Free market examinations

25th November 2005 at 00:00
The news story "Market 'failing' to improve exams" (TES, October 21) provides a valuable snapshot of the way that examination boards are operating.

It is important to note that a market for exam boards is largely beneficial. Consider the alternative: a single exam board with a monopoly.

The consequences would be dire; such a body might retain a sense of independence and then, in a non existent market, charge exorbitantly for using its facilities. It is more likely that the Government would feel compelled to take over the single examination board, centralising still further. The Government has control over what is taught through the national curriculum and massive influence over how those subjects are taught too. A government that controlled the examinations system would have even more influence over assessment - an ugly prospect.

When I started teaching, the market for examination boards was broader.

They had different syllabi and not all of them were equally demanding.

Overall standards may have been similar, but it was fairly well known that a particular board offered an easier path to, say, business studies A-level than did others.

One of the benefits was that these boards were often linked to universities. Universities have a strong tradition of independence from government, and of resisting interference. This may apply less to the examination sector but, nevertheless, the tradition of university autonomy overlapped with the work of the exam boards.

The Edexcel website notes the history: "(In 1836) a royal charter gave the University of London limited functions of conducting exams and conferring degrees. The university introduced school exams in 1905". Such universities played a significant role in developing the knowledge that pupils studied, translated this into school syllabi, and tested it through the examination system.

A market is fairly obviously a better proposition than a monopoly. The fact that there are only three approved examination boards in England means that the boards could operate restrictive policies. It would be far better to return to having more boards, allowing for differentiation between them, and with the majority buttressed by the traditional support of the university sector.

Graham Fowler Graham Fowler is a researcher, writer and consultant

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