Government admits it should have tested new A-levels to avert fiasco

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The Independent Online

In the first formal admission it was to blame, the Government conceded yesterday that its failure to test the new A-levels contributed to last summer's exams fiasco.

Its official response to an inquiry by the Commons Education and Skills Committee, which was critical of its handling of the affair, concluded: "This lesson will be learnt." Under the Government's reforms introduced in Curriculum 2000, A-levels were split into two - AS-levels were taken in the third term of the sixth form and the A2 examinations in June of the following year. The AS- levels were piloted, but the A2 was not.

The inquiry into last summer's crisis, which resulted in 2,000 students having their results upgraded, said the decision not to pilot the exam led to confusion in exam boards over marking standards. Yesterday the Government said: "The possibility of piloting the A2 exam was not contemplated at the time ... This would have been desirable.

"We recognise absolutely that there are lessons to be learnt for the future about the way in which we implement major reforms of this sort.

"Detailed planning and extensive trialling is essential so that we can be confident all systems are in place and that teachers and examiners are fully trained in new requirements. There needs to be clarity ... about the standards against which an individual's performance will be assessed."

The response made clear ministers were acting after advice from its exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. They hope this admission - before this year's A-level results are issued - will draw a line under last summer's fiasco. The immediate reaction of the Government at the time led Estelle Morris, Education Secretary at the time, to sack Sir William Stubbs as chairman of the QCA, citing exam boards' claims that he had put pressure on them to reduce marks. He has since won £95,000 compensation.

The Government and the QCA are optimistic that stringent new checks on marking standards will avoid a repeat of the previous summer. This year, for the first time, if there is a disagreement between an exam board's chief executive and chief examiners over marking grades, it has to be referred to the QCA immediately.

Yesterday's response also confirmed ministers would adopt a "softly, softly" approach to the shake-up of the exam system proposed by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who is now chairing a review of 14 to 19 education.