The case for nationalisation - Could government do a better job?

The case for nationalisation - Could government do a better job?

I wrote last week about prisons and the little known fact that around 65,000 prisoners take different OCR qualifications each year. Royal Navy ships provide another example of an unusual exam venue and we recently received 27 papers that had been sat a few weeks earlier by Royal Navy personnel out on submarine patrol that needed to be marked and graded by Thursday in time for results day. It reminded me once again of the diverse candidate base that we serve and the often highly complex supply chain that supports it.

OCR alone produces around 600 different general qualifications papers each year, in just under 60 different subjects, and receives well over a million individual candidate entries, all of whose papers are scanned for electronic marking (around 104 million images) before being distributed to approximately 16,000 examiners, who mark them during an intense period of activity running throughout June, July and most of August. At peak periods our computer systems can be processing as many as seven million marks an hour, requiring an army of computer experts and a complex and expensive technology infrastructure to support it.

It was therefore surprising to learn that the Government is again considering whether the current, highly complex system would be better supported by the creation of a single, state-run exam board. It is likely that Ministerial frustration with the pace and some of the delivery problems associated with implementing its qualifications reform programme lies behind this, and that Government is now wondering whether it could achieve more secure delivery simply by taking on responsibility for running the exam system itself.

Is it likely this would work?

There is no doubt that the speed and scale of the reform programme has thrown up some challenges, and these are likely to rise to a crescendo by 2017, when, as a result of legacy papers running in parallel with new syllabuses, the number of papers to be produced will rise from 600 to 1000. This creates substantial operational challenges and systemic pressures, notably in relation to the number of markers needed, but there is no evidence (or even a reasonable expectation) to suggest that government would do a better job.

Indeed, the Standards and Testing Agency, the government’s existing test unit and a suggested replacement for the exam boards, has only limited expertise in administering Maths and English tests for pupils at ages 7 and 11 and no experience of creating or running tests for 16 and 18 year olds. In the Agency’s previous incarnations there were major delivery crises in both 2003 and 2008. Had the Agency then been operating as a third party exam board, these would have constituted severe breaches of Ofqual’s Conditions of Recognition and would have resulted in major regulatory reprisals.

A lot of the Ministerial frustration fuelling the call for nationalising exam boards appears to have arisen over matters to do with syllabus and exam content. However, it cannot be desirable to create a state exam board just so that Ministers have the opportunity to ensure that individual subject syllabuses reflect their personal prejudices. This used to happen regularly; I well remember a colleague several years ago being told by officials that they were unable to sign off on a new Maths GCSE syllabus, which had been held up for several months, as it still required the then Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, to make up her mind as to whether the use of calculators should be permitted.

There is no doubt that confidence in the current system is not as robust as it should be. However, creating a single state-owned exam board would be unlikely to improve this, and would in the process do away with many of the checks and balances that serve to protect the integrity of the current system. It would also, ministering to another Ministerial preoccupation, provide a focal point for entryism by educational ‘progressives’.

The prospect of radical exam board reform (shorthand for the creation of a single state-run exam board) was raised by Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools, the same weekend that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leadership candidate, was reported to be calling for the Labour Party to re-adopt Clause 4. It is strange to see his enthusiasm for nationalisation being shared by a Conservative Government Minister.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

Cambridge Assessment presented evidence to the Education Select Committee addressing the arguments in favour of and against having a range of awarding bodies and the merits of alternative arrangements, such as having one national body.

Read the full submission to the select committee: 'How should examinations for 15-19 year olds in England be run?'

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