Reforms of the Government's exams watchdog may not go far enough, critics claimed yesterday as ministers likened moves to create an independent regulator of exams to Labour's historic decision to give the Bank of England freedom to set interest rates.
Opposition MPs and some education experts expressed caution over the decision to split the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in two, despite claims that it would end the annual row over exam standards.
Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said a new regulator answerable to Parliament would report on exam standards, while a separate body would take over the QCA's role writing the national curriculum and monitoring the content of school and college syllabuses.
Mr Balls told the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth that the move would help "end young people being told that the GCSE or A-level grades they are proud of aren't worth what they used to be. I want parents, universities, employers and young people themselves to be confident that exam standards are being maintained."
But David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, described the change as "both overdue and underwhelming".
He said the move was "simply inadequate". He said: "The Government should have the courage of its convictions. The whole of the QCA should be replaced by a independent education standards authority, which should not only monitor exams but independently commission and advise upon good educational practice and curriculum issues."
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, welcomed the move in principle, but warned that the new exams regulator needed to have powers to check that young people's performance matched the increase in grades.
He said: "If this is simply splitting the QCA without adding any new functions I'm not sure it will make much difference and it could make things more difficult."
Teachers' leaders broadly welcomed the decision. Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT union, said teachers would welcome the new regulator if it "quashes the constant critique about exam standards".
Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, backed the decision to make the new watchdog accountable to Parliament.
"However, these changes will not solve the real problem with the current assessment system – the total amount of national testing," she said.
Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We are damned if we raise achievement and damned if we don't. Teachers and students are fed up with the annual whingers and will look to the new body to provide the evidence that higher pass rates do not equate to slipping standards."
But he warned: "The danger of having a body dedicated to regulating the nation's exam system is that it will increase the Government's over-reliance on external testing, rather than trying to streamline our bloated system."
Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, said that the move would reassure parents.
He said: "To have this new system where we split the QCA so one body sets the curriculum and another body monitors standards is going to be very welome. I think what Ed Balls has seen very clearly is that if we split these two functions and make the standards board absolutely separate, it will reassure parents, students and the public at large."Reuse content