OCR chief: consequences of EBac could be 'criminal'

1st April 2011 at 01:00
New exam board head doesn't give the measure an easy ride, claiming it leaves non-core subjects in a 'policy vacuum'

Mark Dawe heads an organisation that grew out of two ancient universities and a royal society. Given those roots, it is not surprising that OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) is sometimes seen as the most traditional of England's big three exam boards.

Its new chief executive is anything but. Mr Dawe is acutely aware that young people are changing and believes education has to keep up.

"Our kids are sitting at home with all their technology and different ways of communicating, but when they go to a classroom, we remove all that," the former FE college principal says.

"If we, the education world, don't shift things, soon they will be as bored as hell and totally disengaged."

Of course things are changing, very rapidly, but Mr Dawe is concerned they could be going in the wrong direction. He thinks the Government's new English Baccalaureate (EBac) league table measure could "massively distort the behaviour of schools" with potentially "criminal" consequences.

He borrows a phrase coined by former US president George W Bush - "No child left behind" - to describe OCR's solution to the dangers posed by the EBac and its approach to 14-19 education in general.

"There is a range of ability and a range of skills that those learners have and if we just channel them down the GCSE route, a whole load of learners would be disengaged," Mr Dawe says.

"You see it time and time again, when you try to push learners on to a particular route and it's wrong for them, they have disengaged and, at 14, that's it for them.

"It would disastrous if that was the approach that was taken. We need a range of qualifications and a range of approaches."

Mr Dawe is the third of a new generation of leaders of England's major exam boards to set out their stall in The TES in the past year, and each has taken their own distinctive approach.

Ziggy Liaquat, the new managing director of Edexcel, emphasised the benefits of being part of Pearson - "the biggest education company in the world" - and talked of using exam results data to produce new teaching tools.

Andrew Hall at AQA wanted to become "more influential in the education debate", taking on exams watchdog Ofqual and casting doubt on its capacity to conduct international research.

For Mr Dawe, the key theme is "partnership". He wants to move beyond a conventional customer relationship with schools and colleges and work with them to create bespoke qualifications and even reduce their fees.

OCR, the smallest of the big three boards, has a strong tradition in academic qualifications, thanks to its Oxbridge roots. But Mr Dawe acknowledges that its range on "the vocational side" is narrower despite an RSA heritage that has given it "real strengths" in ICT, business, and health and social care.

Recent years have seen phenomenal growth with a set of vocational qualifications known as OCR Nationals. One in particular - the level 2 in ICT- saw a 669 per cent rise in entries in two years and is now being taken by more pupils than some GCSEs in maths, English and science.

But it is secondary schools - where the qualification is now the fourth most popular 14-19 course - rather than FE colleges that appear to have driven that growth.

The Hertfordshire college Mr Dawe headed until last year illustrates the scope for expansion in the FE sector. Oaklands College spent #163;1 million a year on exam fees, of which he estimates only around #163;40,000 went to OCR.

Mr Dawe is already working to grow that business, with bids submitted to the Skills Funding Agency to develop qualifications jointly with three leading FE colleges.

But one issue that gets in the way of all boards' relationships with schools and colleges is their ever- expanding bills for exam fees.

Secondary schools saw an 83 per cent increase in fees between 200203 and 200809, which former Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbet warned would "not be sustainable" in future.

She argued that schools should be "savvy" and work together to negotiate cheaper fees from the boards.

And it is a proposition that Mr Dawe welcomes. "If they are coming together and providing high volume, there ought to be a deal to be done," he says. "It is better for us and therefore we can share that benefit. It is a win-win."

Such group deals would guarantee OCR a certain level of business and could potentially reduce the costs involved in providing support to schools.

But he warns: "The margins aren't massive. You are not talking about slashing millions off."

Technology is another area that offers exam boards huge scope for developing and deepening their relationships with schools.

As marking has moved online, the incredibly detailed data it produces on pupil performance offers rich potential for boards to enhance the services they offer to schools.

But OCR has traditionally been the most cautious in this area and Mr Dawe shows no signs of breaking that tradition. While he has been quick to ensure that the board's results analysis service is being "rolled out" as swiftly as possible, he rejects the Edexcel route of using it to develop integrated teaching aids.

"We have got to be very careful we are not seen as spoon-feeding people to pass the exams," he says. "That's the last thing we want to be accused of."

