The government’s decision to seek greater university involvement in the A-level examination system is to be welcomed. In many ways it is a return to the system that used to exist before the Thatcher-Major government centralised government control of examinations and curricula. The universities have an interest in good quality examination systems and they produced O-level and A-level examinations that maintained that quality. Competition between boards existed, but it did not produce a race to the bottom. The reason for this was that the boards were run by different universities and those universities needed to maintain quality. The boards also had a reputation to maintain and thus reducing quality would have increased short-term business whilst reducing their reputation and harming business in the long term.
Government league tables, targets, exam board rationalisation and the tearing of the exam boards away from universities changed all that. As far as schools were concerned, a reputation for quality came to matter less than a position in a league table. And the boards responded to the demands of schools. The subtle checks and balances that maintained quality were gone as a result of government intervention and regulation. There is an interesting parallel with credit rating agencies. The government created a regulated oligopoly amongst the agencies that had incentives to rate bonds highly because of banks’ regulatory capital requirements. A high rating came to be more important than an agency’s reputation for an accurate rating. Similarly, good exam results have become more important than an exam board’s reputation for a rigorous curriculum and exam-setting process.
But, we need to go much further than this. Gove’s proposed reform could re-create some of the problems that used to exist in the 1980s. An A-level exam that is well-designed for distinguishing the brightest from the good can sometimes be a disaster when it comes to distinguishing the good from the mediocre. If the examinations are going to be designed by the Russell Group of universities, then they may cater well for the top 5% or 10%, but what about the rest? The government must throw out of the window all pretence of trying to make different qualifications equivalent. Qualifications should be judged on their own merit of whether they do the job they are intended to do. Universities and employers should make the judgements between GCSEs, A-levels, Pre-U’s, GNVQs, City and Guilds and any new qualifications that enter the market. There is no need to pretend that a GNVQ of a given level in hair dressing is equivalent to an A-level in Latin. The Latin exam should certify competence in Latin and the hair dressing exam competence in hair dressing. Both are much needed and valued skills and should be valued in their own right and not in comparison with each other. The government should withdraw from the examining business. Professions, employers’ groups, universities, City and Guilds, schools (or groups of schools), local government (and groups of local councils) should develop examination systems that serve the purposes they wish them to serve.
We have been on a forty-year wild goose chase to pretend that state-regulated vocational qualifications can be equivalent to state-regulated academic ones. This has been a disaster for the quality of both academic qualifications and vocational qualifications. When well over 50% of children stay on to 16-18 year-old education we might have to accept that one set of qualifications is not going to be appropriate for all of them – indeed, even one academic qualification may not be appropriate for all who want to follow relatively academic routes. The government has done nothing but damage since it started intervening in the institutional structures that examine children and students. It should withdraw altogether.