Boards' question-setters will be judged by QCA to ensure exams are more challenging.England's exams regulator is to intervene in the setting of new GCSE and A-level papers to ensure questions are sufficiently difficult.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is to take a more active role in the work of boards in an attempt to guarantee that they implement a government drive to introduce challenging questions.
It is believed to be the first time the authority has taken such a hands-on approach since its foundation in 1997.
The move will centre on A-levels, with a QCA official sitting in on selected exam board question-setting meetings.
It comes amid continuing concerns over A-level standards, challenges to the courses from alternative qualifications and the risks inherent in changing the exams' structure. A-levels are perceived to be under threat from the International Baccalaureate and the new Cambridge Pre-U in the market for academic high-flyers.
With A-levels being revamped for courses starting next year, there is also nervousness about a repeat of the row over standards and grading which followed the last major revision of the exams system in 2000.
The Government has promised that new A-levels will have more essay-writing and fewer structured questions that give intermediate steps towards particular answers.
The QCA is to monitor question paper design to make sure this happens. The suggestion was made at a recent QCA board meeting by Isabel Nisbet, its director of regulations. "The board emphasised that the QCA should exercise its authority to intervene where there is believed to be significant risk to the standard of question papers," said the minutes of the meeting.
The minutes also say the intervention will not be routine but limited to a very small number of new A-level exams.
The rise of exam questions which are broken down into parts, with students guided towards answers, has been a feature of GCSEs and post-Curriculum 2000 A-levels.
However, exam boards say this is in part a product of overly detailed guidance on the design of exams by the QCA.
Bene't Steinberg, the OCR board's spokesman, said: "The QCA should make up its mind whether it wants to be a regulator or an exam board."
He said the authority should stick to producing detailed guidance on what was required for more stretching A-level questions, which it should have provided months ago.
But the move was welcomed by the Association of School and College Leaders and the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' conference.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said QCA intervention would help "in what could be a difficult transfer from one system to the next".
Geoff Lucas, HMC general secretary, said it could lead to "better questions, better examinations and better teaching and learning".
Two weeks ago, Simon Lebus, chairman of OCR, said it was hard not to be troubled by studies that raised questions over maintaining A-level standards.
The QCA is to be split from next spring, with its regulatory work handled by an independent body.
A spokesman for the authority said it would start work on Ms Nisbet's proposals in the new year. The independent regulator would then be taking over the project.
Diplomas training, page 4
Primary task is daunting
Primary pupils' lives are becoming increasingly "scholarised", according to the Primary Review published today. Its latest findings reveal that children 's free time is becoming more and more regimented. And they think the main purpose of going to school is to pass exams to get a good job.
Some pupils, such as Louisa Morgan (left) from Broadwas Primary in Worcestershire, have already solved that problem. Students like her are supplanting their teachers today for the 11 Million Takeover Day in which children can do adults' jobs.
Takeover Day, page 12 Primary Review, pages 14-15.