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Reduce the burden of costly exams

Government policy has had a curious effect on the way we allocate education funding. Most teachers believe teenagers take too many exams yet, as our page 1 story reveals, spending on exams is actually going up: last year we spent pound;250 million a year on examining 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, an increase of 13 per cent on the previous year.

Meanwhile, ministers have placed a deal to cut teachers' workload and raise standards by employing more assistants at the heart of plans to modernise schools. But the assistants on whom this policy depends still languish at the bottom of the pay heap and are now threatening to wreck the agreement.

Their indignation about poor rewards for growing responsibility will be bolstered by figures released this week which show that teachers have enjoyed big pay rises. The average teacher's salary rose by pound;7,000 to pound;29,000 between 1997 and 2002. The increases are well-deserved, an overdue recompense for an avalanche of initiatives, bureaucratic interference and rising demands. But ministers should pause to consider the consequences of soaring exam costs and disgruntled classroom assistants.

Some assistants earn only pound;5 an hour, little more than teenagers with a Saturday job. Their pay varies shamefully depending on where they work and a TES survey two years ago found that four out of 10 were not paid in the holidays. Since the workforce agreement was signed, some say they have been bullied into taking over classes from more expensive teacher colleagues.

The pound;250m at present spent on exams would fund an annual pay rise of pound;1,500 for every classroom assistant. Exam costs must be reduced. So must the number of external exams taken by secondary pupils. Mike Tomlinson's review of qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds is investigating the assessment burden. But any changes it recommends will not happen for nearly a decade.

We urgently need to downgrade the roles of the GCSE and AS-level exams and give teachers more responsibility for assessing pupils.

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