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Dr Mike Cresswell - Assessment and Qualifications Alliance


7 min read Partner content talks to Dr Mike Cresswell, director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, about changes to the examination system and the introduction of specialist diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds.

Question: What is the AQA?

We are the biggest exam board, responsible for about half of all the A levels and GCSEs in the country – that's about 3.5 million exams we run every year.

We are an educational charity, not a profit-making business, so all our income from examination fees goes into running and developing our examinations and our other services to schools and colleges.

So we have a purely educational mission and we're here to help meet the needs of individual students and ensure that their achievements are fairly assessed and properly recognized.

Question: What is your relationship to government?

We are entirely independent of government and self-financing.

But our work is regulated by three different qualifications regulators - one in England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.

Of course, although we're independent, we work closely with the Department for Education and Skills and, particularly, our regulators, to ensure that our courses and qualifications support national developments in education and help schools and colleges to teach effectively.

We have a research division with a world-wide reputation and are often commissioned by our regulators to carry out specific research and development projects.

Question: More candidates pass GCSEs and A levels every year. Doesn't this mean that examination standards are being eroded?

No.For example, if you look at the increase in the actual number of A level passes over the past 10 years, half of it simply reflects the growth in the number of 18 year olds in that period.

The rest of the increase is equivalent to about two extra candidates passing in each subject for the average school or college.

At grade A, compared with 10 years ago, it's equivalent to fewer than two extra students getting a grade A in each subject for the average school or college.And the figures for GCSE are similar.

So you have to ask: how plausible is it that, in each subject, the average school might be getting a couple more students through A level now than it did 10 years ago?Well I know plenty of schools and colleges where it would be surprising if they weren’t doing much better than that.

In recent years, there has been major government focus on school improvement and educational policy development, coupled with significant changes in funding arrangements and the establishment of performance measures and so on.

In what other walk of life would we look at all that effort, look at the rising measures of the success of the system, and find ourselves arguing about whether the measurement system was failing?

The truth is that the headline changes in pass rates of the last 10 years represent quite modest increases in performance in each school.

Question: Is there any longer a value to coursework in exams, given its planned reduction in future GCSEs and A levels?

I have some real concerns about the planned reductions in coursework.

Since it was first introduced, exam coursework has changed.

Concerns about the extent to which the original approach to coursework involved trusting in the professionalism of teachers have often been raised but never justified with any substantial evidence.

But over the years, they have led to changes which increase control over the nature of the work assessed and the marks awarded. The result is a formulaic approach to exam coursework which reduces students' motivation and increases the burden on teachers.

And because coursework has to follow a tight specification, rather than arising naturally during each student's learning, it is much easier to plagiarise, sell model answers on the internet and so on.

It is recent concern about those problems, which do need to be addressed but aren't large scale, which has led to calls to reduce the amount of coursework in exams.

I would much prefer to see a return to an approach where coursework is embedded in students' learning, with rigorous moderation rather than the withdrawal of coursework.Proper exam coursework provides choice for students about their approach to learning, helping them to enjoy it and motivating them to achieve success.

And coursework in exams lets us assess important things such as practical skills, speaking and listening and the ability to do research, gather information from a range of sources and construct a coherent argument with it.

These are the sorts of things our young people need to be able to do in the 21st century, as well as having the knowledge and understanding which we assess in timed examinations.

Question: The government is introducing new "specialised diplomas" in 2008 for all 14 to 19-year-olds. What is your view of these?

We support the diplomas.They will provide education in vocational contexts which will be more relevant to many young people than what is currently on offer and hopefully will increase motivation, success and therefore retention beyond the age of 16.

We see GCSEs and A-levels as key components in the new diplomas, alongside more vocationally related assessments.

We do have particular views about some of the details, of course.For example, we don’t think that each student should receive a grade for the diploma itself.

There are technical reasons why diploma grades are likely to raise difficult issues which will pose real risks to the successful introduction of the diplomas.

My view is that the details of how students have done in the various parts of the diploma – which will also be provided – will give employers and universities much more useful information about the abilities of students than a single diploma grade ever could.

Question: How would you like to see the school curriculum evolve?

It is important is that we prepare our young people for life as well as work.Skills such as literacy, numeracy, speaking and listening are vital to success in the modern world and must be a crucial part of the curriculum of the future.

But we also need to ensure that we prepare our students to be good citizens, knowledgeable about their culture, their country, the world and their place within it and skilled at evaluating and interpreting the mass of information which confronts us all these days.

So the traditional subjects remain very important: the arts and subjects which encourage physical and spiritual well-being are vital and we also need to teach the humanities and sciences in a way which equips our young people to evaluate arguments and experimental results and have well-informed views on a whole range of issues.

We need a curriculum which develops highly skilled, well-informed and flexible citizens who know how to learn and are able to think for themselves.

That is the right basis for the knowledge economy which we will need if Britain is to continue to succeed in the modern world.

Question: How do you see the future of examinations?

We are actively pursuing the modernisation of examinations, not only in terms of their content – the new sorts of skills that young people will need are fundamental to the new examinations we are developing – but also by the use of new technology.

This year, over 7,000 of our examiners will be submitting their marks to us through secure internet links, rather than by the old postal methods and we will be marking 1.5 million completed papers using a system which involves making electronic images of students' work.That gives us some significant quality advantages which will lead to further improvements in the reliability of students' results.

We are also actively working on assessments on computers, rather than using paper and pencil tests.

Our new and fully accredited GCSE Science tests will be available to schools who want to do them as computerised tests, from this autumn.

Using computers gives us all sorts of possibilities for new types of questions which enable us to assess students in new ways.

So the future of examinations is a very exciting one.But one thing I do want to make clear is that the new technologies are the servant not the master.

As we modernise our examinations and systems, AQA is keeping the educational purpose of what we do, and the need to assess every student fairly and accurately, right at the top of our agenda.