Exam boards put business ahead of testing pupils

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Exam boards are dumbing down A-levels and GCSEs to win business from schools and colleges, according to a former director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Mick Waters said exam boards are conniving in the dumbing-down of school exams by trying to persuade teachers their courses are easier than those of their rivals. They then produce textbooks and other course materials which are closely tailored to their syllabuses and effectively guide teenagers toward the right answers.

England's largest exam board, Edexcel, has dismissed the claims.

A spokesman for Edexcel said: "Edexcel do not agree with Mick Waters. We have never said our exams are easier.

"We are confident that all our qualifications are rigorous, fair to learners and represent the highest possible standards. The support we provide in various ways all benefits the learner, to help improve learning.

"Competition between awarding bodies results in good service. A strong external regulator ensures that standards are maintained and no exams are harder or easier.

"Examiners are employed on specific contracts. They are generally not permanent employees of Edexcel, but have guidelines on the use of their association with Edexcel and are not permitted to conduct any of their private work in the name of Edexcel."

However, Mr Waters said Ofqual, the new exams regulator, appears to lack the nerve to stand up to the boards to tackle a 'diseased' system.

Mr Waters comments will embarrass former Labour ministers who repeatedly hailed rising GCSE and A-level results as evidence of their success. It will also pile pressure on the Coalition to toughen up Ofqual. England's three main exam boards are demonstrating increasingly commercial behaviour, it is claimed.

One board, Edexcel, began as a charity but is now run by the global publishing firm Pearson.
The other two, AQA and OCR, remain not-for-profit but find themselves 'with the heat on them' to compete with a commercial rival.

Mr Waters said: "Before I went for this job at the QCA, I used to think that all this criticism of exams, that they were being dumbed down, was unfair. Since I've been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt. We've got a set of awarding bodies who are in a market place.

"I've seen people from awarding bodies talk to head teachers implying that their examinations are easier. Not only that, we provide the textbook to help you through it."

Isabel Nisbet, Ofqual's chief executive, said: "We will investigate any allegations of conflicts of interest or insider dealing about regulated qualifications."

The comments come in an interview for a book by the outgoing head of education at the National Union of Teachers, John Bangs called Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching.