Sykes Report response from Cambridge Assessment

23 March 2010

Cambridge Assessment, the University’s international exams group, supports most of the Sykes Report recommendations on the role of Higher Education, on the role that regulators should play and the National Curriculum. It has serious reservations regarding the recommendations relating to assessment at age 16.

Higher Education

The Group supports Recommendations 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 19. "All three exam boards that make up the Group are ready to meet the higher standards of transparency and engagement that must accompany the greater freedom offered to deliver the full range of useful - and used - qualifications.”

However, Recommendation 4 is ill-conceived. The case for a single generic university admissions test (US SAT-style) ignores the differing requirements of different universities and different courses and would be likely to encourage narrow teaching to the test, add to the burden of assessment and give rise to a cramming industry. It would be a waste of curriculum time and state/individual funds as it may not give more information than the revised A Level which the report recommends.


The Group supports Recommendations 15, 16, 17 and 18. "They run with the grain of the 2009 Act setting up Ofqual - but recent consultations from that body show the need to underline the approach and not to micro-regulate.”

However, there are dangers to candidates in Recommendation 7, regarding awarding bodies not being required to have post-16 qualifications accredited. "If non-accredited organisations are allowed to offer anything, students seeking university places could be at the mercy of a disorderly market with recourse only available after gaining worthless qualifications and failing to enter HE."

In addition, Recommendation 15 fails to mention one of the classic 'weights and measures' roles - to maintain standards over time and between awarding bodies. "Where students apply in a given year but have achieved their A Levels in different years, university selectors need some means of comparing the standard of the qualifications."

National Curriculum

The Group supports Recommendations 20 and 21, the National Curriculum having become both overblown and hollowed out. "What is needed now is a map setting out key concepts and a framework for progression, not a manifesto combined with a detailed teaching prescription.” The Group favours a longer revision timescale as all educational changes take between seven to ten years to bed in.

The Group would go further and suggests that the Royal Commission should, at every revision, re-visit the first principles and examine what should be in the National Curriculum at all. There is a great deal of good evidence now to enable refinement of the National Curriculum.

Age 16 Assessment

The Group agrees with:

  • Recommendation 9 - the amount of external assessment should be reduced
  • Recommendation 11 - beyond English and mathematics, the form and content of qualifications should be determined by the users of them.

However, Cambridge Assessment cautions that the user base is wide and disparate consisting of businesses of all types and sizes, public services such as the NHS, national and local government as employers, Further Education institutions, HE to a certain extent, as well as subject communities and those who have to teach the courses being examined, to mention a few.

Recommendations 2, 12, 13 and 14 contain the key to the challenge of accountability and equivalency. All league tables and points based systems distort education. By focusing solely on English and mathematics for accountability, together with other measures based on sound methodology, distortion would be kept to a minimum. With no qualifications receiving any points, teachers would be enabled to deliver the right courses (and qualifications) to the right students without pressure.

Recommendation 10 is, in principle, right but the Report's supporting passages are fundamentally flawed. The concept of a single exam board for each of English and mathematics would (a) militate against innovation, (b) could lead to 'breakaway'; qualifications and (c) creates major system failure risks. "The monolithic model contemplated of a single exam set by a single board will lack the flexibility even of the current arrangement of tiering - with its challenges to standards. It may thus aggravate the current problems and fail as a reform to secure its objectives.”

(a) GCSE specifications from different boards currently operate as a spur to well-designed curriculum innovation in schools. Most of the innovation in assessment has grown out of awarding bodies listening to schools, universities and businesses. Some examples are Nuffield Physics and Salters Chemistry in the 1970s, MEI maths (created with schools and the Trust) and CLAIT (created with employers and trainers in the 1990s), Twenty First Century Science (created with Nuffield and York University) and OCR Nationals (created with schools) in the 2000s. Narrowing down the number of syllabuses would ossify the 'taught curriculum'.

(b) If the state rests an entire subject cohort on one exam board and this proves too inflexible in practice in addressing the needs of young people with different learning styles, there is a high risk that alternative qualifications will be created - undermining the integrity of the core and the authority of the Government.

(c) If something goes wrong with the examination, the whole cohort of 650,000 + students is affected and the other boards are not in a position to rectify the situation, as evidenced by the Key Stage tests debacle of 2008.

Cambridge Assessment suggests that the recommendation can be implemented through (i) tighter regulation of the core features of these qualifications; (ii) new awarding arrangements for the core subjects with strong regulatory oversight across different specifications from different boards; (iii) the proposed stability and clarity in the National Curriculum, which would form a definitive reference point for different specifications.

Notes to Editors:

Factual errors in the Report

P6 While schools are indeed incentivised to enter pupils for 'high tariff' GCSE equivalents, the QCDA 'rating' system for GCSE precludes double counting and therefore strongly discourages entry for 'overlapping qualifications'.

P18 Our recent study on A Level choice (the largest study of this to date) produced no evidence that students are being compelled, by the school or college, to do subjects because they are 'easier' and would improve the institutions' performance table position.

P19 The NFER trial of the SAT did not use a 'UK version of the SAT' - it was the US SAT apart from a couple of excluded questions.

US Style SAT university admissions test - more

Although the Group has a suite of admissions tests which are performing well, growing, and could easily form the basis of a single test there are major dangers in adopting one. It will be inevitable that a large number of students will get the same score on any scale. Which gives the same problem that exists with current A grades in A Level. It is important to note that the US is migrating from the SAT towards the curriculum-based Advanced Placement award - which is much the same as A Levels.

A single test can be designed, but it must make a genuine, unique contribution to the information which is available to selectors. If HE states what it needs for each course in respect of GCSEs, A Levels and other attainment (Recommendation 1), then assessing these again in a SAT doesn't make sense.


Cambridge Assessment believes that there must be a re-statement of performance indicators as well as a new interaction between this and (i) inspection, (ii) monitoring of standards through a national survey; (iii) school governance; (iv) curriculum development guidance and support to schools; (v) funding streams. The Group also believes that the basis of Ofsted inspection should be shifted away from superficial dependence on qualifications data.

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