Schools could lose ability to `shop' for syllabuses

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Schools could be banned from shopping around the examination boards for a pick and mix of preferred syllabuses in an attempt to boost their results under proposals being considered by government curriculum advisers. Instead, schools could be forced to choose just one of three approved awarding bodies to cover all subjects.

The step is among a package of measures under discussion aimed at restoring flagging public confidence in the consistency of standards across qualifications.

A powerful committee, including the heads of the agencies overseeing academic and vocational qualifications, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), is examining the proposals, outlined in a paper seen by The Independent. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, highlighted concern over inconsistencies between syllabuses and exam boards earlier this month after the publication of a national study, "Standards Over Time", comparing standards in public exams over the past 20 years.

Although the report found no evidence that standards had fallen, Mrs Shephard said she wanted the four English exam boards and three vocational awarding bodies reduced in number to iron out inconsistencies.

The paper under consideration by the advisory committee acknowledges the "suspicion that standards are slowly - even subconsciously - being eroded as awarding bodies compete for business amongst schools and colleges judged publicly by their examination results".

Schools and colleges anxious to boost their rating in exam league tables may be tempted to shop around for the easier syllabuses in an attempt to notch up higher grades, says the paper, while awarding bodies may consider lowering their standards "in a bid to improve their market share and prospects of survival".

The document includes a proposal to cut the number of awarding bodies to three.

Schools and colleges would then be made to choose one of the three bodies, ending the free market which allows individual subject departments to select their preferred syllabus. That proposal, if adopted, could cause deep dissent within institutions as subject departments battled for their preferred exam board.

George Turnbull of the Associated Examinations Board said: "You would certainly leave some teachers and departments feeling dissatisfied. Whatever way you look at it this is taking away choice."

Another suggested change is greater cooperation between awarding bodies in the process of standards-setting to ensure consistency in questions and marking.

Mrs Shephard has said she will stop short of creating a single exam board, but the awarding bodies are deeply unhappy at the prospect of reform. They point out that their numbers have already been cut from 24 to four in less than 10 years.

Mrs Shephard provoked alarm from the exam boards last summer when she announced plans to streamline the system amid concern over "grade inflation", which has caused a rapid rise in GSCE and A-level pass rates.

Though the education secretary has said she will stop short of creating a single, nationalised examinations board, the awarding bodies are deeply unhappy at the prospect of reform.