The system that makes A-levels so revered would work just as effectively for the new technical exams, argues Rod Bristow

The groundbreaking Copyright Act of 1710 was in its long form entitled “an Act for the Encouragement of Learning”. The idea behind it was simple, that by protecting the intellectual property developed by authors and publishers, more works that advanced knowledge would be created. The forces against copyright feared that its ownership would limit the promulgation of knowledge. But the argument for copyright was won and Britain became a world leader in the creation of knowledge. 

Today, government proposals for the development of T-levels will not allow awarding organisations (AOs) to retain copyright over the qualifications they are asked to develop and deliver. 

Our system of qualifications, copyright ownership and competition, while not flawless, works. Teachers can select the A-level course that suits their teaching, and students benefit from the fact that AOs compete to produce the best course. Ofqual ensures that each course meets the required standard and the requirements of universities. 

And this innovation isn’t limited to the course content; it extends to the technology that underpins the assessment. In 2002, when centrally directed changes to A-levels found the system wanting, Pearson invested significantly in on-screen marking technology that helped modernise the exam system when our competitors followed suit. This modernisation wasn’t directed by the government but unleashed by competition fueled by intellectual property.

Of course, there are those who say that competition between AOs doesn’t raise standards and results in a race to the bottom. They suggest that the UK is out of step with other countries. This is not correct in two respects. First there is no system our size with only one exam board – the risks of single point of failure are simply too high. Second, we have an independent regulator which ensures that while AOs innovate, they never compete on education standards. This national system of independent regulation sets us apart from other nations. 

The government is now proposing, however, similar to a proposal it made for GCSEs a few years ago, to allow only one AO per occupational route for T-levels. These proposals are undoubtedly intended to maintain standards, but they will nevertheless overturn the same system that produces the A-levels that are so respected in this country and around the world. 

It’s not clear why the obvious risks in doing so are acceptable for technical qualifications while they appear unthinkable for the A-level ‘gold standard’. In fact, the risks are exactly the same. A single point of failure and lack of innovation are but two. Magnifying them, though, is the fact that giving each route to only one AO will strip capacity from the system. 

If one successful bidder fails, capacity in other organisations will inevitably have been lost, leaving nowhere to turn in the event of failure. There will also be advantage to incumbents in any competitive re-tender, since they will already “own” the capacity to develop and deliver. These competitive barriers to entry will over the long term limit competition on value for money. 

The current system of competing AOs may not be replicated elsewhere in the world, but there are parallels in the United States where the College Board competes with the ACT. And unlike in the US, the English system of regulation enables productive competition while centrally controlling the obvious potential for damaging competition. 

Of course it would be naive to suggest that the current system is flawless or risk-free. But the sort of changes currently proposed significantly increase risk and strip capacity from the system, just at a time when we need capacity more than ever. The government is right to be concerned about competition on standards, but it would be much better to make the system we have work effectively than to make the radical change proposed. 

It would surely be relatively easy to make the system that works for A-levels. which involves an independent body defining the curriculum content and a regulator controlling the standards, work equally well for T-levels.