GCSE results remain stable – so why are ministers concerned exams are dumbed down?

The big day finally arrives. Lauren Hurley / PA Wire

Nearly 5.5m GCSE exam results have been released today to anxious 16-year-olds around the country. They show a small drop of 0.1% in students getting A* grades, but a 0.2% increase of those awarded A* to C. In other words, this is about as close as the private exam boards who award GCSEs could have got to last year’s results.

Yet, Nick Gibb, minister for schools, recently said that GCSE exams have been dumbed down and that the government should take over the exams system. This follows several calls for a single exam board over recent years, such as those led by the former minister for education, Michael Gove, in 2012. At that time, the proposal for a single exam board was dropped, apparently because it would have breached EU procurement laws. It’s unclear whether the government believes the legal position has changed. But a single exam board would have advantages.

Are standards slipping?

It is unusual to see a Conservative government with a nationalisation policy. Their concerns relate to the standards of the examinations and whether they are slipping due to competition between the existing exam boards. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulator’s (Ofqual) has assured the stable outcomes that we see year-on-year through its “comparable outcomes” approach to setting standards, which GCSE exam boards must comply with.

However, an education select committee hearing in 2012, Ofqual said it had ironed out differences in outcomes between the exam boards. So why are ministers still worried about standards going down due to competition between the exam boards?

There are some concerns relating to the variability of results for individual schools. This arose due to perennial worries about the quality of marking and standards, especially after the GCSE English Judicial Review in 2012, when there was a lot of variation in results between schools. This is not so much the case these days and a lot of the variability that does occur is due to small numbers of students in schools or changes of staff.

When questions differ

There are two ways to look at exam standards. One is the results that students get and the other is what they have to do to get those results. It is possible that exam boards could be well aligned in terms of the results issued, but could compete on the standards and content of the questions students have to answer to get the grades.

GCSE exams have been reformed so that none of them are modular any more and the exam boards are required to produce new syllabuses and question papers for Ofqual’s approval.

GCSE mathematics was being revised this year and there was a disagreement about exactly the alignment of the difficulty of the questions between different exam boards. Ofqual conducted a number of research studies on this and then required the exam boards to change their question papers before it would approve them. This must have been an expensive exercise and the costs of regulation must have been felt sharply by a government with an austerity agenda.

The Conservatives’ line of thought seems to go that if we only had one exam board, it could regulate itself, be government-controlled and maintain standards. Many countries have a single exam board run by a government agency, for example, Hungary, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland and Sweden. Others have regional exam boards, exam boards that specialise by school type or the language in which the exams are taken, or a hybrid system.

Other options

Instead of nationalising the exam boards, there are a number of models that the government could adopt. They could have contracts for different parts of the exam board, such as the question paper writing, the marking and so on. However, in the past this model did not work very well for other tests for younger children as the handovers between (competitor) organisations were shaky. It also lead to several exam disasters.

Another option is to outsource by subject, so that each exam board that wins a contract runs the exams for specific subjects, such as English, maths or science. These are the exams that bankroll the rest of the system, so contractors would also need to be required to run other GCSEs in conjunction with winning these contracts. Such a model of outsourcing by subject model would give joined-up logistics, allow the government to change provider when necessary and could bring about a critical mass of expertise on assessment of a particular subject.

The government might, however, find they have less control over a contractor than they do over exam boards because the relationship is based upon the letter of the contract. The field of suppliers can also quickly dwindle as those who do not win contracts go out of business and the costs of entry to market are high. Changing provider is also inefficient and risky – and the examination industry must be inherently risk-averse.

Ten years ago, the major argument against a single exam board was that it would be logistically impossible for one organisation to run the entire operation. With the increase in technology, that is no longer the case. Removing incentives for competition in this sector has got to be a good thing for exam standards.