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Ready, steady, reform

School exam boards cry out for change, but it must come slowly and carefully

Gillian Shephard is quite right: there are simply far too many schools examination boards and groups. The multiplicity of syllabuses and the free market competition between boards (logos, conference hotel pitches to heads of departments and customised plastic shopping bags to carry your syllabuses) cry out for reform and a unified system administered by a central examination authority, perhaps based on the Scottish model. If this Government does not pledge itself to reform, the next one must.

The undoubted need for change does not, however, justify hasty or high-handed action on the part of the central authorities, whatever the temptation. Nor can it justify a refusal on their part to consult experienced teachers and examiners. Unfortunately, I believe the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has already fallen into this trap in its recent dealings with boards in general, and with the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, in particular.

Dr John Saunders, the chief examiner in English with the OCSEB, resigned in July to be free to criticise the national structure of examinations authorised by the SCAA.

He objected, with his fellow principal examiners, to a SCAA code of practice published in March this year, which had been negotiated between the authority's and the board's officials, without any consultation with experienced subject professionals. In OCSEB's case, this latter group includ-ed a professor of English at Oxford University, prominent headteachers, senior teachers and writers.

A belated SCAA decree also declared that "any exam offering some candidates the benefit of a modular route must treat all candidates as modular".

The result was that about 95 per cent of OCSEB's English candidates were not assessed in the way they expected when they embarked on the syllabus. Instead the examiners were obliged to take an inflexible, "modular" view. This meant that erratic or unusual marks went unchecked and were simply processed by computer. It is possible that the thousands of candidates who took that A-level in 1996 were unfairly graded.

Dr Saunders felt strongly that this warranted some significant public protest. His resignation provoked a SCAA scrutiny of the A-level exam and award for which he had been responsible. SCAA attacked OCSEB's jugular and consequently the 11 principal examiners of A-level English were suspended until they had signed a compliance with the (SCAA) code of practice, which they had not been able to observe to the letter because of administrative difficulties.

The crucial meeting to finalise next year's draft A-level English papers, which was to have been held in London at the end of November, was therefore cancelled.

The jobs of the principal examiners have been advertised and interviews conducted. The former examiners were free to apply, but they will have to sign a contract with a gagging clause effective "during the appointment and at any time after the termination of the appointment".

This is the sad state of affairs which OCSEB, arguably the most highly respected of the exam boards, the board used by most of the leading state and independent schools and esteemed by university admissions offices, is now in.

Candidates in schools who are expecting to take OCSEB A-level English in June 1997 and teachers should know that there are still no assistant examiners, and no papers set as yet.

For candidates' sakes, a central, united, national schools examinations and assessment authority, providing common syllabuses and common examinations must be established.

New codes of practice for examination and assessment must be composed, but this time only after calling on the expertise of subject specialists and allowing for different demands made by different subjects. This needs to be done quickly: either Mrs Shephard or David Blunkett should initiate the reform.

Brian Martin is head of the English department at Magdalen College School, Oxford. He is a former principal examiner with the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board.

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