Long read: 'Hyper-accountability has broken down trust' – lessons from 15 years at the heart of the exams system

Simon Lebus, the outgoing CEO of Cambridge Assessment, explains why politicians tinker with the exam system, how accountability has corroded trust and why exam boards are under more scrutiny than ever

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Simon Lebus has seen a lot of changes in the exam system during his 15 years as chief executive of Cambridge Assessment – the organisation that runs the OCR and Cambridge International exam boards.

On the positive side, he says politicians are more open to advice from boards when driving through educational reforms.

But a more worrying development, he believes, is that “trust and cooperation” in the education sector has been broken down by the rise of high-stakes accountability, making teachers more willing to contest exam results.

As he prepares to step down from his role next month, Lebus is also leaving with a strong sense of déjà vu.

Sitting in his office in Cambridge, he reflects: “What I guess is interesting, as I prepare to leave the world of exams after 15-and-a-half years, is we’ve come full circle”

When he arrived at Cambridge Assessment in 2002, a New Labour government was rolling out its ‘Curriculum 2000’ reforms, which moved A levels to a modular structure and introduced AS levels.

Now as he departs the assessment world, the wide-ranging curriculum and qualification reforms instigated when Michael Gove was education secretary are finally reaching fruition.  

“We’re back to linear exams and the 'sudden death' of an end of two-year exams,” Lebus says.

Unsurprisingly, he doesn't see Curriculum 2000 – which provoked a scandal that was one of the reasons behind the resignation of Estelle Morris as education secretary – as a shining example of how government should conduct assessment reform.

“There was a big row because there was a massive uptick in the number of students getting As in A levels, and that was a function of the design of the qualification,” he recalls.

There was “quite a lot” of advanced warning from the boards that this would be the upshot of the changes, but “professional advice… was ignored.”

And he sees the launch of 14-19 diplomas by the Labour government, and their subsequent abandonment by the coalition government, was another low point in relations between politicians and the sector.  

“Huge sums of money and effort were expended for nothing,” Lebus says. “Why was that? Again I think to some extent there was a lack of real meaningful engagement.”

Since then he says this engagement has "improved overall”. But like others in the sector, he’s keen for a period of stability when the system has finished digesting the Gove reforms.

“My sense is that things are somewhat now more settled,” he says. “I think all the major players in terms of Ofqual, the exam boards, and the government are keen to let that pass through the system before thinking again about doing anything.

“I wouldn’t expect in my retirement in 2020 to be reading about further major changes in contemplation.”

Lebus thinks the idea of moving to a single exam board – something Gove said he wanted to do – is “off the table at the moment”.

“There are good grounds for thinking that a single board would not actually work particularly well,” he says.

“You would be putting all your eggs in one basket – that would not be desirable. The process of transition would be horrendous, and it’s not clear to me that any government would really have the appetite to expose themselves to that.”

Radical changes might not be currently in the offing. But the problem for boards – and one of the key things Lebus has learned – is that politicians are strongly inclined to tinker with the assessment framework because they see it as one of the simplest ways to bend the education system to their will.  

“The exam system is one of easiest levers available to government to make changes in the education system,” he says. “Of the various institutional mechanisms available, it’s one of the lower cost means of having a pretty dramatic and powerful backwash right through the system.”

Lebus – like other people running boards – thinks the system has enough to contend with without further upheaval.

“We’re definitely under more scrutiny,” he says. “The development of social media means that student voice is a factor in the exam system in a way it wasn’t 15 years ago.”

“There’s an immediacy and swiftness of feedback, you have people literally come out of the hall and say ‘God that was an awful question’, there’s a great sort of Twitter storm”. Lebus experienced this reaction first-hand last summer when a spate of errors in OCR exam papers provoked a social media backlash.

But even discounting the impact of social media, he thinks the expectations placed on exam boards are higher than ever.

“We, like many organisations delivering various public services, are under a much greater degree of scrutiny than we used to be before. There’s a very reasonable request or appetite for transparency that’s complicated by the fact that exams are an inherently complex system.”

While the demand for greater transparency might be healthy, Lebus argues that there’s a worrying side to today’s more contentious atmosphere.

The exam system is most successful, he claims, when it operates as a “community of practice”, with boards, teachers, markers and subject associations all working together in harmony.

“That’s one of the things that has been troubling if I reflect on changes over the last 15 years. I think that sense of a community of practice has dissolved somewhat, and the system has become much more contentious with people contesting result.”

He lays this problem squarely at the door of the accountability system.

“The number of exam inquiries has gone up enormously, and that in turn is a function of the undesirable impact of hyper-accountability on the schools and the fact that the system has become so high stakes.

“That dissolves bonds of trust and cooperation.”

One of the most disturbing manifestations of this breakdown in trust has been incidents in which teacher-examiners have leaked questions to their students.

While Lebus says his boards will do what they can to remove the potential for this sort of malpractice, he warns the system cannot function without trust.

Increased scrutiny, social media backlashes and the unintended consequences of the accountability regime are not the only challenges facing exam boards. It’s no secret that government reforms, such as “decoupling” AS levels and scrapping modules, have hit their bottom line.

In characteristically phlegmatic style, Lebus describes the market as “financially quite a bracing environment”.

“Clearly there’s been a big diminution in terms of the volume of exams being taken since the Gove reforms,” he says. “That’s created some pressures for all the exam boards.

“I think if you look at AQA's accounts, they recorded quite a large loss last year. OCR had a few loss-making years.

“And of course there’s big investment required for some of these major wholesale qualification reforms.

“People often talk about exam boards as if they’re great big plutocratic organisations. They’re not actually.”

Looking to the future, Lebus believes technology will transform the assessment landscape – potentially killing off terminal exams altogether.

As the CEO of a group that now derives about 80 per cent of its revenues from abroad, he’s had a privileged view of global education trends, including the rise of East Asian countries in international league tables.

However, he takes a more nuanced view when it comes to the question of whether the UK should seek to mimic these systems.

“Here we generally admire Asian education systems for their rigour and mastery of maths and sciences, and general sense of purpose and seriousness and commitment," he says.

“There they admire our system for the fact that we produce sort of free-spirited, creative, independent-minded individuals.

“I think what everybody would like to do is to try and achieve a synthesis of that. But quite where and when that will happen I don’t know. Certainly after my time.”

As to his own future, Lebus says he wants to “develop a portfolio” of advisory and non-executive roles, though he says he hasn’t confirmed anything yet.  Meanwhile, a question mark hangs over the future leadership of Cambridge Assessment, following the surprise news on Thursday that Bill Anderson, the man lined up to be the new CEO, was withdrawing his candidacy due to “personal reasons”.

Lebus says he wants “to keep active in the education space” and could see himself resurfacing in a role connected to edtech.

However, future job opportunities clearly aren’t the only thing on his mind.

“One wants to have the opportunity to pursue a bit of leisure,” he says, leaning back in his chair with a smile.

“I’ll continue to live in Cambridge… there’s lots of good stuff to do. I enjoy music, so I can go to lots of concerts and enjoy the summer.” 

 

 

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