Education & Family

Exams need 'fundamental reform', MPs say

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

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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