Exam boards face streamlining to calm fears of 'grade inflation'

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The Independent Online
Ministers are preparing to do battle over plans to reduce the number of examination boards to ensure that standards are the same across the country. Board officials have suggested that they might take legal action to protect their interests.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, announced yesterday that she was planning to take action amid concern over "grade inflation" which has caused a rapid rise in pass rates at GCSE and A-levels.

She said that she was considering a range of options for the streamlining of the system, though she expected to stop short of creating a single, nationalised examinations board.

"It is a question of keeping a handle on the standards. If by reducing the number you can more closely control standards it is worth looking at very seriously," she said.

Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has recommended that Mrs Shephard should consider merging some of the six boards. The existence of so many examinations bodies raises questions about the comparability of standards across the country, he believes.

However, the boards are deeply unhappy about the prospect of reform.

Dennis Hatfield, chairman of the Joint GCSE, an umbrella body for the boards, said that their numbers had already been reduced when the GCSE was introduced in 1988.

The boards were independent businesses and it was not clear whether Mrs Shephard had the legal powers to close or merge them. The issue might even have to be tested in the courts, Mr Hatfield said.

"It would depend entirely on what she actually proposed, but I don't think they would be happy. If a big board was being shut out of existence it might consider it necessary to fight," he said.

Kathleen Tattersall, chief executive of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, said the move would do nothing to guarantee standards.

"It is not the case that exam boards trade and compete on standards. We grade on what candidates actually do in exams. This is not a standards issue," she said.

Several of the GCSE and A-level boards have already held talks with the bodies that control vocational courses with a view to building closer links. One, the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council, has already merged with the Business and Technology Education Council.

However, there is even deeper concern about standards in some of the Government's new vocational qualifications than in GCSE and A-level. Figures published yesterday showed that only four out of ten students taking "applied A-levels" or GNVQs had completed their courses within two years.

Officials at the Department for Education and Employment argued that not all students intended to complete the courses they started, and that some dropped out for "positive" reasons because they had found jobs.

But Alan Smithers, professor of public policy at Brunel University, said that more information was needed to assess the exams properly.

"It is very important to develop applied education, but it looks as if any success with GNVQ is very patchy indeed," he said.

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