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Why exams jury is still out

The recent crisis sparked calls for an independent regulator - but the real issue is what we think A-levels should be about, says Tony Millns

At least now everyone knows what the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority does," said a former colleague ruefully when I called him in the middle of the imbroglio over A-level results.

The immediate cost of creating that understanding about the body which oversees England's curriculum and regulates school examinations was high enough: the jobs of a Secretary of State and a quango chairman, the damage to the exam boards, and the possible prejudice to the university courses and life chances of a couple of hundred young people.

The real long-term damage, however, is to the national and international standing of A-levels themselves. The first stage of Mike Tomlinson's inquest concluded that everyone was innocent. This does not tell us how disaster befell the A-level, how it could have been avoided, or what should now be done to rebuild confidence in the exam system.

Turn back to 1996, when Ron Dearing published his report on 16-19 qualifications to possibly the most universally favourable media reception any major educational review has had. A key problem with A-levels was a combined drop-out and failure rate approaching 20 per cent. Dearing viewed this as a horrendous waste, and recommended the piloting of a new AS-level, half-way to the full A-level, so that those who were not going to make it could exit with a certificate and those who wanted to could continue with a couple of "minority" subjects, thus broadening the notoriously narrow sixth-form curriculum.

Implementation diverged greatly from Dearing's vision, however. Piloting went out of the window and the system eventually put in place has to be regarded as a different qualification from traditional A-levels. But no one could bring themselves to acknowledge this, nor the crucial fact that the new system would result in a higher pass rate (precisely its objective). In fact, it seems that ministers and the QCA emphasised to the exam boards that the pass rate and grade profile in 2002 was to be similar to 2001, forcing the boards to make adjustments on a purely statistical basis.

We are now in the retrieval phase, and various radical proposals are being put forward. The reactionary tendency would of course prefer to scrap AS-levels and the modular system and go back to traditional final examination A-levels. Some, not least at the QCA, would like to decouple that organisation from politics to be an independent watchdog of standards.

The QCA could be made to look substantially more independent than it now is. Instead of being appointed by the Secretary of State, its chairman and board members could be appointed by an arm's-length body. But anyone familiar with the ways of Whitehall knows that influence could still be brought to bear on those making the appointment, or afterwards on those appointed by control of resources, patronage and regard paid to their advice. Look what happened to Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who became a bit too independent.

The QCA's remit covers the national curriculum, the national tests, and standards in academic and vocational qualifications. Since 1997, the curriculum has been treated as largely irrelevant while the Government has pursued other initiatives it believes critical to school standards. However, if we are to have a national curriculum at all, it is difficult to envisage any body other than Parliament having the final say on it. The development, production and marking of the national tests are all largely outsourced anyway, and their political salience has declined noticeably. But having politicians involved with exam standards is like having a bunch of alcoholics running a distillery. Given that the Government's first bold act in 1997 was to give the Bank of England independent control of policy on interest rates, it would be unwise to assume that QCA, or the exams regulation part of it, could never be made independent. But this indicates that the basis for independence would simply be as an exams regulatory body - let's call it OFQUAL - investigating the way in which QCA sets standards, and the way in which a single non-profit-making exams board - let's call it EEB, the English Examinations Board - implements those standards.

That would avoid the current problem of the QCA investigating its own conduct. It would be an improvement but it would not tackle the fundamental issues: what the AS and A-level exams are for, and what their standards should be; the future of GCSE and key stage 3 tests; and how to make vocational options attractive. These are far more critical than an independent exams regulator.

Tony Millns was a member of the management teams of SCAA and then QCA until 1999. He is now chief executive of the English language schools association, ARELS, but is writing here in a personal capacity

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