Make it easier to create new exam boards, says new report

There should be “lower” requirements on new exam boards wishing to enter the qualifications market in a bid to drive up innovation, according to a new report.

Competition between exam boards has not caused schools to choose easier specifications but rather has helped ensure a higher overall standard, said the author of a report for the Centre for the Study of Market Reform in Education (CMRE).

Gabriel Haller Sahlgren, an economist at the CMRE, said requirements for entry into the exams market for new providers should be changed so that Edexcel, AQA and OCR could easily be joined by others.

And the government’s equivalency framework – which allows grades from different examination boards to be compared – ought to be changed so that multiple providers can lead the way to more innovative, or harder, qualifications, he said in the report.

“Competition is said to introduce perverse incentives, inducing exam boards to dumb down their qualifications and inflate grades […]

“There is, however, no evidence that choice and competition have led to a decline in the standards of national qualification.

“Incentives for schools to choose what they perceive to be easier qualifications are mostly a product of the equivalency framework, and the way the value of qualifications are weighted in school league tables.

“The accreditation framework should be less prescriptive in its attempts to ensure comparability between different qualifications, subjects and specifications.”

Speaking in conversation with Tim Oates at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), Sahlgren explained his concern about the equivalency framework.

“One of the problems with the equivalency framework is you make it very difficult to innovate.

“If you decide that an A is an A and equivalent in all different qualifications, that decreases the advantage of one provider being able to say: ‘I have a better qualification than you’.”

Salhgren gave the Cambridge PRE-U and the International Baccalaureate as examples of alternative examinations which have helped drive new approaches in the market.

He told the audience at the IEA that such competition could be increased by reducing the “regulatory burden” on possible new exam boards and “liberalising or lowering the requirements for entry into the market.”

With regards ensuring fairness in a system without the current equivalence framework, Salghren’s report recommended a new equivalency framework based on only minimum requirements and a “general cohort-referenced competency test in order to provide a comparability metric with which to judge pupil performance across different qualifications and specifications.”

The report also considered two alternatives to a user-choice model within the exams and assessments market: a procurement franchise model, and a single government examination board.

Allowing an exam board to bid for an entire subject under the franchise model risks a system failure if anything were to go wrong, said the report.

And a single government examination board would increase costs without any short-term gains in relation to quality improvement – while decreasing the potential for innovation.

Salhgren said there was a paucity of hard data but he had analysed the shifts in market share between exam boards from Ofqual’s research published in 2016 of GCSEs and A Levels going back to 2010.

Schools Week reached out to Ofqual for comment but a spokesperson said they could not respond within the timeframe.

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  1. There are over already 200 organisations offering a huge number of qualifications on Ofqual’s Register of Regulated Qualifications. Most don’t offer GCSEs or A levels, of course, but IB and Pre-U are included. And many are job specific.
    Nevertheless, the list allows users to check availability, level of difficulty and subject area. It also allows comparability without having to go through the rigmarole of the “general cohort-referenced competency test in order to provide a comparability metric with which to judge pupil performance across different qualifications and specifications” recommended by Dr Sahlgren.
    His suggestion ignores the enormous burden of checking hundreds of exams annually if they’re to be ‘cohort-referenced’. It’s impractical. And ‘liberalising or lowering the requirements for entry into the [exam] market’ risks undermining confidence in the UK exam system.

    • Not to mention that having differently valued GCSE qualifications would be a huge risk to student equality and rights. The system is already unequal enough, no need to make it worse.

  2. “Competition between exam boards has not caused schools to choose easier specifications but rather has helped ensure a higher overall standard, said the author of a report for the Centre for the Study of Market Reform in Education (CMRE).”

    Well he would say that wouldn’t he.

    The idea of a market in national education qualifications is ludicrous. On what basis can they possibly compete? It can only be by offering increased pass rates.

    It is time that there was a National Commission for Education that takes all aspects of our schooling system as far away from competitive markets and politics as possible. There should be a National Exam Board run as a proper public authority without Non Executive Directors and all the other unnecessary trappings of private businesses that reduce standards and increase costs.

