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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Giving the exams watchdog its bite
By Angela Harrison
Education reporter, BBC News

Ed Balls with a school pupil
Ed Balls took over the education brief in June
Did the annual cry that "exams must be getting easier" get too loud for the government to ignore?

Yes. Schools Secretary Ed Balls says the decision to put exams in the hands of an independent body will end the "sterile dumbing-down debate".

The QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) controls what is taught in schools and regulates the exam system.

But in future it will be split so that the exams arm reports only to parliament not to ministers of the day.

It will be responsible for maintaining standards via the awarding bodies (exam boards) which it will "license", and will regulate the qualifications market in England.

The other QCA role - that of governing what is taught in maintained schools in England - will be separate, with officers reporting to ministers.

That part of the body's job is to set the curriculum in line with the government's wishes.

We have always argued that the best way was to separate it
Ken Boston, QCA chief executive

The head of the QCA, Ken Boston, said the organisation had long advocated this change, saying there had always been the potential for or "appearance of potential for" a conflict of interest.

However, he told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four that in his five years at the organisation there had "never" been any pressure from ministers to improve grades.

"Internally, we have had to separate regulation from the other elements. We have always argued that the best way was to separate it and have it report to parliament," he said.

The government, together with students, teachers and parents, has grown tired of the annual criticism of the exam system, and wants to remove any suggestion of collusion.

Year-on-year improvements in overall grades for GCSEs and A-levels have been accompanied by claims that the exams "must be getting easier".

The government and head teachers say the results reflect the hard work of students and teachers and growing expertise.

Controversy

The Conservatives called for the QCA to be made independent at least four years ago, when the government announced changes to the exam regulation system.

At that time, it set up a new arm of the QCA - called the National Assessment Agency - to oversee the setting of exams with the exam boards.

This internally separated the QCA's two roles, keeping the watchdog (regulatory) element separate.

But the new body did not get off to a good start. Within a year its first leader had resigned following a crisis over the marking of some of that year's national tests for 14-year-olds in English.

Pupils sitting exam
Ministers and students are fed up with claims of 'dumbing down'

In 2002, the QCA was at the centre of a controversy over A-level grades. Students and schools complained they were given lower grades than they should have been.

More than 1,000 A-level and 700 AS-level students had their grades raised as a result of an inquiry into the affair by Sir Mike Tomlinson.

The exams system has been under constant scrutiny. The government must be hoping that by making the body which regulates the system independent - like the Bank of England - it will help to silence the critics and maintain confidence in the system.

The leader of the National Union of Teachers, Steve Sinnott, said: "The QCA is a very good body. But I do interviews every August defending A-levels.

"There is an issue of confidence with exams. We need to build up confidence about what goes on in schools and in exams."

With enormous changes coming in qualifications, he said, a watchdog with independence would be very welcome and help to maintain confidence in the system.


SEE ALSO
Watchdog to tackle exam standards
26 Sep 07 |  UK Politics
100m scheme to modernise exams
17 Nov 03 |  Education
Results fiasco test chief quits
17 Nov 04 |  Education
New row over A-level grades
15 Nov 02 |  Education

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