The country’s largest exam board has reined in fee rises following a backlash from the sector last year over costs for tests that did not take place.
AQA faced pushback when it hiked exam fees by five per cent last academic year, despite exams being cancelled for a second year running and teachers carrying out in-school assessments.
The board was also challenged over returning just a quarter of its fees to schools, while competitors Edexcel returned 33 per cent and OCR gave schools 42 per cent back.
But AQA, a not-for-profit organisation, has raised exam fees by just two per cent this year – its smallest rise in ten years. This is below the current expected inflation rate of 3.8 per cent.
Exams are due to go ahead with modifications next summer, but a plan B of teacher-assessed grades is ready to roll out should the pandemic worsen.
Tracey Newman, AQA’s director of customer and sales, said they “understand the financial pressures the pandemic has created for schools”. She added the charity does not “charge more than we need to for our qualifications and services”, with this year’s increases “the bare minimum”.
AQA has hinted at returning more exam fees cash back to schools as a result of government providing funding to run the autumn exams series, which has now taken place.
The board said it will inform schools of any rebate in the new year.
Criticism over cost rises is now likely to be directed elsewhere.
Boards understand budgets are ‘stretched’
The average cost of fee rises for Edexcel, owned by Pearson, is about 3.8 per cent across the subjects we looked at – nearly double the two per cent rise last year.
It means an average-size secondary, with 200 year 11s taking nine of the most popular GCSEs, faces paying an extra £2,900.
If entry rates are the same nationwide for those nine subjects alone, Edexcel would earn an extra £1.2 million this year.
Pearson said it recognises school budgets are “stretched” and it will “always aim” for minimum fee increases while providing “value for money”.
For AQA, whose qualifications are cheaper than those of other boards, an average-size secondary entering nine GCSEs faces paying £1,490 extra.
The board will earn an extra £1.4 million this year from price rises in the nine popular GCSEs for which we analysed rises.
Meanwhile, OCR will up exam fees by about three per cent, translating to nearly £180,000 more income this year across those nine subjects. OCR said it knows schools face “challenging times” and has had “very positive feedback” on its services.
Julie McCulloch, policy director at heads’ union ASCL, said they “recognise the reality” that exam boards have “rising costs” and they “appreciate the efforts to keep fee increases to a minimum”.
But she added: “The trouble remains that exam fees are a significant cost to schools on budgets which are severely constrained. This again points to the need for an improved funding settlement from the government.”
Pepe Diiasio, headteacher at Wales High School, in Rotherham, said fees below inflation were “welcome”, but added: “It feels like we are over a gun barrel as we do not have a vast range of choice of boards.
“If school budgets were going up by 3.8 per cent inflation, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it doesn’t feel like that at a time when we are paying more out for Covid costs, supply costs and student wellbeing.”
DfE said that it’s for exam boards to set their fees.