The good point which emerged from the Commons Education Select Committee's report on exam reform yesterday is that everybody seems agreed on the problem. The bad is that no one seems agreed on a solution.
In its analysis, the report was unequivocal. Competition between examination boards coupled with pressure on schools to do well in performance league tables has led to a "race to the bottom" as boards seek to make themselves more "accessible" to schools, that is, supply easier papers. However, it rejected the idea of a single exam board on the grounds that it would a create a monopoly, possibly charging higher fees, and would stifle innovation.
The select committee should try telling that to the majority of our European neighbours who already have single boards for most qualifications and do not have the constant cry of "grade inflation" ringing in their ears. It also rejected Education Secretary Michael Gove's idea of a single board for each subject – which would soothe the pro-marketeers by allowing competition for the franchises. Instead, it recommends a national syllabus with each exam board free to set its own questions.
But even if these questions are closely monitored by Ofqual, the exam regulator, as the select committee suggests, does it not still leave the same problem in place? Exam boards will still be competing for custom. Mr Gove's preferred solution has pitfalls, too. It has never been tried or tested and would appear to leave exam boards employing specialists in subjects where they might be refused permission to run the exam – a waste of resources.
No, the time has come to grasp the nettle and have just a single exam board for GCSEs and A-levels. The issue is too important to worry about upsetting the sensibilities of pro-marketeers. It should be run along the lines of quangos like Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, and Ofqual – independent of government but accountable, perhaps to a body like the select committee which does not have to please government in its deliberations.
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