"We want more powers for Ofsted. Give inspectors more teeth." The idea of heads, teachers and their leaders making such a demand when the unions gather for their annual conferences over Easter is, frankly, unthinkable. Yet that is exactly what has just happened in the world of exams.
This week the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill was debated in Parliament for the first time. Among many other things, it proposes permanent arrangements for Ofqual, the new exams regulator. Unsurprisingly, the three leading exam boards, as the organisations most likely to be affected by the new watchdog, have been keen to have their say.
Cambridge Assessment, the parent body of the OCR board, is concerned that the legislation will give ministers too much scope to interfere in Ofqual's work and compromise its independence. Edexcel is worried that Ofqual's power to cap exam fees could stifle the development of innovative qualifications. But it is the position of AQA that really stands out. Mike Cresswell, director general of the largest of the big three, wants Ofqual to be given more powers to tell his board, and all the others, what to do.
"To be able to discharge its primary purpose as the strategic regulator of the qualifications market, Ofqual must be empowered to intervene, if necessary, to ensure the setting and maintenance of appropriate examination standards," he says.
Some argue that the bill already allows this to happen. There is a clause stating that the regulator can direct an exam board to "take or refrain from taking specified steps" needed to meet the conditions of its recognition by Ofqual. However, Dr Cresswell thinks this is too vague and could lead to expensive, lengthy disputes over its meaning. He wants Ofqual to be explicitly given the power to tell a board to set the standard needed to get a particular grade on a particular qualification at a particular level.
Why is that power so important now, when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ofqual's predecessor, managed without it? Dr Cresswell cites two reasons. First, he says, the A-levels, GCSEs and diplomas about to be introduced mean that differences between standards offered by different boards are more likely to emerge.
"We are at a pivotal moment when there is an enormous amount of structural change, and it is at those moments when we need the regulator to be clear about comparability," he argues.
His second point stems from the pressure on schools to get the best possible results. This comes into play when schools are choosing which board's exams to sit. "I am talking about the decision to do one awarding body's GCSE or another and we know that, for reasons I can totally understand, schools are looking for the qualification that gives them the best results," he says.
So some exams are easier than others, depending on the board that offers them?
Dr Cresswell insists not. "Generally standards between the awarding bodies are well aligned. Right now, (schools) can choose pretty freely between all the main awarding bodies and will get something which will set the same standard."
Despite his careful wording, Dr Cresswell is not talking about some abstract fear of what could happen in the future. A dispute has already taken place between the boards about the standards they set for an exam, and his board, AQA, was at the heart of it.
Last summer it agreed "under protest" to lower the mark needed to achieve a C grade in its new science GCSE, to bring it into line with the other two boards. When the row became public, Dr Cresswell said it was the OCR and Edexcel whose standards were out of line with previous years. In other words, they had made the exam easier.
It was a charge that the two boards and Ofqual - operating in its early, temporary form as a committee of the QCA - firmly rejected, even though it emerged that Edexcel awarded Cs to pupils scoring just 20 per cent in one GCSE science paper.
The affair has continued to reverberate. Kathleen Tattersall, chair of Ofqual, raised it with the QCA board in September. Minutes reveal she talked of a need "for Ofqual to have earlier notice of emerging problems of this kind".
Tellingly, the minutes also reveal that she noted "the need for Ofqual and the (exam boards) to arrive at a clearer picture of what is meant by 'maintaining standards' when the structure of qualifications changes". If Ofqual does not know what maintaining standards actually means then, one has to ask, would giving it the more explicit powers of intervention that AQA is calling for make any difference?
Dr Cresswell makes no bones about last summer's row influencing his current demand. "That was resolved reasonably well by Ofqual asking us to adjust our standards in the direction of greater leniency to bring us into line with the other two," he says. "However, one can think of the same thing brewing up and Ofqual actually needing the power to tell an awarding body that it needs to adjust its standards."
He believes the mere knowledge that the regulator had that power could nip further disputes in the bud.
The other two boards have not raised the same concerns. In fact, Simon Lebus, Cambridge Assessment's chief executive, explicitly rejects them. "Ofqual has very extensive authority and more than adequate scope to get involved in these matters," he says. "There is nothing that has prevented it from intervening in the past."
So, could AQA's concerns be prompted by fears it has about its rivals in a very competitive market? If so, Dr Cresswell is not admitting it. He rejects any suggestion that it is the exam boards that would be to blame for future disputes, insisting that "generally standards between the awarding bodies are well aligned".
Instead, he points to comparisons made by third parties, such as online teacher groups, suggesting that a qualification from one board might be easier to pass than another. Such exercises, he says, are misleading because they do not compare like with like. The profile of candidates sitting one board might be very different from another's. OCR, for example, tends to be popular in the independent sector, partly for historical reasons. Ofqual needs to be clear on such matters, simply to give the public reassurance, he says.
But the truth is that although the exam boards have a duty to maintain standards, there is a competing pressure - the desire to improve market share. It is easy to see how the two could become confused. Where schools are desperate to do better in the league tables, a suggestion, however false, that one qualification is easier than another could have big financial benefits for the board offering it. And evidence has emerged that at least one board has been sailing close to the wind.
Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that Edexcel, the only privately owned board of the big three, had given a presentation to teachers entitled "Get better results". It went on to say that its GCSE syllabus for RE "allows for better results for all your students".
Edexcel insists its pass marks are set according to "strict regulatory scrutiny" and that it has developed methods to support teachers in preparing for exams. But it is cases such as this that demonstrate not just the need for Ofqual to be a strong independent regulator, but also how difficult that job could be.
WHO WANTS WHAT
- Ofqual's power to cap exam fees should not deter boards from developing innovative qualifications.
- It should try to resolve the annual "dumbing down" debate by drawing on international comparisons.
- Ofqual should have a new duty to deliver qualifications on time.
- Accountability should be tougher, with more details in its annual report to Parliament.
- There should be clearer statutory checks on ministerial interference: on design and specification of qualifications; on appointments to the Ofqual board; and on exam fee caps.
- Wants Ofqual to have explicit power to intervene over setting standards for particular qualifications.
- It should report on how it has met its objectives rather than just fulfilled its functions.
- It should give guidance on unresolved issues:
Should candidates who sit a single final exam be given extra credit compared to those who reach the same level over separate modules?
Should pupils taking qualifications in the first years they are offered get extra marks?
Do multiple choice tests have an intrinsic weakness that prevents them from delivering a proper standard of assessment?