Exam board must do better, warns watchdog

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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest examination board has been ordered to improve its performance in time for this summer's GCSE, AS and A-levels.

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) has been told by the Government's exams watchdog to draw up proposals to improve the recruitment of its markers within six weeks.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) warned the board in a report that it was relying too heavily on the goodwill of experienced examining staff.

The deadline comes a month after ministers read the riot act to the Edexcel exam board after a series of blunders in scripts were uncovered by teachers and pupils.

Yesterday's report also warned the AQA to improve its security procedures because an unauthorised person had gained entry to a place where scripts were stored during an inspectors' visit.

However, the report was being seen as a sign of the immense pressure the entire system was under rather than a fault of the exam board itself.

Unlike Edexcel, the AQA, which is the country's largest exam board, marking 12 million scripts (about 50 per cent of the national total) in an eight-week period last summer, was commended for "substantial good practice" in its administration procedures. There was no evidence of any blunders in scripts, the report said.

However it has been given a warning about the lack of a long-term strategy to recruit enough markers to cope with the increase in exam scripts since the introduction of the new AS-level exam.

The QCA said the board had taken on 100 extra staff last summer to cope with the workload – but still had to rely on retiring staff staying on until the early autumn to meet the deadlines for marking scripts and dealing with appeals.

Examiners were encouraged to take on more scripts, and contingency plans were made to invite the most reliable markers to take on even more work after they had finished their increased allocation.

"Such heavy reliance on the goodwill of experienced examining staff helped to control the risk for summer 2001," the watchdog's report concluded. "However, this approach is not sustainable and a long-term strategy is needed to deal with this issue."

The report added that the intruder who got into the storage depot had been challenged but should not have been there in the first place.

Senior education experts said the board's difficulties in recruiting enough examiners highlighted the tremendous pressure on the exam system – rather than any faults within the board itself.

George Turnbull, a spokesman for the AQA, said last night: "This is a national problem. There always has been a shortage of examiners in certain subjects.

"There are meetings taking place with the Department for Education and Skills and the QCA to discuss this. A crucial area is to make examining more attractive to teachers. We do depend on them marking scripts."

Sir William Stubbs, the chairman of the QCA, said: "There was evidence of substantial good practice for which AQA is commended." But he added: "Once the action plan is agreed we will monitor the awarding body's performance in meeting it."

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