Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Martin Collier, Headmaster, St John’s School , Leatherhead


1. I write having had considerable experience in teaching, examining and publishing. I am currently the Headmaster at St John’s School, Leatherhead. I was previously at Oundle School holding the posts (at different times) of Second Master, Director of Studies and Head of History. Before moving to Oundle, I worked for 10 years in the maintained sector at Thomas Tallis, Weavers’ and Dunraven Schools. I examined A level History from 1995-2011 for Edexcel, the AEB and the Oxford Board (although not at the same time). I have served as a Principal Examiner on a number of papers and, as such, I have had experience of setting as well as marking examinations. For the past 14 years I have written and edited text books; I was the co-editor of the Heinemann HAH series and the more recent Edexcel/Pearson A level series. Because of my involvement as an editor and examiner, I sat on the QCA body which devised the structure for the new 16-19 history qualification.

2. I am an educationalist but also write as someone with considerable knowledge of both the examining and publishing world. Until this year, I taught a substantial timetable of History (mainly at GCSE and A levels) and, therefore, I have seen how changes in public examinations have had an impact on pupils. My experience is in examining and writing for A levels and it is in the context of understanding this qualification which I write about below.

3. The fundamental problem within the current examination system is that the examining/awarding bodies are businesses and their primary interest is to make a profit. Over the past few years, changes to specifications and examination structures have been suggested and made because it suited the financial interests of the examination boards rather than for educational reasons. A case in point was the relatively recent reduction of the A level from six to four units or, as in the case of History A level, the introduction of compulsory coursework in 2008. Market share is an important issue for every examination board as it is for all businesses. Indeed, this was a very important consideration in the shaping of A level specifications which were taught for the first time in 2000 and 2008.

4. Perhaps the most worrying consequence of the current system has been the erosion in examining standards. There are still some highly professional examiners within the system. But the examining structure has changed, partly because of the introduction of new technology but, more importantly, to reduce costs. Embedded in the pre-2000 examining culture was a desire to root out inconsistencies and errors in the examining process before grades were awarded. The emphasis now is on mistakes being rectified at the re-mark phase after grades have been issued to pupils. This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs for pupils, parents and schools. An appeal to have a re-mark costs money and is out of the reach financially of many schools and parents. Whilst some have the money to challenge the marking, others do not. For many, including myself, such a state of affairs is unfair and entirely unacceptable. Why was the pre-award/results phase in the examining process phased out? Because it was expensive. The attraction to the examination boards of post results re-marks is that the parents pay and it is an opportunity for the examinations boards to make money (or at least break even). On-line marking has its merits and does allow for the checking of scripts as they have been marked. But it does not lend itself to the considered, forensic investigation of marking inaccuracy which was built into the old system.

5. There is considerable merit in the idea of a national examining body. Above all else, such a body could act as the custodian of examining standards as well as the academic integrity of qualifications without the highly corrosive impact of “market forces”. An argument against introducing a national body has been that it would limit choice. This does not have to be the case; a national body could offer a range of options within a qualification. The integrity of a national examining body could be reinforced by creating close links between it and higher education institutions.

6. Another potentially attractive feature of a national examining body could be that it could be used to re-establish and ensure examining standards. The current level of training for new examiners is, as I understand it, minimal at best. Year on year, examination markers determine the future of the young people of our country. It is, therefore, quite extraordinary that we do not insist that they have any substantial training in how to be an examiner. Fees for marking are low, the main because of the examination boards desire to keep costs suppressed. It is my hope that the idea of there being an Institute of Assessment (as recommended by Tomlinson Report) be considered again. Such a body could be part of the national examinations body.

7. Another important role to be taken by a national body would be to ensure quality and year-on-year consistency in the setting of examination papers. The best examination papers emerge after a considered process of debate and reflection. It is also important that papers are scrutinised by as many people as is necessary before being approved.

8. I know little about examination fees and would, therefore, not wish to comment. However, I know enough about the relationship between publishers and examination boards to perceive a conflict of interest. With one examination board being owned by a publisher and all examination boards now having very close links with the publishing world, a lucrative spin-off to the examination world has emerged in the past few years. It is in the publishers’ interests that the examination boards chop and change specifications. Text books are now written specifically for dealing with specific specifications. Whereas this is not so much of a problem at GCSE level, it is an issue at A level. Pupils studying 16-19 now invariably use what are in reality coursebooks produced by publishers with close links to the examination boards. The books are rushed into production and can be of indifferent quality. Rarely do the pupils learn the independent skills necessary for university study through relying on such coursebooks. In many cases, the people who set the questions on the examination papers write or edit the books. All in all, the use of such books has the potential to very much narrow the pupils’ intellectual experience.

9. In conclusion, confidence in the examination board and the examining process is low. Driven by market forces, they have prioritised profit over the quality of the service to schools and, most importantly, the pupils. It is not surprising that confidence is low given the de-professionalisation of examiners and the lack of training. The solution is to create a national examining body for all of the reasons stated above. The integrity of such a body could be guaranteed by higher education institutions and would place the examining process back at the heart of the education system. Such a body could also set and sustain the required standards for the examining process from the setting of papers through to marking and awarding. It would ensure that there was not a potential conflict of interests between publisher and examination board.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012