Leading article: Wanted: a watchdog with bark and bite

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The Independent Online

It was hard not to agree with the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, when he spoke of the "old and sterile" debate that greets the publication of school examination results every year. His decision to remove the regulatory function from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and create an independent exam standards watchdog reporting to Parliament is a move that is overdue.

Each August, the release of GSCE and A-level results is accompanied by a chorus of self-congratulation from ministers and schools about how, under Labour, results are continually getting better. With equal regularity we hear Opposition spokesmen and others claim that the improvement is on paper only.

The syllabus has been "dumbed down", they say; grades have been inflated; schools pre-select the pupils they enter for exams so as to maintain their position in the league tables. School-leavers may have more pieces of paper than they used to, but – say employers' representatives – their reading, writing and arithmetic is inadequate for the world of work.

Top universities say so many pupils are now awarded A grades that their selection system is compromised. Leading fee-paying schools complain about how the exam system fails to challenge the brightest. The great and the good compare their remembered exams with today's and lament how things have changed.

Caught in between are the pupils who actually take the exams, and their teachers, who feel that their hard work is disparaged. They do not devise the curriculum, nor do they determine the marking scheme. They can hardly be blamed for doing "too" well.

We have every sympathy with them. But it is important to ask also how an exam system that used to be seen as setting a national and international "gold standard" became the subject of such controversy. And here the same government that is now proposing an independent watchdog has much to answer for.

First there was the change to the grading system that ended the fixed proportions allocated to each grade. As a consequence, the number of A grades soared. This change was never properly explained. Then there was the political context. So adept had the Government become in "spinning" facts and figures to its advantage that, when public scepticism set in, exam results too fell under suspicion.

But the root of the problem was that the QCA not only set the exams and regulated the system, but answered to ministers. Everyone involved had an interest only in putting the best possible gloss on the results. In general, we disapprove of new layers of bureaucracy, but the case for an independent exam watchdog is compelling. Without it, the exam system risks losing all credibility.