Damian Hinds has insisted he is “happy” with England’s system of using multiple exam boards for GCSEs and A-levels, putting to bed years of speculation about the future of the market.
The education secretary, who as a backbench MP questioned the logic of having more than one exam board, told Schools Week he was content with the current set up.
It follows years of hand-wringing by ministers about the plurality of the current exams system, which sees exam boards AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC each taking a chunk of the GCSE and A-level market.
In 2015, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said there was “a case for long-term, fundamental reform” of the exam board system, and was said to be considering replacing the multiple boards with a single government body.
Ministers’ unrest was prompted by the exams marking crisis of 2014, which saw OCR almost fail to complete its marking in time for the August results days.
The issue has surfaced again more recently, following the Department for Education’s decision that a single exam board should deliver new T-levels, a technical equivalent to A-levels. This prompted speculation about the future of academic qualifications.
Even Hinds questioned the need for multiple boards when he served on the parliamentary Education Select Committee in 2012, asking Gibb during an evidence session why such competition existed.
“I can understand why we want competition in textbooks, support materials and blah, blah, blah. I can understand why we want competition in operations, partly to mitigate systemic risk. Why would we ever want to have competition in terms of setting the specification for the subject and setting the exam questions?” he asked at the time.
“In terms of choice, within a subject, what are the arguments for having multiple bodies setting exams as opposed to one body with some choice and flexibility in the syllabus?”
However, Hinds was more relaxed about the issue when he spoke to Schools Week.
“It’s the system we have,” he said. “There are many things which are different about Britain, but if you look internationally, it is more common to not have the same sort of landscape that we do.
“On the other hand, we probably have more leading education services suppliers than other countries, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we also have this variety and diversity in examination boards. And obviously all of those organisations bring something to the system.”
“I am happy with our system, yes,” Hinds added.
His comments were welcomed by Andy Walls, interim director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the four exam boards.