Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Mark McKelvie, Senior Assistant Headteacher, Wetherby High School

Executive Summary

1. The current examination system is not fit for purpose as a result of the contradictory nature of private, profit-making organisations setting the national examinations which our children sit.

2. As private companies it is in the examination boards’ interest to maximise their profits. The only main method of achieving this is to make their examination the one which schools will choose. As schools want to ensure that their students achieve their best possible exam grades it therefore follows that examination board which set exams which appear to be more straightforward to pass will be the ones who schools tend to choose. This creates a perverse incentive to lower standards.

3. The specifications for exams also change on a frequent basis. This allows examination boards to make significant profits by selling resources such as textbooks to schools and ensures that this market is sustainable. As the requirements of society alter then the school curriculum must alter but this should be a decision driven by educationalists rather than the examination boards.

4. A proposed solution to the problem is to establish a single examination board which is a not-for-profit organisation. This would allow control to be exerted on the quality of the examinations set and would ensure that school resources are spent in a more effective way rather than paying inflated examination fees and buying new textbooks.

5. A proposed solution to the problem of ensuring accuracy of the marking of exam scripts would be to start the examination diet earlier. GCSE examinations could start at the end of April which would have many benefits. It would inject more rigour into Key Stage 3 courses and ensure that schools became more creative regarding starting the course content in Key Stage 3. This would improve the learning experience which the pupils have at Key Stage 3. In addition earlier GCSE exams would ensure that AS level teaching could begin earlier in the summer term which will provide more teaching time for such courses. Earlier GCSE exams would also ensure that the exam board (singular) had more time to mark and process the examination results.

Author’s Background

6. I have an upper second class Honours degrees in Aeronautical Engineer and I have taught in a number of secondary schools in both Scotland and England. I have taught Physics but the vast majority of my teaching has been mathematics. I have ran two successful mathematics department and in my current Senior leadership post I have responsibility for achievement across the school. I also teach a 0.5 full time equivalent maths timetable.

The Main Issues Regarding Examinations from a School-Based Perspective

7. The increased accountability which has occurred in education in recent years is welcomed but has resulted in several predictable by-products. Schools want to ensure that their students achieve the best possible examination grades. The examination bodies (as private companies) want to ensure that they maximise their profits. There are many ways which the examination boards can do this. Examples of this would be ensuring that their examinations appears to be easier to pass than the other boards, changing the specification more frequently than is necessary and designing examinations where there is an incentive for students to be entered early which leads to increased revenue streams by creating market for resits.

8. Our children deserve to have their abilities judged and measured by a system that is fair and accurate. Employers, further and higher education establishments must have confidence in the results which prospective students attain. In addition the UK taxpayers should be confident that school resources are being spent in an appropriate manner. Any exam system will cost money but it must ensure that it the taxpayer is not being overcharged and that it is fit for purpose, providing an impartial measurement of the achievements of our young people.

9. It is only by looking at the detail of the impact of having private companies setting examinations that we can fully understand what it is doing to the teaching and learning which takes place in our school. I will use the following specific example which relates to the mathematics examination as an illustration and highlight the key knock-on effects.

10. Prior to 2008 the mathematics exams had three tier of entry – Higher (grades A* to C), Intermediate (grades B to E) and Foundation (grades D to G). The obvious problem with this was that the Foundation course only went as far as a grade D. This was had a highly demoralising effect on lower ability pupils who were told at the start of year 10 that if the worked hard for two years the best grade they could achieve would be a grade D. Apart for this the three tiers of entry worked very well. The Higher tier consisted of two papers (one which was non-calculator and the other could be completed using a calculator) which were both two hours long. This paper assessed a significant amount of algebra and provided a fairly good preparation for A level maths.

11. The Intermediate papers were slightly shorter but were aimed at pupil who would not go on to study A level maths and as a result the question level only went up to grade B.

12. A decision was made by the QCA to abolish the three tiers of entry which meant that Foundation pupils could achieve a grade C. However the main problem was that scrapping the Intermediate tier meant that if a student had the potential to achieve a grade B they had to sit the Higher paper. This meant that the content of the Higher paper had to be rewritten to make it more accessible to pupils who previously would have sat the Intermediate paper. A direct result of this is that the algebra content of the Higher tier paper was reduced overnight. Indeed only three years later one of four key recommendations of the Evaluating Mathematics Pathways report which was published by the Department for Education in 2010 stated that:

“High attaining students need to develop greater facility with algebra by age 16 and assessments should incentivise high quality teaching and learning in this critical area”.

13. This matter still has not been addressed and as a result, many students who achieve a good grade in GCSE maths struggle to cope with the significant increase in algebraic content and demand at A level. This result in A level maths being viewed as a highly difficult subject with the consequence that the uptake of A level mathematics in England appears to lag behind the uptake of equivalent qualifications in Scotland.

14. I have been teaching mathematics in England for eight years and in that time the syllabus has changed twice. This creates a lucrative market in textbooks, support materials and training courses which the Exam Boards exploit.

Recommendations for Action

15. The following are the points which I would like the committee to consider for action in order of importance:

1.The abolition of multiple exam boards in England and the establishment of an independent, non-profit national examinations board.

2.An agreement that ensures that the school curriculum is not subject to highly frequent changes but remains flexible to the needs and demands of the 21st Century

3.One aspect which would increase the accuracy of marking is to move the exam diets earlier in the year. This would allow examiners more time to mark scripts and as a result, lead to increased accuracy.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012