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Technological takeover of cottage industry

LAST summer's A-level results created a media storm in September and contributed to Estelle Morris's resignation. Various short-term fixes have been made but it is the longer-term consequences that are more interesting.

The Department for Education and Skills has asked for radical long-term reform of the 14-19 curriculum with Mike Tomlinson's committee as the vehicle for delivering this. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been completely reorganised and has a public determination to use technology to take on the examinations cottage industry.

External assessment has been an article of faith in raising standards but the reality is rather mundane. Thousands of retired teachers and lecturers are employed in the summer to mark exam papers. The Post Office has to deliver millions of papers to these part-time examiners - often working in remote rural locations - and collect them back a few weeks later.

As the number of exams has increased, the external assessment system has come under pressure at various points. Can the awarding bodies find enough examiners? Can they conscript trainees to fill the shoes of the old faithful? Will Postman Pat mislay the delivery? Will the 24-hour news media exaggerate the odd mistake into a national crisis?

Technology is the preferred long-term solution to this problem but comes at a cost. Creating a secure network to handle exam questions, answers and marks could cost tens of millions of pounds. The current awarding bodies do not have the money and can not keep raising exam fees above inflation. The Government could find the money but would be wary of getting drawn into the details of exam administration.

Who can blame them? Tax credits and criminal records show that administration is best handled at arm's length from government. Anyway, there may be a private-sector solution to the money problem.

The joint venture between Edexcel and Pearson is a lever to draw in money from the private sector. Edexcel is a charity which made a deficit last year running exams. It is transferring all its qualifications, operations and staff to a new organisation called London Examinations, in which it retains a minority stake.

The sale price was not announced but it is believed to be about pound;40 million. Pearson is the effective owner of London Examinations. It has been in business since 1844 and owns lots of well-known British companies such as Penguin Books but it makes 75 per cent of its sales in the United States. Over the years, it has bought a number of education companies, including one called NCS.

NCS is the main supplier of IT systems and education testing technology to American schools. It is the vehicle to bring technology into the British examinations system. So what does Pearson get in return?

Pearson has tough financial goals set by shareholders and lenders. Its current target is an 8 per cent return on investment. The money paid to Edexcel and spent on new technology will need a payback. If exam fees can not go up, London Examinations will need to sell more exams or reduce costs. If digital marking technology works, it will need fewer people and less postage.

The Pearson takeover is striking because it brings a profit-making company to the heart of the examinations system in the UK but it is also the latest in a series of exam-board trades. Over the past 10 years, a series of owners have sold up, including the Pitman family, the Royal Society of Arts and the Universities of London and Oxford. Edexcel is the latest to sell but it may not be the last.

The trustees of AQA, the University of Cambridge and City and Guilds could be next but they would need a very good offer from a willing buyer. This begs a question about competition. Pearson is a buyer because it can import technology across the Atlantic. British awarding bodies may need to find money to compete. They may need another partner with the right technology.

Does any exist? Given the poor track record of IT in education so far, the answer may be no.

Finally, the Government may find that structural change in the exam business comes at a price. In the short-term, new technology may be welcome, but in the longer-term, exam boards run for profit may be less pliable. There is a risk that technology could lead assessment rather than the other way around. Driven by their insurers, exam boards might start looking for defensible assessments such as multiple-choice tests.

One thing is certain. This is the start of another technology experiment in British education. Whether it will work is anyone's guess.

Julian Gravatt is finance director at the City Lit, London

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