Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Geoff Hurst of Altain Education

1. I was until recently Director of Market Strategy with one of the leading three exam boards, AQA, and I am now the Managing Director of strategic educational consultancy, Altain Education.

Others will be better placed to comment on exam structure directly. However as the enquiry has progressed, new themes have emerged, late into and subsequent to the hearings, drawing in adjacent areas that are related to exams, about which we feel we have a helpful contribution to make.

2. These areas include

(a)Student Needs; the needs of the student and other consumers and users of the outputs of the examination system; an aspect that we consider may be under represented.

(b)Exam Seminars; the original subject of the Daily Telegraph reporting, and an area on which Ofqual has now decided.

(c)Endorsed Publications; the relationship between examinations and published resources, including textbooks.

(d)Inclusive Subjects; considering of the increasing role of digital resources and alternative options to ensure market mechanisms support the “long tail” of smaller subjects.

(e)Integrated Learning; notably the pivotal role of A levels, where, in response to University concerns over the readiness of students for Higher Education, it has been suggested that Universities should play a more significant role in their design and content. We believe that this has a direct connection with issues at the heart of this inquiry, that have not fully surfaced or been addressed.

3. An area of overall concern is the possible entanglement and interdependency of these adjacent areas above, which can make a clear recommendation on Examinations more challenging to get right, or in one clean move, whilst managing down the risk of unintended consequences.

4. Whilst we have chosen not to contribute directly on the Exams Process we are clear that, of the options under consideration, we are aligned to the view that enduring change in education is best achieved without recourse to major structural change.

It also our belief that, given time and space, the Exam boards will enthusiastically take steps to address issues and, as importantly, be an enthusiastic contributor to the necessary future development of the education system, helping make it better for students, teachers and users of the outputs, Higher Education and employers.

5. We do however advocate a much clearer separation between Exams and Publishing than at present. In part this is because of the very important public confidence issues. However there are critical education output issues too, which we explain more fully below:

We also go on to illustrate how the required change can be achieved without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and why this need not involve wide scale structural change.

Examinations and their Relationship with Adjacent Areas such as PublishingInsights and Proposed Solutions

Exam Board Seminars

6. This is an important area of enquiry, in terms of public confidence, given that the national press team specifically featured meetings in their reporting of concerns.

Since the last inquiry hearing at which Glenys Stacey was present, Ofqual have communicated their decision1 that Exam Board face to face teacher training seminars that relate directly to the delivery of a specific named qualification must not occur after 31 August 2013.

Also that Exam Boards should make any necessary information for the proper administration of qualifications accessible to all schools.

7. This aligns strongly with Altain Education’s own perspective. In our response to the Ofqual’s call call for evidence we concluded our evidence with the following:

“Perhaps counter intuitively Altain Education strongly recommends that doing the opposite of what might be expected and moving rapidly to make current sessions widely available, but this case online, with transparent levels of access among practitioners. Guidelines for content should be agreed. Delivered content should either be video recordings of a live session or, preferably, programming and format developed specifically for online media.”

8. Clearly then we are supportive of this decision, but we consider that an “unregulated seminar industry” also holds risk for public perception, with the distinct possibility of irregular quality or availability, through, for example, individuals moving from regulated to unregulated. We suggest there needs to be encouraged, rapidly, a self-regulation model with the appropriate package of codes of conduct, trust marks and so on

The relationship between publishing and examinations

9. A key theme to emerge from the inquiry into the administration of examinations for 15–19 year olds is the relationship between exams and publishing.

For Altain, the pros and cons of the current system can be summed up as follows.

Pro the current system:

(a)Students and teaching staff gain clarity on expectation in the exam in those centres where full access to aids is afforded.

(b)Guidance for teachers on those resources that best fit with the specification.

(c)Students benefit because of an individual teacher’s confidence that they are teaching on broadly the right lines.

(d)Students having difficultly or those with greater potential to progress benefit because the individual teacher has greater flexibility to devote more specialist attention.

(e)In places and at times when budgets are constrained (always) then gaining insight on where to invest resources for most effect will gain stakeholder support, locally.

(f)Students being taught by a stand in teacher or one that is not a specialist in subject area can still remain on track with the curriculum.

(g)The current formula and bundled publishing offers (prime titles sold with less popular) subsidises niche subjects that publishers would find uneconomic to produce unless bound in an endorsed portfolio deal.

(h)Students and parents separately wishing to purchase revision materials can be guided on choice.

Contra the current system:

(a)Education policy subsumed into Exam processes, hence claims of “the exam tail wagging the educational dog”.

(b)Process is too narrowly focussed on optimising performance around the margin of “the D/C borderline” in GCSE.

