Call for new exam regime as fees bill reaches pound;185m

SCHOOLS and colleges have paid out a massive pound;185 million in exam fees this year.

The estimated sum is solely the cost of entering pupils for GCSEs, A-levels or their vocational equivalent.It does not include the hiring of invigilators, buying new desks, paying for off-site premises to hold exams, extra administration staff and full-time examinations officers. Nor does it include the cost of key skills qualifications, mark schemes and practice papers, late-entry surcharges or the fees for re-mark requests.

If the costs of running national curriculum tests - pound;33m this year - are added, the total bill comes to nearly a quarter of a billion pounds.

An analysis by The TES shows the burgeoning cost of the exam system and the pressure it is putting on budgets. The total, nearly equal to the sum allocated by the Government to the teachers' recruitment and retention fund, provides further fuel to teachers and parents who believe the assessment system is out of control.

Since the A-level reforms in 2000, costs have mushroomed. The introduction of AS-levels created a new exam cohort of 17-year-olds. Modular courses have also pushed up costs. Schools and colleges have had to find an extra pound;21m from their own budgets to pay for the new half-an-A-level, which costs between pound;24 and pound;28 a time depending on the board.

More cash will have to be found to pay for the surge in resits. As The TES reveals this week, students now regard them as the norm and are applying for as many as 15 papers at a time.

The most expensive exams are vocational A-level double awards, which count as two A-levels. Awarding body OCR charges pound;166.20 (pound;13.85 a unit) to enter pupils for the 12-unit qualification, compared to AQA's pound;99. Work-related qualifications cost more to enter than academic equivalents.

GCSE exams, which the Government describes as a "useful progress check" and many claim are a waste of time, cost pound;125m. Maureen Cruickshank, headteacher at Beauchamp College, Leicestershire, which has more than 1,000 sixth-formers, said her pound;231,500 exam fee budget had soared in the past few years. The bill now far outstrips that for paper, books and equipment and maintenance.

"We have seen a huge growth and there are costs on top of that. Why can't we do as most of Europe and the International Baccalaureate does and trust teachers to do internal moderation?"

Colchester Sixth-Form College's exam fees topped pound;320,000, a huge rise on the pound;178,000 spent in 2000. Deputy principal Roger Pope estimates that the total cost will reach pound;400,000 this year. But even a smaller secondary such as the 700-pupil Kendrick girls' school, Reading, is spending pound;70,000 a year on exam fees.

The size of the bill provides ammunition for the unions' call for a radical review of the system, described as "elaborate, extensive and expensive" in June 2001 by David Hargreaves, former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and adviser to Education Secretary Estelle Morris.

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

"Too large a proportion of school and college budgets is now taken up with exams. This figure strengthens calls for a reduction in the number of external exams."

Dissatisfaction with the system is felt at every level of the profession and is exacerbated by widely publicised blunders by exam boards struggling to cope with overwhelming numbers of increasingly complex entries.

The annual debate about grade inflation and the inability of the current system to distinguish adequately between top candidates have also undermined trust in exams.

Despite ministers' assurances that tests and exams are here to stay, there is evidence to suggest that middle-class parents are questioning the benefits of the treadmill for their children. It is estimated that bright students now sit 105 tests in their school career.

Professor Dylan Wiliam, a testing expert from King's College, London, said:

"There are dangers in saving money on assessment by introducing cheaper systems like multiple choice. But I would argue that moderated teacher assessment is a much more reliable measure. The bulk of the money is spent on examiners, who are teachers, so they are already doing it. We need to trust them more."

News, 6; Opinion, 23

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