End the 'scandal' of rival exam boards

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Exeter academic attacks 'corrupt' system that is lining the examiners' pockets. By Dorothy Lepkowska.

A leading maths educator has attacked the "corrupt" examination and testing regime in England that allows examiners to profit from writing revision books.

In a scathing attack, Dr David Burghes, director of Exeter university's centre for innovation in maths teaching, calls for a complete overhaul of the system.

Writing in this week's TES about the national assessment regime, he says the practice of senior examiners writing recommended text books for courses is dubious.

"The closer the books are to the examination questions, the greater the sales," he says.

He accuses examiners of changing syllabuses regularly and revising their books, thereby increasing their profits.

"I hesitate to use the word corrupt, but I am not sure how else to describe this situation," he writes. "You cannot be both judge and jury. You either write textbooks or set examinations papers but surely not both."

But the biggest scandal was the existence of three exam boards competing with each other for candidates.

Dr Burghes blames this for the annual rise in pass rates. He says assessment has become big business, with some schools spending more than pound;500,000 a year on assessment and testing.

"No subject committee for any board is likely to reduce its overall pass rate and make itself unpopular, with the inevitable reduction in the number of candidates and loss of income in subsequent years," he writes. Subjects such as Greek and Latin are disappearing as assessed subjects because they are not cost-effective, says Dr Burghes.

"A business whose goal is to maximise profits is not conducive to offering a true service to schools, hence the probable demise of Latin and Greek from national assessment and thus, inevitably, from the taught curriculum."

Dr Burghes, an outspoken critic of government education policy, recently called for maths to be made voluntary from the age of 14, saying that most people needed only the basics for adult life.

He said many pupils felt alienated and demotivated by being taught by school staff who were poorly trained or under-qualified.

His views are at odds with the Tomlinson inquiry into qualifications, which wants GCSE-equivalent maths to be mandatory as part of a diploma.

Dr Burghes says today that a single national examination board should administer GCSEs and A-levels, and testing at key stages 1, 2 and 3 should be scrapped.

He wants the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to be abolished, and the Department for Education and Skills to control what is taught, in consultation with practising teachers.

Dr Burghes also called for the appointment of a "visionary" Secretary of State, who would trust teachers to get on with their jobs without political interference.

Margaret Brown, professor of maths education at King's College, London, adds more fuel today to the exam standards debate, suggesting that pupils are put off maths because GCSEs in the subject are harder than those of English.

Writing in the TES, she says that the situation, which isnot exclusive to Britain, means that pupils who are equally good in both subjects are getting the message that they are less able at maths.

Platform 21

Letters 26

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