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Merger bid excites exam boards

Two exam boards are discussing a merger which, if approved, could revolutionise the exam market.

London Examinations, which offers GCSE and A-level syllabuses, and the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC), which specialises in vocational courses, have been talking about a merger since January. Their executive committees have agreed to work together more closely and a working party has been set up to examine the case for a merger.

The new body would be able to offer schools and colleges a mixture of academic and vocational syllabuses. Talks are already taking place on a possible merger between the main academic and vocational boards in Scotland, the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Educational Council. If both mergers go ahead, students in schools and colleges throughout the UK will be able to choose syllabuses for different qualifications from a single exam group.

The move is intended to cut bureaucracy and, in the long term, the boards hope students will be able to mix and match parts of different qualifications.

Tina Townsend, the chief executive of BTEC, wants to see exam regulations change so that, for example, a student could take a BTEC General National Vocational Qualification in health and care, plus part of a London Examinations A-level biology course.

The potential flexibility would mean the merged group would be well-placed to act swiftly when Sir Ron Dearing announces the recommendations of his 16 to 19 education review. Sir Ron is known to want an end to the academic-vocational divide to help all students reach their maximum potential.

Tony Smith, London Examinations' chief executive, stressed that the integrity of London University's A-levels would remain. However, he believes the move may prompt other exam groups to consider merging.

He said: "Suppose Cambridge had announced a merger with the Royal Society of Arts. It would give them an immediate advantage, and I would want to neutralise that advantage."

Both Mr Smith and London University principal Peter Holwell denied that London Examinations' financial position had forced it to seek a merger. Mr Smith said: "We had a deficit of over Pounds 3 million but this year we have a surplus of Pounds 1.5 million. We are not, repeat not, in difficulty financially."

But London is one of the smallest examination boards, with a 16 per cent market share compared to 30 per cent each for the Midland Examining Group and the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, and 20 per cent for the Southern Examining Group.

The competition between exam boards means they cannot increase fees, yet costs are rising because of the changes to exams required by the Government and because schools are becoming more concerned about their budgets.

The merger talks were welcomed by the School Curriculum and Assessment Council and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, the two government bodies which embody the academic-vocational divide and are regularly criticised for not working closely enough together.

The talks were also welcomed by the Institute of Directors, the lecturers' union NATFHE, the university and college lecturers' union, and the Secondary Heads Association (SHA).

John Dunford, SHA's president-elect, who is also a member of BTEC's council and will be taking part in the merger talks, said: "It is a suitable marriage appropriate to both sides.

"It is a most important move towards the coming together of vocational and academic qualifications and it is putting BTEC and the University of London in a position to take immediate advantage of any recommendations Sir Ron Dearing's review will make."

No decisions have been made about job numbers or a home for the merged body, but as the two bodies offer different qualifications, it is expected that the same number of staff will be needed. Changes are expected in the fields of administration and training, however.

* Pupils who sat O-level and GCSE papers as part of a televised experiment have confounded critics of current education standards by scoring higher marks in the 1960s examination.

Fifteen pupils and 15 parents from Kenilworth School in Warwickshire, took part in the experiment, sitting 30-year-old O-level papers and recent GCSE examinations in English, mathematics and general knowledge.

The outcome of the experiment will be shown on Yorkshire Television's 3D programme on June 15 at 7.30pm.

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