Exam boards don’t deserve the criticism they’re getting

16 May 2021, 5:00

autumn exams

Criticism of exam boards fails to take in all their work behind the scenes, says Philip Wright. So here’s a little of what they’re doing to earn their fees

With no exams happening this summer for the second year running, and with teachers working flat out to deliver grades for their students, it’s not surprising that some people have been asking what exam boards are doing to earn their fees.

It might be tempting to assume that, while teachers are facing the enormous task of assessing and grading their own students, exam boards have much less to do. But this is far from the truth.

The reality is that everyone involved in the exam system is having to work harder than normal this summer. We know many schools are still in the thick of assessing and marking. But exam boards are working harder too.

Like any other year, for this summer’s students to be able to move on with their lives, they need to receive formal qualifications, certified by exam boards. But, with those qualifications being awarded in a very different way, exam boards have had to rip up their playbooks and devise a completely new way of working.

As Ofqual has acknowledged, designing and implementing a new assessment system would normally take years, and exam boards have had to do this in a few months. A lot of this work isn’t immediately visible, which is why it’s understandable there are myths about exam boards not doing enough to justify their fees. However, exam boards are required to cover their costs. Many of our members are registered as charities or not-for-profit organisations.

Exam boards have had to rip up their playbooks

Some of the work is already complete – such as everything that’s gone into creating this new assessment system in such a short space of time. But much still lies ahead. Exam boards still need to collect grades, support schools and colleges, and implement a quality assurance process required by the DfE and Ofqual.

When that’s complete, the most important phase of a brand new and extremely complex quality assurance process kicks in. This will involve a large number of examiners working with exam board staff to check evidence and verify grades.

This external quality assurance process will ensure that this summer’s grades are recognised and valued by the rest of the education sector and employers – and give students and parents the confidence that the process has involved an independent pair of eyes.

And then there’s the culmination of everyone’s work this summer: the issuing of results to schools and colleges. This is the same mammoth administrative task this year as it is in any other, which will see exam board staff working around the clock.

In many cases, new activities have meant the need to develop new systems in a very short space of time. We know that the assessment resources provided by exam boards haven’t been able to be all things to all people. But this is due to the very tight window they’ve had to produce, not lack of effort.

And as well as these major and essential operational processes, the amount of support exam boards are giving schools and colleges this year is unprecedented. To guide teachers, exams officers and other school and college staff through another very different summer, exam boards are providing extra customer service support, extra online training and other guidance.

At a time when many businesses have furloughed staff, exam boards have needed to retain all the specialist expertise required to support teachers this summer – and also ensure the sustainability of the system when we need to run exams again in 2022.

At any given time, exam boards need to look much further ahead than the current exam series. They’re currently working on plans for exams in the autumn, next summer and even further afield – work which has to happen now in order for future exams to go ahead.

No one benefits from this summer’s unique situation being wrongly portrayed as ‘teachers versus exam boards’. We recognise the enormous responsibility placed on schools and colleges and its implications for teacher workload.

Because far from twiddling our thumbs, we feel it too. And just like teachers, our goal is to help students get the qualifications they need.


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  1. Alex Thirkill

    Clearly exam boards, as with many commercial enterprises, have needed funding to keep going during the recent epidemic,

    So whilst the limited reduction in fees, whilst teaching staff do the additional work for no pay, is incredibly galling, it is understandable as a messy necessity.

    However, the high level of fees and the oligopoly of a small number of providers, combined with low rates of pay for ground floor examiners were systemic problems prior to Covid.

    The big boards should either be broken-up into in excess of 10, so that there is genuine choice of specification, or nationalised and integrated into one examinations and statistical authority, to dial back the empire-building, vested interests and duplication.

    • M Porter

      A lot of companies that have had no customers during the pandemic haven’t been propped up. They certainly haven’t been able to charge the same fee for no service. These are companies run for profit. These years should not have been profit making and they should have reserves. Their outgoings have also been slashed.

  2. Adam Dineen

    “We know that the assessment resources provided by exam boards haven’t been able to be all things to all people. But this is due to the very tight window they’ve had to produce, not lack of effort.”

