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Wednesday 23rd January 2013

This is a particularly interesting question as, as far as I am aware, the UK is the only country in the world to have so many competing examination boards. Unsurprisingly, and as with so much of what actually needs changing in UK, the answer stems from the country being in slavery to its past. This is the penalty that we often pay for this small island being the first to create so many of the worlds's institutions.

Although Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ fixed vast numbers of things that weren’t broken, this particular elephant remains firmly at large in the British room. Indeed the only significant change that has been made in very recent years has probably been largely counter-productive.

The precise origins of the numerous UK examination boards lies shrouded in mystery to me. Doubtless a thorough trawl of the web would establish that their origins lay with the various Universities amalgamating their separate ‘Matriculation’ examinations for University entrance into national examinations. Prior to the establishment of ‘School Certificate’ (the precursor to O-levels and GCSE) and ‘Higher School Certificate’ (precursor to A-levels) taken by my parents’ generation it was necessary for any candidate to travel to the University town in question to take that University’s specific entrance examination. With the establishment of numerous ‘red brick’ Universities from Victorian times onwards clearly it became necessary to have a centralised, nation-wide system of examinations. Sadly for the UK this did not result in one single national examination – instead the various Universities formed ‘syndicates’ to offer O-levels and A-levels, each syndicate serving a particular demographic.

In the late 1970s when I was taking A-levels there seem to have been a plethora of A-level examination boards administered by the various universities and when I returned to the UK in the late 80s this was still the case. At that stage there was the Oxford Local Board, the Cambridge Local Board and the Oxford and Cambridge Board – all administered by offshoots of Oxford and Cambridge Universities and all with widely varying syllabuses. There was also the London Board (administered, oddly enough, by London University) and the Joint Matriculation Board (administered by a ‘northern’ syndicate based in Manchester) and the Associated Examining Board (administered by a syndicate of southern Universities based around Guildford). I seem to recall that the JMB at least offered at least two syllabuses (‘A’ and ‘B’) at that stage with rather different styles. Doubtless Wales and Northern Ireland had their own arrangements, then as now, but in our cosy eighties southern fastness we had no truck with them.

Each board specialised in a given regional or cultural demographic. The Oxford and Cambridge Board rather snobbishly dealt largely with the private school system. The JMB was almost exclusively a ‘northern’ thing. The AEB had a large number of inner-city comprehensives as its client base. London tended to be for oddballs needing external examinations and had the most obvious presence overseas. At that stage I seem to recall I had to deal with at least seven completely different A-level syllabuses for southern England on a routine basis.

In those days we were allowed to enter students for more than one examination board simultaneously. Routinely we would enter ‘retake’ candidates for the Cambridge Board (which later became ‘UCLES’ – University of Cambridge Local Examinations Certificate) and/or the AEB in November and then London board in January. After routinely finding that candidates who got grade ‘A’ in AEB would be getting a grade ‘D’ in London Board, the AEB became the ‘industry standard’ for the crammer trade as – reduced to fundamentals – it gave higher grades than the other boards.

Sadly this cosy arrangement ended when (in true British fashion) this embarrassing loophole was ended…not by tightening-up standards at the AEB, but by banning candidates from taking examinations on more than one board! Perhaps more venally still this obvious bit of gerrymandering was brought in through the back door by simply synchronising the examination dates of the various boards. The examination boards can never be accused of being behind the door when it comes to exercising ingenuity to save face! If such ingenuity could be harnessed to more constructive reform, what strides we could make…

The casual reader may be wondering at this stage what the point was of Oxford and Cambridge Universities administering three separate A-level syllabuses and indeed of there being so many other examination boards. The answer can be summarised in one word: Money.

The fact is that administering GCSE and A-level examinations is a huge money-spinner for the cash-strapped universities. It is a strange quirk of the company law of England and Wales that a corporate entity may register as a ‘non profit making trust’ when in fact it is coining it in. The trick is to register the delivery vehicle as a non-profit-making venture (which brings all sorts of tax advantages) in the sense that any profit that is made is simply ‘booted upstairs’ to a holding company – which may have a charitable status, in this case one or other of the Universities. It’s all perfectly legal and (if you will excuse the pun) above-board.

