In the cut-throat world of GCSE exams just setting a good syllabus is no longer enough. Elaine Williams reports. The old masonic relationship between examination boards and schools has disappeared forever. As the new GCSE syllabuses for the slim-line curriculum arrive at schools by the lorry load it is evident that the tables have turned.
In years gone by examination boards and their byzantine subject panels exercised their power along the lines of a secretive closed shop and expected and received loyalty.
Any board that operated upon such principles today would go out of business. This is especially true of the GCSE market. No board can afford to count on loyalty as heads of department are taking the opportunity to compare and contrast syllabuses before making a final decision.
With little to choose between syllabuses in terms of content, especially in core subjects, teachers are demanding clarity, support and training from this intensely competitive Pounds 100 million-a-year market. Indeed, the exam boards are investing in in-service training and resource material as never before.
This spring the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board and the Midlands Examining Group are each holding 650 INSET meetings promoting their syllabuses throughout the country, with similar numbers promised for the autumn.
The NEAB, the biggest player with about 30 per cent of the GCSE market in England, has invested heavily in resource material such as pupil self-help guides and an anthology in English - running an operational deficit of more than Pounds 4 million in 1995. It also runs helplines.
The MEG, which has coursework consultants whom teachers can contact at any time, has invested Pounds 1 million in the development of GCSE syllabuses and Pounds 750,000 in training.
London Examinations has doubled its number of INSET meetings this year to 800 and is offering a Homeline (teachers to be telephoned at home) and Faxback (answers guaranteed within 48 hours) service to teachers for the duration of the life of the syllabus. Despite being the smallest player with 17 per cent of the market the board has also invested heavily in teaching resources and has produced an English anthology.
Dr Adrian Woodthorpe, director of London Examinations which merged with the Business and Technology Council last year, said such an investment had to be made if the board is to have any chance of increasing its market share.
In order to attract custom when the revised syllabuses for English, maths and science came out in 1994, London Examinations offered a 7.5 per cent reduction on fees if schools took all three subjects with the board. The ploy did not work, and it is certain that whatever incentives the boards are currently offering, there will be no discounting.
"Cash is not a significant factor [in making up teachers' minds]," Dr Woodthorpe said. "What they are looking for is a quality syllabus with continuing service."
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has approved more than 280 GCSE syllabuses and more than 60 short courses in national curriculum subjects as well as 340 non-national curriculum syllabuses and 60 short courses. These range from just one syllabus from each board in a core subject like English to 10 or 11 in maths and science to nearly 30 in technology, covering as it does graphics, electronics, materials and construction and engineering among others.
Although there are fewer syllabuses than in previous years, due to the constraints imposed by SCAA this nevertheless represents an overwhelming choice for teachers, many of whom are exhausted by years of curriculum changes.
In addition, budget cuts and the reduced advisory service from local education authorities, mean that schools need the exam boards to plug the resources and information gaps. And because the boards are having to be competitive, they are prepared to do just that.
The MEG, which serves 70 per cent of independent schools and has the second biggest slice of the GCSE market with 28 per cent, has set great store by contact with teachers through curriculum projects such as Salters and Suffolk science, the Schools Maths Project and the Schools History Project. However, as soon as Sir Ron Dearing's review of key stage 4 was announced, the MEG began consulting at "grassroots" level.
Dr Ron McClone, MEG's chief executive, said: "We have been consulting with heads of department for the past 12 months and were first off the mark. Previously all this would have been done by committee and through subject panels but we have concentrated on getting at teachers through in-service training."
The MEG set up the "Dearing project" and appointed team leaders to meet classroom teachers, involving them in syllabus development "from the very beginning".
The NEAB is using practising teachers to present INSET on an unprecedented scale. Given that it is paying for their training in presentation skills as well as for their secondment and cover, this alone represents a huge financial investment but the board believes it will increase its market share.
Graham George, NEAB's subject officer for modern languages, said: "We wanted to use people who would give the teacher's viewpoint and not just regurgitate facts."
As more and more modern language teaching is to be conducted in the target language and the exam rubrics are to be written in it, teachers are concerned that the rubrics are clear and that issues such as use of dictionaries and coursework assessment criteria is also spelt out.
Kathy Talbot, head of languages at Lady Lumley's School in Pickering, North Yorkshire, attended a recent in-service trainingmeeting organised by the NEAB in Harrogate. She said that while she would stay with NEAB for the majority of pupils, she was considering Southern Examining Group modular courses for lower-ability children. "It is an opportunity to say which board offers the exact exam which suits our school," she said.
Eva Cragg-James, head of languages at Queen Mary's, an independent school in North Yorkshire, said although her department was with the NEAB, she would also be considering SEG, "simply because they were quick off the mark with specimen papers and telephone helplines and when you are busy that sort of thing matters".
The SEG, which has increased its market share to 21.4 per cent, believes it was the first board to realise that service to teachers would increasingly become the key to schools' choice of syllabuses. George Turnbull, SEG's director of public relations, said the board established a teacher support service 10 years ago when the first GCSE syllabuses came out and had backed this up with publicity and industrial sponsorship ever since. He said: "We are a listening board, our exams are user-friendly and we have a philosophy of presenting exam questions that are clear and simple."