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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Big questions behind A-level row

The A-level grading crisis is moving with the speed of a thrilling "whodunnit".

You have the plot twists and turns, the finger of suspicion hovers this way and then that, and a new conspiracy theory lies around every corner.

The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, seemed to be suffering the strain when she hurriedly called a news conference to announce that the allegations were so serious that an independent inquiry was needed in addition to the investigations by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

She had been burning the midnight oil, hurriedly putting an independent investigation in place.

By the end of the week, she appeared to have acted swiftly and decisively enough, to - at the very least - buy more time from those murmuring about her resignation.

There are many more turns to come - for the students, teachers and parents affected there will, unfortunately, be more weeks of uncertainty over the validity of their results.

But as the short-term inquiry continues apace there are some bigger issues looming just around the corner.


The one that must scare the government most is the issue of examination overload.

The teaching profession had already been complaining about this, particularly since the introduction of the new AS levels which added one more raft of exams.

Now, though, the issue has registered more powerfully with parents.

For the most part, I would guess that parents tend to believe more strongly in formal, written examinations than do most teachers. They welcome the external check on their children's progress.

But if confidence in the reliability of those exams is shaken, parents may go beyond simply wanting the uncertainties cleared up; they may well start to question whether there is any need for so many exams.

Successive governments over the past decade or so have introduced so many new tests and exams that every child now faces externally-set, and marked, tests at the ages of seven, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18.

Estelle Morris
Estelle Morris: felt the pressure
Increasingly schools are using the voluntary intermediate tests at age nine or 13 because they fear that without them their pupils will do less well in the compulsory tests. League table pressure has played its part here.

Tests were introduced partly as a check on teachers and partly to provide regular, consumer information to parents about the relative effectiveness of schools, hence the league tables.

If the parents start to say enough is enough, the formal testing regime (which is not the same thing as teachers checking their pupils progress) will become redundant.

Pupils' long-term confidence in exams will also be put under strain. My daughter, like a few hundred thousand others, started her two-year AS and A2 journey a few weeks ago. She has been watching the current row with a rather fatalistic interest.

It might make us wonder whether we need quite so many national qualifications

To embark on a tough, long-distance race only to see last year's winners questioning the times and doubting the value of their medals is not going to bring the best performance from the runners.

I remember a teacher at my school who used to give us a weekly test. Instead of marking them properly, he got us to exchange papers and mark one another's efforts. After the first few weeks, most of us realised that grade inflation (I think we called it cheating) was taking place.

The teacher did not seem to notice. Soon we were all adjusting our grade boundaries for fear of being left behind. Because we had no confidence in the accuracy of the results, we stopped taking the test seriously.

The other long-term issue that must now be addressed is: How many exam boards should there be?

The last Conservative government reduced the number of exam boards in England to just three, with separate boards for Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scotland, of course, has an entirely different examination system (and has had problems of its own).


Should we go a further step and have just a single board for each country? Should the government go even further and nationalise the exam board system?

Much will depend on the outcomes of the current investigation. If central interference is proven then there will not be much appetite for a single board, whether owned by government or otherwise. This would make political interference so much easier.

But if this turns out to be a problem at a 'rogue' exam board, or to be the result of competition between commercially-run boards, then the single national exam-setting body could be back on the agenda.

These are trying times for anyone touched by the examination system, which effectively is just about everyone.

It is a sobering thought that some countries, the US for example, manage without a single national school examination or qualification.

High school 'graduation' is managed at school level, states and schools boards shop around between a battery of commercially-provided tests, and university admissions are determined by a special university entrance test, the SAT.

I would not suggest that the US system is perfect (far from it, as there is little match between the curriculum and the tests) but it might make us wonder whether we need quite so many national qualifications at school level.

We welcome your comments at although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

The alleged A-level grades manipulation

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See also:

20 Sep 02 | Education
20 Sep 02 | Education
17 Sep 02 | Education
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