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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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3 Comments

  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.