It is not just a few rotten apples. The so called market for A Levels is broken. Huge amounts of money have been wasted on the constructing a “suite” of qualifications and spin off products. A “teach to test” culture has emerged in schools. The fundamental mistake was to recast the market with schools as the consumer not universities. When universities set the exams up to assess entrants, high standards were the currency. Now that schools and education bureaucrats have the whip hand, a race to the bottom will always be the prevailing force. Sticking plaster will not be enough. In reforming the system, Michael Gove should insist on a single exam board for each subject with a respected university setting the content.
However noble a headteacher, there will always be an incentive to seek out easier exam papers to boost the schools results. Even far back in the 1990s, my teachers would discuss the merits of one exam board over another and they knew which were easier. That was before increased pressure on league table results. Who can blame a head who takes the decision to go with an easier board when there is so much riding on the outcome? This culture has permeated. Rather than the words of Shakespeare or Pythagoras’s theorems, school whiteboards now feature the criteria required to secure an A grade or B grade in the exam.
The officials who set the terms on which exam boards develop papers feel an institutional pressure to inflate grades. Politicians however distant help create an environment where constant improvement is seen as desirable. This is not just a British phenomenon, it happens elsewhere; both France and the US have seen high grade inflation. The only people who institutionally want standards to remain high are universities and employers as they are the real consumers of what the qualifications produce.
A Levels were instigated by universities as a way of creating a common entrance exam to their institutions, thus delivering more students to compete for coveted places. The Oxford, Cambridge and Northern universities (Joint Matriculation Board) began in the 1850s to set papers to attract the best quality young people and to evaluate their performance. Over the years, Government took over the process. The boards merged and became independent commercial organisations relying on the fees paid for by schools. With increasing external pressures on universities pulling them away from involvement in schools, the link to academic excellence was severed.
The only way to make money in the system as it operates now is to create more exams, more modules and more different types of questions. No one is going to thank a board for increasing the difficulty. The core income from exams can be supplemented by helping people to understand how the exam works and to imply that the papers set by your board will deliver improved results for the school. So we have briefing sessions, textbooks published by the exam boards and meetings with schools. The taxpayer ultimately picks up the tab with the costs of exams having risen for schools hugely over the last twenty years. An industry has been created around a set of tests. In many countries it is a much more straightforward exercise.
In Sweden for example, the national tests at 18 (that also accompany teacher assessment) are set by universities. There is a single university for each subject, selected on the basis of research abilities, pedagogy and delivery. The contracts to set these exams are given to the winning university, subject to review by the education agency. So Stockholm University sets the Mathematics test, Gothenburg sets the English test and so on. It is instructive that the tests have seen almost no grade inflation at all over the past decade.
One could envisage a similar process in England, perhaps with the existing exam boards partnering with universities to ensure that the logistics could be delivered efficiently. In publicly competing with each other to secure the contract, high quality not the lowest common denominator would be the order of the day. The Government should in addition seek to remedy the ill effects of the current system on the A Level and GCSE landscape. Additional subjects that have sprung up to earn boards extra money that are not acceptable to many universities should be culled. Sweden abolished its Media Studies 16-18 course following the 2010 education reforms. That would be a good start.
Of course A Levels have a wider purpose and are used by many employers for those who don’t go to university. But I would bet that these employers would rather have an exam certified by universities rather than one invented in Whitehall where lowering standards are the only form of competition. So let’s not put sticking plaster on a system that fundamentally has the wrong incentives in it. Let’s put the universities back in the driving seat.