The country’s largest exam board announced on Tuesday that it was considering rewarding (and penalising) A-level candidates according to the school they attended.
“The idea is to set a level playing field for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds by standardising ranks according to points and schools. It could work alongside the UCAS points system, but this idea would factor in other elements besides results,” said a spokesperson for AQA, who unveiled the proposal at this week’s Labour party conference.
The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) is the biggest of England’s three exam boards. The others are OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, the only board still linked to a university) and Edexcel (a subsidiary of media company Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times). AQA has a self-professed “leading reputation for promoting education for the public benefit” and its qualifications are “valid, reliable and fair”. The “individual student” is “at the heart” of what AQA does.
Except what AQA is proposing is neither valid nor fair; the board (like its competitors) has a track record of unreliability; and it would harm individual students.
First, how would it work? Pupils at weaker schools with lower grades could be awarded higher points than pupils at stronger schools with higher grades (these could be UCAS points, actual marks on exam papers, or a new rating system). Universities would be offered this contextual information to use as they wished in their admissions procedures. The potential of one candidate could outweigh the performance of another. Universities already do this to varying extents but at the moment it is largely qualitative. AQA’s proposal quantifies a student’s background and builds it into their examination ‘performance’.
The government, universities, schools, the NUS and competitor exam boards have rejected the proposal widely and conclusively. Mark Dawe, chief executive of OCR, said it was a bad proposal that “contravenes the moral and technical basis of independent measurement”. The Labour party initially appeared to welcome the suggestions, although Andrew Burnham, shadow education secretary, later said it was more important for schools to do “a little more to raise aspiration”.
Burnham hits on the head the first of many nails in the coffin that contains AQA’s stillborn idea. Too many schools and teachers in the maintained sector are failing their pupils. Children are written off when they should be encouraged. A depressing number, when questioned, shrug off the idea of university as “not for people like them”. They are not provided with the right information, or encouraged to take appropriate courses.
AQA’s proposal also suggests that many of our schools are beyond redemption. This is insufferable, condescending drivel. It tells pupils that only charitable marking can get them over the line. The reality is that every year there are more and more success stories of children doing it by themselves, through supportive parenting, dedicated teaching, a good attitude and hard work. Take the example of Tudor Grange Academy in Worcester, which as Elgar Technology College was the epitome of a failing comprehensive. Since becoming an academy in 2009 it has earned an excellent reputation for educational attainment and discipline.
Furthermore, AQA demonstrates a startling ignorance of schooling in Britain. It views schools through a Manichaean lens: state schools (disadvantaged pupils) versus independent schools (advantaged pupils). As there are good and bad state schools, there are stark divides between the best and worst independent schools. Many children are actually advantaged by attending one of the leading state schools rather than paying to attend a poorly performing independent. Who gets the bad background points there?
AQA’s ignorance extends to the pupils themselves. Not every child in an independent school comes from an advantageous background. In fact, many don’t. It is not uncommon for parents to forgo expensive holidays (or any holidays), re-mortgage the house, rely on relations, and generally scrimp and save in order to fund what they believe is the best possible education for their children. Similarly, relatively wealthy parents, for any number of reasons, would rather use state schools. Some might buy multi-million pound houses in good catchment areas. Some might pay for private tutors on top. We shouldn’t make a moral judgement, but we should recognise that the relationship between state and independent schools is not black and white.
Independent schools also offer scholarships (many for the full fees and other costs) to children of high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, Rugby School aims to have 10% of its pupils entirely funded by a scholarship fund, selecting academically able children from some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country, such as parts of London’s East End. Would they be penalised by AQA?
AQA partook in political grandstanding at a party conference. What it proposes is a blunt instrument that would do more harm than good. It demonstrates a disconcerting dullness of thought from an exam board that processes 3.5 million test papers every year. It should prompt us to ask whether public examinations should be brought under one well-regulated, accountable public body, barred from playing politics with schooling. A silver lining of the market system is that at least schools can ignore AQA and its ill-considered, discriminatory policy (if introduced) although as the market leader it holds most of the cards.
By only increasing pass quotas in the hunt for customers, exam boards have done enough to devalue exams. AQA’s policy would, as the Independent writes, devalue the currency of exams further still.
The best way to improve the chances of pupils from state schools is to employ good teachers and improve standards in the maintained sector. This cannot be achieved overnight, of course, so in the meantime universities should use a certain amount of contextual information at their discretion when making admissions decisions. But exam boards exist to set and mark pupil’s work according to performance, not deliver a moral judgement
What AQA is suggesting is not contextual, it is contemptible.