Exam boards and their textbooks | Oxford Open Learning

Exam boards and their textbooks

The Daily Telegraph has reported today (8 Dec 2011) that two history examiners, Paul Evans and Paul Barnes, both of the WJEC, have been suspended following their investigation into alleged “corrupt practices” by exam boards.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, said the revelations made by the  Telegraph “confirm that the current system is discredited”.

He said: “As I have always maintained, it is crucial our exams hold their own with the best in the world. We will take whatever action is necessary to restore faith in our exam system. Nothing is off the table.” He told the BBC later that it looked as though there had been “corrupt practices”.

One of the many articles in the Telegraph, this time by Holly Watt and Claire Newell, argues that there needs to be more scrutiny of the relationship between exam boards and the publishers of textbooks. In the good old days there was a clear separation between exam boards and publishers but these days Edexcel, for one, is actually owned by Pearson, one of the UK’s biggest publishers, which cannot but mean that Pearson and its various imprints have a big headstart n publishing students’ textbooks linked to Edexcel exams.

Oxford Open Learning is also a publisher of study texts but it has no inside track on exam boards, marking strategies or future exams. OOL has to glean information about these things from a wide variety of sources in an endeavour to publish supporting materials which are more comprehensive and effective than rivals like Pearson but it is, admittedly, an uphill struggle. Schools and teachers are inevitably going to choose resources which, they perceive, have the advantage of advance knowledge about what future exams are likely to contain and a thorough understanding of how exams are going to be marked.

Pearson is not the only big player in this field. There is a corresponding relationship between AQA, the leading provider of GCSE and A-level exams, and Nelson Thornes, who publish a wide variety of textbooks which are linked, paper by paper, with the many exams that AQA set. In many cases the texts are quite slim, providing rather less than a thorough education in whatever the subject is, instead a very targeted coverage of the limited list of topics and sub-topics which are likely to appear in AQA exams over the next year or two. Although that is what their customers want, it can hardly be said to be in the overall educational interests of the UK.

There is no justification for some of this. The clear split between exam boards and publishing houses needs to be restored so that the commercial exploitation of the work of the exam boards is curtailed. It would also be appropriate for exam boards to be genuinely non-profit-making bodies, although that would raise other questions of independence.

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