Instead, he wants OCR to help spread the approaches that teachers develop and act as a clearing house for their resources.

"That is not us saying, 'Here's the spec and we've written this book and if you do this, this and this, you are going to get your A*', or whatever," he says. "It is more, 'These are resources that teachers have developed and you might find really useful'.

"There is a subtle difference between the approaches. Our strength is assessment and qualifications and that is what we will focus on."

The Government is signalling that exam boards will have more freedom in the future with less detailed qualification-by-qualification monitoring from Ofqual - a prospect welcomed by Mr Dawe.

But ministers have also not been shy about saying how they think qualifications should develop. Last year, education secretary Michael Gove rejected the trend towards modularisation, calling for a re-introduction of linear A-levels.

Mr Dawe believes the Department for Education should listen to what universities and teachers want and cautions against applying the same model to every subject.

"It is not as simple as that," he says. "Having a central diktat is great if it's come from experience and knowledge of how things work.

"If it has just come from a group of civil servants who believe this might be a better way, that is going to lead to disaster - and I am speaking as an ex-civil servant."

He has major reservations about another central diktat, the EBac - which requires pupils to achieve good GCSEs or IGCSEs covering core subjects English, maths, science, languages and history or geography.

Mr Dawe's "biggest concern" is that schools will narrow the curriculum as they worry it is the only measure they will be judged on.

"Some are focusing down on just those subjects," he says. "In an extreme, they are doubling the hours of everyone doing French to make sure more get through French so that they can get a tick in the box for the EBac. But that would be criminal."

He wants to see more clarity from the Government about what schools should do alongside the EBac but believes most are still "in the dark", even after last month's long-awaited Wolf review of vocational education.

"I understand the concept of having the core subjects," he says. "But there is a policy vacuum at the moment, because it is not as if the Government's expectation is that everyone will only do those five subjects and nothing else. A large number of learners need a more applied route."

The composition of the EBac irks Mr Dawe. He accepts the need for GCSE maths and English. But he says there is a "big debate to be had around languages", questioning the decision not to include OCR's Asset Languages qualifications in the measure as an alternative to GCSEs.

"They offer a different way of teaching that suits the teacher and the learner and helps them progress and we have just got to be careful that the real steps forward over the past 10 years are not lost," he says.

The phenomenally popular OCR National was also left out of the EBac, even though it is available in core subjects like science.

When asked why, Mr Gove told The TES that he wanted to use the most "robust and rigorous" qualifications.

"I don't think it is fair," Mr Dawe says. "We make sure that standards are maintained in whatever qualifications we are doing.

"I think there is a view that if it is assessed and not tested, it is of less value. I totally disagree with that. It is just a different approach."

The OCR National has been a key part of what the Wolf review described as an "explosion" in the number of 14-16 "vocationally related courses" with GCSE league table equivalences. They rose from 1,882 in 200304 to 462,182 by 2010.

The report did not name individual qualifications, but said the "perverse incentives" for schools created by "indiscriminate 'equivalences' has resulted in large amounts of sub-standard education in which many young people take courses that were in no sense truly 'vocational' or useful".

Mr Dawe accepts that "some" schools have opted for the OCR National because it helps them to climb league tables and that the "whole equivalence thing has distorted behaviour".

But, having visited schools, he counters: "There is clearly real value for their learners in doing qualifications like the Nationals."

He is "all in favour" of the league table equivalences being removed and believes the OCR National would survive without them, "providing people like Ofsted don't come in and say, actually, we are only interested in the five EBac subjects".

"It is not about being more or less robust," Mr Dawe says. "It is about meeting the needs of learners and different styles of teaching. It is not a stand-up chalk-and-talk world any more."


Born: May 1968


Trinity School, Croydon.

Economics at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Chartered accountancy exams.


Joins Canterbury College, becoming head of corporate services in 1994.

2000: Sets up eGS, an e-procurement provider to public sector customers.

2003: Joins Department for Education and Skills as deputy director of the adult basic skills strategy unit, later becoming deputy director of FE strategy.

2005: Moves to Oaklands College, Hertfordshire, where he becomes principal and chief executive.

November 2010: Joins OCR as chief executive.


Motorcycling, cycling, supporting Plymouth Argyle FC.

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