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Exam turmoil strains relations

Government tells qualifications watchdog to raise its game and use new powers to sort out boards. Julie Henry reports

EDUCATION Secretary Estelle Morris and the chairman of the qualifications watchdog clashed this week over who carries the can for an exam system in turmoil.

The sometimes strained relationship between the Government and the quango surfaced publicly as ministers ordered greater policing of exam boards, following the release of a pound;120,000 independent report.

Ms Morris said the performance of the awarding bodies had improved but was still not good enough. It was up to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to sort them out, using new powers in the Education Bill to intervene when things go wrong.

She rejected the argument that the present strain was caused by the burgeoning number of exams. "Examinations and assessments are here to stay," she said.

Her comments were in sharp contrast to those of QCA chairman Sir William Stubbs, who said the authority would not be a scapegoat for wider concerns that children now have to sit too many exams. This year boards will mark 24 million exam scripts.

Such is the concern of ministers and No 10 following last year's exam chaos and blunders, the so-called "quinquennial review" by PricewaterhouseCooper was published a year early. The 59-page report made clear that the QCA must pay less attention to the detail of qualifications and focus on the ability of exam boards to deliver.

The latest clash between ministers and the authority comes as its response to the Government's Green Paper reveals strong opposition to key 14 to 19 reforms.

It says the controversial distinction A-level proposal should be dropped and that the core subjects taken at age 14 should be restricted to maths, English and IT. Proposals for a matriculation diploma come under fire, too. The plan must include a diploma award aimed at the 25 per cent of students who fail to achieve any GCSEs.

It remains to be seen if ministers will heed the advice, but at least it has been offered. Former QCA chief executive Nick Tate said that he was told not to express his reservations about government policies as it would "blot his copy book".

Some commentators believe the QCA kowtows to the department. A recent report by an international panel of experts said the authority should be more "aggressive".

However, there are numerous cases of advice going unheeded and embarrassing climbdowns when ministers overrule authority guidance. The examples demonstrate the difficulties inherent in a relationship with fuzzy boundaries.

Disquiet about the relationship was clear in the evidence presented to PWC. A QCA insider said tensions existed between its curriculum advisers and the standards and effectiveness unit, which spearheads many of the Government's major classroom reforms. The lines of responsibility can be blurred to the point where civil servants can be "aggressively interfering".

At other times, ministers ignore advice from their own civil servants as well as the QCA. A proposal to reduce the time spent on Shakespeare in the key stage 3 English test - thought sensible by both - was quashed by a government fearful of the traditionalist backlash.

One of the report's 33 recommendations was that a single minister take control of the turbulent partnership. David Miliband, schools standards minister, has a tough addition to his portfolio.

Asked how he would respond to criticisms from Mr Miliband, Sir William said: "If he thinks that by giving me an unwelcome message he will solve policy problems of the school exam system, it would be a very uncharacteristic error for such a clever person."

It is hoped the vocational expertise of new chief executive Dr Ken Boston will strengthen the QCA's role. National testing will be revisited in the second part of the review. The report questioned whether the QCA should run the pound;24m national tests industry as well as have responsibility for assessing its quality.

Leader, 20

REPORT'S MAIN FINDINGS

* The QCA has done a good job and should continue to be responsible for qualifications and the curriculum.

* It can be "conservative" and needs to be more responsive.

* More strategic role and better intelligence needed to respond to claims of falling standards.

* The QCA should work with the Sector Skills Councils to develop vocational qualifications.

* Closer links needed with the Office for Standards in Education.

* Feasibility study should be undertaken to establish if national tests should be hived off.

* In-house development of maths tests should be reassessed.

* Good staff should be deployed more effectively. Review whether QCA should be in central London by 2008.

* QCA to review material it publishes.

* Principles guiding how the QCA works with the Department for Education and Skills to be set out in a memorandum.

* Standards minister David Miliband and QCA board to meet at least once a year.

TIMELINE OF COMPLAINTS

* June 1999: the QCA warns ministers that the Curriculum 2000 (AS and A2) timetable is too tight.

* November 2000: moves to teach American spellings for common scientific terms are quashed.

* February 2001: former education secretary David Blunkett vetoes plans to separate English language and English literature GCSEs.

* June 2001: former QCA head David Hargreaves's call for teacher assessment to reduce the burden of exams falls on deaf ears.

* August 2001: vocational GCSEs will be introduced this September despite QCA advice to wait a year.

* September 2001: Estelle Morris ignores the detail of the A-level inquiry and announces that three-hour exams will be reintroduced. She later backtracks.

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