Edexcel chief puts hi-tech agenda to the test

9th April 2010 at 01:00
England's second biggest exam board was once a byword for blunders. But now it has an MD with an audacious game plan

Ziggy Liaquat is nothing if not ambitious. His mission, he says, is to "transform education".

As the new managing director of Edexcel - England's second biggest GCSE and A-level exam board - he is undoubtedly one of education's more powerful figures.

Even so, changing the face of education is the kind of goal you might hear from an optimistic new secretary of state.

Exam boards are expected to stick to the more prosaic, but tricky, task of setting papers at the correct standard, ensuring they are marked and graded accurately, and that candidates get their results on time.

But Edexcel is not any old exam board. In 2003, it was taken over by the Pearson publishing group, making it the first of England's big three boards to relinquish its charitable status and become a for-profit private company.

Mr Liaquat, who joined Edexcel in 1995, describes the change that has taken place since the Pearson takeover as "phenomenal".

"We are in a really privileged position," he says in his first interview since becoming MD.

"We're part of the biggest education company in the world, that's doing fantastic work in the UK, in the US and globally.

"The benefit that UK schools and colleges and therefore society has is that we can bring in the global learning and assessment and see what benefit we can introduce into the UK."

Not everyone would agree about the sense of bringing profit-making so directly into the world of assessment. But no-one can deny Edexcel's revival in the past decade.

A long series of highly publicised errors and blunders reached a nadir in 2002 when ministers ordered the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to send in a troubleshooter.

By then, Edexcel had become the story. If a school rang a newspaper about an exam board error, excited news editors would ask whether it was Edexcel and groan if it turned out to be a rival.

Today its reputation is largely restored, and a central factor in that has been the technology on which Mr Liaquat is pinning his considerable ambitions.

"We have got this firm belief that technology really can transform learning and drive the potential of young people," he says.

He believes Edexcel is on the verge of a breakthrough that could revolutionise teaching as well as assessment.

Key is the online marking that the board has pioneered through its huge exam paper processing centre in Hellaby, South Yorkshire (see box). It allows more than 90 per cent of Edexcel GCSE, A-level and AS-level answers to be scanned in electronically and sent for marking.

And because the board has data on each answer, it can - and does - provide schools, teachers and potentially pupils and parents with a detailed breakdown and analysis of how particular classes and schools fared on each question.

Now, in a hush-hush project, it is looking at how to develop this Results Plus service further still, turning it into an actual teaching tool.

"It has to be in a form that is useful to teachers so that it informs learning and teaching very, very quickly," Mr Liaquat says.

"We're not quite there yet. The key is presenting that information in a really meaningful way for teachers, and if you can do that in a way they can integrate it with teaching and learning, I think you've got a completely different proposition.

"If you're a teacher of geography, you're presenting me with this data and there's this analysis that sits with it that says you've done well on this question, you've done this well against local schools.

"But actually, what is really meaningful for me is how can you analyse and present that data in the context of the curriculum because I need to take that information, embed it in my teaching and move on."

The other exam boards now offer their own versions of Results Plus, but Edexcel claims it is particularly well placed to take it a step further because Pearson has already developed online teaching tools.

Mr Liaquat's prepared opening statement for his interview emphasises how far Edexcel seems to be moving away from the traditional exam board with its roots in academia.

Whereas you might expect assessment heads to engage in esoteric discussion about grade boundaries, the head of Edexcel almost sounds as though he is addressing a shareholders' meeting.

"We live in a knowledge economy, a global marketplace and the capability of our young people in the UK is fundamental to our success as a nation," he says, outlining the board's vision.

He follows it up with something that resembles a sales pitch for three technological products being offered to schools by Pearson.

Mr Liaquat mentions the name of the parent company far more often than that of the board he actually heads. And his appointment has been accompanied by a structural change which means he is reporting to someone lower in the Pearson pecking order than his predecessor, Jerry Jarvis, did.

Edexcel is "working more closely with Pearson UK", Mr Liaquat agrees, although he later insists it remains "absolutely independent" of the business that owns it.

But he continually emphasises the benefits that being part of Pearson brings, and a philosophy that goes much wider than offering reliable assessment.

"We bring the power of the Pearson portfolio together to say we want to give you every chance to be as effective as you can be in teaching the subjects you are teaching, so that you can maximise the potential of your kids," he says.

Two years ago, the board attracted controversy when it expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Ofqual that said its "philosophy is aimed at increasing student attainment across all grades".

Surely there was a conflict of interest in an exam board setting grade boundaries and trying to improve results, protested Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University.

Not so, says Mr Liaquat: "We have got a clear remit around developing a qualification, writing assessments, marking them.

"That is a very different organisational arrangement and remit for producing learning materials and resources and technology to support attainment.

"There is no conflict. I am an accountable officer who reports to the chairman that's responsible for standards, completely independent of any of the stuff going on in technology and product development."

There is no suggestion that Edexcel has ever been anything other than entirely proper, impartial and fair in the way it sets standards, marks and grades.

Nevertheless, if the primary purpose of an exam board is to assess consistently the level of pupils' achievements, there is bound to be unease if it also makes its goal to help teachers raise those achievements.

But Mr Liaquat is unrepentant. "We will do . everything we can to give teachers the tools they need to be successful," he says.

"If students are becoming more successful, we should celebrate it because we are becoming more competitive as an economy, we are operating in a global marketplace.

"Anything else for me is not the right thing to do."

On an industrial estate near Rotherham, 1.5 million A4 sheets of completed papers are scanned every day.

Schools are often referred to as exam factories these days. But Edexcel's huge processing centre in Hellaby, South Yorkshire, is the real deal.

At peak time, this state-of-the-art operation on an industrial estate near Rotherham sees 1.5 million A4 sheets of completed exam papers scanned into its computer systems every day.

Individual answers are then sent out electronically to examiners for on- screen marking. The resulting data can be made available to schools online, allowing them to compare and analyse pupils' performance question by question.

It can also quickly identify any problems with marking and has shown up some interesting trends in markers' behaviour.

Before the start of one major international football tournament, Edexcel suddenly found it was running out of work to send to PE markers. The board eventually realised that there had been a sudden rush as PE teachers tried to finish all their marking before the tournament began.

Hellaby allows all completed papers to be sent to a central point, where parcels can be dropped off 24 hours a day. So it eliminates many potential problems of what Ken Boston, former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, famously described as a "cottage industry", with papers going missing between schools and markers' homes.

At Hellaby, a computerised barcode system and a thoroughness that Dave Hassell, head of operations, admits verges on "paranoia", ensures that everything is in its right place.

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