As part of its on-going enquiry into the administration of 15-19 examinations in England, the Education Select Committee took evidence in January on the strengths and weaknesses of the English system and how it compares with other countries. In the light of the Secretary of State’s publicly stated concerns that competition between awarding bodies may be contributing to declining standards, discussion focused on his proposal that the present system should be consolidated into a single exam board, as in Singapore or Finland.
The single board option is appealing because it provides a tidy bureaucratic solution to what appears to be a messy and profligate problem. Proponents (TheWellcome Trust, SCORE) argue that a single, nationalised awarding body would bring to an end competition on standards, so making redundant the regulatory apparatus required
to ensure comparability of different versions of the same qualifications. Consolidation, proponents argue, would concentrate expertise and investment in research and development in a single institution, be more conducive to sharing of best practice, avoid the unnecessary replication of functions across multiple boards, and allow for greater economies of scale.
There are a number of flaws in this theory. To begin with, fears of competition on standards are not well-grounded. Recent Daily Telegraph reports of board officials apparently giving clues as to the content of forthcoming papers, and emphasising how easy they were making it for schools to coach their pupils to success, however alarming, do not constitute evidence of widespread abuse, nor do they supply justification for system overhaul. Such boasts are misleading in that they suggest a degree of insider knowledge on the part of examiners about what will come up in a given exam, how criterion will be applied, and where grade boundaries will fall, that they simply do not have. The reality is that standards are set in England across committees and exam boards in a distributed fashion. It is neither in the individual nor collective interest of exam boards to compete for custom on the basis of the accessibility of passes, as to do so would undermine the currency of their qualifications.
Read the rest of this blog post on The Centre for Market Reform of Education website.