Impact and innovation

‘No Minister.’

Edward Gould (Chairman of HMC in 2002) discusses how HMC challenged the Secretary of State for Education

Front page news article in The Daily Telegraph, surrounding the A-level saga in September 2002.

Wednesday 18th September 2002 seemed an innocuous day with the HMC Committee meeting at the East India Club. The first set of A level results following the modular structure introduced by Curriculum 2000 provoked allegations over the ‘dumbing down’ of standards because of the increase in the number of students passing. Media and politicians claimed standards were falling. ‘The Observer’ revealed that grades had been fixed to suppress grade inflation. Increasing evidence emerged from schools. The morning meeting passed as usual and at the start of the afternoon session it was agreed that the rest of the agenda would be scrapped and preparations made for a press conference at 5pm. It was fortunate that the President of SHA (now ASCL) was present and that GSA were represented which enabled an alliance between independent and state schools to be formed and their views to be articulated. ISC provided vital support and the foundations of teamwork were established.

At the press conference it was claimed that QCA (Qualifications & Curriculum Authority) had coordinated the move to mark down some students particularly in coursework. We called for the regrading of papers and an independent enquiry to be established by the Secretary of State. The first thought of the authorities was to ask QCA to conduct an enquiry and this was rejected after such comments as ‘you don’t put a fox into the hen coup to count the chickens’ were enjoyed by the media. QCA tried hard to brief against schools despite the evidence that there was substance to the concerns raised. There were two issues; the credibility of the system and the problem with marking standards and the awarding of grades. Mike Tomlinson was appointed to conduct a broad enquiry into standards and not just grade boundaries. At the heart of the confusion was the fact that QCA had not carried out any pilot to assess how AS level and A2 level results combined to result in a single final grade. QCA’s concerns were the maintenance of standards and the Awarding Bodies, under intemperate pressure from the Chairman of QCA, felt an obligation to ensure the numbers passing were at the same level as the legacy linear A levels.

Much has been written about the A level crisis of 17 years ago and no attempt will be made to replay the detail. The timing of our press conference led to widespread media interest and raised the temperature significantly in an already pressured DfES, the CRB (now DBS) had failed to cope with the additional work following the murder of two children in Soham, the recently announced Individual Learning Accounts scheme was in trouble and the A level crisis was a further body blow to the confidence in the Department. QCA was a NDPB (non-departmental government body) formed in 1997 to regulate all external qualifications in England and was meant to be independent of the Department but, with the credibility of the system being brought into doubt, the DfES entered the fray and it became clear that resignations were on the agenda. On September 27 the Chairman of QCA resigned, followed in the third week of October by Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education.

After the impact of the alliance triggered by HMC, Tomlinson ensured that a measure of justice was obtained for almost 2000 A and AS level candidates. He proceeded to lead the Working Group on 14-19 Reform of the curriculum which reported in 2004. The 2003 examinations would be conducted on a more secure footing and the relationship between QCA and the Awarding Bodies became more rigorous with marking and grade setting becoming more transparent. QCA went back to its code of practice to ensure ‘quality, consistency, accuracy and fairness’ which it had lamentably failed to do in 2002. But it has to be said that the gap between the Department and QCA remained narrow as evidenced when the Permanent Secretary attended a meeting of the new Board and effectively said that if the Board did not behave itself, it would be disbanded. Regrettably QCA proved to be more interested in restrictive regulatory matters than ensuring qualifications were appropriate for the range of students being educated at the time. In 2008 QCA was succeeded by Ofqual (a non-ministerial government department) which regulates and accredits British exam boards. Grade inflation remains a topic for debate and has leaked into universities. Secretaries of State continued to stay in post for very short periods of time. In 2007 the name was changed to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

So, A level results continue to be announced in August. We have returned to linear A levels which many in HMC never wished to leave in the first place. And the dismissed Chairman of QCA received £95,000 compensation for his efforts.

Portrait of Edward Gould