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 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 444.

    I have just sat my GCSE exams and I think that having 'easy exam boards' is disgraceful.Everyone should be tested the same for them to be compared.It is terrible that someone can work so had and sit a harder exam and get the same or sometimes lower grade than someone who has done no revision and its an easier exam. Surely this goes against the principle of hard work that schools should strive for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    As somebody who has worked in a secondary school for 13 years, I have witnessed the exams get easier. Compared to the GCSE's I took in 1989 (which were similar to the final O-levels in 1987) about a third of the knowledge has been stripped away and the questions have become much easier. Pupils now get multiple choice tests, 'fill in the gap' sentences and so on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    My son's first two years at a state secondary school were dreadful and he learned nothing and tried not to appear to be a geek, to avoid physical assault. He moved to a public school where achievement was applauded and encouraged and he has done well. Meanwhile, this lousy state school is now an academy with a head proclaiming that he is running a business. Education in this country is failing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    In the 80's we earned the grades we more or less deserved. Nowadays, a combination of simplified 'user friendly' exams, sat module by module, with the ability to re-take those modules to bump up the grade, all place A grade within anyone's reach. My nephews and nieces all have very different abilities, but they have all scooped a fair few A's! The system is a farce.


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