Aussie head of watchdog backs vocational mix

Dr Ken Boston, new boss of the QCA, is no stranger to controversy. Geoff Maslen and Julie Henry report

THE Australian appointed to head the Government's exam watchdog will face an exam system in turmoil but Dr Ken Boston is used to tackling difficult situations.

The 59-year-old is director general of education and training in New South Wales, the largest school district in Australia and the country's largest employer.

Three years ago, he accused teachers of being greedy during a pay dispute. They immediately went on strike. Some 20,000 teachers held a protest rally calling for his sacking. But Dr Boston survived and now describes his relations with the New South Wales Teachers Federation as "cordial".

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's new pound;120,000-a-year chief executive has an impressive record in vocational education, an area at the heart of ministers' proposals to overhaul secondary education. He introduced a new framework combining academic and vocational qualifications in Australia, similar to the one envisaged for England.

"I really do think there are immense benefits from combining schools and further education," he told The TES.

"The A-levels certainly are the gold standard and must be protected but we also must build real intellectual rigour and status into vocational education."

While the Government's 14 to 19 agenda will occupy much of Dr Boston's time when he starts in September, of more immediate concern are claims of increased cheating in national tests and an erosion of faith in the exam boards. The QCA will have fresh powers to intervene when awarding bodies make mistakes under the new education Bill.

A catalogue of blunders this summer has led to demands for a radical overhaul of the exam system. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, called for Edexcel to be stripped of its examination work.

However, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the closure of one board would place too great a stress on the others.

Edexcel hit back at claims of incompetence, insisting that a few minor errors out of the thousands of papers taken so far did not represent a system in trouble. Frank Wingate, the exam board's head of external relations, accused Mr Hart of raising anxiety levels.

It emerged that the school which complained about a paper containing 11 questions but asking students to answer "all nine" had received a correction notice which Edexcel had sent out by registered post. A QCA spokeswoman said: "We are satisfied that Edexcel had a system in place in this instance."

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