Exam boards question watchdog's freedom

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Government is too involved in guiding the new regulator to guarantee political impartiality, claim critics

Ofqual, the new body set up to regulate England's testing system, will not achieve the independence in the public mind that ministers are hoping for, two major exam boards have warned.

The boards - Edexcel and OCR - have cautioned that the Government will still be too involved in the detail of designing exams, making it harder for it to be seen to be standing apart from the annual debate about standards.

Critics said that ministers have too much influence over exam decisions that can improve pass rates. Ed Balls, Children's Secretary, announced plans at last year's Labour party conference for Ofqual to address a perception that its predecessor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was too close to the Government.

In its response to the consultation on the plans, released to The TES under Freedom of Information legislation, Edexcel said it welcomed the desire to set up a strong, independent regulator.

However, it had concerns about the detail, set out in a document published last spring.

Edexcel said: "We are concerned that the proposals will not entirely remove the possibility of political influence.

"In particular, the document provides that ministers should have the opportunity to give guidance to the independent regulator on policy aims and objectives."

The board added: "We remain concerned that the ability of ministers to guide the independent regulator in this way - on a potentially wide range of issues - could give rise to an inherent conflict of interest or, at the very least, a perceived conflict of interest, which is the key issue that the new framework is trying to avoid."

Another board, OCR, said that the creation of Ofqual would not remove ministers from influence over exam standards while the Government was still involved in decisions such as whether resits were permitted and how much coursework to allow.

Ofqual has been set up as answerable to MPs, through the Children, Schools and Families committee, rather than to ministers. But its key appointments are still made by Mr Balls.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families' said: "Ofqual will report to Parliament and therefore will be able to advise publicly if it feels ministers are trying to influence its work improperly.

"It will regulate assessments that are the subject of government policy, so therefore it is right that the Government should be able to say, for example, what assessments should exist."

`Political meddling damages credibility'

Simon Lebus, the chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, which runs OCR and two other international exam boards, said this week that ministerial "interference" in exams was damaging them.

And people did not believe ministers' claims that standards were being maintained because constant Government-driven change made this assertion almost impossible to verify.

"We have seen the Government ordering the use of calculators in and out of exams seven times in the past decade, the introduction and removal of coursework, and political engagement in how to set the grade boundary for the new A* at A-level," said Mr Lebus.

"This interference is counterproductive. It harms public confidence."

He added that Cambridge Assessment was "only too aware of the damage inflicted on the international standing of the UK's education system by this perception of drifting standards and political involvement".

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