B-grade for Gove in A-level reform: progressing well but could do better

The government’s decision to seek greater university involvement in the A-level examination system is to be welcomed. In many ways it is a return to the system that used to exist before the Thatcher-Major government centralised government control of examinations and curricula. The universities have an interest in good quality examination systems and they produced O-level and A-level examinations that maintained that quality. Competition between boards existed, but it did not produce a race to the bottom. The reason for this was that the boards were run by different universities and those universities needed to maintain quality. The boards also had a reputation to maintain and thus reducing quality would have increased short-term business whilst reducing their reputation and harming business in the long term.

Government league tables, targets, exam board rationalisation and the tearing of the exam boards away from universities changed all that. As far as schools were concerned, a reputation for quality came to matter less than a position in a league table. And the boards responded to the demands of schools. The subtle checks and balances that maintained quality were gone as a result of government intervention and regulation. There is an interesting parallel with credit rating agencies. The government created a regulated oligopoly amongst the agencies that had incentives to rate bonds highly because of banks’ regulatory capital requirements. A high rating came to be more important than an agency’s reputation for an accurate rating. Similarly, good exam results have become more important than an exam board’s reputation for a rigorous curriculum and exam-setting process.

But, we need to go much further than this. Gove’s proposed reform could re-create some of the problems that used to exist in the 1980s. An A-level exam that is well-designed for distinguishing the brightest from the good can sometimes be a disaster when it comes to distinguishing the good from the mediocre. If the examinations are going to be designed by the Russell Group of universities, then they may cater well for the top 5% or 10%, but what about the rest? The government must throw out of the window all pretence of trying to make different qualifications equivalent. Qualifications should be judged on their own merit of whether they do the job they are intended to do. Universities and employers should make the judgements between GCSEs, A-levels, Pre-U’s, GNVQs, City and Guilds and any new qualifications that enter the market. There is no need to pretend that a GNVQ of a given level in hair dressing is equivalent to an A-level in Latin. The Latin exam should certify competence in Latin and the hair dressing exam competence in hair dressing. Both are much needed and valued skills and should be valued in their own right and not in comparison with each other. The government should withdraw from the examining business. Professions, employers’ groups, universities, City and Guilds, schools (or groups of schools), local government (and groups of local councils) should develop examination systems that serve the purposes they wish them to serve.

We have been on a forty-year wild goose chase to pretend that state-regulated vocational qualifications can be equivalent to state-regulated academic ones. This has been a disaster for the quality of both academic qualifications and vocational qualifications. When well over 50% of children stay on to 16-18 year-old education we might have to accept that one set of qualifications is not going to be appropriate for all of them – indeed, even one academic qualification may not be appropriate for all who want to follow relatively academic routes. The government has done nothing but damage since it started intervening in the institutional structures that examine children and students. It should withdraw altogether.

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

7 thoughts on “B-grade for Gove in A-level reform: progressing well but could do better”

  1. Posted 04/04/2012 at 14:03 | Permalink

    For the past several years I have been involved with the City & Guilds qualifications and standards sub-committee. I have been extremely impressed with the professionalism with which this highly-regarded organisation manages assessment and the award of its vocational qualifications. At the same time, however, there has been a continuous flow of new regulations from government, changing frameworks,
    imposing all sorts of new restrictions and generally interfering. One thought has struck me, related to Philip’s comments above: if the government is going to administer standards in this area, there seems to be little point in independent competing organisations trying to establish a sound reputation for themselves. Yet, as Hayek pointed out in ‘The Meaning of Competition’, “competition is in a large measure competition for reputation”. In fact, it is common knowledge that the more the state regulates, the less room is left for ‘trial and error’ — a key mechanism by which genuine progress is achieved.

  2. Posted 04/04/2012 at 14:25 | Permalink

    Philip, I think the issue is a bit more problematic. You compare a situation where parents can technically choose any school – in reality with significant restrictions – with pre-1988 UK, when parents had no choice among public providers. But information is key for any school system allowing choice. Relying solely on reputation of schools is likely to incentivise them to attract the best pupils rather than raising quality. This is because universities, parents and pupils cannot readily differentiate between a school that has a good reputation simply because it has good pupils or because it is good at raising attainment or anything else – information asymmetries and principal-agent problems are significant in education.

    I argue that properly designed league tables can mitigate information asymmetries and principal-agent problems, and doing so is key to make schools focus on quality. Indeed, good research shows that league tables increase achievement (www.bris.ac.uk/education/events/2011/burgesspaper.pdf). Other research also indicates that parents who make use of league tables are better off (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-5890.2011.00135.x/abstract).

