Crisis goes much deeper than the actions of one man

Sir William Stubbs' sacking may been the most dramatic moment of the last 24 hours of this summer's A-level marking fiasco.

However, the picture painted in the report by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, shows that the crisis over A-levels goes much deeper than the actions of one man.

Sir William, the chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, was sacked by Estelle Morris for the way exam boards perceived he was threatening them to mark down this year's exams.

He told them that – if the pass rate was too high – there would be calls for a public inquiry into how they had marked the exams.

The Secretary of State for Education said his actions had "led to a loss of confidence in the QCA which needs to be resolved to give young people and their parents confidence in reliable A-level results this year and in future years". As a result, she decided to remove him from office. When told of this, he offered his resignation.

However, in the words of Mr Tomlinson, this summer's crisis was an "accident waiting to happen" before Sir William had talked to a single examiner.

The new system, under which AS-levels are taken at the end of the first year of the sixth form and A2s in the second, was introduced too speedily at the behest of ministers. (It was brought in while David Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education and Estelle Morris was his number two – in charge of school standards).

In effect, that puts the political spotlight right back on Ms Morris' competence because what Mr Tomlinson is saying, if you interpret his report bluntly, is that tens of thousands of students are facing their A-levels being regarded today as a result of decisions taken by those two ministers in the last three years of the previous Labour Government.

The buck does not stop there. According to the Tomlinson report, teachers and examiners did not have a clue as to the relative weight they should attach to the two exams – AS and A2s. The QCA is to blame here again. It failed to give exam boards enough information about grade criteria and did not even run a pilot of the A2 units – with the results that examiners had nothing on which to base their judgements this year.

Yesterday Ms Morris accepted responsibility for the way the new exam system had been introduced. However, she said she took pride from the fact the reforms "had transformed what was a narrow sixth-form curriculum into a broader one for youngsters".

The QCA is picking itself up from the floor after the exit of Sir William and pinning its hopes on its new Australian chief executive, Dr Ken Boston, who arrived in the country to take up his post just two weeks ago, to resurrect its tarnished image.

The background that emerged in Mr Tomlinson's report does not give one much confidence that all the mistakes that are in the system will be ironed out in time for next year.

Some changes are inevitable. For instance, the way Sir William seems to have struck the fear of God into the chief examiners and has been interpreted by them as the voice of Government must never happen again.

The best way of ensuring that happens is to break up the QCA. It should never have been both responsible for designing the system and checking on whether it was running smoothly. That created an unhealthy climate in which there was pressure to sweep mistakes or problems under the carpet.

Its regulating role should be hived off to an independent body so that parents regain confidence in the system.

Only two boards look to have reacted to the pressure: the Oxford and Cambridge and RSA board and the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance.

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