Watchdog Ofqual queries text book links to exam boards

Students in GCSE exam The exam boards provide qualifications taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as abroad

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The publication or endorsement of text books by exam boards has been questioned by England's exams watchdog Ofqual.

An investigation by the watchdog says there is evidence that teachers feel pressurised to buy books connected to the bodies which set exams.

It says some books are too closely tailored to particular exams.

And the writing of text books by chief examiners creates the perception of a "major conflict of interest", it says.

The watchdog's report also looks at allegations that the production of text books and revision guides by exam boards is anti-competitive.

Secondary schools are estimated to spend an average of £26,000 a year on text books each and they pay individual boards to enter students for exams.

A decision by a school to choose a particular exam board could have direct and indirect financial benefits for the companies involved, earning them money from schools and also from parents who buy revision guides for their children, said the watchdog.

Ofqual said it had found evidence of practices used by publishers to market some endorsed textbooks "that clearly undermine confidence in the exam system".

It gave the examples of a comment "proven to help improve grades…" and an endorsement from a teacher which said: "Seen a big 18% increase in C+".

It said chief examiners for individual boards were not meant to be identified as such if they wrote text books, but that such information was easily available and this was "perceived to be a major conflict of interest".

'Unacceptable predictability'

Ofqual's report also criticised the content of some text books, saying they were so focussed on a particular exam that they failed to cover the subject in any broad fashion.

"We did find evidence supporting concerns about the quality of learning resources generally," the report said.

"In particular, a rather formulaic approach, influenced by current endorsement processes, is resulting in textbooks that can be over-focused on exam preparation at the cost of subject content and sign posting to wider and more in depth reading."

The watchdog also said "an unacceptable degree of predictability" between text books and exams could arise, creating "a perception that standards are being compromised".

Examples of this were where case studies and questions used in text books were very similar to those which appeared in actual exams.

On what the watchdog called "isolated occasions", actual questions used in "support materials" had appeared on exam papers.

The watchdog said criticism of the present situation was balanced against international evidence that supported the idea of text books being closely tied to exams.

It added that its review findings had led it to launch a further study relating to the educational publisher Pearson, which owns the exam board Edexcel.

This new review would look at the effectiveness of the "business separation" between the awarding organisation and its publishing arm, the watchdog said.

A spokesman for Pearson said the company "looked forward to engaging with Ofqual's review" and that Pearson had been reviewing its processes and had decided it would no longer allow senior examiners to write "resources" for exams they were involved with.

The whole area of exams and exam bodies is under great scrutiny.

This review by Ofqual comes after an outcry earlier this year over some seminars held by exam boards to advise teachers, with claims that teachers were being told what might come up in exams.

At the time, the Education Secretary Michael Gove said the claims "confirm that the current system is discredited".

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