Another week, another tumultuous period for education policy … with significant implications for the structure of educational publishing. Hot on the heels of the release of the first draft of the primary programmes of study, Michael Gove’s desire to re-instate some backbone to 14-16 education by returning to “O” levels was mysteriously leaked to the Daily Mail. Ignoring the issues that this alone might raise (see this very interesting FT blog for one perspective), the ideas when fleshed out advocate a single exam board for each core subject and a stripping back of the National Curriculum (Gove’s desire to remove it completely is impractical as it would require primary legislation) – all this to be achieved by 2014. Interestingly, this “leak” came the week before the scheduled release of the Select Committee on Education published its report on 15-19 examinations. This specifically looks at the issue of competition in the exam system, and the place of educational publishers within it.
The key issue that Gove, the Select Committee and many recent curriculum reviews and media commentary is trying to address is that of grade inflation – and attendant confidence in the exam system. And a key issue that has been identified driving this inflation is competition between exam boards. The argument is that in order to attract schools, exam boards make exams “easier” and provide substantial support to students to protect their market share. Proponents of a single board per subject approach argue that this would remove this competitive pressure. The Select Committee considered this, and was concerned that a single board would stifle innovation. It looked at three functions of exam boards that are differentiators:
- Syllabus – what an exam covers
- Exam administration – how the exam is delivered, marked and analysed
- Support – the support that the exam board gives to schools and students
The Select Committee argues that “Syllabus” is not necessary for competitive advancement of the exam system, and could be developed by “National Subject Committees” regulated by Ofqual (any similarities to the old QCA are purely accidental). Competitive pressures in Exam Admin and Support could (with effective regulation) continuously enhance the exam system. The report then goes on to examine each of these areas in detail. And of particular interest to publishers is the section on Support.
There are two areas of support considered. First is traning – seminars given by exam boards to schools and pupils. This is an area of concern after the recent Telegraph expose, and the report commends Ofqual’s decision to end the practice (which opens up a potential opportunity for publishers). However the section on textbooks is of greater interest to publishers. There is discussion of the links between textbook endorsement, the curriculum covered by the textbook and the drive to raise pupils’ grades. The argument is that exam board endorsement of a particular text book (whether produced by an external company or a partner company in the case of Edexel and Pearson) stymies competition in the development of resources in that subject. In turn, the need to gain competitive advantage by gaining endorsement narrows the content of that textbook to closely follow the desires of the exam board – which as noted earlier is driven by a requirement to drive up grades to retain market share. Additional factors such as authorship by examiners (are they the best authors?) and the close links between certain exam boards and particular publishers also caused the Committee concern as they may have issues for the quality of resources.
Interestingly, and perhaps astutely, the Education Committee chooses not to lay the blame for these perceived quality issues purely at the door of the relationship between endorsement, examiner authorship and competition between exam boards, In fact the main driver is identified as the school accountability system – where schools are being assessed by their GCSE grades their is an intolerable pressure on them to raise them – and this inevitably leads to a focus on raising grades, and getting pupils over the D/C boundary. It recommends that “school system” accountability be separated from the exam system – and measured through PISA like sampling – this should take the sting out of the “falling standards” argument. And in order to address the narrowing of teaching within schools, they should not be assessed on exam grades alone.
A key question is – how accurate is this analysis? In a competitive market resources are created to meet market demand. And in this case the key driver is the concern uppermost in customers’ - schools’ – minds, that of achieving their targets. Thus necessarily resources are created that match the syllabus which is being taught, and if “endorsement” and “examiner authorship” increase this perception these are the legitimate tools of the publisher. And in any such environment “good” resources and “poor” resources will be developed. It is up to schools to choose those which best meet their needs. The unfortunate truth is that this is not a “pure” market as it is skewed by government policy. The current accountability system for schools ensures that for all players in the system the overriding driver is meeting exam based targets. And this creates an environment where the “best” resources do not necessarily win. The question is – will the current education reform proposals reduce this focus on exam grades? In their current form it appears unlikely.