  3. Mrs E Gittens

    Hmm, I just was thinking of how someone could create a new examination board for GCSE Mathematics as I don’t see sufficient stretching and challenging material on even the most simple of concepts. E.g. I just gave my year 8 tutee work to do on expanding single brackets and there was much opportunity to make the task as challenging as possible where the total number of acquired marks (either by method marks or accuracy marks) could decipher the grade boundary. I.e. an A* student would be careful with integers and fractions in expanding brackets while taking note of exponents. If every term was a fraction with one or more variables and their exponents, yes, that would be challenging indeed. Making questions very “difficult” will still form a differential for students aiming for lower grades to glean. Questions can still be differentiated but quickly stepping up. If such were the state of things, it might have made it compelling for stellar universities to not need to set their own entry exams for specific subjects. It would make me confident that my A* was well deserved and someone else with this grade worked well, knew the material and deserved it. Harder exams across all boards will diminish grade inflation. The problem with one national exam board I fear, is the economic principle, as my dear husband, and Thomas Sowell tell me, that governments just generally tend to run things poorly. Human greed must be utilised wisely with these endeavours. Personally, I think a call to make exams harder will compel some teachers to work harder in the classroom: if I work hard and my pupils perform 20% better than my counterparts’ on an unseen external mid-term paper, I should get a pay rise…what an incentive!

    At the end of the day, what is the aim of education? Do we want robots or we want problem-solvers? Do we really believe in our country moving forward or we think we have already arrived and are in no competition with China and other countries? Are we sending kids to school to be baby-sat or we want our descendants upholding the legacy of their families and the country as a whole? What do we expect when being patriotic is reserved only for other countries and no child in Britain is taught to love the country for fear of being labelled racist? (Oh I know racism is real. It is. But BLM never got me anything. In fact, whenever I pointed to racism, I was labelled a BLM person and never taken seriously although I never subscribed to the BLM ideology, if you knew me) Are we saying the indigenous white man or woman is incapable of loving their own country without being racist? Does not each country have its anthem? Do kids in most non-Western school know their country’s history and sing it’s songs and hold its religion dear to heart? Oh British, how thou art fallen! Perhaps, perhaps, this is the price to pay for the cruel elements of Imperialism hence the inability to speak up. Perhaps that is what happens, when you forget your God.

    Anyway, harder exams may mitigate the concern that teachers pick easier examination boards… Yes I have heard teachers and parents say this. One parent insisted her son did AQA GCSE instead of the Cambridge IGCSE I wanted to teach him: ended up switching to a different teacher who promised him a C….he got a grade 3! It has an impact on the teacher’s mindset when they think they are teaching a “foundation paper student” and it has an impact on the pupil as well. I believe any student can get the A* but oh I make them work very very hard for it, irrespective of their ability, and it depends on them. The rest is on me to choose the best and most sound strategies that can be applied in many areas of the subject. But with a lack of competition in exam boards, some teachers can pick the “easier” exam board and just teach hacks. Doesn’t necessarily mean AQA is terrible but for example, Cambridge IGCSE mathematics will require matrices, and the Additional Maths IGCSE specification looks like the beginning of a Year 2 A level Mathematics syllabus I have seen before. Where I lived in Africa, I learnt how to add, subtract and divide fractions by year 4. I came to London to see Year 7s struggle with that. Yet on the national curriculum, for science, KS2 pupils must know of the variables and their definitions – yet most kids only learn of these in Year 10 when beginning their GCSEs. I taught a Year 9 class in teacher training and gave a starter question of changing recurring decimals into fractions. Their teacher told me they didn’t know it and that I should remove it from the starter: two years prior, I had taught a Year 5 student who already had learnt that from Primary School and yet this school I was training at was *reputable* in the area…..With all I say, there may be an increased workload on teachers by the higher ups without consideration for effective actual classroom teaching and learning: much ado about nothing and theories! I feel there are so many new and different strategies that, the old simple textbook, paper and pen, rinse, repeat that develops fluency is left out. Coming from a young African woman under 30 that should say something! Every year, some school buys the new digital whiteboard app and platform, teens subscriptions, for pupils to do their homework or revision. Each school I trained at still didn’t have complete resources for the topics! Back to the textbook and actually giving one to pupils so they can study for themselves and be dutiful. Teachers can save soo much time by just sticking with the textbook as a framework and focusing on how to teach better. Set much homework and get them to mark each other’s work. Bring them in at lunch time if they get below 80% or do not finish the classwork, to revise again with you. Actually get those “bottom level kids” to be the ones who have to come to the after-school Maths club and not just the A students.

    Anyway, the system is soo broken on so many levels that once children are rude and disrespectful to their own parents, what authority do teachers think or dream of having in the classroom? By dancing around the pupil and befriending him or her?