(c)Market forces have encouraged the concept of “single book solution” against a broader choice of resources to encourage a well-rounded education and longer term employability.

(d)General discouragement of authors and publishers to innovate, because of dominance of “formula” approach.

(e)The publishing and seminar “formula” does not work effectively and economically for all subjects.

(f)Digital resources from sources other than Exam board and endorsed publisher are lacking guidance on fit with specification and examination.

(g)A critical and concluding “con” is that students are under prepared for longer term progression, particularly from A Level stage to Higher Education.

10. At Alain Education we have been carefully following trends and views of key opinion leaders as well analysing the Education select committee transcripts.

The balance of opinion appears to be that there is clearly detriment from a narrowing effect of too close an alignment of publishing and assessment activities in some cases. Therefore a change to this situation is being recommended.

However as important is a key message is also that there are benefits too, such as clarity of expectations for the exam and guidance on resources that cover the ground. Both of which are helpful to teachers and students and therefore benefits which should not be lost.

11. Altain Education’s view on this issue is that we can have both guidance and breadth in variety of resources and that the remedy doesn’t necessarily require a reshaping of the industry.

Given the current situation with concerns for public trust what is now required is clearly visible tangible action in this regard.

An Altain education proposal for an independent Education Content Trustmark (ECT) would allow to retention of many of the pros and mitigate the cons, while not creating wholesale upheaval. More information on this is available directly from us.

The relationship between publishing and A Levels

12. In agreeing that Universities should play a larger role in the development of A level qualification than they do now between Ofqual and the Department of Education have cited as a key reason the perception that students are under prepared on entering Higher Education.

A large scale qualitative research study published in April and commissioned by Ofqual explored the extent to which A levels currently prepare students for higher levels of study largely supports this concern over students being under prepared.

13. This point is pertinent, as we have suggested also that a critical con of the strong alignment of publishing to examinations, highlighted in the previous section, is that students are under prepared for longer term progression, particularly from A level stage to Higher Education.

In effect that the detriment of narrow teaching and resources is amplified at this level of study.

14. This suggests two courses of action:

(a)Specific activity to evaluate the nature and scale of the detriment of aligned examinations and publishing at A level in particular, together with an evaluation of options to address the issue.

(b)Assuming that the desired outcome is A level students that are better prepared for Higher Education then there may be benefit in identifying the wider set of factors contributing to this situation for universities input to also be sought. Specifically the nature of published resources and their application.

Building on these two points:

The nature and genesis of A level resources

15. Altain Education considers that the decision by AQA, for example, to endorse one publisher, Nelson Thornes, was not in sense a bad decision as it can be seen, from the published list of materials, to cater for a longer list of courses than might have been the case with unregulated market forces.

16. However, it was a turning point that we believe has indirectly led to industry wide adoption of a model of resources for A level that, in our opinion and those of other observers, not least Wellcome Trust,2 tends towards a single book, “on size fits all” model akin to GCSE text books from which they may have been spawned. Thus falling short of providing the basis for a rounded education and effective preparation for Higher Education.

17. We do appreciate this assessment may be disputed however it is evident that pressures did exist with the potential to drive to this outcome.

The relationship began with collaboration on text books for GCSE science and Mathematics for first teaching in 2006.

This GCSE based model was highly successful for the publisher. As The Daily Telegraph reported in December 2011, “After AQA agreed a deal with Nelson Thornes in 2005, the publisher’s turnover jumped by £6 million”.

This lead to a five year exclusivity arrangement whereby “Nearly three quarters of AQA A level specs will have some form of NT publishing support” a position that was communicated in an announcement to schools in June 2006 titled “A Strategic Partnership”.

18. Once this formula became the mode for one leading exam board and publisher relationship there would have been pressure for the rest to follow, or in many cases decide not to publish, because of unregulated or short term market forces.

Beyond the test—a wider scope for University involvement

19. Clearly we are still awaiting confirmation of scope and nature of university contribution to the development of A levels. However, looking forward, we suggest that it is in the interests of both secondary education and universities themselves to consider a scope of intervention that goes beyond question paper and specification content.

20. As A level curriculum development is planned to proceed that of GCSE’s, developing the A level resources model in such a way as to be aligned with the need of Higher Education and employers gives us the opportunity to reverse the trend of the past, up skilling GCSE resources.

21. Building on this, a further hypothesis is that what has been created is in fact a downward spiral. That is increasing grade demands for the most popular university courses, particularly A*, and increased tuition fees has led to teachers, students and parents to seek out the resources that map onto the specification exactly. This is possibly resulting in ever tighter exam board approvals criteria binding them to exams ever more tightly. Certainly making it less commercially attractive for publishers to deviate from the formula.

