It seems to me that of all the public services that are run by private companies in the UK, exam boards are the most nonsensical. It seems so obvious that if a board’s profit relies on it convincing as many schools as possible to sit its exams, and the main mechanism through which it can convince schools is making its exams easier, then there is a massive conflict of interest. Effectively, the worse the exam board does its job, the more it earns.
It only takes a cursory look at Maths GCSE papers over time to see that standards are dropping. Yes, the papers now have a greater literacy component, but the difficulty of mathematical content is significantly lower. Changing the names of the grades is not going to change anything, it appears to be a fairly costly rebranding exercise designed to justify the existence of some government agency at Whitehall. The effect on difficulty will be short term at best, as market forces drive down the challenge of the papers, because it is in no one’s interest for them to be difficult! Education secretaries are out of a job in 5 years, exam boards want to make money, schools want to improve their results and get the best for their students, and children just want to get good grades, as they always have.
The 9 – 1 system is fine, as was the A* - G system. Let’s just leave it now and concentrate on the main issue affecting national assessment, which is the conflict of interest of exam boards. The only solution that I can see is a mass nationalisation of the exam boards, to form a single, internationally recognised UK Exam Board whose sole aim is to create high quality papers that challenge our students and allow industry to compare qualifications across generations.
The UK exam board system does need change and we do need to act quickly to improve it. The problem though is not multiple boards. Significant tweaks to the current system with the current boards still in place will be able to offer the education system that our country’s students deserve.
Having an exam board system that is independent from unwanted government tinkering and manipulation, able to innovative, and competent at producing quality exams should be our priority. Modifying the 'rules of the game' that the boards play by could achieve this more effectively than larger government intervention.
So what are the tweaks/changes I am talking about? There are two main elements to the changes:
- Direct financial and recognition-based incentives could be offered to the boards and their employees for: innovation, lack of errors and other actions benefitting the overall UK qualification system. This could be done by making the system more transparent to the public, making exam boards’ successes (and failures) more visible.
- Grade boundary quotas should be set so that only a certain percentage of students are able to achieve each grade within each exam board’s sample size, perhaps with 10% of the cohort achieving a 9, 10% an 8 etc. Exam boards would then be incentivised to get a diverse mix of schools completing their exams and wouldn’t be able to inflate grades.
With these changes I believe our system can and will be better.