Fewer exams would mean fewer misprints in the question papers. Discuss

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The Independent Online

Even examiners make mistakes. Some errors in exam papers are inevitable, but one of the main contributory factors is the sharp increase in the number of papers. Edexcel, one of the three national boards, will set 10 million papers this year, more than twice as many as the 4 million two years ago. When the board is reduced to appealing to vicars to help to mark religious studies papers, it is obvious that the exam system is overloaded. Reducing the number of exams sat by our over-tested children will not eliminate errors altogether, but it will help, and is the right thing to do anyway.

Even examiners make mistakes. Some errors in exam papers are inevitable, but one of the main contributory factors is the sharp increase in the number of papers. Edexcel, one of the three national boards, will set 10 million papers this year, more than twice as many as the 4 million two years ago. When the board is reduced to appealing to vicars to help to mark religious studies papers, it is obvious that the exam system is overloaded. Reducing the number of exams sat by our over-tested children will not eliminate errors altogether, but it will help, and is the right thing to do anyway.

This newspaper has long advocated the abolition of GCSEs. Now that nearly all pupils remain in full-time education until 18, there is little need for external exams at 16, except for the general certificate of basic competence in reading, writing and maths. Schools should set their own tests to help to assess which pupils could benefit most from which form of post-16 education.

As for AS-levels, the aim of broadening the A-level syllabus was sound, but the execution was botched, and the main effect has been to increase pupils' workload and the number of exams they sit. It would have been, and still is, preferable to move towards the Continental five-subject baccalaureate.

Nor should a rethink of exams simply consist of a radical cut in their number. Indeed, the timidity of a government claiming to be committed to education as its first priority has been disappointing. Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, should do two more things: light a fire under the exam boards' regulator, and move the exam season to earlier in the year.

It seems unlikely that the competition between exam boards leads them to cut corners in proofreading, even if the incentives to rigour may not be as stringent as they should be. (Ms Morris's warning in January that Edexcel was "on probation" was mere bluster.) It is more plausible that the boards compete for market share by making their exams easier to pass than their rivals'. That means more pupils are taking more and more exams, but their achievement is being devalued all the time – the least educationally desirable outcome.

It made sense to reduce the number of exam boards to three, although a further merger into a single body would lose the benefits of pluralism and competition. The present structure depends heavily on unforgiving regulation by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It is time the QCA looked at the evidence – undeniable in the case of maths – that standards have slipped. Until the QCA requires a board to rewrite an exam paper, confidence in standards will continue to ebb.

As for the timing of exams, it is unfair and inefficient to hold them at the start of the summer: unfair on the large minority of pupils who suffer from hay fever – and, indeed, on the large majority of pupils who would rather be outdoors when it is warm; and inefficient because it makes the allocation of university places a two-step hop involving predicted grades and actual ones.

It is a year since an independent commission recommended moving exams to April (that was the important feature of the six-term year), but Ms Morris has left it to local councils and refused to take a view. This is silly: many councils are keen, but talks with the exam boards are going nowhere. Ms Morris should take national responsibility for national exams – she should ask the boards to bring the exam season forward to April.

Fewer exams, earlier exams and tougher standards. That would make better educational sense and make life fairer for students, universities and employers. And it might even reduce the risk of errors in question papers.

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