Monday 3 August 2009

The maintenance of exam standards

The A level and GCSE results can only be weeks ago, because the dumbing down debate has started in earnest. First off, the universities select committee publishes a report attacking universities for a virtual doubling in the number of candidates awarded first class honours degrees. Then comes the shadow schools secretary promising to advance his enthusiasm for history by publishing past exam papers online.

Both rather miss the point. With universities, there is certainly room for greater input by external examiners, preferably from overseas, to ensure that standards remain rigorous. But it is virtually impossible to make a meaningful comparison between a First won for a professional or vocational qualification against one in a scientific or humanities subject. Just as with school exams, there is not a lot of point making bald comparisons over time either. No 1950s exam paper would have displayed much familiarity with modern computers or bioscience, for example. Equally, there is little point in young people today using the log tables I had to use in my youth.

What matters most is the currency of the exams with employers and international students. So what's needed is a proper system within different subjects to ensure high standards across countries. And within countries, there is some merit in publishing employment and postgraduate data for each course and grade so students can see their currency. (There may also be a good case for simply publishing student marks, and skipping the 2:1s and 2:2s which have become less meaningful, alongside the level of work needed to gain those marks). What is definitely not needed is a huge new layer of bureaucracy to force the sort of 'parity of esteem' on higher education that has bedevilled vocational education for younger people.

With school exams, I'm all for transparency. When I worked with David Blunkett in the first term of this government, we allowed students to see their marked papers by right, something we did in the teeth of fierce opposition from the exam boards. Of course, past papers should be published online. But let's not pretend that they offer much more than historical curiosities in most subjects. What matters is that there is a robust independent mechanism in place - and has been since 1996 - ensuring that standards are maintained over time. It has not been afraid to point out where it believes standards are slipping. But it is able to take full account of advances in knowledge and technology as well as that which is timeless. Ensuring that mechanism remains and is strengthened is the best way to guarantee standards.

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