When competition fails: Exam boards ‘race to the bottom’

By Cassie Chambers

Competition causes exam boards to fight to reach the bottom first, a government committee said today.

A report by the education committee argued that the status quo creates pressures to "drive down quality", leading exam boards to compete on syllabus "accessibility" rather than syllabus strength.

"The public have lost confidence in exam standards and this needs to be put right," chairman Graham Stuart said.

"We've got to stop the 'dumbing down' of the courses young people sit and stop exam boards competing on how 'accessible' their syllabuses are," he continued.

The committee called for harsh reforms to the current exam board system, arguing that boards must be "stripped of the right to own their own syllabus and content".

The current system would then be replaced with a national syllabus regulated by Ofqual.

"There could be a competition…to decide which exam board would design the syllabus for a particular subject," the chairman explained.

He continued: "After that any board could set an exam for that syllabus and compete on innovation, efficiency, service and support."

The committee also argued that Ofqual must take a stronger approach to regulation for the reforms to work, warning the organisation must be "prepared to bear its teeth and take vigorous action when required".

Although a national syllabi combined with tough regulation is not the only option for reform that has been discussed, Mr Stuart argued it is the most promising.

"You could move to a single national exam board which would stop the 'race to the bottom' but the change would be disruptive and threaten innovation and cost control," the chairman explained.

"Alternatively there are benefits to having one exam board per subject but such 'franchising' would create its own difficulties," he continued.

The report comes after a year-long inquiry by the education committee into how to improve exam boards.

In the report the committee argues that now is the right time for 'fundamental reform' of the exam board system.