Ofqual orders further "conflict of interest" review into privately-owned Edexcel

William Stewart

Ofqual has ordered a further independent review into the UK’s only privately controlled owned schools exam board, to ensure there is no conflict of interest with its owner’s textbook business.

The exams regulator said today it was satisfied that new measures taken by Pearson, to separate the company’s Edexcel exam board from its teaching resources operation, had reduced the risks to qualifications “to an acceptable level”.

But Ofqual now wants the company to commission another independent inquiry next year to ensure that the changes work in practice and are “completely embedded”.

A prominent assessment expert said that he remained “uneasy” about any commercial ownership of a board providing public exams, despite the safeguards.

Professor Alan Smithers from Buckingham University told TES: “I would be happier with something that is completely free-standing for such an important activity, and if examining boards were completely independent of other interests.”

Such concerns have existed ever since the publishers Pearson bought the then troubled Edexcel in 2003, making it the first of England’s big three boards to become part of a for-profit private company.

By 2010 the board was being much more closely integrated with the wider Pearson company, also the largest provider of teaching resources in the UK.

In November Ofqual revealed that “particular concerns” were being raised “about the apparent close alignment between Pearson’s publishing and [exam] awarding activities”.

There have been specific concerns over possible unfair competition from Pearson with other textbook publishers, as the company could have advance information about new qualifications.

Ofqual today revealed that Pearson had published its textbooks before competitors in around half the subjects the watchdog compared. It also found that a third of schools buying Edexcel qualifications also bought a corresponding set of Pearson textbooks, a figure which did not include indirect sales through third party sellers like Amazon.    

The watchdog was also asked by MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee to investigate Pearson’s “potential conflicts of interest”.

Today Ofqual reported that Pearson had put in place the following changes:  

*From September no author of a textbook produced for Edexcel qualifications will have any access to material that could appear in future exam papers

*Sole accountability for qualification design in Pearson has been transferred to a team with no responsibility for the commercial performance of the qualification

*A team previously responsible for the sales and marketing of both qualifications and resources has been split

*Pearson and external publishers are now treated in the same way when seeking endorsement of resources for Edexcel qualifications

*There is a policy of not sharing information on new qualifications with Pearson in-house publishers in advance of competitors

*External publishers are allowed to attend public Pearson events

*Qualification brochures no longer advertise resources

*Event presentations state that Pearson textbooks are not necessary for the teaching of Edexcel qualifications

*A standardised design for Pearson resources and Edexcel qualification specifications has gone

*No selling of exams and textbooks as “bundled” packages.

Ofqual’s report said: “The evidence provided assures us that Pearson now has in place sufficient business separation measures and controls to mitigate the risks from its business model to an acceptable level.

“However, as some of the changes to business processes are very recent and will take time to become established, it is important that we continue to monitor the situation.”

A Pearson spokesperson said: “We have already made a number of improvements to our operating model which give further reassurance that Pearson operates fairly and  appropriately with the interests of students at heart.”

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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