Single exam syllabuses would stop ‘dumbing down’, say MPs

3 Jul 12
Competition between exam boards in England creates ‘significant pressure’ to lower GCSE and A-level standards, the Commons education select committee said today.

By Richard Johnstone | 3 July 2012

Competition between exam boards in England creates ‘significant pressure’ to lower GCSE and A-level standards, the Commons education select committee said today

After an in-depth inquiry, the MPs called for ‘fundamental reform’ to the exam system, with a single national syllabus in each subject. This would stop boards ‘fighting to offer the easiest exam’ based on their own specifications, their report concluded.

However, the MPs do not recommend a single national exam board or a single board for each subject, the reform preferred by Education Secretary Michael Gove. He is said to want to introduce this change as part of moves to reintroduce tougher O-level exams. 

Currently, there are three main exam boards in England. They design their own GCSE and A-level syllabuses based on centrally agreed criteria, and also set and mark question papers and award grades. They compete to get schools to sign up to their exams based on syllabus features. The current system has evolved from the numerous exam boards, linked to universities, that were first established in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The MPs concluded that stripping boards of the right to set their own syllabus and content would allow exam regulator Ofqual to better monitor standards in major GCSE and A-level subjects. 

Committee chair Graham Stuart said: ‘The public have lost confidence in exam standards and this needs to be put right.’ 

He added: ‘We’ve got to stop the dumbing down of the courses young people sit and stop exam boards competing on how “accessible” their syllabuses are.’

While a move to a single national exam board could stop the 'race to the bottom', he said this change would also be ‘disruptive’ and threaten innovation. Having one exam board per subject would also create difficulties over pricing, tendering and the concentration of expertise.

The recommendation to create new national syllabuses had unanimous support across all the political parties on the committee, he added.

‘We believe the best reform would be the creation of national syllabuses. There could be a competition, such as the secretary of state has already suggested, to decide which exam board would design the syllabus for a particular subject which would then be accredited by the regulator, Ofqual. 

‘After that, any board could set an exam for that syllabus and compete on innovation, efficiency, service and support. Ofqual would ensure that exam boards didn't compete by making papers easier and could readily identify problems and make statistical adjustments if necessary.’ 

The committee also called on Ofqual to improve its strength and effectiveness as a regulator, and be better prepared ‘to bare its teeth and take vigorous action when required’.

Responding to the report, a Department for Education spokeswoman agreed there was a need to ‘raise standards across the board’.

She added: ‘All the evidence – from parents, the best schools and our leading universities – is that we need fundamental reform of GCSEs and A-levels so that they are rigorous and match the best in the world.

‘We want to see every student in this country able to take world-class qualifications, we want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing down, and we want a curriculum which prepares all students for success by broadening what is taught in our schools and then improving how it is assessed.’


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