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July 26, 2003
A proposed unfree market in exams

Very few national education stories interest me as much as perhaps they should, given the subject matter of this blog, but this one looks interesting:

Any organisation could be allowed to set itself up as an exam board under radical proposals to create a free market in qualifications currently being considered by the government's testing watchdog.

A free market in exams is something I've been arguing for here.

Senior officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) are discussing plans to deregulate the market in GCSE and A-level exams to provide greater choice and competition for schools.

This is the killer paragaph, which tells you that actually this is most definitely not going to be a free market in exams. It is going to be a "market" in who can best (in who's eyes?) administer the exams that the government has already decided upon. A true free market would mean the examining enterprises examining any darn thing they chose to examine, and people being allowed to pick and choose among all the different offered exams.

Such a move would reverse the recent trend towards fewer exam boards - the three main boards in England were formed out of the amalgamation of more than 20 since the 1970s.

Hm. Markets don't necessarily result in lots of different enterprises. Often they result in a few huge ones. This is because in many markets people especially value standardisation. Think PC compability in the personal computer market.

It would also accelerate the controversial trend for commercial companies to become increasingly involved in running public exams, which recently saw Edexcel, a charity, taken over by the media giant Pearson.

Running "public" exams? And as we've already see above, "public" means the exams that have already been decided on by the government.

The plans were proposed by Sir Anthony Greener, the QCA chairman, a City grandee who is also deputy chairman of BT. He proposed a market similar to that in the energy industry, where some companies are primarily "upstream" generators of gas or electricity, while others sell the product to consumers "downstream".

Doesn't sound much like a "free" market to me, more like an administered one.

Under his plans, exam boards' current responsibilities would be split between different bodies. Tasks from writing the syllabus to marking papers and setting grade boundaries would be handled by separate organisations.

Split? Separate organisations? Sounds rather like what's happened to the railways. I also write for Transport Blog, which has dug deep into that, and if there is one idea that seems to unite us all over there, whatever political direction we come at the argument from, it is that "fragmentation" has been a disaster. This sounds like a plan to "fragment" the exam industry, as opposed to actually creating a free market. Okay, maybe fragmentation won't be such a disaster here, but it remains one of the big myths that in order to introduce capitalism, competition, etc. you have to smash everything to bits.

Any organisation would be able to set itself up as an exam board as long as it was accredited by the QCA and awarded a licence to run academic exams.

See what I mean about administered.

Opponents of private sector involvement in state education are likely to oppose the proposals.

You don't say.

A spokesman for the QCA stressed that the plan was one of several options under discussion, but he said that it was "unlikely" the number of awarding bodies would increase.

So, one of the opponents then.

England's two other exam boards, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Oxford and Cambridge and RSA currently remain as charities.

Not quite sure what the significance of that is. Either it just happened to be the end of the story or something is being implied about how the existing boards might have their charitable status removed, or maybe that their charitable status is causing problems, or that making them businesses would make them even worse, or something.

Anyway, as to the story as a whole, the first paragraph of it is inaccurate. The headline is much better:

Exam boards could be subject to market forces.

That's right. And tell me an existing civil servant or other public servant who is not now subject to market forces. Civil servants get paid, and they are bombarded with a stream of instructions from the government about what they must do. That's the plan for these new exam "enterprises".

The problem with this new administered market is that, being collective public officials rather than true free market enterprises, these exam boards will be dominated by the short term matter of keeping their licenses, rather than the long term matter of offering and sustaining good exams, worth taking and worth having passed. And short-termism could result in dumbing down under this new regime, just as it does now. Everything depends on the licensing body. They will be the people in charge, not the new exam enterprises.

This will not, I repeat, be a true free market.

The one aspect of the situation which might just tantalise me into hoping for the best rather than simply assuming the worst, is that some of the suppliers of examination services might be very big. If the supplier is big, then that supplier might be supplying such services to a number of governments around the world, rather than just the one, and therefore might be said to have some kind of reputation to preserve. That would at least nudge the big suppliers away from the worst sorts of short-termism.

But "might" is the operative word there. Plenty of Britain's rail franchisees do lots of other business, and they don't seem to have managed very well. They just blame their one customer, the government, for the mess, and who's to say they're wrong?

A real market would be if individual teachers, parents, children and future employers could choose which exams to take, encourage, and pay attention to, unmolested by the government, which regards education as beneath its attention. We're a bit of a way from that, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:11 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsFree market reforms

A friend of mine (source protection here) was asked to mark double the usual amount of scripts this year because that particular exam did not have enough markers. That's 400 scripts in about 4 weeks.

Reasons for the lack of recruits: a) the markers are paid peanuts b) it's just at the beginning of the summer holidays, and most teachers would rather have a rest than do even more marking c) teaching is such a depressing business to be in at the moment that many of the sparkiest - who would make competent examiners - are getting the hell out.

Exam board solutions:
this year they offered to pay schools for supply cover so that instead of teaching, examiner-teachers could spend school time marking scripts. Not surprisingly, the take-up was small.

Gossip from my anonymous friend: exam boards are considering making a deal with schools whereby if the school wants to sit that board's exams, they'll have to supply n teachers to mark them.

I can't wait to see it all implode, necessitating some market solutions rather than this government-sponsored-shoe-string job.

Comment by: emma on July 27, 2003 01:22 PM
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