We should break up the exam quango

Conor Ryan
Thursday 26 September 2002 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Mike Tomlinson delivers his report tomorrow on how this year's A-level grade boundaries were established. But the debate has already shifted from alleged exam-fixing to the future of sixth-form studies. Those arguing for a six-subject Baccalaureate, instead of A-levels, have been given active encouragement by the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, and her advisers. There are good arguments for change: when Curriculum 2000 was introduced two years ago, it was based on recommendations accepted by the Conservatives and Labour as a way of broadening lessons without abolishing the A-level. Both parties felt that Middle England would not understood the scrapping of A-levels. But it will take at least five years before a new system is fully introduced. In the meantime, A-levels remain, and more immediate reforms are needed to preserve the credibility of the exam system.

Morris has faced the most difficult days of her political life. Earlier this month, she might have expected her main problem to be defending the relatively slow recent improvement in Key Stage 2 and 3 test scores. Instead, she was besieged over the credibility of A-levels. Having worked in the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for four years, it seems inconceivable to me that there would be any ministerial interference in exam marking. Of course, ministers speak with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority regularly. And on the national curriculum, David Blunkett made no bones about preserving traditionalist aspects of English and history. But the proprieties are understood with exams, as the independent Rose Inquiry into level-setting at Key Stage 2 (where results are more politically charged) demonstrated three years ago.

A-levels may no longer be the "gold standard", but it was still ironic that the strongest critics of grade inflation each August seemed most surprised that the exam boards took their concerns seriously. Moreover, while Estelle Morris was personally savaged in some newspapers, her success with initiatives under her direct control was ignored, including excellence in cities (the urban school reform programme), literacy and numeracy reform, and performance related pay. Morris's problems – A-level grade setting, individual learning accounts or processing teacher checks – all came from external agencies such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority or the Criminal Records Bureau. Yet, just as she has accepted that she has political accountability for their mistakes, she should also take on the challenge of developing a better structure for our exam system.

So, once Tomlinson delivers his initial verdict, three key changes are needed to restore credibility to the exam system. For a start, there is no justification for three English exam boards. Competition has produced little innovation, and their credibility was poor before recent allegations. A single national board would set comparable standards and syllabuses for all students.

Second, the QCA should be broken up. While its new chief executive, Ken Boston, may be a breath of fresh air, the authority has never really worked because of its conflicting responsibilities, including setting and marking national test papers, devising curriculum requirements, and regulating GCSEs and A-levels. National tests could go to a new national exam board. Curriculum responsibilities could go to the DfES, because they carry political responsibility. And an independent exams regulator should be established, akin to the National Audit Office and answerable to Parliament.

Ultimately, transparency is essential. A few years ago, the exam boards unsuccessfully tried to resist David Blunkett's plans for students to see their marked scripts. Without that change, this year's concerns might never have come to light. When grade boundaries are set behind closed doors, conspiracy theories follow. Each headteacher association should have an observer of the whole process to allay such suspicions in the future.

The last fortnight has been a shock to the whole education system. Wilder conspiracy theories will probably turn out to have little foundation. Yet two important debates have begun: about the openness of exam marking and the future of A-levels. If we get a more transparent system in the short term, and a shift to the Bac in the longer term, this crisis will have a positive legacy.

The writer was David Blunkett's political adviser from 1993 to 2001


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