Government prescription and “regulatory overkill” is leading to homogeneous exams that prevent high quality education and turn pupils off learning, a senior figure in England’s biggest schools exam board has warned.
The pressure of the accountability system is stifling exam board innovation and has rendered schools “almost powerless to exercise meaningful influence or choice over the qualifications their pupils take”, according to Dale Bassett, head of public policy at AQA.
Writing in a personal capacity this week, he says exam boards often have to prioritise the need to comply with government and Ofqual regulation over educational considerations.
“The result of this burgeoning homogeneity can be, in the worst cases, exam-centric curricula that fuel student disengagement, militate against the development of a love of learning, and perhaps most damningly, fail to secure the high-quality education that will prepare young people to progress and to succeed,” Mr Bassett writes in a book of essays published by the Centre for Market Reform of Education think-tank.
He dates the problems back to the late 1980s education reforms, contrasting the Thatcher government’s de-regulation of the City, with the “stifling” regulation of schools that came with GCSEs, the national curriculum, targets and accountability.
This reform package has improved pupil attainment and reduced numbers of failing schools, Mr Bassett acknowledges. But, he writes, “that success has come at a considerable cost” and adds that the accountability system is now at risk of “doing more harm than good”.
He says the prescription has only tightened in recent years as government and Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, have tried to stop perverse incentives and gaming of the accountability system.
Today exam boards try to create varied exams, Mr Bassett says. “But it is becoming increasingly difficult to innovate in this way as content and assessment become ever more regulated,” he warns.
Mr Bassett does not lump all the blame on Ofqual, saying: “It has, as a new regulator, done a good job in difficult circumstances.”
He also describes the government’s decision to from a simple threshold for secondary school accountability to a wider measure of pupil progress as a “significant improvement”.
An Ofqual spokesman said: “We welcome Dale Bassett’s comments that Ofqual’s regulation has tackled some of the biggest problems in qualifications stemming from accountability pressures.
“We recognise that qualifications have an important role to play in accountability, but there is much more to education. We welcome changes being made to the way schools are held to account.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "Our reforms will ensure we have an exam system that parents, employers and universities have confidence in and students are being taught the skills they need to succeed."