Exams watchdog intervenes to make A-levels harder

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The Independent Online

Government exam chiefs are to intervene in the setting of A-level papers to make sure questions are more difficult next year.

For the first time since it was set up 10 years ago, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is proposing to take a more active role in the drafting of individual question papers.

The watchdog wants to ensure exam boards implement a Government drive to make A-levels more stretching, with greater use of open-ended, essay-style questions.

The move comes amid continuing debate over the standard of A-levels and GCSEs as pass rates rise.

Earlier this month Simon Lebus, Chief Executive of exam board Cambridge Assessment, said he was "troubled" by studies that suggested A-levels and GCSEs were getting easier.

The QCA's director of regulation and standards, Isabel Nisbet, raised the issue of taking "a more active role" in setting GCSE and A-level question papers at a board meeting in September.

The purpose would be "to ensure that papers are of high quality, and to ensure that future GCE (A-level) papers have fewer structured questions, requiring more extended responses", according to the board minutes.

The watchdog, which is to be split up with the creation of a new independent regulator of exam standards, will send consultants into a small sample of exam board meetings.

These consultants will observe the question setting process before the A-level papers and mark schemes are finalised.

The QCA board minutes added: "The QCA should exercise its authority to intervene where there is believed to be significant risk to the standard of question papers and in the start up of new qualifications."

The reformed A-levels, to be taught for the first time from next September, will also include a new A* grade to recognise students who score marks of 90% or more in their final exams.

Last time A-levels underwent such a radical change, thousands of papers had to be remarked in the grading fiasco of 2002, which severely dented public confidence in exams.

Headteachers and independent schools welcomed the QCA's approach. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Times Educational Supplement (TES) that the watchdog's intervention would help "in what could be a difficult transfer from one system to the next".

Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of leading independent schools, also welcomed the move.

He told the TES that the QCA's close scrutiny of the reforms could result in "better questions, better examinations and better teaching and learning".