Joe Armitage is a
Conservative activist and works for a Conservative MP.  Follow him on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 17.45.11The scepticism about the
success of the country’s students in GCSE and A-Level exams has not subsided,
not least because none of Michael Gove’s reforms have been implemented yet. It
is certainly to the Secretary of State’s credit that he intends to end
bite-size modules, ensure tougher questions and demand a higher bar for
achieving the grade acknowledged as a satisfactory pass – grade C. However, the
proposed reforms themselves cannot be attributed to the reduction of A*/A
grades at A-Level, by virtue of the fact they have not yet been applied.

It may well be that it is the very prospect of reform that has encouraged exam
boards to up the ante and enhance the academic rigour of their papers. The
reduction in high achievers may even be because teaching standards were as high
as feasibly possible last year, and technological advances such as computers and
the internet have done all they can to allow students to obtain the highest
grades. However, I am suspicious of the Mount Everest analogy, where it is said
the fact only two individuals climbed Everest in 1953 but that over 300 climbed it in
2012 is demonstrative of what technological advancement can achieve. Exams
ought to have become more difficult if the internet made them easier. They most
certainly should not be considered easier by individuals comparing them with
their own which they sat decades ago.

It is apparent to me, particularly as someone who has only been out of school
for a year, that exam boards sacrifice their standards in order to ensure their
papers allow students to obtain the highest grades. Not only this, but exam
boards are actively encouraging teachers and their students to attend
conferences where they are told almost explicitly how to master the papers, not
the questions. This race to the bottom, whereby exam boards scout schools by
making their papers as easy as possible and thereby advantageous to a school’s
results, is an unforgivable disservice to students. It is little surprise that
independent and grammar schools are adopting the International A-Level or
deliberately choosing exam boards which are regarded as more difficult in order
to get their students into the highest ranked universities – something parents
of the type of students at these schools generally value.

The resolution to the problems aforementioned is completely to turn the tables
and encourage exam boards to compete to be as academically rigourous as
practicably possible.  To achieve this would involve going against my
ordinary political grain and involve nationalisation.  There would be one
exam board comprising of experts appointed by the Department for Education,
much like those who decide the content of the National Curriculum. Existing
exam boards such as Edexcel and AQA would then bid to provide exams for a
particular subject. This could result in AQA solely providing the country’s
English GCSE exams and Edexcel or another of the numerous existing exam boards
taking on History or Science, etc.

The resultant impact of this franchise system would be exam boards competing to
have their papers recognised as the most vigorous and suitable for students,
which is completely contrary to the current situation whereby some
schools select exam boards which have easier papers purely to bolster their own
position in league tables. Michael Gove toyed with this idea and regrettably
decided not to see it through: the blame for this is attributed to the Liberal
Democrats who seem to stand steadfastly in the way of what is advantageous for
pupils, unless it involves throwing money at them such as the Pupil Premium. If
we want to put a stop to the inevitable yearly cries about exam inflation, Mr
Gove would be doing an immense service to school children up and down the
country by bringing back to the table the idea of a single exam board.