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If we really want to be able to trust A-level results, we need a single exam board 

tudents react as they collect their A Level results at Brighton College in Sussex
Are these longed-for results losing their credibility? Credit:  Christopher Pledger

It is appallingly cruel to suggest to the hundreds of thousands of young people who received their A-level results today that the examinations they worked so hard for are losing their credibility quicker than the melting of the polar ice cap. Yet sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind. There is something rotten in our examination system, and government action has not gone to the root of the problem.

The symptoms are easy to see. Nearly 76,000 students received unconditional offers from universities this year, in a clear rejection of the value of A-level. Leading universities are more and more tending to set their own examinations, bypassing A-level. The value of A-level was further hit by the news that, for some boards, only 14 per cent was required to pass A-level Mathematics, and an A grade was secured with just 54 per cent (in other words, the student getting nearly half the answers wrong). How would we have reacted if the scientists in charge of the moon landing had got half their maths wrong?

A contributing factor to the declining value of A-level is the pressure the Government places on universities to allow disadvantaged students the offer of a place with low grades – a worthy aim, but a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences. Not only does it devalue A-level, but it also encourages schools not to improve standards and to ensure that disadvantaged students are as well taught as everyone else.

But if these are the symptoms of a deep-seated illness, the cause lies in the structure of our exam boards. The five boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland originate from a very different time and a very different world. They are independent organisations which are profit-based.

Much noise is made about the standardisation of results. The fact is that the exam boards are in competition with each other. Try selling to a student the line: “I want you to sit a harder exam which will be more difficult and make it harder for you to gain a top grade”. It is not a sales pitch that will appeal. Competitive pressure on exam boards to get more students taking your exams embeds dumbing-down in the system.

A real problem, which means that the power over standards lies with the exam boards and not with the Government, is the ability of the boards to set grade boundaries – the mark at which certain grades will be given. Regardless of whether or not the content of the examination can be made harder, the actual results are decided by these grade boundaries, set by the boards and not mentioned on the Ofqual website. Bragging about exams being made more difficult is pure noise unless the Government has control over grade boundaries.

Another major problem is the poor status afforded to those who mark the examinations. Payment for this is verging on derisory. University lecturers have virtually vanished from the system. A terrifying number of essay-based exam results are sent back for remarking, with one estimate putting this at 40 per cent.

Advocates of the separate boards argue that competition is good for the system, and that it gives teachers a range of choices to fit the exam to the individual needs of their students. The truth is that many decent and honourable teachers will see their first priority as entering their pupils for the exam that will give them the best result. That pressure is increased by heads and governing bodies having an increasing eye on league tables and hence their school’s standing and reputation.

If we are to save A-level we need a single exam board for the UK, with standards as its priority, and which is merely required to break even rather than make money. We need a carrot-and-stick approach to universities so that they reinvolve themselves in A-level setting and marking. We need to raise the status of markers and to ban the offer of unconditional places, which have been shown to have a disastrous effect on motivation. For our disadvantaged students, we do not need to lower the standard of the A-level results they need, but rather to improve the quality of teaching in their schools, so there is no need to make excuses for them.

Dr Martin Stephen is a former High Master of St Paul’s School and Manchester Grammar School