Should we have single exam boards for qualifications?

The Guardian has today posted a story claiming that ministers are floating the prospect of moving to a single exam board system as a result of last year’s OCR results chaos. This entails either having a single body for all subjects, or different exam boards doing specific subjects.

Although the story is not an announcement as such and more a vague suggestion that this could happen, it is an issue which is perpetually coming and going out of the system, and I thought it’d be worth giving some thought.

UPDATE: Schools Week has followed up on this and according to Nick Gibb it is not just ‘hot air’, but a serious proposal.


Wasn’t this suggested recently?

It’s amusing that the government has raised this now as it was just three years ago that Michael Gove considered moving to a single exam board system for GCSEs. In the end, this approach was scrapped (Gove was persuaded that this was not the best approach possibly as a result of the head of Ofqual warning that doing so would simply create a critical mass of change that would make the reforms undeliverable, although it may have been influenced by EU procurement rules too). Nonetheless, it remains one of the few things Gove proposed that many who disagree with marketisation of education actually supported.

At the time, Gove’s argument was that removing multiple exam boards would reduce the competition between exam boards to make the most ‘appealing’ qualification (i.e. the easiest) and thus gain the most custom from schools. It would also be much easier to standardise content and assessment and to compare performance across the whole country.


Is this a good argument?

One of the unspoken but generally accepted truths of the current system is that no matter how insistently Ofqual claims that all GCSEs in any one subject are equivalent, the reality on the ground according to teachers is simply not the case. Ask any teacher of any subject and they will almost invariably give you a hierarchy of exam board difficulty. Some schools I know of choose more challenging exam boards because their cohort can handle it; others go for the easiest because their cohort are very weak. Anyone who claims the exam boards have a 1:1 comparability of demand for their qualifications is, to my mind, simply wrong.

It seemed to be as a trainee grossly unfair that those students who mastered significantly more demanding questions with higher quality answers should end up with a comparable grade to a student who had taken an ‘easier’ GCSE in the subject.

(Incidentally, those who want to leap in at this point to claim that the grade boundary fluctuations would remove any bias have to address the fact that the easier exam board in my subject also had lower grade boundaries)

It’s completely intuitive and internally logical for exam boards to find ways to make their qualifications attractive to schools – and one obvious way of doing so is to reduce demand in ways which are not immediately obvious (for example, in designing your exam to maximise student choice of questions, or in ensuring certain topics come up every year).

The second aspect of this is the idea that having a single exam board will improve consistency and comparability. Certainly, there are a whole range of reasons why this might be beneficial. Firstly, we can guarantee that the performance of all students within a subject can be compared – as they will all have sat the same exam. Some might say that in subjects like History, students will presumably still study a range of topics, so perfect comparability will not be achieved – but there would at least be much better comparability). Secondly, as a teacher, it would greatly improve the sharing of resources which could lead to real and meaningful increases in performance. Thirdly, it would remove any confusion for those looking at someone’s GCSE results precisely what the course entailed. Fourth, textbooks could be written that very clearly address the assessment in question, rather than the awkward rigamarole textbook writers have to go through now – either write for one exam board or try and combine every spec into one book (which invariably doesn’t work that well).


How would this work?

There are three key possible approaches that I can think of:


1) Allow exam boards to bid to run certain subjects and choose a winning exam board

This franchise style approach is one method of keeping the existing exam boards but reducing the awkward effects of having a range of exam boards offering the same qualification. The suggestion from the government when this was proposed was to have five year contracts for exam boards to offer certain subjects. Every five years, each exam board would bid to run certain subjects, with one winner chosen.

This seems to be a terrible idea. Let’s say OCR has the contract to deliver RE, but lost it after five years to another exam board. A myriad of problems arise. Firstly, all the subject-specific staff working on the OCR RE GCSE will have to be let go (what else are they going to do?). If they transfer to the other exam board then you seem to be defying the point of having different boards. If they are booted out after five years, then what incentive will people have to take on these roles? Will markers have to have contracts terminated and then reapply? Secondly, if this happens, qualifications will systematically change every five years. Leaving aside the fact that by today’s standards this is somewhat conservative, I think most teachers would like to think in principle that this will not always be the case. Surely at some point we can settle down to qualifications that will last longer than five years? But if this does happen, teachers will be forced to adapt teaching resources every five years, learn new assessment structures and teach them to students. Textbooks will have to be rewritten constantly (imagine the cost of rebuying these every five years for schools on tight budgets). The problems faced whenever a new qualification is introduced (i.e. Ofqual has to adjust down expectations so that students aren’t penalised because their teachers are less well prepared to teach the new structure) will be systematically embedded into the system.

This is just a brief consideration of the reasons why this would be a terrible idea, but I think it merits no serious consideration. The impact would just be chaotic. One moderation could be to extend the contracts to ten years (or x years) but I don’t see a reason to arbitrarily build change into the system. We should be building long-term stable qualifications.


2) Set up a single government body that designs all qualifications

This would be similar to the Scottish model (i.e. the Scottish Qualifications Authority) is the sole body that designs and awards educational qualifications in Scotland. This would be a simple and straightforward solution in that there would be a high degree of consistency between qualifications in terms of design, assessment and awarding. Exam boards in the UK at the moment have a range of different practices which do not align well (e.g. Edexcel has a range of online services which the other exam boards lack). It would surely make more sense to have one single consistent body that designs and accredits all qualifications such that they have consistent specifications, assessments and awards. I favour this approach in principle.

Potential downsides include the risk that qualifications will not suit all students equally well (i.e. not be accessible to all), that schools will lack a choice of approach within any one subject (mainly Arts subjects) and that the government body will be incentivised to reduce demand to increase results. However, I am not convinced by these. Firstly, to my mind, an assessment at the same level in the same subject should by definition be identical and students should be assessed against it (with concessions for AEN). Secondly, a well-designed Arts qualification should facilitate choice (e.g. a range of History periods available to be studied). Finally, the notion that a government body would be incentivised to reduce demand is no more problematic than competitive exam boards doing the same to increase custom. In any case, assuming the body is sufficiently independent this could be avoided and beyond this, if Ofqual retained its comparable outcomes approach then this would be unlikely to happen anyway.

3) Allocate certain subjects to each exam board permanently

This is another potential approach and is certainly something of a compromise. I’m not sure how much exam boards would appreciate being allocated certain subjects. You could divide it by Arts, Humanities and Sciences but then whichever exam board gets lumbered with the small numbers entered for Arts would be pretty hard-done-by. You could mix the subjects up to try and secure an even division amongst the exam boards but this would end up just seeming random/chaotic. Either way would still preserve the inconsistency across qualifications (specification design, assessment design, marking, awarding). You’d end up with all the disadvantages of having more than one exam boards with none of the (supposed) benefits of competition that having multiple boards is supposed to facilitate. Again, I doubt there would be any point to actually introducing this system.


So should we switch to one exam board?

Despite all of the above, my answer (perhaps surprisingly) is ‘not now’. The simple reason for this is the prospect of further drastic change in the short-term future is simply not palatable to the teaching profession at the moment. Much as doing this would be positive in a range of ways, it will simply create even more fundamental change in the system. If there’s one policy I bet almost any teacher would advocate right now it’s some stability in the system. Before any decision about a single exam board should be taken, we should have time to assess the impact of introducing the new 9-1 GCSEs and reformed A Levels. The last new versions of these won’t be awarded until 2019 so we wouldn’t be able to make any informed decision for a few further years. We need to determine the merits of the new grade structure at GCSE and the separation of AS and A Levels before any further radical changes are contemplated.