22. Most likely this points to an important symbiotic relationship between the different components of education and they are best considered together in order for there to be effective education outcomes, such a student’s preparedness for higher education or employment For example, is it seems to us that the following elements may all have a contribution to make and should be considered together:

(a)Exam content and assessment methodology.

(b)Guidance and support to the publishing model and support materials and services more generally.

(c)Teachers professional development and performance criteria.

(d)HE entrance criteria, which may need to become more transparent and less rigid.

23. The key lesson of the past is that Exam board decisions such as policies on publisher relationships and acquisitions have substantially wider consequences than perhaps anticipated and emphasise the need for inclusive consultation and an overseeing eye from someone such as Ofqual for decisions of this magnitude.

The increasing role of digital resources and support for the “long tail” of smaller subjects

24. As a general principle we would advocate choice and competition as beneficial in the sector.

However for the smaller volume subjects there are teachers who are delighted to see that a supplier is still publishing for their subject. That this is part of an enforced or endorsed bundle offering of major and minor titles is a secondary if larger concern.

25. Ensuring support for a broad range of subjects has been a key part of the justification for Exam board and publisher endorsement and approval, where preferred supplier status or exclusively is offered in return for supporting smaller subjects.

26. Looking forward there are clear alternative models facilitated by the phenomena of digital and social media. This has the joint benefit of expanding choice for the most popular subjects and keeping a lifeline of study assistance for the smaller subject areas by means of low entry cost publishing and content.

27. Furthermore we believe that for the “long tail” of smaller subjects there is a strong case for facilitated collaboration between Exam boards and Publishers, where some current practices such as endorsements and unbridled competition, counter intuitively perhaps, actually inhibit development of support for smaller subjects.

The needs of the student and other users and consumers of the outputs of the examination system

28. The needs of students and users of the outputs of the examination system can often appear underrepresented in the debate when compared to the all-round effort to improve the qualification process itself.

More typically the business model for qualifications, in say a professional environment, has the consumer of the education or training—student, and users of the qualification—the employer, at the heart of its business and therefore deliberations.

29. For example Ofqual research around the subject of the exams and publishing relationships appears to emphasising the views of the teacher. This is an important viewpoint, but one which potentially leads to a skewing outcomes away from what approach is best for students.

Clearly in researching teachers, students’ needs can be expected to be represented by proxy, as many teachers will be conscious that, in a sense, the students that they are teaching are on a journey from education, through to employment and beyond.

However in some situations, faced with immediate pressures on results and no short term accountability for student progression and subsequent employability, responses may be coloured as resources that represent more direct route to the best results will be a temptation too great.

30. Our suggestion therefore is that at all times, the perspectives of providers of education and assessment would benefit from a being balanced with a full and formal account of needs of the student from the perspective of their being consumers of education. Together with the needs of users, Higher Education and employment.

31. Finally, amongst the many positive aspects of the hearings and related research, for example by Ofqual, has been the consideration of the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders. These do however appeared to have been considered in a homogeneous fashion—“Teachers”, “Students”, “Higher Education”, “Employers” and so on.

In our experience it greatly benefits analysis in this sector, as most others, to also appreciate the segments or grouping of stakeholders with shared needs and other characteristics that sit beneath these higher level definitions.

For example segments representing the differing levels of teacher experience and confidence on the one hand, and the needs of students of different ability levels on the other.

These differences can have a significant impact on the nature of teaching and learning that best suit the situation as well as the appropriate nature of associated published resources

Summary and Conclusion

32. There is clearly an overlap that exists between the work of the Education Select Committee considering how examinations for 15–19 year olds in England be run and adjacent developments.

From reviewing transcription of the enquiry and related media activity we can observe challenging dilemmas for the enquiry as a whole, not least of which is an apparent entanglement of publishing and other adjacent areas with the core concern of this inquiry, examinations.

At the heart of the inquiry is a need to map a way forward for restoring and sustaining public trust in the education system of which examinations are a key part.

We hope that our contribution in the form of insights and suggestions helps this process.

33. If we had a broader point to make it would be that, examinations and Exam boards have perhaps unwittingly come to occupy too much of the centre stage. When in fact a good education and an effective education system require a symbiotic relationship between a numbers of elements of which assessments is just one.

Crucially it is the relationship between these things that needs to be nurtured and supported in the right way

34. We should take the advantage of the analysis from this inquiry, Ofqual’s recent interventions and, together with the planned new approach to A level developments, to model and generate a new equilibrium that put student progression and preparedness, rather than exam results at its heart.

May 2012



Prepared 2nd July 2012