shareholders over the last couple of years. I suspect that I am not the only one!

5.3 I know that MPs have been lobbied over this and I feel strongly that this is an area that the Sub-Committee needs to seriously address. Some form of control over the cost of entry fees needs to be exerted by the Government and not simply left to “market forces”.

5.4 This is, perhaps, where there could be some form of “commissioning”, such as all three awarding bodies being offered the same opportunity to offer A-levels, but at a “fixed price”. It would be hoped that all three boards would still offer the main A-level subjects.

5.5 The other commercial activities of the awarding bodies are to be welcomed. The publication of textbooks, teaching and revision materials (many “online”) and training courses has greatly enhanced the teaching and learning process which has a very positive impact on teachers and pupils.

5.6 As is alluded to in paragraph 3.8, it is to be hoped that this aspect of the boards’ provision will give rise to a competitive edge between the awarding bodies to the benefit of schools and their students. The transparency of published mark schemes and the feedback given to teachers had undoubtedly led to an improved standard in the preparation of candidates for examinations. I hesitate to say “the standard of teaching and learning”, but I am sure the two go hand-in-hand. As indicated in paragraph 4.8, online marking has had a significant part to play in this as it enables schools and teachers to drill down to assess the performance of individual candidates, or whole class groups, on individual questions, or even parts of questions. This is a very powerful tool in evaluating the learning process.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012