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Edexcel buyer struggled with tests

THE company which has taken over one of Britain's big three exam boards had trouble distributing last year's national curriculum test results for 11 and 14-year-olds, The TES can reveal.

Pearson, the multinational which owns the Financial Times and is one of the world's largest educational publishers, announced last week that it had bought Edexcel for pound;20 million. The move, which was approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is the first privatisation of a major qualifications body.

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, and backbench MPs criticised ministers for allowing the deal to go through without any debate about the merits of private involvement in the setting of exams.

NCS Pearson, part of the Pearson group, is already heavily involved in supporting the UK's testing system. Since last year, it has run the national data collection service for key stage 2 and 3 tests for the QCA, informing local authorities of their schools' results.

Last year, much of the information which was initially despatched to local authorities in August was incomplete.

Brian Tuffin, chairman of the National Consortium for Examinations Results, said that authorities were sent data which missed out individual schools'

results, or pupils' test scores across a whole subject.

Mr Tuffin said: "As you can imagine, local authorities were unhappy because the expectation is that we can provide this information at certain times of the year. When you cannot do that, you are letting people down."

Under the takeover, a new body, called London Qualifications, will run all of Edexcel's current exams, though the Edexcel brand name is being retained, at least in the short term.

Pearson will have a 75 per cent stake in London Qualifications, with the Edexcel Foundation charity owning the remaining 25 per cent.

Until last week, all three large exam boards were charitable trusts.

However, there are no regulations to stop firms running exam boards.

The takeover has been seen as a way of updating the exams system, with Pearson promising to plough tens of millions of pounds into developments including computerised marking and online testing. The company expects all exams to be marked on screen within five years.

But Professor Wragg said the move also stood to give Pearson a commercial advantage in its educational publishing business, as schools might favour books endorsed by the board and it would have early information on changes to exams.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said the move raised many concerns. There could be a constant conflict between profits and public service, he said.

There were also fears that exam entry fees could rise. The new body would not promise this would not happen, but said that the QCA, as regulator, would have a say on this.

The Commons education select committee would be scrutinising the takeover, its chairman Barry Sheerman said this week.

Leader, 23

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