The Government took the unprecedented step yesterday of sending in a troubleshooter to sort out the affairs of one of the country's biggest examination boards.
The move followed days of complaints over the beleaguered Edexcel exam board – prompting condemnation from Downing Street and leading Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to question its performance.
Headteachers demanded that Edexcel be stripped of its powers to set and administer GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels for schools across Britain once its contract comes up for renewal in September.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "If Edexcel have been as incompetent as they appear to have been, I don't see the Government has any option other than to sack them as an examining board. The apparent lack of quality assurance and cavalier disregard for the interests of students is breathtaking."
Ministerial sources conceded last night that revoking Edexcel's licence to run exams remained a possibility, stressing that the board – with the help of troubleshooter Bill Kelly from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the examinations watchdog – had until September at the latest to put its house in order.
While the Prime Minister's official spokesman described Edexcel's performance as "shoddy, to say the least", a senior aide to Ms Morris said it had been "simply and utterly shambolic".
The growing furore was in stark contrast to the warm smiles and handshakes during the Prime Minister's trip to India earlier this month, when Tony Blair took time out from his hectic programme of shuttle diplomacy to open a new centre for Edexcel in Delhi. Edexcel has faced a growing chorus of outrage in schools and colleges this week since the disclosure that a printing mistake had rendered an AS-level maths problem impossible to answer, and that the board had failed to alert schools to it, despite having been aware of the error for several hours. Yesterday, the board was forced to admit hat a page had been omitted in error from a communications exam paper due to be taken later in the day by 1,000 pupils aged 16 to 17.
However, another complaint, that the board had lost the drama coursework of 20 students from North Devon college in Barnstaple, was withdrawn yesterday evening, after the work was found in a storage area at the college.
Edexcel had already lost its chief executive, who resigned three months ago after complaints that the board had failed to meet deadlines for re-marking contested scripts.
Christina Townsend left Edexcel in October after what she described in her resignation letter as a "particularly demanding year" for the board. Since then things have gone from bad to worse.
Responsibility for tackling the latest blunders now lies at the door of John Kerr, the new chief executive, and Paul Sokoloff, the board's director of qualifications.
In an attempt to draw a line under the embarrassing affair, Mr Kerr yesterday apologised for the errors, saying: "I would say we must do better, without a doubt. I am not happy with the performance. We do have a loyal, committed staff who are going to have to go back to basics and make sure they don't make silly mistakes."
He admitted the board had been failing in its finances, its information technology systems, its customer satisfaction and in its staff morale. It hoped to break even by 2003.
Edexcel was formed in 1996 by the merger of BTEC, the leading provider of vocational qualifications, and the London University exam council, one of the main GCSE and A-level exam boards.
The restructuring was part of a wave of mergers in the late 1990s that saw the many small boards familiar to previous generations of pupils reorganised to form three rival consortiums, Edexcel, OCR and AQA, each providing a mix of academic and vocational qualifications.
Edexcel is the second largest of the three, offering qualifications in more than 6,000 schools, 450 colleges and nearly 100 universities and operating in more than 100 countries.
But the board has failed to win the confidence of teachers and students. Further education colleges are deeply unhappy with Edexcel's performance – two-thirds said its service was poor or very poor last year and almost three-quarters felt the service was getting worse.
In addition, more than two-thirds of colleges reported that Edexcel delivered exam results late last summer, according to a recent Association of Colleges survey.
This dismal assessment of Edexcel's capabilities was confirmed last year when 10,000 students who sat the board's "key skills" tests were awarded the wrong marks, because of what the board dismissed as "an isolated operator error".
The board's real problems began to emerge with the first sitting of the Government's new AS-levels last summer. After the results, dozens of schools and colleges complained that their pupils had been marked down by Edexcel.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, believes the furore has raised fundamental questions about the state of the British exam system.
"This demonstrates the strain placed on the education system by the excessive number of external examinations taken by young people in this country – far more than in any other country," he said.
"There are too many external examinations and greater professional trust should be placed in teachers through an improved system of internal school assessment governed by national standards."
The furore over Edexcel's blunders is also refuelling demands for the introduction of a single examination board. Headteachers' leaders now believe ministers should have adopted a proposal drawn up under the Tories of whittling the boards down to one, as that would mean a single examination standard and prevent schools from shopping around.
Mr Hart believes the pressure of the marketplace might be adding to the blunders being unearthed now as exam boards sacrifice quality for ensuring they get papers to schools in time and mark them by the deadline for scripts.
'It was a problem we could have done without'
NEARLY ONE thousand students at Mid-Kent College in Maidstone were left angry and upset yesterday after Edexcel sent their college an exam paper with a page missing and failed to fax the missing questions until minutes before the first sitting of the test was due to start. The college is now reviewing whether to use the troubled exam board again after the mistake on the Level 2 communications key skills paper.
Nicola Russell, 17, from Gillingham, said the mistake had only added to her exam nerves. She said: "We heard about the problem but we were told it would be sorted out by the time it started.
"We were told there would be two supplementary pages with four questions on them which were the missing ones.
"It was a problem we could have done without. It made me feel more nervous than I already was.
"It certainly didn't make the exam any easier for us."
Richard Wigley, 17, from Gillingham, believes Edexcel's blunder increased the pressure of the exam on many students. He said: "The whole thing was a complete joke. I thought it was a wind-up when someone explained the problem to me.
"Taking an exam is a very stressful thing – this just made it worse. But I managed to concentrate on the exam and hopefully I've done OK."
Simon Lee, 17, from Maidstone, said the photocopied exam pages had made some of the questions more difficult to read and understand. But he added: "It's possible it made it a little bit more confusing that all the questions were not together.
"It was not too hard, you just had to look for the information; it was all there."Reuse content