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IQ Chief Executive Welcomes Debate on the Role of Awarding Organisations in Secondary Education

Industry Qualifications Chief Executive Raymond Clarke has welcomed the debate about the future role of awarding organisations in the secondary education sector, as a result of the recent comments to the House by the Secretary of State.

I believe that this is an important moment in deciding the quality and value of secondary education in the UK, but would caution against a response that is focused upon the effect rather than the cause and any outcomes that reduces the benefits of competition.

Clearly there is a widely held and in my opinion, legitimate view that competition between awarding organisations has led to a reduction in the standard of GCSE’s, where the market is dominated by an oligopoly of three large awarding bodies. The question is whether the exam boards have caused the current situation, or whether the situation is the unintended result of broader policy issues.

Thirty years ago there was a much wider range of examination boards for GCE O and A levels, competing with each other. Whilst there may have been some variation in the syllabuses offered, this was as much about ‘style’ as ‘standards’.  In any case, competition was not so intense as to undermine the integrity of the awards offered. So what has changed?

In the school sector, a generation of Ministers have argued that ever improving exam results were the result of improvements in secondary education delivered on ‘their watch’. Regulators and policy makers have pushed for year-on-year improvements in outcomes (qualifications) and schools have had to respond to the publication of league tables.

Whilst the intent behind these regulations and policies are entirely commendable and intended to drive improvement in teaching standards, the quality of teaching is not the only variable in student attainment. Home life, attitude, friendship groups, social background, language and intellect all have a part to play. As a consequence, the understandable desire for improvement driven targets when combined with the publication of league tables inevitably leads to the customers of awarding organisations placing pressure on their suppliers to adjust standards. In this context, the response of awarding organisations is arguably the symptom of the problem, not the cause.

The current system has done much to stimulate innovation amongst awarding organisations offering GCSEs and A Levels. Competition has led to tangible advances in teaching and learning, a greater variety of teaching resources, some (but insufficient) competition on price and a real sense of teacher choice between specifications. Importantly, the current system also provides opportunities for new entrants seeking to access the market.  Whilst entry barriers are high in relation to regulation and cost, entry remains possible which, in turn, can stimulate innovation.

Against this background, the review of the current situation is both welcome and long overdue. A system that raises and maintains common standards, ensures integrity but retains the innovation emanating from an examination system with plurality at its core would be highly beneficial. I believe that this could be achieved by:

  • Allowing awards to continue to be offered by more than one awarding organisation, stimulating service and resource based innovation;
  • Requiring all awarding organisations to work to the same examination specifications in core subjects, developed collectively by the awarding organisations and approved by Ofqual. In this way the content will be identical and not a component of any inter-Board competition.
  • Requiring that all examination question banks and assessment strategies are commonly developed, agreed and shared by awarding organisations and approved by Ofqual. In this way, assessment standards will be common and not a component of competition.

In short, we need to allow those components of competition that are advantageous while removing elements of competition that threaten established assessment standards. I believe that an approach  based upon the selection of a single awarding organisation will stifle innovation, result in assessment being based upon the publication interests of the awarding organisation concerned, and reduce the ability of government to respond in the event of supplier problems. Single sourcing is rarely the answer.

Raymond Clarke