Exams need 'fundamental reform', MPs say

Exam The public have lost confidence in exams in England, the committee said.

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England's exams system is in need of "fundamental reform" to stop the "dumbing down" of courses, MPs say.

The education committee says there is evidence of boards competing to offer the easiest tests.

Schools are said to shop around for exams that will make them look good in local league tables.

The committee calls for exam boards to be stripped of the right to set their own syllabuses and content to prevent a decline in standards.

It recommends a technical and regulatory fix to halt what it says is a "public loss of confidence in exams such as GCSEs and A-levels".

This includes tighter regulation of what is recognised as one of these qualifications.

'Public confidence'

Launching the report, committee chairman Graham Stuart said: "The public have lost confidence... and this needs to be put right.

"We've got to stop the dumbing down of the courses young people sit and stop exam boards competing on how 'accessible' their syllabuses are."

It follows reports in the Daily Telegraph that some boards were selling their exam specifications to schools as easier to pass.

And it calls for an urgent review of the school accountability system, which it says drives behaviour.

The committee wants national syllabuses to be drafted for each subject after the input of national subject committees comprised of representatives of universities, employers and experts overseen by exams regulator Ofqual.

Exam boards could compete for the contract to draw up the syllabuses, but once finalised any exam board could draw up the qualification so long as it meets the syllabus specifications.

This would preserve competition between boards but offer an incentive to maintain and even improve standards, it concludes.

Mr Stuart says: "Importantly the content of what children would learn would be enriched, rigour would be encouraged and both standards and public confidence in them could be restored."

'Race to the bottom'

It cautions against having a single national exam board or a board for each subject, saying that would seriously undermine innovation and cost control.

But there is little tangible evidence in the report of boards competing in a "race to the bottom".

There is a sense that standards have slipped incrementally over time as exam boards compete to offer tests which are more "accessible" for a greater number of pupils.

The report notes "sharp shifts in market share" between boards " at moments of syllabus revision".

And it wants Ofqual to prioritise any efforts to look more closely at changes in market share.

One head teacher is quoted as saying schools tend to switch boards when they have "had a rotten summer" and are dissatisfied with marking or grades and the response of the exam boards.

It also gives evidence of grade inflation, citing research from education expert Professor Alan Smithers showing how the A-level pass rate has risen from 68.2% in 1982 to 97.8% in 2011.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "All the evidence - from parents, the best schools and our leading universities - is that we need fundamental reform of GCSEs and A levels so that they are rigorous and match the best in the world.

"We have already announced changes to GCSEs by tackling the re-sit culture and ending the modular structure, as well as introducing marks for spelling, grammar and punctuation for key subjects.

"And we have listened to concerns raised by academics at our leading universities on A levels, and launched a consultation."

'Public perception'

AQA board chief executive Andrew Hall said his board had never competed by lowering exam standards but that he accepted this could have been the case elsewhere in the market in the past.

"We have been pressing for stronger regulation of standards between awarding bodies for some time and have been pleased to see that the regulator has addressed many of our concerns over the last year."

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson, which owns the Edexcel exam board, said: "It is vital that we address the public perception that competition between awarding organisations leads to downward pressure on standards."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    No exams is the only reform. Do exams try to tell smth? criteria, marks for what? Rather to determine the future of individuals? maybe more toughening is due because future is not easy to be decided? Jobs & education interlinked Who & why gets the right to recruit, who checks them? Too many failures from top to bottom pointing that the pioneering, inspirational individuals are unwanted by purpose

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    540. Marlais
    'How do they manage to make that quantum leap?'

    That's easy. The exams are getting easier every year. Must be the answer because it couldn't possibly be that students are working hard and achieving well. Goodness me how would politicians take control of the education system if the great british public started believing that one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    Time and again I have read detrimental comments on students' abilities in the 3 Rs, closely followed by record A Level passes year on year.

    How do they manage to make that quantum leap?

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    533. _Dazed_ & 532. _Dazed_ . No need for the resit, you did fine first time around. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    Having completed my A Levels in 2011, the one thing I learnt whilst at Sixth Form was that this system succeeds in one thing-the sacrifice of the individual in favour of a collective that restricts creativity and a desire to learn, for instead of encouraging such qualities, it produces educational androids who have simply been taught how to achieve a grade as opposed to learning a subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    More change to GCSEs - unbelievable! Schools' GCSE results should improve year on year. Teachers track pupils' progress all the way through their schooling, and all our efforts are to improve teaching and learning. It's in the kids' best interests they get the best results they can. Unless of course there's no jobs for them to get later. Lay off education; focus on unemployment!

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    531 Elton and 535 Stephen

    Spot on ... but I think your request for facts and evidence will go unheeded. Uninformed opinion is the order of the day, coupled with a dimwit view that something is either perfect or useless. Education clearly isn't perfect, so it must be useless. Infantile reasoning but that's what politicians... Gove is a classic example ... and the media play on these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    It strikes me that many of the comments being made are ill informed at best. It might help some of you, perhaps, to spend a few days in a school observing what the students and teachers actually do and get a real sense of what's happening in the classroom in the 21st century. Comparing GCSE's now with 'O' levels thirty years ago is irrelevant. Goves ideas are archaic. Ken Robinson has the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    527 firemansaction

    And my father in law taught 'catch up classes' of school leavers in a secondary modern from 1949 - 1958, the aim being to get them to a 'minimum employable level' in reading, writing and arithmetic. Hardly fair to claim it's a recent issue. Louts ... on his first day the girls put a used sanitary towel in his umbrella. Such japes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    After finishing my GCSEs I think exams starting January of yr11 until the Summer will be beneficial. History was examined after a two year course thus I've had a more rounded education regarding history, where as other subjects had to stick strictly to the syllabuses in order to prepare for modular exams including those where 14 year olds were tested on exams primarily designed for 16 year olds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    After finishing my GCSEs I think exams starting in January of yr11 and finishing in the Summer will be beneficial. History was examined after a two year course thus I've had a more rounded education regarding history, where as other subjects had to stick strictly to syllabuses to prepare for modular exams including those where 14 year olds were tested on exams primarily designed for 16 year olds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    I'm sorry but some of these comments are disgraceful and based on such little evidence. Exams are not perfect but as someone who has just finished A-Levels they're not easy. Coursework at A-Level contains a lot of original work and research as kids spend days searching through books. Also Maths is about 40% calculus to whoever made that stupid comment. Please get your facts right people.

  • Comment number 530.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    524 firemansaction

    And here, from 2010 ALevel General Studies, I think we spot the magic word:

    'Referring specifically to the figures in the data provided in Sources A and B, DISCUSS whether the United Kingdom can be regarded as a religious country.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    The 'education' sector, infested by the lazy left, has been 'cooking the books' for many years.
    La, la Labour and the lazy unions have dumbed down OUR children and their future in the real world.
    Thank goodness this government have the guts to try to address the mess in the education sector. They have to take on the unions and poor teachers for the future of our children and country

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    After Tony Blair`s "Education, Education, Education", we now have remedial classes for 16/17yr olds trying to learn "Reading/Writing/Arithmetic!!
    My Daughter in law teaches/taught at one.
    She quit. The teenagers were so abusive she decided she could do better than try and teach louts how to behave.
    Her opinion? Politicians have failed a generation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    524. firemensaction
    '... we looked forward to when the Head took our class.He wrote a topic on the board and said "Discuss" which we did .... The young are not encouraged to discuss today.I think it benefited us then, could it help NOW?'

    Only if it helps young people distinguish between fact and opinion, which it clearly didn't do in your case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    514. MR TRUCULENT 'They just go to teacher training college and leave with a pitiful certificate in teaching.'

    Goodness me, you haven't been paying attention in class have you, you little monkey? I can't remember how long ago it was that teaching became an all graduate profession in the u.k. and the 'Certificate in Teaching' ceased to be applicable. At least thirty years I'd say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    At our (Grammar) school in the 1950s, we looked forward to when the Head took our class.
    He wrote a topic on the board and said "Discuss" which we did, with a little guidance from him, ( a Greek scholar).
    We benefited from this immensely, and I always can remember that great teacher.
    I am in my 70s!
    The young are not encouraged to discuss today.I think it benefited us then, could it help NOW?

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    Life needs fundamental reform. too many fraudsters are making money out of it.


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