John Dunford: There has to be a better way to examine

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The Independent Online

On 15 August, the A-level results looked good. Sceptical journalists telephoned to ask whether standards were falling because the pass rate had improved by an unprecedented 4 per cent. Although the rise was much higher than usual, the explanation was straightforward. The AS had been a success in accrediting students in subjects that they did not want to take at A2. They could give up subjects that they were likely to fail or obtain only a low grade. These students had worked much harder in the first year than previous generations. The modular structure of AS and A2 had enabled them to resit papers in which they had underperformed. There was nothing surprising, then, about the higher pass rate. Congratulations all round. The former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, wrote that standards were falling. Nothing surprising there, either.

On 15 August, the A-level results looked good. Sceptical journalists telephoned to ask whether standards were falling because the pass rate had improved by an unprecedented 4 per cent. Although the rise was much higher than usual, the explanation was straightforward. The AS had been a success in accrediting students in subjects that they did not want to take at A2. They could give up subjects that they were likely to fail or obtain only a low grade. These students had worked much harder in the first year than previous generations. The modular structure of AS and A2 had enabled them to resit papers in which they had underperformed. There was nothing surprising, then, about the higher pass rate. Congratulations all round. The former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, wrote that standards were falling. Nothing surprising there, either.

It was not long – only a few hours in some schools – before clouds were visible on the horizon. Students knew the grades of their first three or four modules, and some were mystified at the low grades in modules five and six. Many coursework grades, in particular, were inexplicably low. Coursework submitted in June was being marked much lower than that marked in January, even where experienced teachers knew it to be of better quality.

The complaints of a few schools soon became a torrent. The annual HMC survey revealed a disproportionate number of complaints about the OCR exam boards, a large number about AQA, and no more than the usual number about Edexcel. More worrying, evidence began to emerge from examiners of the way grades had been reduced at the final grading meetings. Experienced examiners, on whose knowledge of standards the system rests, were furious that their professional judgement had been overturned for statistical reasons.

All the evidence pointed to pressure – or the perception of pressure – from the chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency (QCA), Sir William Stubbs. That was then acted upon differently by the chief executives of the three boards. And so the Tomlinson inquiry found.

Although ministers and DfES officials do not appear to have had any part in this, Stubbs was acting to protect the Government from the consequences of too much improvement in A-level results. This should not be the role of the examinations regulator. The QCA has been too close to the DfES throughout its existence. Too often it has recommended what it knew from DfES officials would be acceptable to ministers. Too often it has made errors in following the Government's line instead of taking advice from professionals. More than ever, we need an independent QCA. It must have clear powers and end the confusion of responsibility between the Education department, QCA and the exam boards.

Tomlinson concluded that the A-level fiasco was "an accident waiting to happen", and the fire was immediately turned on Estelle Morris, schools' minister at the time of the reform of the sixth-form curriculum. In fact, she had little to do with the policy. That was handled by Baroness Blackstone, the other minister in the DfES during the critical period of 1998 to 2000. With David Blunkett determined to introduce the qualification a year early, and Blackstone taking a conservative view of the implementation issues and failing to get the universities to sign up to the reform, schools were in difficulties from the start.

Tomlinson's "accident waiting to happen" was about the assessment system, not the structure of AS and A2 modules. That was the responsibility of the QCA. It failed to communicate to students, teachers and examiners the standard at which A2 modules were to be assessed. It did not even provide sample A2 papers. For a country that does so much examining, we do it badly. Exam boards make too many errors. Key-stage tests in English still command little confidence from teachers, with many appeals every year. AS had many problems last year, and this year's A-level crisis is without precedent. There has to be a better way.

With fewer external examinations, greater clarity about the purpose of each test, more use of online testing, more reliance on the judgement of teachers, with experienced teachers as Chartered Examiners to lead this internal assessment, we can begin to move towards this better way. Our students deserve a better deal.

The writer is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

education@independent.co.uk

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