Lawks a mercy ! I didn’t start blogging to agree with Michael Gove but there is one part of today’s announcement of the reform of GCSEs that appeals to me – which is the limiting of an individual subject examination to just one exam board. Education ministers need little encouragement before telling us about the lessons from other countries, but I don’t know of a single other country that has a clutch of individual privately owned examination boards providing the core qualifications for the state education system.
Looking around the world, there seem to be two models. One is the continental system – where the state sets the exams. This has the enormous advantage of cutting out the two layers of bureaucracy that we have (and pay for) in Ofqual and the examination boards: main disadvantage is that when something goes wrong, there is only one person to get the blame, namely the Minister. You can see why politicians would not like this. How much better it is for them to demand an immediate enquiry into someone else’s cock-up rather than take responsibility for their own. The other system is one where the schools and colleges themselves can set the examinations, as long as they have passed quality criteria. I think this is what happens in the USA. Not without problems – obviously of ensuring comparability, and also of pressure on teachers to inflate grades. But it involves the staff in the assessment, and gives inspection a purpose besides telling people off.
I would guess both of these systems are substantially cheaper than the UK one. When I was a Principal we spent more – much more – on examination fees than we did on libraries. I recall annual letters from well paid Chief Executives at their swish central London addresses telling me that, regrettably, owing to rising costs, the price of examination entries was going up this year … oh, and our teachers would have to take more responsibility for grading.
Not sure about the motivation for all this – the idea that because more people pass these days, standards must have fallen. Well, more people climb Everest these days, but I understand it is the same height it ever was. It is possible for people to get better at things. On the other hand, I remember being very happy with an above average 75% pass rate at “A” level in my Wakefield College department in the 1980s. Figure is now in the high nineties, so something has happened. For what it’s worth, I think exams are easier to pass not because the content is simpler but because the structure is less baffling: students are clearer about what they need to know, and how to get a pass mark. Ben Goldacre did an article about this topic on his Bad Science web-site that is still worth a read, even if it comes to no very clear conclusion. For a more passionate and principled analysis of the GCSE kerfuffle, read Michael Rosen’s blog.
Much to be thought about, then, before leaping one way or another. But it’s almost worth the present spat to see a Conservative Minister tell us that competition and choice have reduced standards, and we need to go back to planning.
Ironic, huh ?