Give the exams watchdog a real set of teeth

20th February 2009 at 00:00

"Now tanning courses are 'equal' to maths A-level," screamed a typically nuanced headline this week. It joins a long list of similar warnings that have punctuated the press over the past few months and years that add up to a familiar narrative: the exam gold standard is no more. Critics claim it has been debased, perhaps beyond repair, by politicians and their politically correct allies in the educational establishment who find it easier to lower the bar for half-educated oiks than teach them to jump it.

Some of this refrain can be dismissed as the usual noises from the usual suspects. But not all of it can. Academics at Durham University have shown that A-levels are not equally hard, the Royal Society of Chemistry has discovered that teenagers who answered 35 per cent of today's exam questions correctly managed to get only 15 per cent from the 1960s right, and British Council researchers have concluded that students who receive a C at A-level in Hong Kong could expect to be awarded an A in the UK.

Even these impeccable sources, however, cannot be entirely relied on to give a definitive picture. It is notoriously difficult to assess different exams in one jurisdiction, let alone across time and international boundaries. Context, if not all, counts for an awful lot.

Perception is another matter. When large numbers of independent and state schools decide to opt for alternative examinations because they have no faith in the usual ones, even if by doing so they jeopardise their league table positions, Houston should realise it has a problem. When the regulated - in the shape of the country's exam boards - decide that they could do with more regulation, it really should launch a rather large rescue mission (see page 6). It isn't very often that the shepherded want more teeth for their watchdog.

Ofqual was designed with the best of intentions - to put the regulation of exam standards at arm's length from the Government and any suggestion of political interference. It is answerable to Parliament, not ministers. But it has not got off to a good start: it persuaded one exam board to make one of its exams easier, and it has admitted that it is unsure how it is supposed to maintain standards.

On the other hand, Ofqual's candour is excusable. If it lacks clear powers to set standards at a given level or intervene in disputes, what is it supposed to do? At the least, when it becomes fully operational it should be given that power. Any remaining ministerial opportunities for mischief should be curtailed and the right to appoint its chair and chief executive removed from the secretary of state. Ofqual should not only be independent, but perceived to be so.

Whether the public, let alone the tabloids, would appreciate a more transparently rigorous system is another matter. It is a truth universally acknowledged that stupidity resides in other people's children. Exams that claim to identify it in your own are rarely believed.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E

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