Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Pearson


1. Getting the examinations system right is critical to securing the reputation of the English education system as a whole, and the success of the individuals passing through it.

2. This paper argues that English qualifications have a strong heritage and are held in high regard around the world. Similarly, features of our system-wide approach are influencing practice internationally.

3. Worldwide, spending on assessment is growing. Pearson have taken international best practice in standards-setting, curriculum alignment and technology as our guide in investing in the English system. We see this investment as critical to developing an education system which ensures British learners continue to be successful in the global marketplace.

4. There is an opportunity to build a position for England as the leader in modern, reliable, valid, globally-benchmarked tests, with all the benefits that will bring to learners both in terms of their experience of education, and in their success in the world of work beyond. Pearson’s strategy as a partner in the English examinations system is to help to deliver that.

International Context

5. Since becoming involved in the English examinations system in 2003 through acquiring the awarding body Edexcel, Pearson has drawn on our international experience in education to define our strategic approach.

6. Pearson works in over 70 countries, with assessment being one of our core areas of expertise. We support governments, teachers and learners to use assessment to support educational improvement and reform. We are also committed to building a body of research to inform policy development in this area, sponsoring three global research centres including the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.

7. In our experience, assessment is central to an education system’s broader success. Internationally, the approach taken to examinations varies widely. Everywhere the challenge is balancing flexibility for teachers and schools with consistent standards. This is achieved through many different methods. Often the chosen approach is built on historical, geographical and cultural reasoning.

8. Some countries set examinations centrally but rely heavily on teacher assessment, others set tests and mark papers regionally against a nationally defined standard, and a smaller number centrally define and externally mark all examinations. The approach taken at a system-level has many and various implications for the cost, risk and reliability, validity and accuracy of assessment; however there is no clear correlation between the approach taken to assessment and examination systems, and performance in international comparison studies such as PISA.

9. The world’s best education systems today:

(a)Design assessments which test what students need to know and be able “to do” to progress in their lives in the 21st century.

(b)Deliver examination results that are recognised as accurate reflections of candidates’ performance with respect to known empirical standards—not only over time or compared with their peers.

(c)Not only monitor attainment, but actively improve learning.

10. Pearson have therefore promoted an integrated approach to developing curricula and assessments, by supporting teachers to develop their skills in assessment, and using attainment data to target classroom practice. We have also focused on using technology to improve the quality of high stakes assessments and their administration.

11. We believe that continuing this innovation and investment is critical, as globalisation drives increased labour market mobility and a demand for internationally recognised qualifications to support it.

12. This means continuing to encourage the embedding of international best practice in assessment and curriculum, and making even better use of formative assessment and technology. To do this successfully, we also need to manage the perceived or real risks to standards associated with these innovations.

Current Areas of Leadership

13. Diversity and competition in examinations provision in England has led to investment which has put it on the leading edge of many global changes in assessment.

14. Over the last decade, the UK awarding sector has delivered increases in the quantity and range of qualifications and assessment support on offer, responding to government initiatives as well as changes in demand led by learners, teachers and end users. Alongside this, there have been vast improvements in the reliability and pace of examinations administration.

International reputation

15. A reflection of the health of the English system is the high regard in which its general and vocational qualifications are held globally.

16. English qualifications are well regarded and understood internationally, and are a thriving export industry—100,000 Edexcel and 300,000 Cambridge International Examinations A levels were awarded internationally last year. Vocational qualifications such as the BTEC are offered in over 50 countries, with the Higher National Diploma in particular growing as a result of strong recognition amongst employers.

17. England is also regarded as an exemplar in developing and administering assessments which go beyond the summative assessment of knowledge to focus on targeting specific labour market demands. The use of technology and data to improve rather than just report performance, already popular in English schools, is growing in momentum elsewhere. Pearson is working with a number of governments to meet these agendas, based upon our UK experience and reputation.

18. For example, India is seeking to mirror the English system in its vocational education reform programme, launching sector skills councils to help anticipate and respond to skills needs, and creating qualifications frameworks which standardise awards against one another. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessments Authority is exploring how to use technology to embed assessment for learning into its curriculum, and Singapore is seeking to modernise examinations administration so teachers can access more granular assessment information.


19. Edexcel has taken advantage of Pearson technology to drive the quality of assessment and customer service across its qualifications in England. Our most significant investment has been in the use of onscreen marking technology. This allows for more accurate and timely marking, whilst giving absolute transparency over how marking is progressing in real time.

20. Other investments in technology-driven innovation have also resulted in increased reliability—through online examiner training, online grading, and computer based testing. Our investment in world-class processes and technology to scan and record all Edexcel examinations reduces the risk that results are lost, and enables greater opportunities for students and teachers to verify or query results should they be dissatisfied. Thanks to investment in online processing, the average turnaround time for priority GCE Enquiries About Results—those linked to university places—is now 2.7 days compared to 11.6 days in 2007.

