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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
'Optimism' over summer's exams
Dr Ken Boston
Dr Ken Boston is "cautiously optimistic" about this summer
The head of England's exams watchdog says he is trying his best to ensure the "wheels don't fall off" the system this summer.

Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), said he was "cautiously optimistic" the marking of millions of A-level and GCSE entries would happen without a repeat of problems of last year.

He disclosed his appeal for teachers to come forward as markers had brought a positive response.

But Dr Boston said he was worried by the potential for disaster inherent in 24 million exam entries having to pass between schools, exam boards and individual markers via the Royal Mail.

'Not fully there'

"I think the best thing I can do so far as A-levels are concerned is to do my level best to make sure the wheels don't fall off what is a virtually unsustainable process that we've got, and we achieve some reform," Dr Boston told the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference in London.

Dr Boston took up his post last autumn as the controversy about the alleged lowering of A-level grades raged.

An inquiry by the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, found a need for clearer standards and a firmer line to be drawn between AS-levels and part two of A-levels.

But as a result, only 1,220 A-level and 733 AS-level students had their grades improved.

This summer, boards have already been forced to spend thousands of pounds reprinting and reissuing several exams because papers have got lost either in the post or while being transported by security companies.

'Cautious optimism'

Dr Boston has recommended making greater use of digitised scripts, which can be marked on computer and do not have to be sent through the post.

The QCA had implemented all the recommendations made last year by Mike Tomlinson, Dr Boston told the conference.

Asked whether the three exam boards - Edexcel, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Oxford and Cambridge RSA - had all the markers they needed, Dr Boston replied: "We are not fully there, the awarding bodies are not fully there, but we are ahead of where we were this time last year with markers, so that is a cause for some optimism."

There were more marking centres this year cthan in 2002, which should make the process more efficient.

"But we are still, of course, dependent on 24 million scripts moving around the country by post, which is still high risk."

Of teachers offering to markpapers, he added: "I think heads and teachers have understood that there is a real seriousness about this issue.

"If they are entering young people for examinations, you also have some sort of commitment to ensure they are contributing to the pool and that means they will mark these papers. I think the response from schools has been very encouraging."

The QCA was talking to both the Royal Mail and to security companies. "There is a risk in this, we are doing everything we can to reduce the risk and ameliorate it. But there is a risk and it has to be managed."

Following Edexcel's experiment with using history graduates to mark exams in that subject, Dr Boston said they were now being employed in "significant numbers" for some exams.

Edexcel's chief executive, John Kerr, said: "Edexcel is confident it has sufficient examiners in place to deliver the 2003 examinations on time and to the highest standard in the same way that it delivered the summer 2002 and January 2003 examination results.

"However, we are conscious that the examination system must move on to embrace 21st century technology and welcome Dr Boston's comments about this."

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