One of the biggest news stories this week derived from an investigation by the Daily Telegraph into the behaviour of officials connected with the Welsh examination board WJEC who, it appears, have been passing on tips about the content of their examination papers to teachers who have paid to attend their seminars. Of course this reflects very badly on Wales – especially coming so soon after the University of Wales scandals – but it is symptomatic of a much wider malaise; this episode undermines not just the examination process but the entire education system in the United Kingdom. The sad thing is that that there’s not really anything new in this story. It’s been obvious for some time that the whole framework has become corrupted by the profit motive. There have been previous warnings about how the examination boards compete for customers (and cash) by dumbing down examination papers, but nothing seems to have been done.
The problem is particularly acute for A-level examinations, which universities use to select applicants for admission onto courses. In my own subject, Physics, the A-level course being taught in schools are clearly not fit for this purpose – the syllabuses have been filleted of any challenging material and there’s no correlation that I can discern between high grades at A-level and good performance at undergraduate level. In fact,some of our very best students at Cardiff – who are as good as any I’ve come across anywhere – came in with very modest A-level grades but have performed brilliantly on the course. Relying only on A-levels might have led to us closing the door on these folks. Actually, I don’t know why we bother making offers based on A-level results at all!
Anyway, it’s clearly time to sort out the examinations system properly. The Exam Boards won’t fix the problem themselves because they are doing very nicely out of the status quo, so what should be done?
I like the suggestion is that the Examination Boards should be scrapped and the business of setting examinations should be carried out by one organization: no competition means no temptation to cheat. I’d also add that, at least for A-levels, the people who set and mark the examinations should be based in universities. I’d envisage a series of national subject panels with representatives from a number of institutions. A single Exam Board with members based in the university sector would also help simplify the process of university admissions, perhaps even streamlining it enough to allow for post-examination applications without having to have earlier examinations. Above all it would ensure that A-level courses are relevant to university entrance requirements, which they are not at the moment.
Another possibility – which also like but which is probably politically a non-starter – is to scrap our tarnished A-levels altogether and adopt the International Baccalaureate as the UK’s educational gold-standard. The reason this wouldn’t be acceptable to our Lords and Masters in Whitehall is that it would immediately dispel the comforting myth that standards in British schools are rising; I’d bet my bottom dollar that, relative to the rest of the world, they are not and adopting the IB would demonstrate that as it would allow comparisons to be made which can’t be made with A-levels.Follow @telescoper