We need more competition between exam boards, not less

England, Wales and Northern Ireland are unique in that the provision of school examinations is not a state monopoly. When external examinations for schools were introduced a century and a half ago they were an initiative of independent universities, not of ministers and their teams of SPADs.

Today’s assessment bodies can trace direct links to the early schools examination boards, although university influence is now sadly much reduced. One board is even part of a quoted company, Pearson, and all the boards are busily competitive in an increasingly international market.

This competition is seen by some, however, as an evil. It is believed that competition is inappropriate in the important area of assessing youngsters who are themselves competing for university places and entry to jobs and careers. The fear is that there is a ‘race to the bottom’ as boards dumb down, lowering standards as they compete for the custom of schools which want high pass rates to boost their standing in league tables.

This concern has even influenced the hyperactive Michael Gove, who tried to eliminate direct competition by instituting the franchising of key qualifications. The idea was that boards would compete for a monopoly franchise to run, say, GCSE English. Fortunately this idea has been abandoned for the time being, as there was a danger it would fall foul of European competition authorities.

But is choice and competition really the culprit of the alleged problems in the examination system? In the Centre for Market Reform’s new publication Tests worth teaching to: incentivising quality in qualifications and accountability, I and other authors discuss the qualifications regime, its ills, and the way forward to higher quality from a range of perspectives. While our specific recommendations differ somewhat, we are all sceptical of the idea that choice and competition are to blame for the current problems or that monopolisation would solve them.

Certainly, there is no doubt that standards in schools examinations have changed over the last thirty years, as more and more candidates have achieved good grades. To the extent that this is a problem, and I think its practical significance is exaggerated, is it the fault of competing exam boards? I would argue not, and I am surprised that so many people who ostensibly support free markets take this line. As in other areas of business, competition for customers takes many forms and lowering quality is not the most obvious of strategies – particularly as the exam grading process is tightly regulated, nowadays by Ofqual.

In fact changes in overall pass rates and ‘grade inflation’ can usually be traced to flip-flopping policies dictated by here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians and their allies in the educational establishment. Central government, not exam boards, brought us compulsory modularisation at A-level, and then changed it at short notice, and is now scrapping it. Coursework was similarly pushed from the centre, and is now being withdrawn by similar diktat. The number of separate grades has changed at the whim of successive Secretaries of State.

Historically, exam boards have been great innovators, bringing new approaches to dry subjects, experimental syllabuses involving enthusiastic students, teachers and outside bodies, and innovative forms of assessment and marking. Not all experiments have been hugely successful, but little if anything has been lost by such experimentation. One thinks for example of the work of the Nuffield Foundation over a fifty-year period which has seen the organisation working with different boards to produce new syllabuses in areas such as maths, science and economics and business.

Boards continue to innovate, though much of this innovation now has to be confined to process and procedures and to support of teaching. The government increasingly controls subject content through elaborate and detailed specifications about what can be taught in particular disciplines – a stifling conformity which minimises choice for schools and their students. And it is not as if these specifications represent some great and unassailable collective wisdom; design input from university academics and employers (the end-users of the qualifications) is minimal.

We need more competition between boards, not less. This means both giving back to existing boards control over subject content, allowing innovation and risk-taking and also making it easier for new entrants into the examination ‘market’. The monograph develops these ideas from different perspectives, which should appeal both to IEA supporters and those educationalists who are fed up with central control of education.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.