Plain speaker keeps the faith

8th August 2003 at 01:00
A year after the re-grading crisis, the QCA's chief Ken Boston is still courting controversy. Warwick Mansell reports

KEN Boston pauses long and hard when asked how he has found his first year in charge of England's exams system.

"Where do you start?" was the unspoken, rhetorical question left hanging in the air.

Dr Boston's first day in his new job as chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority featured a visit to the BBC TV Newsnight studios to answer questions on the A-level re-grading furore, the biggest controversy to hit education for years.

Since then there has scarcely been any let-up, as the year has embraced three separate inquiries into the events of last summer, the departures of Estelle Morris and Dr Boston's erstwhile boss, QCA chairman Sir William Stubbs, and an investigation into establishing an entirely new qualifications structure.

Aside from that, Dr Boston has presided over arguably the most all-embracing shake-up of any education body in recent memory. He has embarked on plans to completely change the logistics of England's exams system. He wants to improve the status of vocational qualifications. And he has had to deal with the flak associated with approving the first private takeover of an exam board.

Enough to be getting on with, then. But the 60-year-old, brought in last September, seems to relish the challenge.

Interviewed in his office at the QCA's offices above London's Green Park, he answered questions courteously and occasionally with a dry wit. But his characteristic steely gaze was always in evidence.

Described as a "serial re-organiser" by one senior British education figure, he arrived with a reputation as a man who thrived on change and would not shirk from confrontation.

Other observers have said that his status as an outsider has given him an advantage, both in introducing change and in putting the state of England's qualifications system into an international context.

As director general of education and training in New South Wales, the largest employer in Australia, he accused teachers of being greedy during a pay dispute, leading 20,000 of them to hold a protest rally against him.

However, he survived.

Since arriving here, speaking his mind has not been a problem. A speech in January in which he said he could not guarantee the smooth running of this year's A-levels and GCSEs reputedly won him a dressing down from the Government.

And his repeated use of the phrase "cottage industry" to describe how the exams system operates is likely to have won him few friends in the awarding bodies.

Perhaps most strikingly of all, he induced panic within his own organisation by launching an overhaul which eventually led to 16 senior managers leaving their jobs. Several of those at the top have now, like Dr Boston, been recruited from outside the system.

Dr Boston is, however, unrepentant. He believes that change was imperative.

Part of a new ethos he is trying to promote at the QCA is for the regulator to be less a friend of the boards and more of those who are on the receiving end of their efforts, such as the student and examiner featured on these pages.

His enthusiasm for A-levels could also put him at odds with Mike Tomlinson's review of the qualifications structure. Combining the A-level's depth of study with the breadth favoured by the former chief inspector's diploma proposals will not be easy.

One of his biggest tasks over the coming years will be the transformation of how exams are administered, from introducing on-screen marking to using courier services to distribute papers.

And the answer to that initial question? He said it had been a "constructive" year for the QCA.

But he added: "Just getting through this year doesn't mean it's plain sailing ahead.

"There is a significant agenda ahead of us. We need a stable system of public examination, whether we've got an A-level or a baccalaureate.

"There's only one way to achieve that, and that's to roll up our sleeves and get on with it."

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