Exam system is buckling under pressure of reform

22nd January 2016 at 00:00
Boards may have to raise fees and cut subjects in order to remain financially viable

Exam boards are considering raising fees for schools and cutting subjects in reformed GCSEs and A-levels, as they struggle with “eye-watering” financial pressures, a TES investigation has revealed.

A range of government reforms has left England’s awarding bodies with falling income from entries and rising costs; leading some insiders to question the viability of the existing school exam system.

“Boards are desperate to keep a lid on fees, but there comes a point at which they just won’t be able to keep taking the extra costs,” a senior figure linked to one board said.

Raising fees would risk further depressing entries. But a source at another exam board said that rising costs of regulation might make it a necessity.

Asked about running school exams in the future, one insider told TES: “I’m not convinced it’s a viable model. All businesses running UK exams will be looking for a long-term sustainable position and that’s where you’ll start seeing pressure on prices.”

‘Question mark’ over subjects

The three biggest exam boards – OCR, AQA and Edexcel (owned by Pearson) – have already angered ministers by warning they cannot commit to continuing to offer exams in “community” languages, such as Polish and Bengali, which tend to have low entries.

Now senior figures are also understood to be questioning whether they should develop some of the third wave of reformed GCSEs and A-levels, which are due to be taught from September 2017.

One source said there was a “question mark” about some of the qualifications, which include economics, engineering and A-level classical civilisation, because development costs would be high and entries low.

Another said that the government’s target for 90 per cent of students to take GCSEs in five core English Baccalaureate subjects by 2020 would significantly reduce uptake of smaller subjects, making exam boards less likely to offer them.

“There does come a point where, if overall you’re struggling, you’ve got to make those difficult decisions,” the source said. “The problem now is that it’s become more of an issue. These questions are being asked in a way they weren’t in the past [when] everyone sucked up [the costs of running small-entry subjects] for the good of education.”

OCR has now appointed a “turnaround” specialist as its interim chief executive. William Burton has said that his job will be to “restore the organisation to profitability”. He is understood to be working on plans that may include further staff reductions, as well as cutting back on academic and vocational qualifications.

Boards are not required to develop GCSEs and A-levels in all the subjects being reformed. But Ian Koxvold, head of education strategy at consultancy firm PwC, told TES: “We understand that there have been some questions from Ofqual as exam boards have started to talk about reducing their subject offer.

“The received message has been: ‘You can’t start only doing the profitable ones – that doesn’t work’.”

Reforms introduced by the coalition government have, in the words of one exam insider, left boards “between a rock and a hard place”.

The end of modular exams, a dramatic reduction in resits and the decoupling of AS- and A-levels have combined to result in plummeting income (see data box, opposite).

Changes to entry patterns have also hit the domestic boards, with hundreds of schools dropping their English GCSEs in favour of an IGCSE exam run by Cambridge International.

All this has coincided with the huge cost of simultaneously developing new GCSEs and A-levels under a much tougher regulatory framework from Ofqual.

“We’ve seen a marked increase in the scope, frequency and number of regulatory requests, and it requires increasing resources to meet this,” one source said.

Struggle to ‘survive’

Professor Alan Smithers, an expert in the exams system based at the University of Buckingham, said: “[Exam boards] have to survive in business. They’re going to be tempted to raise exam fees, and if that’s resisted by schools it may open the way for the government to bring in a national awarding body.”

The coalition government did consider introducing a franchising system resulting in a single board for each GCSE subject. But TES understands that the idea was dropped partly because it was likely to have driven at least one of the big boards out of business.

Now that threat – or the prospect of bringing exam provision in-house to a single state-run board – has been revived by ministers concerned that there could be a “race to the bottom” on standards, with boards seeking to make new A-levels and GCSEs as attractive as possible to schools to improve entries.

Jobs have already been hit – AQA and OCR announced staff cuts in 2013; while Pearson carried out a “staffing review” at Edexcel.

The boards may also face a drop in income if Ofqual goes ahead with proposals to make it harder to change grades on appeal. Such a move would be likely to deter schools from asking for re-marks, for which boards charge a fee.

Ofqual was contacted for this story but declined to comment.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We expect exam boards to offer lesser taught qualifications as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility. At the same time, we recognise that the exam system operates effectively, which is why we are considering long-term reforms.”


What key organisations say

OCR: “The current situation is undoubtedly difficult, given OCR wishes to contribute to a dynamic educational environment. However, challenging decisions will need to be made in both the short and medium term. These will include looking at the whole range of qualifications provided and the work that we do to support teachers and schools.”

AQA: “We see a strong future for A-levels and GCSEs and they remain our core business. They currently account for over 90 per cent of our revenue and that’s likely to remain broadly the case, even as our new vocational and international qualifications gain ground.

“If you looked at an exam board’s finances immediately following a period of reform, they probably wouldn’t look as healthy as normal. But you need to look at the cycle. For example, the year before reform, we had an operating surplus.”

Pearson: “The UK is a key market for Pearson and we remain committed to developing high-quality qualifications that are built around serving the needs of our learners.”

WJEC: “WJEC (is in) a strong and sustainable financial position as an awarding organisation”

ASCL: “We would be concerned if there was a reduction in the range of subjects on offer, and there would be huge concerns if there was any increase in fees, because schools have got enormous cost pressures at the moment.”

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