MPs to ponder the virtues of a single exam board

18th November 2011 at 00:00
Do standards suffer as competitors fight for market share?

It is the exam question that won't go away. As grades, and accusations of falling standards, creep ever upwards the issue of exam board competition is being given another airing.

An official parliamentary inquiry, expected to start this month, will consider whether a single national exam board for qualifications for 15 to 19-year-olds might offer a better solution.

Critics have long held that the status quo in England - with three large boards directly competing in GCSEs and A-levels - creates a downward pressure on standards because schools pick the qualifications most likely to give their pupils high marks.

It is an accusation the boards themselves fiercely reject, pointing to the complex checks designed to ensure the standards needed to achieve particular grades remain constant between the boards and over time. But detractors have claimed today's arrangements have led to a "race to the bottom" and "meaninglessly easy" exams.

MPs on the Commons education select committee will be looking at whether "the current system delivers the best and fairest educational outcomes". This system has evolved from having many more regional boards that schools tended to automatically opt for according to where they were in the country.

But a series of mergers in recent decades created the three national exam boards, prompting concerns that standards have suffered as they compete head-on for market share.

Mick Waters said that during his spell as a director at the former exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, he came to see the system as "diseased, almost corrupt".

"We've got a set of awarding bodies who are in a marketplace," he told John Bangs, a visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education. He said he had "seen people from awarding bodies talk to heads implying that their examinations are easier. Not only that, 'We provide the textbook to help you through it'." His comments prompted Professor Bangs to argue that the case for a single board was "becoming overwhelming".

Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR board, says the idea of schools "shopping around" for easier qualifications is a myth, with market share remaining "remarkably constant". Like the other boards, it argues that a single body would "mitigate against choice, diversity and innovation" and could make political interference easier.

But a single board is not the only solution the MPs will consider. Another alternative would be allowing different boards to bid for different "franchises", exclusively offering qualifications in particular subjects or fields for a fixed period of time.

The boards warn that this could lead to the loss of expertise as it would be uneconomic to retain it in a subject where they were no longer able to offer qualifications.

The committee will consider international comparisons likely to show how unusual England is in not having a single awarding body. It will also look at the boards' commercial activities.

Concerns have grown as the bodies, one of which is now privately owned, have started to diversify beyond measuring achievement to try to help schools raise it.

"Awarding bodies have got involved in the provision of services - not just textbooks, but other services - and we thought that was worth looking into as well to find out if there were conflicts of interest," committee chairman Graham Stuart said.

The inquiry will run alongside the much broader investigation into standards being run by Ofqual, the exams regulator. So whatever their findings, can the MPs really make difference?

Mr Stuart is bullish. "Select committees do influence government," he insists.


The Commons education select committee's inquiry into how examinations for 15 to 19-year-olds in England should be run will look at:

- arguments in favour of and against having a range of awarding bodies for academic and applied qualifications;

- the merits of alternative arrangements, such as having one national body or exam boards franchised to offer qualifications in particular subjects or fields;

- how to ensure accuracy in setting papers, marking scripts and awarding grades;

- commercial activities of awarding bodies, including examination fees and textbooks, and their impact on schools and pupils.

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