To franchise exams or not to franchise exams?

27th May 2016 at 01:00
That is indeed the question. But if ministers do decide to reform the system, what could it look like? A former government adviser explores the DfE’s potential options

Around This time last year, schools minister Nick Gibb fired a warning shot at the main exam boards – AQA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC – by announcing that he had asked government officials “to look seriously and urgently at the case for reform”, including the possibility of scrapping exam boards altogether.

The oft-cited “race to the bottom” in examination standards has been testing the patience of ministers for several years. And now, with the next general election a long way off, there is plenty of time to think about how something better and smarter could be constructed.

So, if Nick Gibb wishes to take the brave step of reforming our examination system, what are his best options?

1 One contract with one exam board per subject

Often referred to as a franchise model, it is appealing in many respects. Once a contract has been awarded to an exam board for each subject after a bidding process, they would be responsible for creating the syllabus, setting and marking examination papers, along with carrying out all of the associated administration. In the absence of competition, there would no longer be an incentive for exam boards to drive down standards. The Department for Education and Ofqual – the examination regulator – would focus on ensuring that each exam board maintained quality over time and met its deadlines each year. The days of schools and colleges hunting down the easiest exam papers to boost their league table position would be a thing of the past. Surely this represents an improvement over the existing setup?

But not so fast: if you have ever signed up to a long-term contract with, say, an IT supplier at a school or college, only to find they do not deliver what was promised, you’ll know how bad things can get. The desire to kick out a supplier in the hope of miraculously finding someone else at short notice to do the job instead (and do it better) is often lacking.

When over 600,000 pupils a year take subjects such as GCSE English and maths, it would not be easy to discard an underperforming exam board. The cost and sheer complexity of switching exam boards during a contractual term, coupled with the potential instability that this could bring, would be significant. Perhaps the need to win future contracts would keep exam boards in line, although this would be of little consolation when short-term problems arose.

2 Separating design from delivery

The Commons Education Select Committee was right to say recently that “there is an obvious inbuilt incentive for competing exam boards to provide syllabuses which make lesser demands of students”.

However, while competition for the wrong reasons can lead to a race to the bottom, competition for the right reasons might lead to a race to the top. For example, the DfE could launch a competition to see which exam board could design the best syllabus (and mark scheme) for each subject.

The exemplar syllabuses would be judged on several factors, including the degree to which they matched those used in high-performing countries and the level of endorsement from universities and employers. The exam board that produced the highest-scoring exemplar material would be awarded the contract to design the examination over the next contractual period. This would explicitly promote competition among exam boards to produce the most rigorous and demanding content.

A separate contracting exercise would be carried out for the overall administration (eg, marking and distribution) of examinations. Each region of the country would have a single organisation appointed to oversee the administration process for all subjects. If the operator did not provide a sufficiently high-quality service, they could be replaced by an alternative provider of this standardised service already operating in a neighbouring region.

The ability to change exam content without disrupting the administration of exam scripts is an attractive feature of this model, as is the better alignment of incentives for exam boards.

Separating design and delivery is not without risks, though. Managing more contracts would put extra pressure on the DfE and Ofqual. Something could still go wrong with administering examinations, as it occasionally does now, and only time would tell how vigorously the exam boards would choose to compete on their exemplar material.

3 Put the government in charge

Having a single government agency designing examinations (such as the Standards and Testing Agency within the DfE, which already produces the national Sats for 11-year-olds) could reduce overall expenditure by ending the enormous duplication generated by several exam boards producing their own GCSEs and A levels. The DfE could administer the exams themselves or, as above, they might contract with a range of privately run organisations instead. The big question would be whether any cost reductions would be large enough and materialise quickly enough to balance out the tens of millions (if not more) needed upfront to centrally design examinations for all subjects.

Cost reductions aside, the government running examinations may be a bumpy ride. Having ministers effectively accountable for every exam paper could make life more exasperating, not less. Acquiring the personnel with enough expertise to implement a large-scale centralised plan of this nature would be fiendishly complicated. Furthermore, exam boards have spent years making their processes as lean as possible, and all this progress could be lost if the DfE throws out the baby and the bathwater.

What does this all mean for schools and colleges?

Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan should not underestimate the challenges involved in reforming the entire examination system. It is clear to me from my time working for an exam board and advising government ministers at the DfE that good intentions are nowhere near enough to guarantee success.

Then again, they should not underestimate how much better our examination system could become given the right direction and backing. If ministers can slowly and carefully put in place a new structure that incentivises excellence, reduces the burdens on teachers and saves schools and colleges some money in the process, I think that would be a very worthy cause indeed.

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