Testing the right things

21. To ensure the ongoing value of our qualifications for learners, we invest in developing and trialling new offers to meet the emerging demands of universities and employers.

22. This also supports better outcomes: one of the most powerful motivators to raising student performance is understanding the purpose and relevance of the curriculum to their next step.

Use of data to enhance attainment

23. Onscreen marking has the added benefit of enabling detailed analysis of examination scripts at school, teacher, and learner level. Edexcel’s ResultsPlus service, provided free, allows teachers to gain an understanding of performance on questions and curriculum topics. This rich analysis—alongside national comparison data—provides the insight to personalise student learning and to help teachers and departments recognise their own areas of strength and weakness, driving systemic improvements to teaching and learning.

24. We are working to spread these benefits wider—this year we have introduced Mock Analysis, which means all secondary schools and colleges can benefit from using Edexcel’s library of past exam papers to gain greater insight into the progress of learning.

25. We have responded to lessons from services like ResultsPlus to focus our resource development on those areas of content or study where difficulty is most often evident, and develop flexible digital resources which take a more personalised approach. For example, ResultsPlusBooster responds to data feedback to provide focused tasks on areas in which a given student shows weakness. This means teachers are equipped to address gaps in knowledge and skills and ensure that no child is left behind, as well as stretch the brightest.

Additional support for teachers

26. Assessment is necessary to monitor performance and provide learners with qualifications that have currency. In the context of high stakes performance measures, assessment is also a high motivating factor for teachers. 91% of teachers told us they feel pressure to teach to the test due to league tables. The risk is that this narrow focus on performance can lead to a narrow teaching approach.

27. Given that examinations do influence teaching practice, we need to ensure that assessments reflect the breadth of what learners need to know at the end of the course, and that teachers are supported to deliver that content in its fullest. Achieving clear alignment between curriculum and assessment, and supporting teachers to develop their teaching and assessment skills—is therefore the final link in improving learning outcomes. This is explored in more detail in Tim Oates’ paper “Could do better”, in which he argues that this alignment should be one of the key organising principles of the current National Curriculum Review.

28. Reflecting this, Pearson draws on the best subject experts, teachers and authors to devise question papers and specifications, as well as support and resources.

29. We publish teaching resources as part of an integrated support package which is closely linked to our GCSE and GCE specifications from Edexcel. We have also focused on improving the clarity of our specifications, since understanding the scope of a course is a key factor in delivering reliable and valid assessments and raising achievement. Our feedback shows that over 60% of teachers think there has been significant progress in this area in recent years.

30. Public confidence requires that, alongside this, we act to mitigate actively any perceived conflicts of interest or risks that the confidentiality of question papers is breached. Pearson have a Code of Ethics outlining this for all our examiners, we do not allow publishing staff any knowledge of exam papers, and while we have agreements with all publishers, none of them are exclusive. We believe it is important for public confidence that these policies are adopted and communicated industry wide.

31. Enabling freedom and creativity in classroom practice requires a system where the goal and standard are specified, but there is flexibility in how these standards are achieved. Pearson aim to provide a range of resources and specifications which meet the standard defined by the regulator at each level. This enables teachers to make a confident choice which takes account of the preferences of their learners, without compromising standards. We should also look to formative assessment as a tool which can provide for teachers the evidence they need to personalise learning and engage students.


32. Even with the additional services outlined above, examination fees have risen more slowly than inflation over the last five years. The awarding body system delivers results at a substantially lower cost than franchising approaches.

33. However, the volume of exams taken has increased substantially and as a result centres’ overall spend on examinations has risen in recent years. The growing role of qualifications in competing for progression to further study and employment, and emphasis on performance tables, has led to more people taking larger numbers of qualifications and rising numbers of resits. The move to modular qualifications also plays a role.

34. Given that resource is being allocated to this area by schools, there is a case to explore further the role of formative assessment and intelligent use of data, to ensure that assessments are worthwhile in driving up performance for schools and students, rather than merely accrediting it.

Areas for Reform and Investment

35. The role of the regulator is to ensure that in the context of innovation, standards and fairness are maintained across awarding bodies. Our research indicates that this approach is effective—with higher education and schools reporting that they regard differences between awarding organisations and specifications as being confined to pedagogical approach and the type of content covered, rather than relating to standards.

36. However, at system level, we are yet to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure England continues to lead the field.

37. If we are to keep pace with peers globally, we need to do all we can to support greater and quicker innovation, and ensure confidence in the quality of English qualifications and the learners who possess them.

38. Pearson recommends attention be focused on:

investing in new technology to improve examination administration;

using the most up to date research techniques to define and maintain standards; and

encouraging greater integration and alignment of curriculum and assessment, with teaching and learning.

