Leading article: Too many exams, too much pure incompetence

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The Independent Online

The fiasco over this year's Standard Assessment Tests (Sats) is more than just a failure to deliver on time. It is a self-inflicted wound on the educational system that will affect the ranking of schools and the marking of papers for years to come. Just how the exams authority came to negotiate such a flawed contract, and just how the US company concerned got it so wrong, has yet to be established. But it is something that the Schools Secretary Ed Balls – currently refusing to acknowledge any responsibility for the mess – is going to have to come forth and explain. Apologies (which incidentally Balls still won't give) are not enough. What schools and children need to know is what is going to happen to the results this summer, and whether the same company, which has been given a five-year contract, can be trusted in the future.

Dr Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which was in charge of negotiating and overseeing the contract, has admitted that the date for publishing next year's results has already been put back. It thus becomes clearer by the day that the current system of testing is unsustainable and has to be reformed. The simplest and best way – from an educational point of view – would be to scrap the tests for 14-year-olds altogether. They are supposed to check pupils' progress as they approach GCSEs and could easily be replaced by an internal assessment of pupils by their teachers. Dr Boston calculated that, in any one year, almost 1,700,000 secondary-school pupils are taking tests or exams in English for which external markers have to be found. There are only a maximum of 40,000 English teachers to mark them. It is proving an impossible conundrum which only an easing of the current testing pressures can solve.

That, of course, does not deal with the problem of the contract given to the US-based firm ETS – which has another four years to run. Too often in the past, contracts have been handed out to firms to deliver public services which it has then proved impossible to police effectively. Witness the Criminal Records Bureau checks on staff working with children introduced in the aftermath of the Soham murders, and the Government's Individual Learning Accounts scheme, which opened itself up to fraud because staff did not have time to check every application for a grant.

This is not to decry the idea of farming out work to the private sector, which has often been brought in because of failures by the public service. It is, however, a plea for a greater scrutiny of the contracts offered. It should have sounded a warning bell to the QCA when two of the UK's biggest exam boards – the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and the OCR (Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts) – refused to put in bids for the national curriculum test contract.

At present, we are left in a situation in which the QCA is investigating legal avenues as to whether it can recoup money from ETS for failure to deliver the test results on time, or even cancel the remaining four years of the ETS contract. Dr Boston appears to favour continuing to work with the company despite the harsh words he has for their performance. We are more sympathetic to the point of view expressed by Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, who suggested that the contract should be terminated on the grounds of ETS's failure to deliver. The courts would then have to determine whether they were entitled to compensation or had forfeited that right. A more easily deliverable contract could then be negotiated with a third party – possibly an English exam board with experience of the system – in the wake of scrapping the national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds.