Loss-making courses could be ditched as exam wars hot up

21st November 2008 at 00:00
AQA threatens to drop unpopular courses unless the Government halts plans to make it compensate pupils for examiners' errors

England's largest exam board is threatening to withdraw its loss-making GCSE and A-level courses if the Government persists with plans to compensate pupils for examiners' mistakes.

The TES revealed in March how the AQA was incensed by proposals, announced in consultation on the establishment of a new exams regulator, which it has suggested could land it with a annual Pounds 1 million bill for incorrect grades.

Any decision by the AQA to withdraw unprofitable courses could have major implications for teachers because all GCSEs and A-levels - except the most popular English, maths and sciences courses - are thought not to make big profits for the exam boards.

Among the AQA's least popular A-levels are languages, including modern Hebrew (80 candidates this summer), Bengali (93) and Panjabi (204). At GCSE, the struggling subjects are modern Hebrew (513), electronics (664) and classical civilisation (1,019).

Despite the AQA's complaints about compensation, the Government has retained its plan in a second round of consultation before the regulator, Ofqual, starts official business next year.

John Milner, the AQA's director of people, environment and research, said: "We are not trying to be alarmist. What we are saying is pragmatic. If we were in a situation where we as an awarding body were faced with potentially very large fines, one of the things we might have to do is look at the provision of some subjects that do not currently attract many candidates."

Under the proposals, Ofqual would have the power to make "non-binding recommendations" to exam boards that they compensate candidates for unspecified errors in the exams process.

The AQA has argued that "some errors of judgment or process" are inevitable during marking, and that the move could open the floodgates of litigation. In its response to the latest stage of consultation, the board warned the compensation scheme could give rise to "speculative" appeals from the public.

The AQA said it was disingenuous to describe the proposal as "non-binding" because exam boards would effectively be forced by negative publicity into paying compensation.

"The practical impact of the applications of such powers could be potentially serious for awarding bodies," it said. "For a non-profit making body such as the AQA ... the impact could be particularly serious and might leave us with no choice but to reduce our exposure to risk by withdrawing provision in small entry subjects. These are financially burdensome but we currently maintain them because of their social and educational value."

The exam boards say most GCSE and A-levels operate at a loss. In 2004, the AQA closed 11 minority exams, including GCSEs in Russian, archaeology, Latin and Greek.

The following year, Edexcel, the second largest board, halted plans to ditch music technology A-level after teachers used The TES website to lobby for its continuation.

Last year, OCR, the third English board, reversed a decision to kill off ancient history A-level after a campaign led by Boris Johnson, now mayor of London.

Ofqual was set up unofficially in April. A new law which will establish it on a statutory basis next year is about to go through Parliament.

In its response to the consultation, the AQA also said it wanted an urgent meeting with senior government officials if they remain committed to the plans.

Jerry Jarvis, the managing director of Edexcel, said: "The ability to issue non-binding recommendations in relation to issues such as whether to compensate candidates seems inappropriate."

OCR said it was not a big issue.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "Ministers will consider the AQA's views, and those of other respondents, as they finalise decisions on Ofqual's powers. We have already discussed the issue with the AQA and will be happy to do so again."

We are not trying to be alarmist. What we are saying is pragmatic. if we were in a situation where we as an awarding body were faced with potentially very large fines, one of the things we might have to do is look at the provision of some subjects that do not currently attract many candidates - John Milner, AQA Director.

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