Exam boards could be subject to market forces

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The Independent Online

Any organisation could be allowed to set itself up as an exam board under radical proposals to create a free market in qualifications currently being considered by the government's testing watchdog.

Senior officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) are discussing plans to deregulate the market in GCSE and A-level exams to provide greater choice and competition for schools.

Such a move would reverse the recent trend towards fewer exam boards - the three main boards in England were formed out of the amalgamation of more than 20 since the 1970s.

If would also accelerate the controversial trend for commercial companies to become increasingly involved in running public exams, which recently saw Edexcel, a charity, taken over by the media giant Pearson.

The plans were proposed by Sir Anthony Greener, the QCA chairman, a City grandee who is also deputy chairman of BT. He proposed a market similar to that in the energy industry, where some companies are primarily "upstream" generators of gas or electricity, while others sell the product to consumers "downstream".

Under his plans, exam boards' current responsibilities would be split between different bodies. Tasks from writing the syllabus to marking papers and setting grade boundaries would be handled by separate organisations.

Any organisation would be able to set itself up as an exam board as long as it was accredited by the QCA and awarded a licence to run academic exams.

Opponents of private sector involvement in state education are likely to oppose the proposals.

A spokesman for the QCA stressed that the plan was one of several options under discussion, but he said that it was "unlikely" the number of awarding bodies would increase.

England's two other exam boards, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Oxford and Cambridge and RSA currently remain as charities.