19 August 2015

Nationalising exam boards: With Conservatives like this, who needs a Jeremy Corbyn?

By Len Shackleton

Exam results day celebrations (or otherwise) are barely over, but bad ideas for reforming the examination system already abound. Nick Gibb, the Schools minister, is considering nationalising the public examination system, or possibly giving monopoly franchises to boards for particular subjects. Emma Duncan, in today’s Times, calls for an outright nationalisation of the exam boards.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland are unique in that the provision of school examinations is not a state monopoly. When external examinations for schools were introduced a century and a half ago they were an initiative of independent universities, not of ministers trying to make a name for themselves.

This competition is seen by some as an evil. Michael Gove had the same idea. He apparently believed that competition is inappropriate in the important area of assessing youngsters who are themselves competing for university places and entry to jobs and careers. His fear was that there is a ‘race to the bottom’ as boards dumb down, lowering standards as they compete for the custom of schools which want high pass rates to boost their standing in league tables.

But choice and competition are not really the problem. I am continually surprised that so many people who ostensibly support free markets take this line. As in other areas of business, competition for customers takes many forms and lowering quality is not the most obvious of strategies – particularly as the exam grading process is tightly regulated, nowadays by Ofqual.

In fact changes in overall pass rates and ‘grade inflation’ can usually be traced to flip-flopping policies dictated by politicians and their allies in the educational establishment. Central government know-it-alls, not exam boards, brought us compulsory modularisation at A-level, then changed it at short notice, and is now scrapping it. Coursework was similarly pushed from the centre, and is now being withdrawn by similar diktat. The number of separate grades has changed at the whim of successive Secretaries of State.

What seems to have got Mr Gibb in a tizz are the problems which arose last year with delays and marking difficulties at one of the boards, OCR. These problems were eventually sorted out by Ofqual. Their fundamental cause is the ridiculous rush to get results out in line with universities’ archaic calendar (with applications having to be made in advance of results, a grossly inefficient procedure). Given the huge numbers of students now involved, to turn all these papers round in a short time with insufficient experienced markers is a difficulty which would equally be faced by a monopoly board. Arguably such a board would face greater difficulties as innovative ways of dealing with them, and presumably pay rates and conditions, would have to be approved by civil servants or ministers.

Historically, exam boards have been great innovators, bringing new approaches to dry subjects, experimental syllabuses involving enthusiastic students, teachers and outside bodies, and innovative forms of assessment and marking.

They continue to innovate, but nowadays their innovations, such as on-screen marking and awarding, have to be confined largely to process and procedures, and to support of teaching. The government increasingly controls subject content through elaborate and detailed specifications about what can be taught in particular disciplines – a stifling conformity which minimises choice for schools and their students.

We need more competition between boards, not less. This means both giving back to existing boards control over subject content, allowing innovation and risk-taking and also making it easier for new entrants into the examination ‘market’.  What we do not want is a Jeremy Corbyn-style nationalisation from an ostensibly ‘free- market’ government.

Prof Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA, and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham.