TES article on the future of exams

Friday 22 Jan 2016

You may have read an article in today's TES called 'exam system is buckling under pressure of reform', which speculated about the long-term future of GCSEs and A-levels.

We provided TES with a lot of information for this article, giving a very different view to the ones that formed the basis of the story. Unfortunately, though, TES didn't use the vast majority of it. We were happy to be quoted on any of it, so we'd like to share it with you now.

We'd also like to point out that none of the anonymous 'exam board insiders' quoted by TES represent AQA.

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We see a strong future for A-levels and GCSEs and they remain our core business. They currently account for over 90% of our revenue (and that's likely to remain broadly the case, even as our new vocational and international qualifications gain ground). It also means that high volume subjects (eg GCSE English) allow us to cross-subsidise smaller but important subjects (like GCSE Chinese) so we can continue to offer as broad a range as possible.

We offer other qualifications (such as our technical and vocational ones) as part of our charitable mission to advance education and meet the needs of a wide range of students – not to subsidise GCSEs and A-levels (which, in any case, they don't).

Whilst we do regularly review the subjects and qualifications we offer, the decisions we make on what to continue take into account a number of factors. We look at each of our subjects on a case by case basis against a number of criteria:

  • Have Ofqual or the Department for Education decided that the subject can't continue at GCSE or A-level in the future?
  • Do we have a better alternative qualification, for example our new vocational Tech-levels?
  • Are entry levels low or declining, indicating that a qualification no longer meets the needs of teachers and students?
  • Are there sufficient  experienced examiners to set and mark papers?

On the subject of languages, we've been unable to commit to redeveloping Bengali, Modern Hebrew, Panjabi and Polish at A-level only – but it would be completely wrong to suggest that this is due to financial reasons. As we've explained on many occasions, the main issues here are a lack of experienced senior examiners needed to cope with the move from assessing two skills (reading and writing) to four (reading, writing, speaking and listening) – and problems setting grade boundaries for subjects with very few entries.

We're currently in discussions with DfE and Ofqual in order to reach a solution that would allow for new qualifications to be developed in these subjects. We've explained to DfE and Ofqual the issues preventing us from developing them under the model that is currently proposed, and they are constructively engaged in seeking solutions to these.

As you know we're currently going through a period of reform, and while it's true this is a costly process, it's an integral part of the examination system – we expect qualifications to be revised in line with changes in policy and the needs of employers and HE. So we know it's coming and we plan for it. And yes, if you looked at an exam board's finances immediately following a period of reform they probably wouldn't look as healthy as normal.

But you need to look at the cycle. For example, the year before reform (2012/13) we actually had an operating surplus – and our revenue in the most recent financial year (2014/15) was up on the year before. Because we're a charity (with no shareholders to pay out to) we are able to re-invest our surplus into our reformed qualifications and other things like our mentoring programme, AQA Unlocking Potential, and our Centre for Education Research and Practice. We expect to return to generating a surplus when we emerge from the current round of investment in reform.

We've also restructured our Operations division in the past few years, as a response to changing resource requirements following the move to linear exams and the reduction in the number of exam series. So we've been planning for the future for some time and are well-equipped for it.

And just to say that the exam boards are all quite different in terms of how they are constituted, the mix of qualifications they offer and the geographies they serve.