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Why we need a market in 14-19 qualifications

publication date: Oct 1, 2012
Last month Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, announced that pupils will sit the English Baccalaureate Certificate instead of GCSEs in core academic subjects from 2017 as part of reforms intended to make tests in England more demanding. Under Mr Gove’s plans only one exam board – instead of four - will offer each subject following a competitive process which will award a five-year contract for each qualification. In this month’s Executive Soapbox, James Croft, Director of The Centre for Market Reform of Education, argues that only a market in 14-19 qualifications will help identify the full and diverse potential of our young people, and liberate their talent for employment and for our wider economic benefit.

The government has embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms to 14-19 qualifications in an effort to challenge low expectations and raise standards of attainment through making assessment more demanding. Unfortunately, while its efforts to inform young people about the relative potential opportunity value of different subjects and qualifications are welcome, the structural reforms proposed are unlikely to achieve the overall lift in attainment hoped for. This is partly because Conservative policy-makers have generally over-estimated what can be achieved simply by ‘raising the bar’ (and failed to appreciate the consequences of this move for the type of learners who struggle to achieve academically), but mainly because in the search for politically expedient ways of achieving this goal, they have overlooked the importance of three key principles for effective assessment and valuable qualifications.

First, opportunities need to be chosen if they are to be meaningful. While there is undoubtedly broad agreement about what ought to be at the core of a good general education, schools need to own the opportunities they offer if they are to take genuine responsibility for outcomes. They should be enabled to shape their own curriculum and make their own decisions about which qualifications to offer, in keen dialogue with parents and young people. The government has made schools primarily responsible for career guidance; devolved decision-making in this area provides an opportunity for schools to be given full responsibility for choice of qualifications and curriculum also, in this way bringing them into line with employers’ and further/ higher education priorities. In respect of the government’s plans, the positive effect of removing the requirement for schools to comply with the National Curriculum is undermined by the constraining influence of both current and proposed (EBacc) accountability measures, and the corresponding limitations imposed on the timetable for more applied subjects and vocationally related learning.

Young people are different and need different opportunities to succeed. They need to be given scope to explore different subjects and to choose qualifications that play to their strengths and challenge them to realise their potential. The present system has been far from perfect in this regard, disincentivising innovation and diversity through the homogenising effect of the comparability framework, and through over-rewarding low-level vocationally related qualifications. However it has at least given opportunity for learners to try out different subjects and optimise their performance. Assessment should facilitate a process of discovery in learning; only approached in this way can it be intrinsically motivating for young people. Opportunities can only be taken if they are chosen.

Second, competition is crucial – not only for diversity in product offer and for stimulating innovation, but for raising the quality of provision overall also. Though the government, in its emphasis on the importance of a traditional, well-rounded curriculum, doesn’t think much of innovation in this area and is not terribly interested in encouraging diversity in qualifications either, these are important because employers’, and further and higher education needs are not all the same, and because the needs of our economy and society are always changing. If content is to remain relevant, assessment developers need to be in close dialogue with end-users, and with schools, to ensure their respective interests are properly co-ordinated. Though the government has recognised the importance of engaging universities more directly in the redesign of the A level, it has failed to apply the logic of this move to Key Stage 4 and maintains its commitment to the regulatory role – the basis of which, as argued below, is questionable.

In respect of the role of competition in raising the quality of provision overall, government policy-makers in general, and the Secretary of State in particular, appear to be suffering from a profound confusion. It is the necessity of compliance with a flawed regulatory framework that has disincentivised efforts to raise the level of challenge in assessment, not the existence of multiple competing exam boards. This is because the system was designed in part to ensure that no learner is disadvantaged through their institution’s choice of paper or board, or due to the inevitable variance in level of difficulty from one year to the next. Bearing in mind the history of secondary school qualifications in this country, and the international standing of English qualifications, there is no reason to suppose that providers would not be more effective in protecting their own standards in the domestic context if they were given the necessary degree of independence for proper accountability to the market. Accordingly, proposals to move to a franchising system are ill-advised.

Third, the independence of the system from government matters. Neither the government nor its regulators have the incentive, let alone the ability, for the level of engagement with end-users that is required to ensure that education and assessment keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of our economy and society. Independent qualifications providers, on the other hand, have every incentive to do so: they cannot and will not succeed without engaging those interests.

The increased powers granted to the regulator are the most difficult aspect to understand of the government’s reform programme. There is wide agreement among policy-makers that there is a need for ‘greater robustness’ in Ofqual’s monitoring of comparability, and yet little clarity about the purpose of the exercise. Comparability measurements were designed to ‘equalise’ outcomes across different boards, subjects, methods of assessment, qualifications, and over time; they have nothing whatsoever to do with the essential purpose of assessment.

We need a qualifications market that is dynamic to the demands of our ever-changing economy and society and responsive to the nuanced and diverse demands of employers and higher education. The supply of human capital must follow the actual demands placed upon it. But a government-planned approach, which pushes students down particular learning pathways, will not help to identify the full and diverse potential of our young people, let alone liberate their talent for employment and to our wider economic benefit.

James Croft is the Director of The Centre for Market Reform of Education and co-author, with Anton Howes, of its recently published discussion paper ‘When qualifications fail: reforming 14-19 assessment’. You can download the paper from the Centre’s website at James can be contacted by email at

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