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‘The exam reform process has been like driving a coach and horses through the education system’

Ministers hoped that their changes would be like a high-speed express, writes a leading educationist. Unfortunately the programme was driverless and has been derailed

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What transport metaphor to use when describing exam reform? Intended by its architects as a high-speed express, it has felt more like a roller-coaster. How about driving a coach and horses through any semblance of consultation or consideration for educational timelines? Ironically, given the linear imperative, the rails are being laid only just ahead of the train.

So by the end of February, some 60 per cent of the new GCSE and A-level specifications, due for first teaching in September, had still not been accredited.

As of 2 March, the due date for delivery of the GCSE science suite had slipped to mid-March. No date was even given for the fourth submission of the MFL specifications by two exam boards.

At A level, it is to be hoped that the boards will be third time lucky with MFL, geography, PE and RS.

This was an accident waiting to happen. Throughout the process, deadlines have been politically determined. They were always unreasonable. Now they look increasingly unrealistic as well.

Teachers need time to prepare. They need to receive and digest the details, choose one, and await the subsequent development of specification-specific resources, before finalising their programmes of study. The changes are not minor tweaks. At both GCSE and A level there are fundamental changes to the exam structure, as well as content and size, vitally affecting how they are taught. There is little enough time to do this with A level. With GCSE science, where many schools begin the GCSE course in Year 9, the train has already left the station.

These are tactical worries – and that’s bad enough. But there are strategic concerns too. These crises have thrown a spotlight onto a structural flaw in the edifice of exam administration. The English system, very unusually, is built around a national regulator overseeing a small number of independent exam boards. This might be thought to prevent an over-zealous state interfering too directly in the exam process, ensuring a measure of autonomy. But the reforms were forced through by politicians, with the exam boards having to design and deliver specifications according to Ofqual’s blueprint.

Another argument for having several independent awarding bodies is that it constitutes a market in which ‘consumers’ get real choice. This, too, is false. Qualifications are far from a free market. The small number of awarding bodies makes it an oligopoly. Choice is only real if there are genuine alternatives to choose between. In small-entry subjects, the oligopoly becomes a monopoly: at GCSE, Classical Greek and dance are offered by a single board. The same applies at A level with Latin and dance.

Those involved in making qualification ‘choices’ are not consumers, any more than a commuter on the 6.45 to King’s Cross, because there is not a free or clear choice. We are being treated, essentially, as passengers. At least the 6.45 has a trained driver, an approximate timetable, and a destination.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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