He can bark. Will he bite?

Ken Boston - brought in from Australia to run the exams quango - has fast developed a reputation for telling it like it is. He has taken some emergency measures to ensure there will be no repeat of last summer's A-level marking fiasco. Will they work? Caroline Haydon talked to him
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Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that we will avoid another A-level grading fiasco this year. The hopes of parents and pupils are pinned on the Australian tough guy, brought in from the other side of the world to run the exams watchdog 12 months ago. Will the straight-talking Ken Boston manage to swing things so that we don't witness the chaos of 2002 when grade boundaries were shifted, some students ended up receiving inconsistent results and Sir William Stubbs, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), was fired and, to top it all, Education Secretary Estelle Morris resigned?

To date, Ken Boston, the new head of the QCA, is playing it calm. Everything is on track, he says. He might be expected to, of course, but none the less, sitting in his cool air-conditioned office above the summer noise and scuffle of Green Park in London, Boston can tick off things that are working this year rather better than they were last.

We should - he can't help adding "fingers crossed" - have enough markers, even if some will have, this year, to take slightly increased loads. Other reforms have streamlined the system, but most important of all, if any board does propose a change in grading, unlike last year, that change will have to be reported to Boston. And if he's not happy about it he will say so publicly. As he puts it, "the watchdog can bark, in a way it was not able to previously".

The summer isn't over yet, but even this much comes as a relief to those actually taking the exams and the watching education world. It wasn't a world shown up in a good light last year. Many are looking to Boston, to live up to the tough-guy image he's been given and sort matters out. In conversation he is pretty outspaken. The chaos in last year's A-level marking was an accident waiting to happen because of the AS-level's rushed introduction and lack of "exemplar" material, he says. In fact, it was "extraordinary that someone didn't blow the whistle sooner".

Comments like "a breath of fresh air", "refreshing honesty", and "outspoken" pepper references to him. When he said publicly earlier this year that if we got through the summer without mishap it would be "by a hair's breadth," people sat up. It's not often in this country you catch anyone above the level of middle manager admitting things might go wrong.

To the cynics, of course, Boston's words counted not just as an honest warning that things might go awry but a personal insurance in case they did, a suggestion he discounts. "It wasn't a personal insurance policy - this is a high-risk activity for everyone, and I was simply telling it like it was," he says. "I used that expression at a meeting of head teachers and the point I was making was that if you are entering people for an examination, you have a moral obligation to ensure there are sufficient markers. It was said in the context of a recruitment drive to get them to encourage their teachers to come forward and do some marking. And I won't say it was solely because of that remark, but we are ahead of where we were last year."

In fact, Boston's reputation as blunt and outspoken precedes him so mercilessly that meeting him, it's something of a relief to find a calm, avuncular man, patient in explaining his agenda and without the assumed self-importance afflicting so many in high office, keen even to proffer an ice-breaking joke about whether the tape recorder records Australian. If he has a more ferocious side, it's not on show.

He finds it "curious" to be described as outspoken, while, none the less, venturing the opinion ("cheeky for someone who's only been here five minutes") that there is a "deep ambivalence" in this country about the purpose of education. It's something, he says he hasn't seen elsewhere.

He has personally gone back through all the newspaper cuttings from last August, on the grounds that arguments run then will run again (the frequently lamented exam "summer frenzy"). One of those arguments he sees often implied is that education is a winnowing device to sort the wheat from the chaff - that it is all about winners and losers.

The fewer winners, the higher the standard will be. In fact, to have high standards, you have to have a substantial number of losers. The other view, he says, the one he personally holds, is that education is about allowing every young person to achieve maximum potential. And education, like health, is improving. Educational standards are fixed and immutable, but increasing numbers of young people are reaching them because innovations are working, and that's a cause for celebration.

What shocked him when he got off the plane from Australia last year was not so much the A-level grading fiasco but the talking down of the A-level as a qualification - and the vehemence with which that view was expressed. The quality of English education and training is what, he says, attracted him to the job ("It's like being asked to play at Wimbledon"). And the quality of our A-level is not always valued here as it is internationally, he argues. Yet it's viewed as best practice the world over, and should not be seen as something that has been judged and found wanting, and will go away as soon as we can hustle in an English-style Baccalaureate.

On that subject, he is mute for the moment - not that he doesn't have a view, but says that the time is not right to express it. He politely reprimands those who have wrongly, he says, attributed other opinions to him - such as his position on the number of exam boards.

There are now three main examining boards. "Some have suggested my agenda is to get rid of three and have one - it's not," he says. In any case, as he points out, there are actually 110 awarding bodies, including the vocational ones.

Which is a neat way of demonstrating a preoccupation of Boston's, which gets rather overshadowed by the column inches on exam standards. He is very keen to end the British insistence of regarding academic excellence as the be all and end all.

A teacher who began his career in Australian high schools, he was, until his appointment here, the head of the country's biggest school and further education system, in New South Wales. There, he had a good track record in promoting vocational education, a term he now suggests we drop.

It's not just semantics, he argues. Rather than use the words "academic" and "vocational" it would be better to divide subjects into two. English, maths and IT would be "general" or "core". Remote branches of physics, stonemasonry - or plumbing - would be "specialist". There's not then a dichotomy between one course and another, just steps along chosen pathways. It would be one way, as he sees it, of limiting what has been an artificial and damaging debate in this country.

It's a small start, perhaps, but he notes that even schools standards minister David Miliband has started using these words in his speeches. And he sees the QCA - not hitherto a body much in the headlines except during the annual dust-up over standards - not just as a regulator but a body actively promoting this sort of agenda, "hunting for it", as he puts it.

And it won't stop at trying to change our vocabulary. In a move that will probably only be fully appreciated by those who speak education-speak, although it deserves far wider translation, he intends root and branch reform of occupational qualifications, so that they blend more seamlessly with the academic, are industry led, and meet international standards - all by 2007.

Whatever his insistence on the validity of the A-level, however, Boston knows, indeed has been at pains to point out, that the whole exam edifice is on the verge of collapse. Comments about the "Dickensian" and unsustainable system that allows 24 million scripts to be hand-marked on kitchen tables and then moved about the country "at the whim of the Post Office" are further examples of the plain-speaking that has angered some but strikes others as rather valid.

If we make it this year, he is saying, we will, none the less, have to put in substantial reform next year. Among other things that means either sending scripts electronically and then printing them up and marking them (which hardly sounds like rocket science nowadays) or actually marking them on computer.

The former won't need much new hardware, though further down the line new money will be needed for the electronic technology that can strip spines of exam books and scan them - something he says the Government recognises.

At the moment the private sector, in the shape of exam board Edexcel, now owned by the publishing company Pearson, is bearing the cost of some of the pioneering work in computer marking.

And we should expect a "substantial" move into it next year, says Boston, with a significant proportion of Edexcel's GCSE's marked electronically. AS-levels won't be marked online for several years yet.

He recognises that he would have to give people "time to come to terms" with the idea, and that on-screen marking might be best used, initially, on papers where responses are typically shorter. But he points out that marking of extended essays online is done in other countries. But that's a debate for the future. For now, it would be nice just to get through the summer without too much of the usual frenzy - and start out a whole new year on a much better footing.

education@independent.co.uk

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