Friday 27 March 2009

Why our exam system needs re-examination

It is good news that the new exam regulator Ofqual has expressed its disquiet about the rigour of last year's new science GCSEs. Not because it is good that the questions were too easy. But because it shows that the new regulator (about whose creation I was sceptical) has teeth and is prepared to bare them. It makes their pronouncements about the English and Maths papers the more credible and gives some assurance that the new regulator will not hesitate to act where dumbing down is taking place.

Unlike some commentators, I have never held the view that there is a conspiracy to dumb down GCSEs and A levels. Rather it has been changes made to the nature of the exams that have led to changes in the marking. I can see some point in modularity at A-levels, particularly with innovations like the new extended essay or project, but have always argued for a substantial synoptic element. Equally, while it is good that coursework (conceived before use of the Internet became widespread) is being reined in, it is absurd that costly modular exams are being introduced across all GCSEs.

I also don't share the view that the attempt to popularise science necessarily leads to a dumbing down of the exams. It is perfectly possible to compile challenging questions for a popular curriculum. Indeed, it should be remembered that there has also been an increase in schools offering the three science subjects separately; these are the students most likely to take science at university. Those scientists who complain confuse the need for a minority to gain expertise in science with the importance of the majority having a basic understanding of the subject.

But there is one overriding lesson from this whole sorry saga. Competition between the exam boards has always led schools to shop around and there is a pressure on the boards to provide schools with syllabuses that will be attractive to them. Labour drastically cut the number of boards in 1997. But we didn't go far enough: this is an area where competition is unhealthy, as any innovations that it creates are outweighed by perverse incentives to make things easier. As I have argued before, there should be a single board contracted to provide each exam and Ofqual should work to make the whole process simpler and more transparent.

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