They've never had it so good

26th May 2000 at 01:00
The huge number of exam scripts to be marked is matched only by the huge effort to keep standards high, says Tina Townsend

THE exam season is upon us again and students are busy revising. Before long the annual standards debate will re-surface.

It is interesting to note that twice the number of parents of students taking exams think that A-levels are getting harder compared with the number who feel they are getting easier. A recent independent survey carried out by the Opinion Research Business for my own board, Edexcel, found the majority of parents believe their children are getting a better education than they did.

Much of the credit is due to teachers - and so say 88 per cent of parents satisfied with the achievements of their child's school or college.

Ensuring consistency is the job of the Joint Council for General Qualifications. It represents the awarding bodies and works to ensure a consistent and rigorous regime. The awarding bodies are rightly open to scrutiny and embrace constructive criticism of their role and I believe it's time to be more transparent.

This growing focus on openness is driving a number of initiatives. With school league tables and the chase for university places, it is crucial that pupils and students know that the exam process is accountable to them. Last year almost five-and-a-half million GCSE entries were marked, amounting to approximately 21 million papers.

There are six levels of enquiry service provided by the awarding bodies, ranging from clerical checking to a full re-mark and report. Taking them together, barely half a per cent of all GCSE candidates made an enquiry, either individually or through their schools. This is despite the fact that the appeals process is more accessible than ever before.

This suggests that last year more than 99 per cent of candidates' grades were right first time. Of course, on rare occasions mistakes are made. But it is not true that exam boards deliberately try to deter students who are unhappy with their marks, as has been claimed this week (News, 7).

The focus of the Joint Council is very clear: we want the awarding bodies to get it right first time, every time. Our members meet the new Examination Appeals Board regularly and strive to improve access to the appeals procedure and achieve the stringent government targets. Followng successful pilots, new developments for summer 2000 mean that all A-level and some GCSE students will be able to request their marked scripts, allowing them and their teachers to learn and improve.

Secondly, the Joint Council's members have a worthy claim to be innovators. The awarding bodies provide revision guidance through broadcasters and the media along with past papers, student guides and exam resources on the web. They support teachers through a range of materials including teachers' guides, coursework guides, examiner reports, videos, tapes and classroom delivery materials.

The awarding bodies also provide a vast annual in-service education and training programme covering current and new specifications - for example, 25,000 senior teachers attended briefings on Curriculum 2000 - with opportunities for teachers to participate in trial marking and to ask questions of senior examiners and specification developers.

The dynamism that awarding bodies have shown in responding to innovations can be seen in the new wave of exam specifications. More than 140 have been developed for AS and A-level and will be available from 2001. New GNVQ specifications in all subjects and at all three levels have been devised, ensuring that national qualifications reflect the needs of students and employers in a changing workplace.

Co-operation and a collective responsibility have resulted in a new emphasis on efficiency, value for money and a proactive approach to addressing the issues raised by the exam-setting and marking process. It is somewhat ironic that examining should be the one area in education deemed by some (David Lines, TES Platform, April 7) to have nothing to gain from adopting private-sector best practice and corporate know-how.

We are not complacent. The Joint Council recently met the Secretary of State to discuss what needs to be done to deliver a better-educated, better-examined and better-prepared generation of school and college leavers. Serious debate about the future shape of exams demands a rational view of the current situation. The Joint Council is playing its role in ensuring the delivery of reliable, transparent systems and guaranteeing standards at a time of great change. Our young people deserve nothing less.

Tina Townsend is chairman of the Joint Council for General Qualifications

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