Exam reform would stop ‘race to the bottom’, say MPs

A radical shake-up of the qualifications system for 15 to 19-year-olds in England has been proposed by an influential cross-party committee of backbench MPs.

The Education Select Committee concluded a near year-long investigation that focused on GCSEs and A-levels with a recommendation that exam boards lose the right to set their own syllabuses for each subject.

Instead, each board would bid for a contract with the government to design, in most subjects, a single syllabus or specification, against which all boards would then set questions.

The move would be designed to stop a “race to the bottom”, whereby the boards competed to offer “easier” versions of a particular exam course, which would then prove attractive to schools and colleges which were desperate to raise results.

Graham Stuart, Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness who is the committee’s chair, said: “The public have lost confidence in exam standards and this needs to be put right. We’ve got to stop the dumbing-down of the courses that young people sit and stop exam boards competing on how ‘accessible’ their syllabuses are.

“We believe that the best reform would be the creation of national syllabuses. There could be a competition…to decide which exam board would design the syllabus for a particular subject which would then be accredited by the regulator, Ofqual.

“After that, any board could set an exam for that syllabus and compete on innovation, efficiency, service and support. Ofqual would ensure that the boards didn’t compete by making papers easier.”

The report, without giving specific examples, said the “incentives” of England’s accountability system could lead to boards offering “easier” courses.

It said: “In a world where schools are under pressure to achieve ever better exam grades, and exam boards measure their own performance by market share, there is an obvious inbuilt incentive for competing exam boards to provide syllabuses which make lesser demands of students.”

In evidence to the committee, the Department for Education (DfE) agreed, saying: “Competition seems to present significant risks of awarding bodies producing more ‘accessible’ specifications.”

Jon Coles, a former director general at the DfE, hit out in evidence against a “culture in which it is seen to be acceptable [for boards] to say… ‘do this [exam] because it’s easier’”.

The report said some subjects could have more than one national syllabus: it gave the example of a choice of texts in English literature or periods in history.

The recommendation was the most significant change put forward in the committee’s 101-page report. However, it appears to be less revolutionary than that attributed last month to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.

In proposals leaked to the Daily Mail, Mr Gove would re-introduce O-levels in a system in which the boards would compete for a single contract to both design courses and set questions in each subject. Mr Stuart reportedly described moving to this entirely new system by Christmas – a move linked to Mr Gove –as “reckless”.

Other concerns raised by the committee included cost – the average secondary school was listed as spending £85,000 on testing, although no figures were listed for colleges – perverse incentives, as teachers focused extra attention on middle-ability children who are central to league tables, and the endorsement of textbooks by the boards.

The MPs also proposed the establishment of national subject committees for large GCSE and A-level subjects. Comprised of representatives of learned societies, subject associations, higher education and employers, these would scrutinise question papers and influence the design of syllabuses.

Joy Mercer, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, said: “The number of exam boards without doubt makes for a complex system, and the [once] promised reduction in cost per exam has never materialised.

“However, there must be proper consultation on what form and structure any replacement takes. AoC would expect colleges to be fully involved in any process that would see exams changing in the future. Our members teach one third of all the country’s A-level students each year and know full well what can work successfully and what does not.”

There must be proper consultation on what form and structure any replacement takes”

The Select Committee can only make recommendations to ministers, rather than formulate policy. The Government’s full proposals on the exams system and secondary national curriculum are expected by the summer break.