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Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by WJEC

A. Competition between Exam Boards

How do the exam boards avoid competing on standards?

One of the most important aspects of collaborative work undertaken by awarding organisations is the “statistical screening” analysis undertaken after each summer series of examinations. This provides a method of benchmarking which is sufficiently robust to provide alignment of awarding standards within a subject.

Common use is also made, at the time of awarding, of data which relates to the prior attainment characteristics of each awarding organisation’s cohort of candidates. While this can also have some value, WJEC’s view is that it should be used with caution because of uncertainty regarding the validity of the assumptions on which such predictive models rely.

What are the factors which account for WJEC’s increase in market share in certain subjects eg GCSE English, GCSE RS (short course) and A level French in recent years? What makes a syllabus/exam board attractive to teachers?

The evidence that we have from teacher opinion surveys and comments received directly from teachers suggests that the most important considerations are: the suitability of the specification for the school/college’s cohort of candidates; the accessibility of awarding organisation staff (especially, in WJEC’s case, the direct contactability of our specialist subject officers and their support teams), and the reliability of marking.

B. Reform of the Exam System

What evidence should be considered when deciding whether reform is needed?

WJEC’s view is that the existing system should be evaluated in the context of a set of key priorities. These might include:

being responsive to the evolving needs of learners in the context of society and the economy;

cost-efficiency;

comparability of awarding standards within a subject within a year;

comparability of awarding standards within a subject over time;

comparability of standards between subjects; and

operational risk.

What should be the key priority in deciding how the exam system should be reformed?

This is for stakeholders to determine. WJEC considers that being responsive to the evolving needs of learners in the context of society and the economy should be high within the list of priorities.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of a single board or franchised system?

The main benefits might be the elimination of issues relating to comparability of awarding standards within a subject within a year, if provision was restricted to one specification per subject.

A single board might be appropriate for subjects with relatively small candidate numbers that are currently spread thinly across a number of awarding organisations, though a board providing this service would need to be involved in high volume activity as well in order to ensure overall financial viability.

Potential drawbacks of a franchised model might include greater difficulty in addressing comparability themes between subjects and increased operational risk.

It is less clear how such systems would compare with present arrangements in terms of cost-efficiency and innovation. Within a franchised system, there is potentially a risk to those curriculum areas which have relatively less volume or which require relatively more costly assessment arrangements, as the scope for cross-subsidy across qualifications within an awarding organisation would be much reduced.

Role of the regulator—should this be strengthened and if so, in what respects?

Regulatory priorities should be reviewed. There is evidence which suggests that the accreditation processes which were applied to some current qualifications did not address rigorously some matters which are fundamental to comparability of standards, and regulators are now finding that they are having to address these issues retrospectively.

Going forward, it is important that regulators are equipped to address all significant aspects of comparability at the time qualifications are accredited, with this being recognised as one of their highest priority activities.

C. Innovation

Has the current system delivered innovation which supports high quality teaching and learning?

WJEC’s view is that the current system is capable of delivering innovation which supports high quality teaching and learning, but it is also the case that when the criteria which govern specifications are overly detailed there is a significant constraint on such innovation.

Does competition between exam boards enhance or work against innovation in qualification development?

WJEC’s view is that innovation is enhanced by having more than one awarding body offering qualifications in the same area of learning.

D. “Standards Debate” and Grade Inflation

What factors contribute to the rising number of high grades at GCSE and A level?

This is a complex question in that trends in grades awarded are not uniform across subjects nor across awarding bodies. For example, there are subjects where the proportion of high grades awarded by WJEC has remained very stable over a period of years.

It is known that many centres have, in some subject areas, provided more intensive support for candidates who are considered to be close to achieving the next highest grade. In addition, some candidates have found that their intended progression routes have required higher grades than might have been required of their predecessors and this may have stimulated greater effort in preparation for examinations.

What could the exam boards do to increase public confidence in grading?

Recent actions have included allowing teacher organisations to attend awarding meetings. Possible additional steps might include the publication of explanatory material.

How would a single exam board or franchised model need to deal with comparability issues, such as between specifications, subjects, qualifications?

A single exam board or franchised model would simplify matters relating to comparability within a subject, if provision was restricted to one specification per subject.

If more than one specification is permitted per subject, then the comparability issues remain very similar to those which characterise the current system. Key variables that would need to be taken into account are:

(i)Potential differences in the cohorts taking each specification.

(ii)Potential differences in the relative demands of the assessments.

Issues relating to comparability between subjects and between different qualifications would be very similar for a single exam board, a franchised model and the current system. Under the franchised model, comparability between subjects could potentially become more difficult to address, since an individual awarding body might have data for only a limited range of subjects. In this situation the regulator might need to be the agent that draws data together for work relating to comparability.

And with standards over time?

The issues relating to comparability of standards over time are expected to be the same whether there is a single exam board, a franchised model, or the current model.

E. Commercial Activities of Exam Boards and Conflicts of Interest

What is your view on the conflicts of interest in the current system?

Conflicts of interest of a commercial kind may be perceived rather than actual.

WJEC does not generally engage in “for-profit” publishing activity, but even if we did the products sold would be subject to competitive market pressures.

In a situation in which delivery of a qualification required the purchasing of “for profit” published resources from the same awarding organisation, the total cost of delivery of that qualification would need to be competitively priced otherwise learning providers would choose alternatives to that qualification.

How much exam boards should be involved in improving results as well as in impartial assessment of attainment?

Our view is that improvements in results occur as a consequence of improvements in the engagement of learners within the educational setting.

As an exam board, we have no direct involvement in that setting; however, we would be one of several agencies that have the potential to contribute to improvements which teaching staff can bring to the educational setting. This can be through professional development events for teachers, through the feedback that we provide through examiners’ reports, and through teaching and learning resources which we provide to support our specifications.

Should examiners be allowed to author endorsed textbooks?

We have not encountered any specific difficulties in this area and therefore have no evidence which suggests that there is a need to move away from the current arrangements, which allow examiners to author textbooks but prevent publishers from identifying the examining role that is fulfilled by the author.

Should current endorsement arrangements between publishers and exam boards continue?

The merits of the endorsement arrangements might be judged on the basis of whether teaching staff find it useful to have an assurance of this kind in relation to published materials, or whether they consider that they can make their own judgements about the relevance and suitability of a published text in the context of the specification which they propose to teach.

Should Ofqual be regulating more actively in this area? In what ways?

This should be a relatively straightforward area to police: the most important requirement is a clear set of protocols, which could be based on clarification of the present arrangements or on a new set of arrangements which eliminates some of the current possibilities.

February 2012

Prepared 2nd July 2012