Competition between exam boards creates “significant pressure to drive down standards”, an inquiry by MPs has concluded.
The stark finding comes after a year-long investigation by Parliament’s Education Select Committee into the administration of exams for 15 to 19-year-olds in England.
The final report, published on Tuesday (July 3), says that the time is right for “fundamental reform” of the system.
It states: “We have serious concerns about incentives in the exam system which lead to downward competition on standards. While we are reassured that (exams watchdog) Ofqual is taking action that helps to mitigate competition on grading standards, we remain concerned about competition on syllabus content.
“Competition between the exam boards for market share, combined with the influence of the accountability system, leads to significant downward pressure and we recommend that the government acts immediately to change the incentives in the system.”
However, the cross-party committee dismisses the idea of creating a single exam board, citing the “heightened risk and disruption” that this would generate. It also rules out a system of one exam board per subject.
Instead, the MPs call for the creation of “national syllabuses” and a system in which exam boards compete to create the syllabus for a particular subject. Once approved, the syllabus would then be accredited by Ofqual for delivery by any of the awarding bodies.
The report continues: “National syllabuses would be developed by exam boards in conjunction with learned bodies and employer organisations and, at A level, higher education. They would be regarded as a national resource that could be examined by any of the English exam boards.
“They would remove the incentive for exam boards to compete on content and the associated downward pressure on standards, but would retain the benefits of competition on quality and the incentive for exam boards to innovate.”
Launching the report, committee chairman Graham Stuart MP said that the public has lost confidence in exam standards: “We have got to stop the dumbing down of the courses young people sit and stop exam boards competing on how ‘accessible’ their syllabuses are. Across all the parties on the committee and with unanimous support, we recommend the government looks to introduce national syllabuses so as to retain the dynamism and diversity of England’s examination system while ending grade inflation and creating truly world class qualifications.”
Elsewhere, the report issues a strongly worded warning over the accountability system and calls on the Department for Education to reduce the “dominance” of the GCSE A* to C measure.
It states: “The government should not underestimate the extent to which the current accountability system incentivises schools to act in certain ways with regard to exams. We are concerned that the impact of national syllabuses and a strengthened Ofqual will be limited, if these are not accompanied by changes to the accountability system that drives much behaviour in schools.
“The government needs to look afresh at current accountability measures in order to reduce the dominance of the five GCSE A* to C or equivalent with English and maths measure and to increase the credit given to schools for the progress made by all children across the ability range.”
Other proposals include setting up national subject committees, convened by Ofqual, in order to increase the involvement of subject communities, universities and employers in GCSE and A level syllabus-setting and accreditation.
The MPs describe the role of Ofqual itself as “pivotal” but said that the watchdog had to improve its “strength and effectiveness” as a regulator.
However, they also call on the government to be clear in its directions to the watchdog. The report adds: “The government needs to give a clear direction to Ofqual about its priorities on standards in GCSEs and A levels, and whether this is to maintain standards over time, to benchmark against comparable qualifications in other countries, or to ‘toughen’ exams. Both the government and Ofqual need to be explicit about any recalibration of exam standards and of the consequences for young people.”
The Association of School and College Leaders has welcomed the focus on accountability. General secretary Brian Lightman said: “Accountability measures are a major issue and need to be reviewed so that they do not have perverse consequences for our exam system.”
More generally, Mr Lightman issued a warning over what he called the “assumption that exams must be tougher across the board”. He explained: “It would be perverse to have exams that set young people up to fail at age 16, especially when the leaving age becomes 18. The debate about whether exams are easier than 20 years ago misses the point. Young people today need a different set of skills and knowledge than their parents and it would be wrong if our exam system did not change and adapt. We need a fundamental debate about what a 21st century curriculum is for and what kinds of skills we want young people to have. Then we can devise an assessment system that is fit-for-purpose.”