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Restoring rigour to the exam system

BaldtwoJohn Bald says that although examiners are unrepentant the system needs to change

The sight of three examiners with the professional equivalent of halters round their necks before the Commons select committee has been preserved here.

Given the quality of the Telegraph’s evidence, the suspended examiners were surprisingly unrepentant, and clearly convinced they had done nothing wrong, beyond perhaps a slip of the tongue. This of course is part of the problem – in terms of our current examinations, they hadn’t. This morning’s Mail has Edexcel giving the precise scenes from Shakespeare that will be examined this summer, much the same type of information that was available on these seminars, and a computer studies exam for next month has been cancelled.

Michael Gove was right on the money when he said that such information truncated the syllabus and was a key element in dumbing down. Discussing a US history syllabus which ran to 2000, one examiner said that there might “conceivably” be a question on Clinton and Bush “in 2016”.  He appeared to see nothing wrong in this. Another saw nothing wrong with students marking questions, as long as they only marked short ones.

The row of chief executives in front of the committee were as smooth as their high salaries would lead one to expect, and MPs could not lay a glove on them. The questions that would get behind the PR – eg the detail of setting grade boundaries in relation to the standards achieved - need a legal cross examination, not just a couple of questions from  amateurs. The boards have the security of having destroyed the archived evidence that would show just how far standards have fallen. Just the behaviour we would expect of a bunch of crooks.

Glenys Stacey was appointed head of Ofqual following stints as head of Manchester’s magistrates’ courts service and New Labour’s local authority “ethics” quango. Despite this lack of educational experience, she gave a polished performance, making a plausible case for her organisation being on the ball in respect of conflicts of interest within examining organisations, and asking for powers to fine offenders.

Ms Stacey pointed to high levels of satisfaction with GCSE (70%) and A level (80%) among people surveyed by Ofqual. Damian Hinds MP referred her to other surveys showing levels of confidence in examinations of 26% among teachers, 25% among candidates, and 18% among employers. Economy with the truth if ever we saw it, and Ms Stacey’s selective use of statistics was the one chink that appeared in the official armour, and no-one followed it through. On the whole, the morning’s hearing was a gentle stroll round the obvious. The select committee needs to sharpen up.

So, what really needs to be done now? Most of us agree that a new system is needed, and this is not something that can be introduced in a hurry. The present system has grown up as a result of the political beliefs of those controlling it. These people are still in office, and will subvert whatever they don’t like. The following are suggestions rather than a blueprint:

  • Grades A to C at A level are the key to university entrance, and need immediately to be made more rigorous through the use of external examiners with no connection to current boards. It would be unfair to candidates to apply this to A level as a whole, but top grades should mean what they say.
  • A level should move to final assessment, so that it is a candidate's knowledge, skills and understanding at the end of the course that is assessed. This would remove the unfair advantage currently enjoyed by those with a flatter learning curve.
  • AS is a non-qualification and should be scrapped. It is a particular drag on the progress of lower-attaining candidates, as they have to adapt to A level work across more subjects than they can handle.
  • Reforms to GCSE already announced should be enforced by a system of external examiners with no financial connection to the boards. Otherwise, the marks notionally awarded for literacy will be subverted by the boards. This has been done before at SATs, for example on handwriting.
  • GCSE English language should be reinstated. At present, we have two GCSE English literature examinations, which suits left-leaning English teachers but not candidates whose use of language is more closely related to science, technology and the world of work.
  • GCSE maths at Grade C must include a clear benchmark in calculation and numeracy.
  • New and valid vocational qualifications need to be developed following the Woolf report.
  • Ofsted should give more credit to higher grade passes in assessing examinations, as it did prior to 2005. An A* is not the same as a C, and the current promotion of C grades encourages mediocrity.
  • SATs at Year 11 should test the knowledge, skills and understanding in the National Curriculum, and the current system of marking, which allows the authorities to move grade boundaries up and down like the slide on a trombone, should be abolished.
  • A test of multiplication tables and basic calculation should be introduced for pupils aged 9. This follows the good reception of the phonics test for six year olds, and would allow weaknesses to be addressed before children started secondary school.


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