Friday, October 7th
Exam boards are facing fines from the Government’s qualifications regulator after a string of errors in this summer’s GCSE and A-levels.
Ministers are to propose an immediate change to the law to allow Ofqual to impose a financial penalty – capped at a certain proportion of an exam board’s turnover – if they make mistakes.
But the move was questioned by a head teachers’ leader, who said any fines would simply be passed on by the boards to schools, adding to already large exams bills. The boards themselves believe the move, to be introduced in an amendment to the education bill currently in the House of Lords, pre-judges an inquiry by Ofqual into this year’s mistakes, which is due to report by the end of the year.
The way the move has been handled – with boards given only two weeks to respond to the proposed legal change when told about the plans at the end of last month by Nick Gibb, the schools minister – has also annoyed awarding bodies, who are concerned that it will not be given time for proper legislative scrutiny.
Ofqual launched its investigation in July, after this summer’s GCSE and A-level results season featured at least 11 mistakes, affecting tens of thousands of pupils.
Errors ranged from a printing mistake by the AQA board, leading to some schools receiving GCSE maths papers, taken by 32,000 pupils, which included questions from a previous version of the exam, to an OCR maths AS level paper with 6,790 candidates which featured an impossible question worth 11 per cent of marks on the paper.
In total four boards, serving schools in England and Northern Ireland, have apologised for errors. Ofqual already has power to take strong sanctions against them, including ultimately to “withdrawal of recognition”, effectively banning a board from setting exams
However, two weeks ago (September 29th), Nick Gibb, schools minister, wrote to the boards to tell them that Ofqual’s current powers “inhibit swift action and do not serve as an adequate deterrent to problems such as we saw this summer”. He said the Government would change the law to give Ofqual the power to fine.
Last week, in a letter to the Conservative peer Lord Lingfield, the Government said that it would bring forward amendments at the next stage of the education bill, which begins on October 18th, to “give Ofqual the new power to fine”.
The Government believes that the watchdog’s current power to de-recognise a board is such a “nuclear” option – with potential to cause major disruption for pupils and schools – that Ofqual needs additional sanctions.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Ofqual’s review is not due to publish until December, and it seems strange to pre-empt the findings in this way.
“A fine on awarding bodies will simply turn into a fine on schools and colleges, since they pay for all the costs of examinations through exam fees. Institutions are already spending large sums on exam fees, and any further burden would be a perverse consequence. It would be completely counter-productive.”
An exam board source said: “We are very unhappy about the way in which this has been carried out. There is a question over whether the Government wants to get this right, through proper consultation, or whether this is just a massive rush to cobble something together to go into an education bill which is already nine tenths of its way through Parliament.”