Lotta bottle? Science exam question leaves sour taste

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Board accused of giving commercial advantage to formula milk manufacturers

The biggest exam board for GCSE and A-levels has come under fire from a leading parenting charity, which claims that a science exam question gave pupils biased information in favour of bottle feeding.

The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) is calling for a "thorough investigation" of how science questions are set following a row with the exams regulator Ofqual and exam board AQA.

The NCT contacted the regulator, raising concerns about a question which suggested that babies in the developing world "might die" without free donations of a fictional baby milk powder.

It also complained that a fictional formula milk label, which claimed the milk was "closest to mothers' breast milk" would be illegal under baby milk-marketing laws.

The NCT is furious that the question, which referred to a fictional parenting charity called "Responsible Mothers Are Us" contained "negative implications" about the work of charities.

The trust, which is a charity, suggested the exam board was promoting positive messages about the benefits of formula milk under the influence of marketing messages propagated by corporations.

It has also raised concerns about a QCDA key stage 3 Sats paper, which asks pupils to compare baby milk with cows' milk and breast milk.

Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbett said AQA had accepted some of the comments and removed the question paper and marking scheme from its website, and withdrawn it from future use in other papers.

She added the board had introduced additional checks, to be carried out by its head of science and its in-house lawyer, to ensure the factual accuracy of question stimulus materials.

However, the NCT is not satisfied with the response and believes pupils should be allowed a re-mark.

NCT chief executive Belinda Phipps said: "How on earth did they get these questions through quality control?

"The person who set them didn't even bother to look up the facts."

In a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove, the charity wrote: "The exam questions were phrased in a way that created considerable commercial advantage for formula companies.

"Even if you are able to prove categorically that there was no overt, covert or indirect influence on the examining board by the formula industry, then those writing the question were culpable for not checking their facts before submitting this question.

"The Ofqual regulations seem curiously silent on the subject of commercial influence in exams so if it were proved there had been influence there appears to be no regulatory comeback on this."

Around 400 people have sent letters of complaint to Michael Gove through the NCT website.

Ms Phipps wants "clear regulation" to prevent commercial bias in exam papers and has called for the AQA to apologise for what the NCT says is "the defamation" of charities implied in the question.

The Department for Education, however, believes there is no need for further investigation.

In an email response to the NCT, Anthony McDonough, from the qualifications policy division, wrote: "Ofqual have concluded that whilst there are shortcomings in both sets of questions, they have found no evidence of commercial influence and have accepted both QCDA and AQA's assurances on this point.

"Ofqual are satisfied that neither organisation intentionally misled candidates, and have recommended that the question papers you have highlighted are removed from QCDA and AQA's respective websites to avoid the possibility of their further use by students."

WHAT THE EXAM ASKED

2 (b) Read the information in the box below and then answer the question.

Calcium carbonate occurs naturally as marble and limestone. They are important building materials and are often used for gravestones.

Calcium carbonate is also an essential mineral for good health and is present in many baby foods in small amounts.

My Baby Food is recommended as being the closest to a mother's own breast milk. It is given free to mothers in the developing world - without it their babies might die of malnutrition.

Responsible Mothers Are Us (RMAU) is a United Kingdom pressure group. They want to ban chemicals in baby foods. The group was founded by Mrs I. M. Right who has made a career in 'goodness' and is paid from donations given to RMAU by members of the public. When interviewed, she said: "Calcium carbonate is a chemical and so it is a pollutant. My Baby Food must be banned to prevent the mass medication of babies. I don't feed my baby the stuff of gravestones."

Many people do not agree with Mrs Right's ideas.

Suggest why.

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