Ministers consider scrapping exam boards, as students await A-level results

Schools minister, Nick Gibb, says there is ‘a case for long-term, fundamental reform’ of the examination board system

The government is considering making dramatic changes to school exams amid alarm among ministers about the rigour and capacity of the existing system.

Ministers are thought to be furious after the scale of the exams marking crisis in 2014 emerged with the publication last week of an investigation by the government’s exams regulator Ofqual into failings at the OCR exam board.

It revealed a “catastrophic” near miss that almost resulted in papers not being marked in time.

Ministers are said to be so angry that one of the options under consideration is scrapping the independent examining boards and replacing them with a single government body, according to a source within the Department for Education. Schools minister, Nick Gibb, was said to have been “upset and angry” after reading the findings of the investigation. “If we feel the exam boards are not up to scratch we are ready to reform the system,” the source said.

Another possible option being considered is a system that uses one exam board for each subject. Gibb told the Mail on Sunday he was also increasingly worried about the quality of questions being produced by the boards.

In what was described as his most outspoken attack yet on the four exam boards for England and Wales, AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC, he said: “I have commissioned officials to look seriously and urgently at the case for reform.

“One of the issues is whether it makes sense to have three or four exam boards competing for market share among schools. We now have commercial or quasi-commercial organisations that are increasingly revenue-driven. There is a case for long-term, fundamental reform.”

Ofqual’s chief exam regulator, Glenys Stacey, said last week she had decided not to take further action against OCR, which took steps to address last year’s crisis and introduced reforms that have prevented similar problems this year. Whether this will satisfy ministers remains to be seen.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We recognise the need to ensure that the exam system operates effectively, which is why we are considering reforms to the exam board system.

“This government is raising standards with a rigorous new curriculum and world-class exams that equip every child with the skills and knowledge they need to reach their full potential.”

AS- and A-level results are published this Thursday and Gibb’s comments will cause alarm among schools and teachers, who are only just getting to grips with a new GCSEs and A-levels that are intended to be more rigorous. Ofqual declined to comment.

Michael Turner, Director General, Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said: “Exam boards have received no details of the minister’s plans but look forward to discussing these with him and his officials in due course.

“JCQ believes that the current system provides schools, colleges and learners with choice in terms of qualification content and delivery. Exam boards do not and cannot compete on standards. There is an effective regulator in place to ensure that this does not happen.”

Meanwhile as the countdown to results day gets under way, tension is mounting among students. On the Student Room website one contributor writes: “Today has dragged soooo much, dreading how long the days to come are going to be. I just want to know!”

While most of the comments feature last-minute reflections on papers sat, mistakes made, marks lost and futures ruined, elsewhere a long discussion about Dorret’s disastrous Black Forest gateau is taking place, as The Great British Bake Off provides welcome distraction.

The Student Room claims to be the largest student community in the world with 1.8m members and its chatrooms this week provide a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of teenagers as they await their results.

A digital clock on the website counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until results day. Advertisements for universities offering last-minute places through clearing flash up. “Sort of excited but sort of also crapping my pants,” says one contributor.

“I’m dreading results day,” says another. “I revised so much and when it came to doing the exam, I couldn’t remember anything at all.”

Someone with an optimistic frame of mind starts a results day playlist with Kelly Watch the Stars by Air, followed by the rather less optimistic contribution, Totally Fucked from Spring Awakening. A Twitter account called A-Level Problems sums up the prevailing mood.

A levels results day is so close you can smell the depression and anxiety all over the UK

— A Level Problems (@ALevelProblems) August 8, 2015

About 260,000 students will receive their A-level results this week. There will then be a scramble to confirm places at universities, which this year are allowed to admit as many students as they like after the government’s decision to remove the cap.

After the volatility of last year’s results, Ofqual said it had been a “relatively stable period for qualifications”, but warned that schools should always expect some variation in results from year to year.

Ofqual also highlighted a move this year away from so-called softer subjects such as A-level general studies and GCSE citizenship courses, with schools and pupils choosing more traditional academic courses, with increases in the number of entries for English, maths and the sciences at GCSE and A-level.

Cherry Ridgway, curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Relatively speaking, people are less worried about A-levels this year.”

Nevertheless, with fewer opportunities to take modules and the trend towards end of year exams, schools are concerned how their students will fare, particularly in GCSEs, the results of which are published a week later on August 20. “There’s a nervousness around what the impact of that will be,” said Ridgway.

Student appeals against grades and requests for remarking are expected to continue to grow after a record number of successful challenges last year, with schools budgeting for the extra expense. “The stakes around accountability are so high now for schools and it’s so important for children,” said Ridgway.

GCSE remarks are likely to focus on students on the C/D boundary because of the current requirements of school league tables, which list how many students gain five GCSEs at A*-C including English and maths. “At A-level there are quite a lot of requests around every boundary because the stakes are so high,” says Ridgway.

Research by exam group Cambridge Assessment meanwhile revealed last week that teachers are finding it increasingly hard to forecast their students’ A-level grades, with more than half of forecast grades proved wrong.

Figures from Cambridge Assessment’s UK exam board OCR show that in 2014 43% of A-level forecast grades were correct, compared with 48% in 2012. Researchers Tim Gill and Dr Tom Benton said one explanation for the fall in accuracy may be the removal of most January exams, which teachers used to help make predictions.


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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