I was shocked to see a headline on the BBC web site today:
Exams system ‘diseased’ and ‘almost corrupt’
I was not shocked by the content of the headline, but by the fact that someone had managed to get such an opinion publicly expressed. You can read the BBC report here; the Guardian’s version here; and the Telegraph’s here. The story re-iterates several of the points I made in my letter to the Guardian last January. Briefly these are that the ‘competition’ between Exam Boards drives down standards, and the fact that the Exam Boards are wholly owned by publishers has comprised their independence. What is important about this story is not the obvious truth of the content, but the person who is saying it.
Mick Waters was until recently the Director of Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). According to the BBC story, he didn’t believe any of the ‘dumbing down’ stories before he joined the QCA.
“You know, the old argument, more people passed than ever before. Since I’ve been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt,”.
You can read the story for your self, but what I want to hear next is an apology. Our exam system is a profoundly important part of our culture – the formalised system by which we pass on knowledge from one generation to another. What has happened to our exam system is the equivalent of the sharp-dealing we have seen in the City: a kind of ‘get-clever-quick’ analogue to the ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes of the derivative traders. However, like their financial equivalents, the schemes only work on confidence. If confidence in qualifications is lost then they can become worthless overnight: I think we are close to that point now. And just as in a financial collapse it is not the derivatives traders that pay the price.
I don’t know who was responsible for this shameful episode. But somewhere there are people who oversaw this confidence trick and chose to say nothing. This quotation only became ‘News’ because somebody wants to sell a book and a good bit controversy is good publicity. But I don’t want to hear people’s excuses: I want to hear an apology.