The schools minister is angry with what the press continue to call ‘examination boards’ but which have for over a decade been formally called awarding organisations. They set examination questions that some combination of public, press and government think are too easy, or, less frequently, too hard. Already working against punishingly tight deadlines with narrow margins for error, they run the risk of failing to deliver results on time. The annual festival of exam results is now, it seems, routinely surrounded by complaints about these organisations, and this year is no exception, with the press trailing the prospect that government might want to nationalise awarding bodies. The irony of a Conservative minister complaining that provision is based on “commercial or quasi-commercial organisations that are increasingly revenue-driven” cannot have been lost on many readers.
As with almost anything in English education, there is a complex history. Today’s multi-million pound, technology-heavy awarding bodies grew out of organisations established to assess a small minority of young people for university. The Joint Matriculation Board was just that: a board established by northern universities to set exams for university entrance. The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, the University of London Examinations Board, and the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board had similar origins. From the mid-twentieth century they ran A-levels and O-levels. Following the introduction of CSEs in the early 1960s, a number of smaller, local boards were established to handle the new examination. The introduction of GCSEs in 1986 saw amalgamations as local CSE boards combined with the university boards. Four large, broadly geographic examining groups emerged. Schools actively began to compare exam specifications and choice of syllabi became important, and an agency was established to regulate the system.
In the 1990s, there were further rationalisations, largely to try to deal with a proliferation of small vocational awarding bodies. One of the big four, the Midland Examining Group absorbed RSA Examinations – which itself had grown out of office-skills training and became OCR, later becoming Cambridge Assessment. The Northern Examining Association absorbed the Southern Examinations Group and became the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA). The University of London, London East Anglia Group and the Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) became Edexcel. And in 2002 – I was on the Edexcel Board at the time – Edexcel was bought by Pearson. These organisations developed new business, including lucrative English language testing and overseas provision. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, virtually all GCSE and A-level examinations were in the hands of one of three groups, but they were each different. Cambridge Assessment is a department of the University of Cambridge; AQA has charitable status, whilst Edexcel is owned by a multi-national corporation. They are regulated by Ofqual, which provides the link to government and works to ensure that standards are maintained across the system.
No other country in the world, so far as I know, runs its examination system like this, but no other country in the world has this history. Elsewhere, as Jo-Anne Baird, Janette Elwood and Tina Isaacs pointed out in evidence to the Education Select Committee in 2012, examinations are often directly managed by ministries, or handled at regional level. In parts of the press, the perception has developed that in England there is competition in relation to standards, leading to dumbing down. In fact, whilst providers can compete on price and services, standards are the one thing that as Baird, Elwood and Isaacs noted they cannot compete on: that is what Ofqual exists to ensure.
Five years ago, I argued that there was a good case for bringing England more in line with international practices. I’m now less sure. Nationalising the bodies would be expensive: these are organisations with turnovers of hundreds of millions of pounds. Buying them out would cost easily over a billion pounds. It’s likely that nationalisation would be resisted by the awarding bodies, who would seek to retain and grow less regulated international work, leaving the government with direct responsibility for a complex public examination system. In these circumstances, government might decide that having independent organisations to blame when things (appear to) to go wrong is a better bet than directly taking responsibility. Moreover, although press and political comment focuses on the big awarding bodies, there are a 180 regulated providers in England – addressing three of them without addressing the rest would cause obvious legal problems.
Shifting the current system to a licensing arrangement in which there was only one syllabus, and thus only one provider in each subject has been mooted. However, government would surely be unwise to put providers in such a position of strength as to be the monopoly provider of qualifications for the school system in, say, English or in Mathematics. They would be building in a single point of failure for each subject with little recourse to alternatives when things went wrong, as they invariably do in a high-stakes, time-constrained system. When I was a board member at Edexcel, one of the critical arguments for the sale to Pearson was the opportunity to bring in investment in more robust technologies to secure the effectiveness of the examination system. That has happened but it has not made the awarding bodies more popular with the press or politicians.
Apparently, the minister has asked officials to develop plans for centralisation of assessment. Given the complex history, the different organisations involved and the serious challenges of reform, my guess is that once the policy advice comes it will be put away in the ‘too difficult’ file, with some cosmetic changes to satisfy political honour – until something like the first week in August next year. And the year after. And the year after that.