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Audit to probe cost of testing regime

Schools facing mounting exam fees as English pupils are the most examined in the world. Julie Henry reports.

Examination boards are to be audited and their chief executives reined in, says the Government's exam watchdog.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is due to order an inquiry into the burgeoning cost of exams and tests.

As we reported last week, the annual cost of exams and tests has shot up to more thanpound;200 million - a 50 per cent rise since Labour came to power.

Ken Boston, the new QCA chief executive, has noted that English students take more exams than pupils anywhere else in the world. He believes more teacher assessment could reduce the burden.

He said: "Discussions with heads indicate that there are real concerns about the high level of exam fees. We need to get the right balance between the resources going into teaching the curriculum and how much is spent on tests and exams.

"As the regulator I will be discussing the current scale of exam fees being paid by schools and colleges with the awarding bodies."

Many schools have seen exam bills double since the A-level reforms. A 1,000-pupil secondary with a sixth form spends about pound;100,000 on average.

TES sources claim that all the exam boards - which are non-profit-making charities - are losing money because of the huge costs of designing Curriculum 2000 syllabuses and processing more than 24 million scripts each year. Edexcel loses between pound;3 and pound;5 on every academic exam entry.

The QCA is also proposing to restrict the power of exam board heads to alter grade boundaries unilaterally in a new code of practice governing exams.

At present, chief executives have the final say in deciding the balance between examiners' judgment of pupils' performance and statistical evidence, such as the proportion of students at each grade in previous years.

Much of this year's grading furore was caused by last-minute grade-boundary changes in some subjects by Ron McLone, OCR chief executive, without consulting his chief examiners.

The proposed revision would mean chief executives agreeing any changes with their chief examiners and informing QCA where there is a disagreement.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

"Schools and colleges are spending an absurd amount of money on exams. The number of exams must be reduced and the costs brought down."

He also welcomed the new code of practice and said the power of chief executives to control results by the use of statistics must be restricted.

George Turnbull, spokesman for exam board AQA, said an audit would show the massive costs involved in developing government changes to exams which were borne solely by the exam boards.

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