Exam system shake-up is not ‘hot air’ warns government official

Exam boards have been warned by a government insider to take seriously plans for a drastic reform of the exam system amid underperformance concerns.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said over the weekend that he has commissioned officials to look at the case for “fundamental reform” and is considering what options are available to address the government’s concerns.

The proposal follows the release of an investigation by qualifications watchdog Ofqual into a near “catastrophic” failure by exam board OCR to complete its exam marking on time last summer.

A source close to ministers told Schools Week that the Ofqual report and recent exam board issues provided a “solid potential for reform”.

“These concerns are not hot air, reform is very much under consideration,” he said.

“It is also about how the exam boards have evolved. If you think about the history of it, in the 1980s you had the universities running the exam system as part of their education remit and now the structure is commercial or quasi-commercial organisations.

“We want to ask if that is the best structure, is the tax payer getting value for money and ultimately, is it building the rigorous standards that we expect?”

One of the options under consideration from ministers is ditching independent exam boards and replacing them with a single government body.

A system that uses one exam board for each subject is also an option.

The source added: “We haven’t got a timetable or timeframe in mind yet of when or if these reforms will start to take shape. These sorts of things are not done overnight so we wouldn’t want to put down any sort of time frame at this early stage.

“At the moment officials have been commissioned to look at the case for reform and the minister [Gibb] will be looking at that over the course of the next few months.”

In a letter sent to OCR’s chief executive Mark Dawe last week, Ofqual confirmed that the exam body will not face action over the events which unfolded last year, putting the delivery of the 2014 GCSE and A level results at risk.

A statement from the Department for Education confirmed that it is actively considering reforms to the exam board system.

Speaking on behalf of all of the exam bodies, Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), said: “Exam boards have received no details of the minister’s plans but look forward to discussing these with him and his officials in due course.

“JCQ believes that the current system provides schools, colleges and learners with choice in terms of qualification content and delivery. Exam boards do not and cannot compete on standards. There is an effective regulator in place to ensure that this does not happen.”

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  1. Harry White

    There should clearly be one exam board. This will:
    -prevent arguments about which exam board is easiest.
    -stop schools navel-gazing about which exam board they should choose and instead focus on simply providing the best learning possible.
    -allow teachers to universally share resources. There will no longer be the frustration of not being able to share resources because one set applies to AQA and another OCR for example.
    -similarly, students have the simplicity of knowing they all take the same exam and are benchmarked against the exact same standard. This is the point of having exams.