    I’m sorry but this is complete nonsense. When we were caught with our pants down last year, we should have had a backup plan for this year. When we were then told in January there wouldn’t be exams, exam boards knew they would be asked to supply materials that could be used for assessment. I don’t recall exact dates, but by February it was clear that exam boards would be expected to supply “materials”.

    The nature of these materials wasn’t made clear for months, but in the case of core subjects, they were clearly going to be past exam questions, or unreleased future questions.

    The materials that were eventually released, were a word document full of screen grabs of about 3 questions per topic. I routinely make more comprehensive sets of topic based revision from the resources that are available to teachers, without being paid extra for it, in an editable document format, in about 30 minutes.

    The low quality of these materials is indefensible.

    • Vicki

      Totally agree.
      We waited months for these resources to finally receive them on the final day of term, only to find they were exam papers we already had (secure) access to which had simply been cut in half – a task any teacher could have done in about five minutes. As a result we produced our own assessments.
      Teachers have picked up the bulk of the work in this process, producing assessments, marking, and grading in an incredibly tight turnaround time.

  3. S F THOM

    A complete work of fiction
    Not creating any exams
    Not marking any exams
    Not answering enquiries
    Not supporting teachers

    You are taking money for a job you are not doing – you should be on rip-off Britain

  4. Andrew Shepherd

    What an outrageous statement. These quality assurance systems are completely unrealistic and therefore unfit for purpose. They have clearly not been developed in collaboration with customers. As a customer I can confidently say that the unprecedented support mentioned above has been spectacularly useless. I am in the process of manoeuvring 400 A Level and BTec students through this process and I have never worked so hard in my life (my day job, made harder by the pandemic, still has to go on). The guidance and support I’ve received from the two exam boards I use has been non-existent. It’s galling to know that we’re still paying the full fee.

  5. Clearly Philip Wright is as deluded as Roger Taylor.

    After the stupidity of the Ofqual algorithm . The UK reputation for qualifications was tarnished and turned into an international laughing stock, with the likes of the Wall Street Journal gleefully pointing out the UK’s exam regulator and exam boards could not of got it any more wrong.

    It took the Royal Statistical Society Fellows to point out Ofqual’s correlations on exam grades were completely and utterly wrong, along with just about everything else Ofqual and the exam boards had done.

    “But that is what everyone does” came the defense from exam boards, DFE and Ofqual. Errrrr no they don’t!

    The academic community was well aware of the stupidity displayed by the UK’s education regulator and providers for decades. The point about correlations is often lost on Ofqual, exam boards and their employees.

    Quite rightly we should start considering “Arts” based qualifications (such as English) as more certificates of education rather than degrees and let the elite scientific, statistical, mathematical and business studies students handle elite academic thought.

    The JCQ, Exam boards and Ofqual along with the DFE are a bunch of closed shop, unskilled, uneducated idiots who prefer favoritism and failure to keep them in their well paid roles and to continue to fail schools, students, teachers and the UK.

    Education? certainly the failing exam boards, JCQ, Ofqual and DFE need it and to be educated. At least the UK Government has offered the chance for these people to reskill, perhaps they would like to take the government up on the offer and leave Education to the professionals (School teachers).

  6. Roisin Davison

    I would whole heartedly support earlier comments made about the appalling lack of support given by exam boards. For History we received NO resources at all- Edexcel/Pearson merely reissued the previous few years of exam papers( all of which we already had).
    Our school spent a whole day entering data onto weighted spreadsheets to generate grades prior to in school moderation. This was 90 teachers spending 5 hours- so 450 person hours and this is just one school. This, after marking all the assessments and moderating them- personally I marked 240 GCSE exam papers and 10 A Level Papers and moderated GCSE and A level papers.
    We received no support from the Board whilst we did this.
    Teachers are on their knees- and have year 10 mocks and year 12 mocks now to look forward to after half term.
    Somebody has cashed in this year and it hasn’t been the teachers- perhaps the Boards could pay the teachers the money they have saved from not paying external markers?