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Joe Armitage: It's time to nationalise exam marking

Joe Armitage is a Conservative activist and works for a Conservative MP.  Follow him on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 17.45.11The scepticism about the success of the country’s students in GCSE and A-Level exams has not subsided, not least because none of Michael Gove’s reforms have been implemented yet. It is certainly to the Secretary of State’s credit that he intends to end bite-size modules, ensure tougher questions and demand a higher bar for achieving the grade acknowledged as a satisfactory pass - grade C. However, the proposed reforms themselves cannot be attributed to the reduction of A*/A grades at A-Level, by virtue of the fact they have not yet been applied.

It may well be that it is the very prospect of reform that has encouraged exam boards to up the ante and enhance the academic rigour of their papers. The reduction in high achievers may even be because teaching standards were as high as feasibly possible last year, and technological advances such as computers and the internet have done all they can to allow students to obtain the highest grades. However, I am suspicious of the Mount Everest analogy, where it is said the fact only two individuals climbed Everest in 1953 but that over 300 climbed it in 2012 is demonstrative of what technological advancement can achieve. Exams ought to have become more difficult if the internet made them easier. They most certainly should not be considered easier by individuals comparing them with their own which they sat decades ago.

It is apparent to me, particularly as someone who has only been out of school for a year, that exam boards sacrifice their standards in order to ensure their papers allow students to obtain the highest grades. Not only this, but exam boards are actively encouraging teachers and their students to attend conferences where they are told almost explicitly how to master the papers, not the questions. This race to the bottom, whereby exam boards scout schools by making their papers as easy as possible and thereby advantageous to a school’s results, is an unforgivable disservice to students. It is little surprise that independent and grammar schools are adopting the International A-Level or deliberately choosing exam boards which are regarded as more difficult in order to get their students into the highest ranked universities – something parents of the type of students at these schools generally value.

The resolution to the problems aforementioned is completely to turn the tables and encourage exam boards to compete to be as academically rigourous as practicably possible.  To achieve this would involve going against my ordinary political grain and involve nationalisation.  There would be one exam board comprising of experts appointed by the Department for Education, much like those who decide the content of the National Curriculum. Existing exam boards such as Edexcel and AQA would then bid to provide exams for a particular subject. This could result in AQA solely providing the country’s English GCSE exams and Edexcel or another of the numerous existing exam boards taking on History or Science, etc.

The resultant impact of this franchise system would be exam boards competing to have their papers recognised as the most vigorous and suitable for students, which is completely contrary to the current situation whereby some schools select exam boards which have easier papers purely to bolster their own position in league tables. Michael Gove toyed with this idea and regrettably decided not to see it through: the blame for this is attributed to the Liberal Democrats who seem to stand steadfastly in the way of what is advantageous for pupils, unless it involves throwing money at them such as the Pupil Premium. If we want to put a stop to the inevitable yearly cries about exam inflation, Mr Gove would be doing an immense service to school children up and down the country by bringing back to the table the idea of a single exam board.


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