Welsh exam board calls for tougher regulation
At the end of last year, staff from Wales's biggest exam board, WJEC, were caught on camera allegedly tipping teachers off about questions that would be asked of their students. The incident, recorded as part of an investigation by the Daily Telegraph, prompted widespread concern about "dumbing down" as exam boards compete for business.
Now, in a bid to restore confidence in the system, the head of another leading exam board in Wales is calling for tougher regulation to stop any further erosion of academic standards.
Robin Hughes, national manager of OCR Cymru, said the country needs an independent body - similar to Ofqual in England - to make sure boards are held accountable. At present, regulation is left to the Welsh government, which puts too much power in one department, he said.
"The education minister is responsible for the curriculum, the qualifications that are meant to show attainment against that curriculum and the regulation of these qualifications" Mr Hughes said. "This arrangement lacks some robust external mechanism that can provide healthy doses of critical analysis and accountability.
"Robust regulation that is independent of government would give confidence that there are checks and balances in the system. It would go a long way to restoring the confidence of parents, teachers and employers in our qualifications system."
The last Welsh regulator - the ACCAC - was abolished six years ago as part of a wider cull of quangos. Its powers were handed to the education department.
Mr Hughes suggested that the Welsh government was now reluctant to introduce a strong "counterweight" to its executive power. The country should have a regulator that is answerable to Parliament, as in England, he added.
Gareth Jones, secretary of heads' union ASCL Cymru, said having education minister Leighton Andrews as the exam regulator raised questions about "political influence" on qualifications.
Mr Jones suggested Wales could look to Scotland for an example of an alternative way forward. There, powers over qualifications, curriculum and inspection have been merged into a single, independent body, Education Scotland.
Last year's revelations about exam board seminars for teachers led Mr Andrews to launch a widespread review of the qualifications market, fearing that standards were being undermined. But he has now ruled out any immediate changes after his expert review panel found no clear evidence that the current system had an adverse effect on standards (see panel, left).
He is hoping a separate review of 14-19 qualifications will help to simplify the system. A report is expected in November and Mr Andrews said he will respond to both reviews in January.
But the pace of change may be dictated by events across the border. Mr Andrews said recent statements by education secretary Michael Gove suggest that significant changes to qualifications may take place in England, which could have major implications for Welsh exam boards doing business across the border, such as WJEC.
Despite the changes, the Welsh government says it has no plans to bring back the ACCAC. A spokeswoman said that the government's powers were strengthened recently with the ability to fine boards for errors. "Our key priority is to ensure that qualifications taken in Wales are rigorous, relevant and of the highest quality," she said.
NO ADVERSE EFFECT
Multiple awarding bodies will continue to offer qualifications in Wales after a review concluded that the current system was not critically flawed.
Following allegations about exam seminars last year, education minister Leighton Andrews appointed an expert panel to look at the market structure.
After a three-month review, the panel found no clear evidence that the market structure had an adverse effect on standards. It said a move away from the current system could be destabilising.
In England, leaked plans suggest that single exam boards could be given responsibility for a number of core subjects as part of reforms to toughen up exams taken at the age of 16.