Exams watchdog launches fee probe

Ofqual is investigating exam spending by colleges after its annual report found payments by schools had more than doubled in ten years, from £154m in 2002/3 to £328m in 2010/11.

Between 2006/7 and 2010/11 the number of different qualifications available schools and colleges also rose by almost 10,000, from 8,150 to 18,100.

Much of the increase is accounted for by the introduction of the Qualifications and Credit Framework, which by 2010/11 included 9,700 qualifications.

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We want to find out what has caused spending to increase in recent years, and find out if improvements in the way exams are bought might result in schools and colleges saving money.”

Opinion Leader Research Ltd has been commissioned by Ofqual to carry out the research.

The firm will be contacting more than 500 schools and colleges in England and Northern Ireland to conduct 20-minute telephone interviews with senior staff.

Two different surveys are being drafted — one for staff responsible for recording and monitoring exam spending such as college finance directors, and one for staff who choose which qualifications to buy in, such as curriculum managers.

The announcement of Ofqual’s exam spending survey, which will also look at schools, was welcomed by the 157 Group.

Its executive director, Lynne Sedgmore, said: “We welcome an open and transparent review to really help understand the costs, benefits and more generally assess value for money.”

Ofqual’s annual market report for 2012, which considered schools spending, suggested four possible reasons for the increases, including more qualifications being taken and a shift in demand towards qualifications which have higher fees.

“In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of ‘other’ [neither GCE nor GCSE exams] qualifications taken in schools and some of these have higher fees,” it said.

Ofqual also told FE Week that it was possible there had been an increase in the number of additional fees being charged, such as late fees or resit fees.

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We do not know the extent to which each of these factors is responsible.”

The examinations watchdog said it would encourage any colleges who were contacted to participate.