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The benefits of body merging

Has the Government struck the right balance betweenregulation and competition? Neil Merrick reports

Academic and vocational awarding bodies are striving to retain their separate identities at the same time as meeting government requirements for a reduction in the number of unitary boards, the new exam boards uniting vocational and academic studies. Only Edexcel has gone as far as ministers would like.

This month's launch of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance - an amalgamation of the Associated Examining Board, the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board and City Guilds - is the latest indication that awarding bodies have heeded the warning of Baroness Blackstone, the minister for further and higher education, that boards must do more than simply create informal groupings.

The minister announced in June that she wanted GCSEs, A-levels and GNVQs to be offered by no more than three unitary awarding bodies, each using a single trading name and with one point of accountability. But the three organisations that make up AQA stress that they have not merged in the same way that Edexcel was formed last year, following the merger between the Business and Technology Education Council and the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council.

City Guilds - the market leader in NVQs - insists it will include only its GNVQ business within the new body, so NVQs will continue to be marketed as City Guilds qualifications. "Our main game is still the occupational sector, " said City Guilds director general Nick Carey. "We would be doing a fundamental disservice by putting all our NVOs into the alliance."

George Turnbull of the AEB agreed that no merger had taken place - at least so far. "It will be a working arrangement or alliance but, as far as people putting on exams are concerned,they won't be able to see the joins," he said.

The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) and the RSA Examinations Board will operate as the unitary body OCR from January. The merged body may, in the short term, use different names for different markets. The full name of the new body is Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, acknowledging that UCLES awards A-levels as the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council. Martin Cross, RSA's chief executive, will be director general of OCR, but UCLES will retain its own chief executive and continue to market qualifications for its overseas market separately.

Mr Cross admitted that OCR had been set up slightly sooner than the two boards would have liked because of the Government's timetable, but he insisted that both had always wanted a merger. "We have got a set of permeable structures which allow us to move to a fully integrated operation when appropriate, " he said.

Rationalisation is nothing new among exam boards. Before the arrival of GCSEs in the mid-1980s, more than 20 boards were offering A-levels, O-levels and CSEs. The O-level and CSE boards merged into four GCSE groups, which subsequently each linked up with an A-level board. But the creation of unitary bodies which coincides with the launch of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is a further indication of how the Government wishes to bridge the academic-vocational divide.

The fact that schools and colleges will still be able to choose where they enter students for qualifications has been widely welcomed. Only 7 per cent of responses to the "Guaranteeing Standards" consultation paper supported the introduction of a single awarding body for the United Kingdom. Groups such as the Association of Colleges regret that ministers have not gone further and included NVQs in the unitary picture.

Unitary bodies will together account for about two-thirds of all NVQs (City Guilds alone has more than 50 per cent of the market). But even after further cuts in the number of bodies offering NVQs through the creation of new national training organisations, the qualifications will remain available through about 60 bodies.

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the AOC, said colleges dealt with between 10 and 30 boards, including many vocational bodies that offered only NVQs. "Rationalisation is fine as long as you can find one awarding body to meet all your needs," she said. "We are reaching the time when colleges are going to have to make hard choices over whether they wish to continue dealing with so many bodies."

For schools mainly concerned with academic qualifications and GNVQs, the unitary bodies should cut administration. All three bodies talk about creating one-stop shops with improved regional structures. But commentators such as Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, are still concerned about whether the Government has struck the right balance between regulation and competition. He would prefer a system of franchising under which awarding bodies would bid to provide services to schools and colleges for five or seven years.

Bringing the academic and vocational together certainly has advantages, not least in cross-fertilisation of assessment techniques, he said. "But I'm worried that we have got three monolithic bodies with their own territories and procedures which are difficult to change. Franchising would lead to more flexibility and innovation."

Kathleen Tattersall, chief executive of the NEAB, said the QCA was certain to provide stricter regulation than the two organisations it had replaced. In extreme circumstances, accreditation could be withdrawn from an awarding body that failed to come up to scratch.

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