Exam boards: ‘Now, more than ever, every decision is worth examining’

Should exam board choice be more closely questioned, asks Hilary Moriarty

Some conversations, for better or worse, you never forget. Maybe it was a shock at the time and the recall is vivid – true in this case. Maybe new and surprising developments raise the ghost. And yes, that is also true.

I recall from a very distant past talking to two young women my own age, the three of us temporarily corralled in a book-laden outer office, waiting for an interview with the formidable professor behind the big oak door. That interview would decide whether we got places to study English in Oxford, or not.

We eyed each other. There were so few places for women to read English at Oxbridge back in the day; the competition was fierce. I later realised how well my fellow applicants sabotaged my day. I went in for the interview rattled and unnerved.

“Where do you go to school?” one asked.

“Denbigh Grammar School,” I said.

“Never heard of it. What subjects are you doing for A-level?”

“English, Latin and history.”

“What board?”

“Pardon?”

“What board, the exam board which sets your A-levels, we do Oxford and Cambridge, it’s much the best. What board do you do?”

I had no idea. It had never occurred to me to ask. A vague recollection of a paper plus an even vaguer recollection that Wales did indeed have its own examination board prompted my response.

“The Welsh exams board – WJEC, I think it is,” I replied.

A blank stare, then big shrugs of shoulders. Then, with what appeared to be relief, “Never heard of it – it’s probably not as good as Oxford and Cambridge.”

End of conversation. Whatever I said at the following interview, I did not win a place at Oxford. I am completely convinced that my interlocutors did (though I sooo hoped they wouldn’t). I was slightly baffled that anyone should think one A-level board should differ in any material way from any other. How could that be fair, to anyone?

It made me wonder, when is an A-level not an A-level? Or rather, when is one A-level worth less than another?

We are all of us impressed by the highest grades plus reasonable modesty – “Very well thank you – straight A’s! I was very lucky,” and if they come for the most ‘difficult’ subjects, well, double the kudos. I have a son-in-law with a degree in French and Japanese. You may imagine which, in a casual conversation, is the subject likely to provoke interest and admiration.

But if you are in the business of education, there’s an added dimension to this kind of discussion. Britain rejoices in more than one examination board setting the papers for our young scholars at A-level and GCSE.

Any school offering a wide range of academic subjects at these levels may find their heads of subject have opted for a particular examination board, for whatever reason, and the discussion of which and why is both interesting and, quite possibly, fraught.

If you are a head of department, how do you decide which board, and who challenges/approves/would have the power to do anything about it if they didn’t like your decision? Are you ever asked to justify your choice? In short, does it matter and does anybody care?

As a head of department, wherever I went, I simply let the English department carry on regardless with whichever board they had chosen whenever it was last discussed. Changing board probably meant a whole new stock cupboard for different texts and busting the budget at a stroke.

But I knew of schools where a change of HoD meant a wholesale ‘chuck it and change’ exercise, which might have been refreshing but, equally, was quite likely to have members of staff clutching their old texts and losing good holiday time to mug up the newbies.

And I do remember committing to teaching before even reading The Mill on the Floss and having to mug it up in two days, ready to start with a class on Monday. Madness.

But even while I was thinking The Remains of the Day would have been shorter and a quicker read, I also thought it was my job – the English department’s job – to have on their A-level syllabus ‘the big guns’: Chaucer and Milton and Dickens and Eliot et al. It was, I thought, an A-level English class, not a book club.

On reflection, was I right? Was it my job to seek out erudite texts and go for the exam board still setting the big Eng Lit guns, rather than the late 20-century approachable sirens?

Was it my job, effectively, to make it difficult for my candidates to get an A in A-level English, if they could more easily get the grade with a quick smash and grab offered by a different board dangling luscious light and slight texts? A list of 10 poems, not two ‘books’ of Paradise Lost? A 20-century novel, not one of the great classics?

As the pressure on pupils, parents, teachers, HoDs and schools has increased in recent times, departmental decisions are stress tested at every turn.

Now, more than ever, every decision is worth examining. And in pursuit of their own interests – ie customers – the examination boards know they may tempt an HoD with promises of great, possibly short, texts, which will be miraculously easy to teach, and great results will follow.

So the boards want our custom, and the parents and pupils want respectable results for everyone, and spectacular for some, and maybe that could breed a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of what the exam papers demand and how rigorous the marking will be – and it comes down to, ‘What do you want? What do you really want?’

I wonder how often an HoD is called to account not for the results their pupils have achieved, but for the examining board the department has chosen? Do governors ask which board and why – how does it compare with the others for A grade?

Obviously, governor scrutiny of exam results is a valuable part of the system, and I have experienced that kind of scrutiny as an HoD and now as an interested governor myself. But could we be more thorough? Less frequent is the kind of detailed enquiry which includes the department’s choice of board or compares results information between boards.

In general, walls come down brick by brick, with wear and time and natural attrition. But sometimes change can produce a short, sharp shock.

When universities start for their own interests to offer places without reference to grades in exams passed, we must wonder why we are bothering with the exams at all? Let a reference cover a two-year post-GCSE study of anything which takes your fancy to confirm your interest and capacity to learn, and let admission be the same kind of choosing as is done at 11.

And if Covid-19 means the universities dispense with the exam results this year, maybe exams really have had their day?

Gosh…


Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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