Education Quandary: My teacher brother is switching to an easier exam board in the hope he gets better results. Why don't all students sit the same exam?

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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

It's a good question. Those of us who have grown up with the system never think to query it. My childhood was studded with days out in Nottingham, when my father had to attend meetings of the East Midlands Examining Board, and as a result I always took it as a fact of life that regional boards generated their own exams.

But in the 1990s the existing exam boards were consolidated into just three for England, plus separate ones for Wales and Northern Ireland, and apparently the thinking since then has been that this level of diversity is healthy. It allows for a variety of courses and for diversity in the resources and teacher training events available to schools. It also allows teachers to switch from one board to another if they feel they are not getting a good service or a reliable standard of marking.

One national board would inevitably turn into the Government's exam board and not many people want to see yet more politicisation of education and ministers closely involved in setting exam grades.

As you rightly point out, however, these days many teachers choose their exam boards with an eye to who will give them the best league table results, and inevitably boards will want to cater to this need. But who can blame teachers for doing this when education has become so much a matter of passing tests and hitting targets?

Readers' advice

The Liberal Democrats called for a single examining body 17 years ago. Since then the hunt for the easiest board has become a national pastime among teachers and, despite their denials, exam boards are responding. A single national awarding body is the only way to stop this dumbing down and to set common standards for all.

Martin Westwood, Oxfordshire

Because of the huge pressure that schools are under to demonstrate improving results, almost however they are generated, some teachers will seek out boards according to which offers the "easier" exams. In a competitive market, the boards are under pressure to respond to this demand to improve results: some even market themselves to teachers on the basis that their courses will help improve grades.

For me, the answer is not a single board, but to try to give outsiders who might question what improvements in results really mean (such as employers and universities) more say in exams policy.

Warwick Mansell, author of Education By Numbers: The Tyranny Of Testing (Politico's)

Your brother is only doing the sensible thing. School today is only about grades on paper, not real learning and education, so it is right that teachers should be working all the angles to get their pupils the best results. Exam boards only matter if you believe children learn anything useful at schools. Good results are likely to boost pupils' confidence and make them more ready to learn as they go through life.

Donna Morton, London NW7

Next Week's Quandary

Last week, two schools banned parents from swearing at their children in the playground, and from drinking from open cans of lager at the school gates. What other negative and unacceptable parental behaviours would people like to see banned? As a primary head, I can think of many!

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