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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 18:12 GMT
Q&A: Edexcel
Q&A graphic
As pressure mounts on the exam board Edexcel, BBC News Online takes a closer a look at what it is and what it does.

What is Edexcel?

One of the UK's main "unitary awarding bodies", as they are known, for educational qualifications. In other words, a big exam board.

Its qualifications are offered in over 6,000 schools, 450 colleges and nearly 100 higher education establishments, primarily in England but also in Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland to an extent and overseas.

It specialises in vocational qualifications but has made a big push recently to increase its share of the GCSE and A-level markets.

So it's a private company?

Sort of. The exam boards - the other big ones are OCR and AQA - are limited companies which also have charitable status. Notice they have .org, not company, website addresses.

In fact its accounts show small operating deficits, on a turnover last year of more than 60m.

Has it been around long?

It was formed in 1996 by the merger of BTec, a leading provider of vocational qualifications, and the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council (Uleac), one of the major GCSE and A-level examining bodies.

OCR was similarly formed from the Oxford and Cambridge and RSA Examinations groups. AQA came out of the Associated Examining Board and the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board - it is the largest of the three.

This consolidation was caused by the drive to put vocational qualifications on a par with academic ones - the same trend which, at the time, saw the departments of education and employment merge.

Back in the 1980s there were about two dozen exam boards. The amalgamations began with the move to GCSEs.

Don't Wales and Northern Ireland have their own boards?

Yes. But students there take the same qualifications as those in England and some centres choose to use English boards.

Even in Scotland, with its different system, some independent schools opt to do GCSEs and A-levels.

Who takes Edexcel's exams?

Anyone who wants to. You pays your money...

The exam boards devise their own syllabuses - the new word is "specifications" - in line with requirements laid down by the regulatory quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Exam centres - mainly schools or colleges - can choose whose syllabus to follow and quite often "mix and match" to suit local preferences.

Edexcel does more vocational qualifications than the other boards - it provides the majority of GNVQs, for example.

The full range also includes GCSEs, GCE AS and A-levels; BTec First, National, and Higher National Certificates and Diplomas; NVQs; Key Skills and Entry Qualifications and specific programmes for employers.

It has 13 offices throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland and operates in more than 100 countries worldwide.

So the boards compete for business?

Yes. This is felt to be a good thing, as it keeps them on their toes and offers consumers - schools, colleges and their students - a choice.

Who checks their work?

Ultimately that quango - the QCA - through its quality audit division.

In Northern Ireland it is the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment and in Wales the Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

The QCA has just completed a routine report on Edexcel. This would have been published at the end of Feburary but the QCA is under pressure from the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, to get it out much sooner than that.

Last week as it happens the QCA published an independent review of its own work in regulating A-level standards.

This review was carried out by three experts from different countries who looked into the exam boards' work.

They concluded that the boards were "highly professional" and provided a good level of quality assurance.

There were some issues, though - notably the way single markers deal with all the scripts from one school.

Despite efforts to maintain consistency "it is predominantly the case that judgements are made by only one marker without any external checking".

Can an exam board really be "sacked"?

It works in a contractual arrangement with schools and colleges - so they can choose to go to another board for their qualifications.

But the QCA could withdraw its accreditation as a provider of qualifications.

This is in two parts - for the organisation as a whole, and for the individual qualifications.

A moment's thought makes it obvious that withdrawing accreditation could not be done overnight, given the large number of students sitting such a wide range of qualifications.

See also:

22 Jan 02 | Education
Call for exam board to be sacked
22 Jan 02 | Education
More errors blamed on exam board
21 Jan 02 | Education
Examiners knew about maths error
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