Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE)

Executive Summary

The key points NATE would like to make in its submission to the inquiry are:

Though there are some issues with multiple awarding bodies, this should not result in the formation of a single awarding body;

On balance, the existence of a number of awarding bodies is of benefit to schools and teachers;

Proper investment in experienced subject specialists and robust standardisation systems is critical to an accurate and reliable examination system;

The commercial activities of awarding bodies need to be monitored to ensure they do have detrimental effects on students’ experiences of teaching and learning between the ages of 15-19.

Arguments for/against having a range of awarding bodies

1. In general, NATE would feel that it is beneficial to have a range of awarding bodies offering differing specifications leading to qualifications in English, English Literature and English Language to GCSE and A Level.

2. The key benefit of a number of awarding bodies offering equivalent qualifications is that teachers are able to choose from a range of options when considering which awarding body to select. Within English, it is likely that specifications from different awarding bodies would offer alternative choices of set texts and perhaps different models of assessment (eg which elements of the specification are completed as examinations and which as ‘controlled assessment’). The choice offered by a number of awarding bodies gives some measure of autonomy to teachers and puts some power into the hands of the profession.

3. A single awarding body would result in a narrowing of options for teachers and therefore no opportunity to use their professional judgement in selecting the most appropriate specification for their students. It is likely that the result would be a further narrowing of the curriculum between the ages of 15-19.

4. It might also be argued that the measure of competition that results from the existence of a range of awarding bodies means that there is a clear incentive for those bodies to be seeking to develop the best possible specifications for teachers.

5. The standardisation of curriculum and assessment that might be brought about by a single awarding body might be seen to offer equality of opportunity, and ensure that all students are assessed on the same content to the same standard, but there ought to be ways to ensure that equity issues are addressed even with the existence of a range of bodies. The regulating body for the approval of specifications should be fit for purpose in this respect.

How to ensure accuracy in setting papers, marking scripts and awarding grades

6. It is critical that experienced teachers of the subject—eg English—hold the positions of principal examiners within each specification, and that these individuals are supported by a team of senior examiners who are also experienced subject specialists.

7. It ought, ultimately, to be the principal examiner who is responsible for the setting of a given paper, but their decisions should be informed by the expertise of the senior team, which in turn is informed by the feedback of teachers involved in the teaching of the specification. There should be a transparent means by which teachers’ evaluation of previous examination papers can feed into the setting process.

8. Principal examiners from across different specifications ought to meet—under the eye of a body like OFQUAL—to ensure that there is parity between the papers of different bodies for the same level of award.

9. The marking of English is a problematic area; no matter what the assessment criteria put in place, we would argue that there is also a measure of interpretation in the awarding of marks.

10. Given this, it is critical that those marking English exams in both Language and Literature are experienced teachers in the field, and that they are properly inducted into the examination marking process and that a standardisation process is in place that helps to develop consistency across markers. Within English the standardisation process ought really to be a face to face exercise, where groups of examiners meet—under the guidance of a senior examiner—to look at the question paper and mark scheme, to examine sample answers and to agree “the standard”. Traditionally this has been the model of English examination marking—certainly at “A” Level. We worry about the increasing dominance of “online” marking and standardisation of English examinations, and the effect this may have on consistency and accuracy.

11. A system like that described above clearly has costs; we believe, however, that to maintain a functioning, reliable and accurate marking system then investment has to be made at every level of the process. This includes paying individual examiners an appropriate amount per script to encourage experienced colleagues to become involved. A robust system cannot be run “on the cheap”.

12. Grade award meetings should take place where the marks of the cohort are analysed by senior members of the awarding body and compared to previous years to ensure that grade boundaries are set at the appropriate level to ensure year on year consistency.

The Commercial Activities of Awarding Bodies

13. This is a difficult area. On the one hand, it is obviously useful for teachers to have access to resources and training courses that are produced and run by the awarding bodies themselves. Teachers can expect such things to come with a “quality mark” given that they emerge from the awarding bodies themselves.

14. On the other hand, the risk is that teachers see, for example, a text book linked to a particular specification to be the “course book”. Such a response may lead to the narrowing of the curriculum for students and the danger that the experience of Key Stage 4 or Post-16 for students simply becomes training for a particular examination.

15. There is, too, the economic question; ie to what extent is it fair and right that individuals working for awarding bodies, and awarding bodies themselves, make additional monies from cash-strapped schools by publishing resources and running training that teachers may feel under pressure to invest in? School already pay to enter the examinations, of course.

16. It might be fairer if all publications/training etc. produced by an awarding body were to be free to schools entering students for its specification.

17. It would also be helpful if awarding bodies could make clear that the purchasing of specific texts was not necessary for examination success, and that students should be following a broad Key Stage 4 or Post-16 course. Good teachers, including good English teachers, would avoid the “course book” approach, but it is the case that teachers are under enormous pressure given the highly results-driven, performance educational culture in which we all live.

December 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012