Quality of awarding body processes

39. We support moves to ensure the most reliable and modern processes are adopted through public reporting requirements, incentives and penalties. This will drive all awarding organisations to invest in the technology and expertise that is available.

40. New, streamlined performance metrics should focus on quality. We are working with Ofqual to consider other metrics we could report publicly on to secure high public confidence in the standards of our processes, and encourage continued investment in the technology available to drive improvement. For example, a “quality grade” might aggregate question paper errors uncovered pre and post examination session, lost scripts, late entries managed, complaints, appeals, and Enquiries About Results, and the pace and nature of responses.

41. We support the introduction of reasonable fines as a penalty for poor performance. However, the size of fines does need to be carefully proportionate in order that it does not deter investment or new market entrants.

Setting and upholding standards

42. Standards in general qualifications are set by the regulator, with awarding bodies generating diverse specifications from the consistent criteria. Awarding of grades each summer is then managed collaboratively by awarding organisations and the regulator. This ensures that the number of awards made at each grade falls within an overall target percentage based on predictions of any given cohort’s prior performance, and on the results of the previous year. This eliminates the risk that awarding bodies compete on the standards of their assessments.

43. The numbers achieving high grades increases year on year since students tend to slightly outperform their peers year on year: teachers become more adept at supporting students as qualifications become more familiar, and more practice papers become available. The tolerance of a small increase for each grade has a cumulative effect until, as now, awards at the top grades are achieved by a greater proportion of students, creating the problem of identifying the very top performers in each cohort.

44. This has eaten away at confidence in exam results as a proxy for achievement, and the result is that when grades go up, we remark on the failure of the examinations system, rather than celebrating the success of young people.

45. Some steps have been taken to mitigate this grade creep—for example, the new A* at A level, and awarding organisations now predict performance for the lifetime of a qualification, rather than year by year. More significantly, the National Curriculum Review will “recalibrate” the standards learners are expected to meet at a given age, using international comparisons to check on whether what is being required of young people in England matches the rest of the world.

46. Beyond the Review, there is a need to restore confidence in the examination awards which run alongside the curriculum for the long term. The process for setting the levels of achievement that we test students against must be as rigorous as possible, so that where more individuals achieve high grades, we can be confident it is down to improvements in teaching and learning. Confidence in the examinations system needs to be high in order that where genuine improvement is registered; it is reflected in results and celebrated.

47. We should be emulating our international competitors by exploiting advances in empirical standard setting. Since 2008, Hong Kong have embedded within examinations an objective standardised scale for English, Maths and Chinese, defined by the test scores of a tightly controlled sample on specially devised test. This enables them to robustly defend the absolute standard and track change in performance up or down, year on year, and removes the need for an awarding process. Pearson are innovating in this area by developing a global linear scale for Mathematics.

48. There needs to be a more regular mechanism for ensuring that what we are requiring of students in assessments remains appropriate in its content and demands. This can be determined by drawing on end user feedback on skills gaps and international comparisons using benchmarks such as PISA. We ought also to consider changing assessments with a regularity which reflects the tendency for teachers to get better at preparing students for any assessment over time. Pearson are pursuing regular review and recalibration of standards in the vocational area.

Improving learning outcomes

49. Under a newly streamlined and more difficult curriculum, and tougher floor targets, it will be even more important to provide the right level of support to teachers to get learners to the required level.

50. Technology can enable more scalable, effective formative assessment. Formative assessment enables monitoring and raising of attainment throughout a course, and reduces the tendency to over-rehearse content towards a terminal exam. Recent advances in tablet and cloud technology present a new opportunity to explore formative assessment on a national scale, even linking it into computer adaptive testing. This would enable tests to respond to an individual pupil’s ability, unconstrained by the limits of a standardised test. Australia has set aside funds (around £50 million) to develop their capability in this area.

About Pearson

51. Pearson is the world’s leading learning company. For more than one hundred years we have provided teachers with books, learning resources, qualifications and assessment services, and support packages, through names including Edexcel, Longman and Heinemann.

52. Working in 70 countries, Pearson has built an international network of expert education practitioners and researchers. The scale and range which come from operating a publishing, technology and assessment business mean that Pearson is uniquely placed to provide joined-up support to improve outcomes and learning.

53. We believe learning should be personalised and engaging. It must be worthwhile too, underpinned by a rigorous approach which ensures high standards. These principles are embedded in our development of resources, qualifications and technologies at every educational level, across our offer in academic and vocational qualifications, work-based learning and professional education.

54. Pearson contributes to this inquiry as the parent company, since 2003, of the awarding body Edexcel. Edexcel is the UK’s largest awarding body offering academic and vocational qualifications and testing to schools, colleges, employers and other places of learning in the UK and internationally.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012