Exam board blues: are universities the answer?

As ministers and schools lose patience with GCSE and A-level grade and fee inflation, Louis Goddard looks to the past for new solutions

August 20, 2015
Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (20 August 2015)
Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

It is a fair bet that few of the students receiving their GCSE results today will worry about the increasing disquiet over the mechanism that delivered them.

But just the other week, schools minister Nick Gibb told The Mail on Sunday that the government was seriously considering scrapping the four exam boards that oversee GCSEs and A levels in England and Wales because of concerns about “dumbing down” and grade inflation.

According to the most recent figures, English schools paid £328 million in exam fees in 2010-11, which is more than double the amount spent in 2002-03. Of the “big three” boards, Edexcel is privately owned by the FTSE 100 company Pearson, while AQA has a charitable structure and OCR is part of Cambridge Assessment, a not-for-profit department of the University of Cambridge. But Gibb described all three as “commercial or quasi-commercial organisations that are increasingly revenue-driven”, and his concern is that, despite recent reforms aimed at making exams more rigorous, standards continue to be eroded by competition for business between the boards.

One solution his department is said to be considering is to replace the boards with a government-run body comparable to the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Another would be to designate a single exam board for each subject. However, after his initial enthusiasm, former education secretary Michael Gove eventually deemed the latter idea a “bridge too far”. And, despite cautious support from teachers, the Conservative Party’s commitment to market principles and the intransigence of the current assessment bureaucracy may well conspire against the nationalisation option too.

So what about going in the other direction? What if the Whitehall departments for education and business, innovation and skills got together to turbocharge competition by facilitating the development of a new wave of university exam boards?

OCR’s association with a university was originally the norm for exam boards. AQA grew out of the Joint Matriculation Board, founded in 1903 by the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, separate boards were run by the universities of London, Bristol and Durham. As these small organisations began to merge, their links with their parent institutions became weaker. However, with their unparalleled subject expertise, universities remain the perfect incubators of innovative and rigorous new qualifications.

Perhaps most crucially, universities have access to a ready supply of highly qualified markers in the form of PhD students. The recent announcement of postgraduate loans by the government is an admission that there aren’t nearly enough scholarships to go around. Well-paid and properly structured GCSE or A-level assessment work would provide a vital lifeline to self-funding doctoral students, while universities would also be spared the burden of “release” fees of (at the current rate) £189 per day for the teachers on whom the established boards rely as markers. And with teachers removed from, in a sense, marking their own work, grade inflation might ease.

Training and oversight for postgraduate markers would obviously be required, but the same goes for teachers. In fact, OCR, which last year nearly missed the deadline for reporting GCSE and A-level results, already hires non-teachers, and gives them the same amount of compulsory training as their school-based colleagues: a day-long standardisation meeting per paper, plus a few short online tests. Markers are supervised by “team leaders”, who are often retired teachers, but their seniority is based on their experience of marking rather than their hours in the classroom.

Is there any indication that universities would be interested in such a scheme? After all, Gove’s attempts to involve the Russell Group in A-level reform during the last Parliament were hardly a resounding success: the mission group ended up recommending changes to just three subject areas. The difference here is, as ever, financial. Even if they charged lower fees than the established players, in-house exam boards could provide universities with significant new revenue streams. In establishing boards, institutions could concentrate on their specialisms, or team up to offer broad portfolios of subjects and generate economies of scale. Recent trends in research funding mean they are used to working in regional and subject-based consortia.

The reigning barons of the assessment world would doubtless cry foul if the government gave too much assistance to university boards. Yet would it really be so different from the free schools policy, which, whatever its merits, involves the DfE using its regulatory and financial muscle to spur competition?

During David Willetts’ time as universities and science minister, BIS was much enamoured of so-called alternative providers. The hope was that these would shake up the fusty old higher education sector; in practice, they often turned out to be private companies making a quick buck from student loans. A raft of new exam boards with strong links to the country’s most respected academic institutions would be something quite different: a textbook case of competition working for the public good.

Louis Goddard is a PhD student in English at the University of Sussex. He has worked as a marker for OCR and as a researcher on the postgraduate funding crisis for the Intergenerational Foundation.

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Print headline: Exam board blues: have universities got the right answer?

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