Exam fee hikes ‘make a mockery’ of financial planning

Exam fee rises will cost schools and colleges hundreds of thousands of pounds more.

Exam fee rises will cost schools and colleges hundreds of thousands of pounds more.

23 Oct 2022, 6:00

GCSE and A-level exam fee rises of up to 17 per cent “makes a mockery” of financial planning, claim school and college leaders. 

Edexcel, run by Pearson, and OCR have increased fees for all 2023 exams by a flat six per cent. England’s largest exam board, AQA, has hiked prices by between five and 17 per cent, although it still has the lowest prices overall.

The boards, which will earn several million more from colleges after the rises, say they need to cover higher costs. But leaders say the increases are disappointing as schools and colleges battle soaring energy and staffing costs. 

Chichester College Group, which has nine colleges and training providers, expects the hikes to cost an extra £300,000 this year on top of its “already eye-wateringly high” costs across the group which account for more than £3.3 million.

“The increase in exam costs is yet another pressure being put on colleges across the country,” said chief executive Andrew Green.

“This increase comes at a time when colleges are faced with soaring energy bills, soaring inflation and serious underfunding. Colleges have faced more than a decade of brutal cuts and increased costs, made worse by the pandemic.

“That money could have been used to assist our staff by contributing towards additional pay or funding the recruitment of more learning support assistants to provide support to our students.”

Luminate Education Group, which has seven members, including two universities and one training provider, expects the hikes to cost an extra £200,000 this year.

Less than inflation

Deputy chief executive for curriculum and quality Gemma Simmons-Blench told FE Week this increase will have a “knock-on effect, as our budgets are set far in advance”.

“At a time when the FE sector is facing growing financial pressure and with the government not making its position clear on funding provisions, the hike in prices means that we will have to look at our budgets further in order to ensure that [financial] targets are met,” she said.

“The awarding organisations have stated that the increase is less than inflation. While this may be the case, the increase far outweighs the funding increase, and we urge exam boards to reconsider their position on this.”

E-ACT, which has 13 secondary schools, expects the hikes to cost an extra £180,000. Tom Campbell, its interim chief executive, said another “unfunded cost increase” made it “increasingly difficult to do anything resembling thoughtful financial planning”. 

“It risks causing confusion amongst accounting officers and trust boards, making it impossible to deliver the budgets agreed with the Education and Skills Funding Agency at the start of the year. 

“In-year changes to costs like these make a mockery of the funding agreements and annual budget-setting cycle.”

A spokesperson from NCG confirmed with FE Week that even a 5% increase in fees would raise their costs by around £200,000 per year.

“This is at a time when colleges across the country, and the hard working staff within them, face enormous funding pressures. However, we have very positive relationships with all of our awarding organisations and we are keen to work closely with them to better understand and highlight the impact that any changes may have on colleges across our Group.”

Sciences keep rising

Frustration over fees grew last year after FE Week’s sister publication Schools Week revealed boards were raising prices, despite cancelled exams and teacher-set grades.

AQA has hiked prices for A-level art by 17 per cent – from £89.65 to £105.10. Other subjects have risen between five and 12 per cent. The non-for-profit organisation said increases for most of its qualifications were “well-below inflation”, currently at 9.9 per cent.

Rises above inflation were to “better reflect the market and true costs of delivering these qualifications”.

Fees for A-level biology, chemistry and physics have risen by 10 per cent, while GCSE geography and art are up 12 per cent. A maths GCSE now costs £41.20, up from £39.15.

AQA could gain an extra £4.9 million if entry rates remain the same as this summer. Tracey Newman, the board’s director of customer and sales, said: “As an independent charity, we don’t charge more than we need to for our qualifications and services, and we’ve kept entry fee increases well below the rate of inflation for most of our qualifications.”

Sufficient warning needed

Ofqual’s conditions say boards should publish fees “sufficiently far in advance” of exams to “satisfy the reasonable planning requirements” of schools and colleges.

All three boards published fees in the past three months – OCR and Edexcel in August and AQA last Friday – but schools and colleges set budgets months in advance.

A maths GCSE with Edexcel now costs £46.80, compared with £44 last year. 

A spokesperson said it recognised school budgets were “stretched” and “we will always aim to keep fee increases to a minimum while providing as much value for money as possible”.

Likewise, OCR, a not-for-profit owned by Cambridge University Press & Assessment, is hiking fees six per cent. A maths GCSE now costs £47, up from £44.25.

An OCR spokesperson said it aimed to keep any fee increases “as low as possible”. 

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  1. The savings exam boards are making by their associates (examiners/writers etc) now working remotely must be astronomical! This saving could sufficiently support any exam cost rise they are planning or have put already in place.

    Somebody somewhere making money yet again from the public purse.