MPs criticise exam boards for dumbing down standards in a 'race to the bottom' to sign up schools

 

A “race to the bottom” as exam boards compete to sign up schools has led to a dumbing down of standards, MPs on the influential Commons select committee said today.

As a result, Graham Stuart, Conservative chairman of the all-party committee, warned:  The public have lost confidence in exam standards and this needs to be put right.

“We've got to stop the dumbing down of the courses young people sit and stop exam boards competing on how 'accessible' their syllabuses are.”

However, the MPs reject the idea of a single exam board for every subject - instead of three main boards competing for custom as at present - on the grounds it could be too costly to implement and put the power to charge fees in the hands of just one individual.  It would also stifle innovation, they argue.

Similarly, they reject the notion favoured by Education Secretary Michael Gove of a single exam board for every subject with the existing boards competing for the franchise - claiming it could have “serious downsides” and needs to be better understood before it is agreed. Innovation would again be stifled.

Mr Stuart warned it would be “reckless” if Mr Gove sought to agree the franchises by Christmas as has been suggested.

Instead, they opt for a solution whereby there would be a national syllabus for every subject signed off by Ofqual, the exams regulator.  It would then have to mount stringent checks on the questions set by exam boards to ensure they were of the same standard.

The MPs also criticise what Mr Stuart called the “distorting, damaging effect” of exam league tables - measuring schools particularly on the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English.

They call on ministers to review the content of the tables to avoid schools concentrating on pupils who are borderline C/D grade passes to the neglect of others.

“We have serious concerns about incentives in the exam system which lead to downward competition on standards,” the MPs said.

“The Government should not underestimate the extent to which the accountability system incentivises schools to act in certain ways as regards to exams.

As a result, it was not clear that constantly rising pass rates at GCSE and A-level were due to improved performance. Competition between exam boards and the pressure to do well in league tables and thus teach to the test had played their part.

Denials that exams had become easier had only served to erode public confidence in the system, the MPs argued.

”If people deny obvious truths that people see in front of them, they will lose confidence in the system,“ said Mr Stuart.

However, he said there had to be a debate over whether we had an exam ”set at the same difficulty as 30 or 40 years ago when fewer people sat the exams“ or whether we needed a system to reflect modern needs.

”If a large percentage of people taking examinations get no grades at all, it doesn't encourage them to continue in education. It could be said not to be working very well.“

The Government indicated it wanted exams to be tougher and more people to pass them but there was a suggestion of ”cake and eat it“ here, he argued

”I think we need to have a debate over fitness for purpose.“

The MPs also wanted Ofqual to take a tougher line in monitoring standards and keep an eye out for what one exam board official referred to as ”creeping grade inflation“ - particularly in key subject areas taken by large numbers of pupils such as maths, English and science,

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, welcomed the report as a ”thoughtful and rigorous investigation“.

”AQA has never competed by lowering exam standards although I accept this may have been the case elsewhere in the market in the past.

“However, we recognise that it is important to restore public confidence in the system.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss