The exam system is in crisis, MPs are told

9th December 2011 at 00:00
Former senior examiner warns of low standards and grade inflation

The exam system is not "fit for purpose", has no coherence, declining professional standards and grade inflation fuelled by competition between boards, a long-serving former principal examiner has told MPs.

Martin Collier, an A-level history examiner between 1996 and 2011, said examiners needed to be better trained and paid.

"You have got to recognise what are professional standards within examining," Mr Collier, head of the independent St John's school in Leatherhead, Surrey, said in an outspoken appearance before the Commons education committee's inquiry into exams. "At the moment that has been taken out of the system. It is now a jobbing job. They just put a body in front of the screen mainly now and off they go. The professional standard has been reduced and reduced and reduced."

Mr Collier, who worked for Edexcel, said he wanted to see a single, merged exam board because it was "wrong to put children's qualifications into the marketplace" and because competition between boards had unhealthy side effects.

"One of the reasons why grades have gone up and up is the issue of market share," he told MPs. "Exam boards are very wary of saying, `This year there have been fewer A grades'.

"I have been on the inside of exam boards and heard the conversations. What the exam boards are worried about is that if they hit children hard one year and the number of top grades diminish they fear people will go elsewhere." His comments follow claims of grade inflation by respected academics giving evidence to Ofqual's review of exam standards this term.

Another head, Robert Pritchard from St Mary's Catholic High in Menston, West Yorkshire, told the MPs that pupils worked harder and were better prepared, but he had noticed a "discrepancy in the level of questions a number of years ago and now."

Mr Pritchard was also concerned that increased work from the modularisation of exams and controlled assessment was "ruining young people's lives". "Examination has overtaken teaching," the head said. "A young person's life is now constant assessment. It is a massive machine that has overtaken everything and the people that are benefiting are the exam boards."

David Burton, deputy head of St Michael's CofE High in Crosby, Liverpool, questioned the boards' value for money, telling the committee they were relying more on teacher assessment while their fees rocketed. "We are paying to enter a student into an examination and doing most of the work ourselves," he said. "We are paying more money in and getting much less service back."

Commenting on the introduction of teacher assessment, Mr Collier said: "I was on a QCA (the former Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) body where the discussions were held; for some exam boards they actually wanted teacher assessment because it was cheaper. Over the last 10 to 15 years, in history in particular, the boards got rid of a review process which happened after scripts were marked and before results were produced."

Mr Collier and other senior examiners would spend days together sifting through scripts to find where the problems lay. He said the process ended because of the introduction of online marking and because it was "really expensive".

Now the emphasis on finding errors has shifted to schools, he said. Exam boards have refuted his comments, with an Edexcel spokesman insisting that all its examiners had to meet strict criteria, and were monitored and given continuous support. Technology made marking more efficient and reliable, the board insisted. This is unlikely, however, to satisfy the system's critics.

Textbook example

Martin Collier wrote a long series of A-level history textbooks, including some published as official texts for the Edexcel and OCR boards. But now he has warned MPs of the dangers of this "badging" of textbooks by awarding bodies.

Many have already suggested that such textbooks encourage teaching to the test, but Mr Collier went further and argued they could actually narrow the content of the exam.

"The danger is that you get into a cycle whereby the chief examiner feels he or she has got to set questions which come out of the (badged) book so what you are doing is not actually providing a textbook but providing a coursebook," he told MPs.

"Now, if you think that A-levels and other academic disciplines are about broadening the mind and reading around the subject and all that other sort of thing, those things are mitigated against by these branded books."

Original headline: The exam system is in crisis, MPs are told

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