    League tables need to be reformed, however, as they currently focus on the wrong measures and do not compare schools among which parents actually choose. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that the government must maintain the league tables – private organisations may very well be fit for this task. In Holland, for example, Trouw – a national newspaper – is the main source of quality information after it successfully sued the government to win the right to publish adjusted test scores.

    However, I do agree we should stop pretending that qualifications are equivalent. Let parents and pupils decide the qualifications they want – and restrict government to approve those qualifications. Just as free schools have to apply to open up shop, new qualifications would have to apply to be approved as well. Then, of course, universities should be entirely free to choose which qualifications they accept – this would also align university requirements with parental preferences since schools would be incentivised to choose the qualification universities prefer (but only if these are popular among their pupils). Instead of forcing all qualifications into one ranking, league tables could be separate for each qualification offered – IB is compared with IB, A-levels with A-levels, GNVQ with GNVQ etc.

    For school choice to raise achievement we need widely disseminated, high-quality information and parents who choose schools based on quality; solely relying on schools’ reputation is not likely to be enough to produce this situation.

  3. Posted 04/04/2012 at 15:13 | Permalink

    Gabriel – I don’t disagree at all. When talking about reputation, I was thinking more about the importance of exam boards retaining their reputation. I agree about the importance of information about schools. With regard to league tables, I was only objecting to crude government league tables so I agree with all your comments there. With universities, students can look at overall ratings (and there are a lot of them about) or a student who is particularly interested in one characteristic (eg graduate employment or research reputation) can easily focus on the tanking by that one characteristic.

  4. Posted 04/04/2012 at 16:45 | Permalink

    Aha, yes. As long as schools are incentivised to focus on quality, and universities are allowed to discriminate against certain qualifications and exam boards, exam boards would be incentivised to compete by providing better qualifications and curricula. However, I’m not sure why universities need to be involved in the exam business – and I agree with the potential problems you outlined regarding this. Instead, let independent exam boards compete for universities’ and employers’ attention. If universities feel that certain exam boards reduce standards to increase business, they could refuse to accept pupils taking those qualifications – which would have severe repercussions for schools seeking to get higher grades by seeking out the easiest curricula and qualifications. The same goes for employers. Strong school accountability – through good league tables – exam board competition and strong exam-board accountability – through freedom of universities to accept whatever qualifications they prefer (as long as they have been approved) is the way to go I think. The question, however, is whether information assymmetries between exam boards and universities – as well as increasing numbers of qualifications that might be offered – would make it difficult for the latter to assess the value of each qualification/curriculum…

  5. Posted 04/04/2012 at 17:02 | Permalink

    Certainly, I agree. I was only making the suggestion that Gove moving back towards the pre-1990 situation was better than the status quo. There is no need for this to be the universities’ responsibility necessarily

  6. Posted 07/04/2012 at 11:59 | Permalink

    I agree with a lot of the points listed here. As a Conservative myself I wrote an analysis as well on how I think Gove should alter his reforms to both A-Levels and GCSEs

  7. Posted 14/04/2012 at 19:23 | Permalink

    I don’t think you can expect anything to work for education because its a far from perfect market where some members have far more influence than others. Schools and exam boards are closely involved, The is further complicated in that some see education as an entitlement where all should be able to have top qualifications and not just the able few.

    Boards and schools are driven by the mutual need to make a school to appear to be well performing in government league tables because this attracts customers in the form of students. Hence exam boards are driven to compete to make their exams easier whilst apparently being still rated as good A levels or whatever. This was recently exposed by the Daily Telegraph who exposed exam boards telling teachers that was no need to cover the whole syllabus and what the actual questions would be see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/8943291/Exam-boards-could-be-closed-down-over-cheating-revelations.html and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/8940781/Exam-boards-how-examiners-tip-off-teachers-to-help-students-pass.html

    Both universities and private companies that employ the output of the state education system did not form any real controlling part of this closed market and therefore had no direct influence on it. Hence the UK has been falling down the world educational performance tables for many years as this met the closed markets needs though not of the world outside.
    Perhaps if universities are given some influence over exam standards it might slow the UK slide down the world tables?

    As far as employment is concerned UK employers nowadays prefer immigrants because of their better language and maths skills and because they are prepared to work hard and come to work on time every day. Around 80% of new jobs go to immigrants.

    Since most immigrants are from the EU government can do nothing. Many of the PIIGS have young unemployment rates of about 50% so there is always going to be plenty of competition to find a job here.

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