Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Tories plan exam standards checks

exam room
Tory spokesman Michael Gove accuses Ofqual of bullying an exam board

The Conservative Party is promising to link exams in England to an international benchmark to ensure standards are maintained.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove says the move would "reverse the devaluation of exams".

He will say the watchdog Ofqual would be given a statutory duty to guarantee exams and pass marks were comparable with the world's best.

The government said the UK already had an internationally renowned curriculum.

Ofqual said it "strongly believed" it should have powers to direct exam boards if it felt standards were at risk.

The Tories noted the way that Ofqual instructed one of the big English exam boards, AQA, to lower the grade C pass mark in one of its science GCSEs this summer to bring it into line with other boards.

AQA chief executive Mike Cresswell reluctantly agreed to do so "on balance and under protest".

But he said: "Ofqual needs to be given an explicit statutory power to enable it, if necessary, to direct an awarding body to set standards at a particular level."

He said: "It needs to have this power so that it can give credible public assurance that standards are comparable between awarding bodies and maintained over time."

'Bullied'

Mr Gove plans to say in a speech that the government claims to be taking action to guarantee exam standards and that it points to the creation of Ofqual as evidence for this.

"Ofqual's job is to uphold the integrity of our examination system and bolster confidence in the qualifications our children acquire," Mr Gove will say.

"A worthy ambition to have been asked to fulfil just seven months ago. And one which Ofqual has already failed to achieve."

Its first significant intervention in the examination system had not been an injection of greater rigour, an upholding of standards or a defence of knowledge - but "the precise opposite".

He accused the regulator of having bullied one exam board - AQA - resulting in "a deliberate lowering of standards".

"As a result standards slipped, more candidates would get a pass which was worth less. In other words, Ofqual devalued the exam."

Reliability inquiry

Mr Gove says: "I regard it as simply unacceptable that the exam standards watchdog should be acting in this way.

"And a future Conservative government would legislate to ensure this simply couldn't happen."

Ofqual would be given the powers to uphold and defend robust grade boundaries and Conservative ministers would require it to use those powers to guarantee that exams and pass marks were comparable with the world's best.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We have an internationally renowned curriculum, assessment and qualifications system, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise.

"Ofqual will be given all the powers it needs in the forthcoming bill to continue to secure the standards of qualifications, tests and assessments."

An Ofqual spokeswoman said: "We have confidence that the results this year reflect the real achievements of young people and that the standards have been maintained."

It was working with awarding bodies to look at the technical issues that had arisen this summer in relation to GCSE science.

"As well as looking at past papers, science experts will be looking at candidates' work, particularly work awarded marks near a grade boundary, to ensure that the standard is secure. We will report on this work early in 2009."

On the issue of international standards, Ofqual said England had world renowned qualifications.

"The issue of comparing qualifications is a complex one because all qualifications are different in terms of content and approach which makes direct comparisons difficult."



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