In the latter case the expectation was that instead of each examination board having a monopoly within its own geographical area as was previously the case, they would compete for ‘customers’ (or ‘schools’, as they are more usually known). It was always understood that the probable result would be fewer boards each having more customers; but the aim was that the overall cost would be less.
I’m not in a position to state definitively whether it worked; but I suspect that it did - in that narrow economic sense at least. There are two problems though.
The first is that whilst the purists regard the way in which costs are reduced and efficiency increased as irrelevant as long as it actually happens, it is far from being irrelevant in terms of its other effects.
And the second – as could and should have easily been foreseen – is that marketplace competition doesn’t operate solely on price. Once they’ve done all they can to reduce costs, competing organisations start looking for other differentiating factors.
In the case of the examination boards, the obvious differentiating factor was always going to be pass rates. When the schools are being judged on league tables of exam results, then choosing the exam board most likely to help them climb the rankings becomes more important then the cost comparison.
At first sight, the surprise is not so much that that system is now unravelling, but that it’s taken so long to reach that point. But if we consider the motivations of all the different stakeholders, it’s no surprise at all.
Governments, of all parties, want to demonstrate that their policies are working. What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
Schools want to demonstrate that they are improving their performance and climbing the league tables. What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
The examination boards want to grow their ‘business’ and attract more ‘customers’. What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
Pupils, of course, always wanted to get the best results possible, and their parents (otherwise known as ‘voters’) want the same thing as well. What better way to demonstrate that than regular increases in pass rates?
‘Teaching to the exams’ is nothing particularly new, but all the incentives have been for schools to do more of it.
Effectively, there’s been a collusion by consensus in which all of those stakeholders’ aspirations have apparently been met, with no stakeholder having any real incentive to ask too loudly the difficult questions about whether the inexorable rise in results actually reflected any real underlying improvement in knowledge and skill.
In principle, it is surely right - indeed overdue - for the UK Education Minister to challenge this process. And recognising what he called the ‘malign’ impact of Thatcher’s reforms is equally overdue. But changing the rules part way through an examination cycle was a spectacularly cackhanded way of trying to address the issue, and incredibly unjust on those pupils in England who don’t have a Welsh Government to reverse the decision.
It now looks inevitable that Wales and England will be taking different examination routes in future. Doing that in a rush as a result of a spat doesn’t seem the right basis for such a major decision, but we are, as they say, where we are.
What I hope will not get lost – but greatly fear will indeed get lost – in this debate is more detailed consideration of that issue about ‘teaching to the exams’. There still seems to be far too much emphasis being placed on the rigour of the exams, and far too little on whether and to what extent examination results tell us very much about the knowledge and skills of the examinees.
And in so far as employers and others are complaining about the output of the education system, it is surely about knowledge and skills, not the number of passes in ologies.