The recent Welsh Board (WJEC) scandal whereby instructors from the board have toured the country giving seminars on how to pass their own GCSE examination is therefore not exactly ‘news’ to industry insiders…it has been ever thus that each examination board has been competing with one-another (and often with themselves) to provide specifications that suits the needs of their target demographic. It is business just like any other.

The public (ie private) schools have always been rather odd in this respect – by a sort of academic snobbery they often actively prefer their students to do the more ‘difficult’ boards to show what a top-notch academic product they produce for their money: a sentiment driven as much by the need to attract moneyed parents as by class distinction. In the past the handmaiden of the public schools has traditionally been the Oxford and Cambridge Board (and its successor OCR) but, ironically, as most English Boards have ‘dumbed down’ so several of the public schools have shifted to the more ‘traditional’ WJEC (Welsh Board), at least for A-level Biology. Eton College has favoured WJEC for nearly a decade now and it has been joined by St. Edward’s in Oxford to my own knowledge, and probably several others.

I can’t say that I disapprove – Welsh Board A-level is so wonderfully ‘old unimproved’ (even down to using the old 70s typeface!) You can always rely on The Celtic Fringe to understand the true value of education due to its traditional role as an ‘escape vehicle’.

Inner city comprehensives have, with few exceptions, clung to the AEB and its successor the AQA until relatively recently, as they knew that it could be relied upon to provide ‘pass’ grades to kids who would not stand a chance with OCR. However, in biology at least (see my blog on UMS marks) this may not necessarily be the case any more. If the government are ever driven to awarding the contract for one national examination board to one of the existing boards it seems likely, on the basis of sheer numbers of examination entrants, that AQA would be - give or take yet more major political interference and corruption - 'The Chosen One’. It may well be that recent dramatic tightening-up of grade boundaries by AQA is aimed at positioning themselves for this eventuality.

These speculations apart I find it amusing that the examination system, like so much else in the UK, effectively became an extension of the class system with each demographic clinging – until relatively recently – to its tried-and-tested board of choice.

Under dear Mr., Blair, of course, the country’s progress became measured in ‘Initiatives per Minute’ and barely a day passed without some new ‘reform’ being announced. Sometime in the 90s (I forget when) several of the old examination boards were forced to amalgamate when the disparities of the ‘internal market’ became just too glaringly obvious. The JMB and the AEB merged to form AQA (the Advanced Qualifications Alliance). All of the various Oxford and Cambridge Variants were merged with the old Royal Society of Arts examinations to form the OCR (‘Oxford, Cambridge and Arts’).

London board, in the best British tradition of renaming Windscale to Sellafield to reduce radiation levels overnight suddenly emerged from its chrysalis as ‘EDEXCEL’ (presumably some half-brained spin-doctor’s pun on the words ‘Education’ and ‘Excel’?) The irony will not be lost on readers that this particular paragon of educational excellence was heavily busted in the dying days of the Blair era when it was found to be fiddling the pass-rate figures quite blatantly. The response of the Blair administration was breathtakingly venal – Edexcel was simply sold for a peppercorn fee to Pearson Educational which, in the opinion of many ‘in the know’, was the academic equivalent of putting Genghis Khan in charge of a nuclear stockpile (see this article in the Daily Telegraph.)

At the same time as forced amalgamation, each examination board was furthermore prohibited from offering more than two specifications in a given subject, and in practice for biology this was gradually whittled down to one each. So, from having to deal with seven English examination syllabuses I am now faced simply with three – OCR, Edexcel and AQA (although AQA limped on as AQA(A) and AQA(B) in a nod toward the old JMB and AEB until the introduction of the AS/A2 system in 2009.

So it began to look as though we were actually headed, in time-honoured slug-like British fashion, towards a single national examination board. Or were we? The fact that WJEC and CCEA (the Northern Irish Board) are now appearing in significant numbers in English schools does suggest, however irrationally, that the thirst of teachers for ‘consumer choice’ has not actually abated. Given that monopolies and entrenched vested interests are a post-Thatcher 21st century anathema should we be surprised? This particular dead horse still has many years of flogging left in it, perhaps sadly. In the meantime it is the truth that dare not speak its name that the single biggest factor influencing a student’s success (or otherwise) at A-level is probably still the examination board chosen by the teacher in question.