Science papers raising questions about exams system

Wednesday, 16th February

Two papers published this week by respected science education organisations make radical suggestions for fundamental changes to England’s exams system. Both make comments of relevance to the arguments in Education by Numbers.

First, buried in a letter to Michael Gove by the Campaign for Science and Engineering – which asks some seriously probing questions about the education white paper, suggesting problems with it – is a very interesting recommendation for dealing with a regularly-made criticism of the English education system.

This is the allegation that competition between exam boards can force down standards. The criticism is well-known, and runs as follows:

Awarding bodies have to compete for schools’ and colleges’ business.

Schools and colleges are motivated, especially under the modern system of hyper-accountability, to get the best results for their students.

This can therefore have the effect of lowering standards, because each board cannot be seen to be offering tougher exams than their competitors, for fear of losing business to their competitors.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) letter backs up this criticism, saying: “Examination boards currently compete against each other to offer examinations to schools. They are therefore incentivised to offer schools attractive packages. Schools, via league tables and other mechanisms, are incentivised to achieve the best examination results for their pupils. If one way for schools to achieve this is to choose a more attractive examination package, they may well do so. Over time this may lead to degradation in standards.”

I have written about this a fair bit over the years, including in chapter 13 of my book. For a particularly vivid example, I think, of the possible downsides of the current system, consider a discussion on a history teachers’ website I wrote about in the Guardian a couple of years ago, in which teachers discussed switching boards in a search for more predictable exams.

Although many people would agree that this is a problem, one obvious alternative which is often mooted as a solution – the replacement of the boards with a single “national” body – also has downsides, it seems to me.

While this would get around the problem mentioned above, in that competition between boards would be eliminated, it also would negate some benefits of the current scenario. First, having spoken to teachers aggrieved on occasion by their treatment at the hands of a board after having been left highly dissatisfied with seemingly erratic marking systems, I know that many professionals value the chance to take their custom elsewhere when things go wrong.

Second, and more positively for the boards, there is certainly a case that competition between awarding bodies may have both spurred innovation and given schools a wide range of syllabuses from which to choose.

Third, I think one national awarding body would run the risk of being seen as too close to the government, especially given that the same government still insists on having its education policy judged by results in national exams.

But the CaSE letter was original in making the case not for today’s system of competition between boards for the business of schools and colleges for each subject; nor for a single examination board; but for a kind of “third way”.

The CaSE letter argues that “One suggestion…is for Ofqual to award different exam boards multi-year contracts to set the exams in specific subjects. This would mean that all pupils in a given year group sit the same exam for a certain subject, improving comparability of qualifications, whilst ensuring that exam boards are kept efficient through competing against each other for contracts.”

This is a very interesting idea, in that it would mean that only one board would set exams in any one subject at any time. There would be no incentive for any awarding body to even give a hint that teachers should choose to opt for it for particular subject simply because it is likely to give their students a better chance in exams, because there would be no choice for the teacher at individual subject level.

I can see problems with this suggestion. First, at a more practical level, it would mean markers having to move from one board to the next every time the contract changes. More substantively, though, of course, this would mean a reduction in choice for schools and colleges. While it would remove the chance of teachers opting between boards on the search for better results, it would also cut out the traditional search for better syllabuses for their pupils.

Politically, it would also require a major reduction in market freedoms which many will doubt this government would want to countenance.

Against that, though this would go against the tradition in the English system which has favoured many boards offering many types of qualification, perhaps it makes more sense to the public to have only one version of what a GCSE in each subject is, rather than several.

The idea is also interesting in that it seems to be swimming with a recent tide which says the huge amount of choice over curriculum and exams options in the English system, which may be peculiar to it, is a problem.

Mr Gove’s controversial introduction of the English Baccalaureate GCSE performance measure is an attempt to discourage schools and pupils from taking advantage of that choice by opting away from the traditional academic subjects defined as important in this measure.

But the second paper published this week makes a similar point. The document, the fourth and final “state of the nation” investigation into science education by the Royal Society, calls for radical changes to A-levels predicated on the idea that too few students are opting for science subjects post-16.

Only 17 per cent of UK 16- to 18-year-olds took science A-levels in 2009, the latest figures which it analysed, the investigation found. It was particularly exercised by the fact that 17 per cent of schools and colleges in England had not a single student opting for physics A-level.

The number and complexity of options within the qualifications system might help to explain why students are not choosing science subjects beyond the age of 16, even though such subjects will be demonstrably valuable to pupils in university entry and in the labour market, the report suggests.

In a very powerful section of the report, the society argues that exam data itself is not particularly useful in trying to understand what is going on in the English education system.

It says:  “The methodology we adopted for our investigation has shown that annually published results reporting the number of entries to, and broad attainment in, individual subjects in public examinations are neither a reliable indicator of, nor a sharp enough tool for, understanding the performance of a nation’s education system.”

Data without background qualitative understanding can be misleading, is the implication.  

Although the paper does not, as far as I can see, go into any great detail about how this alternative would work, it suggests that A-levels be changed so that students study a broader range of subjects in the sixth form, including sciences. This A-level system could even be called a baccalaureate.

Pressure seems to be building for a post-16 Bac, as I mentioned in an article for the Guardian before Christmas.

Yet we have, of course, been here before in terms of suggestions that study should be widened post-16. As the Royal Society paper acknowledges, the introduction of AS levels in the Curriculum 2000 reforms was supposed to widen the choice of subjects taken by students, with the half-way house AS exams supposedly giving young people who favoured arts to try a science course, and vice versa.

It did not seem to work out like that, however, as people tended to concentrate on what they were good at.

The Tomlinson diploma plans also started out amidst talk that England could have a baccalaureate system in which students would have to take a broader range of subjects. It did not happen.

 Although the Royal Society would seem to be an influential body, and the investigation was painstaking, this notion of free choice, amid the huge array of options now available for young people from the age of 14, seems very powerful in our system.

Both papers are well worth a read. CaSE’s is here.

The Royal Society paper is here.

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