Publishers should sell books – not exams.

An Exam

Is this (a) an examination or (b) a source of profit for Pearson publishing? Discuss

One of the challenges of bringing up teenage children is the task of relating one’s own educational experience to theirs. It’s hard, because things have changed so much. At the school attended by one of my children the teachers are obsessed with teaching children how to get marks in exams: it is an understandable obsession, but it is soul-destroying for children. IMHO teachers should teach children about their subject.  For all its faults – and there were many – my time at school was packed with ‘learning stuff’. Loads and loads of ‘stuff’! But that is not how things are in many schools these days.

The Telegraphs’s exposé of Edexcel’s practices – corrupt according to Steven Twigg MP – is damning. But this is not news to teachers.

During an Edexcel geography GCSE training course in Birmingham, the reporter asked Miss Warren why she should pick the exam board. Miss Warren replied, “It’s very, very traditional, Edexcel, and also, as these two will tell you [indicating to two teachers sitting nearby] you don’t have to teach a lot, do you?

No, there’s certainly a lot less content,” one teacher then said.

Miss Warren added: “Yes, in fact there’s so little we don’t know how we got it through [the exam regulators]. And I’m deadly serious about that. When I looked at it I thought, ‘how is this ever going to get through?’

As the teachers around Miss Warren agreed with her assessment of the Edexcel exam, she concluded: “It’s a lot less, it’s a lot smaller, and that’s why a lot of people came to us.

And the worm that has brought about these changes? The Telegraph pulls no punches:

Edexcel was previously a charity until it was acquired by Pearson, a multinational media company, in 2005. Its profits have since risen 10-fold and its managing director is one of the best-paid individuals in education. The company made profits of more than £60 million last year – compared with less than £5 million in 2003. A spokesman for Pearson said: “We do not see a conflict between our education goals and our commercial success. We believe they are mutually reinforcing. Our commitment to upholding standards and our ability to develop rigorous qualifications are fuelled by our financial performance.”

But sadly The Telegraph’s story -reported by the BBC as another morally corrupt scheme for teaching teachers how to get children to pass exams. – is no surprise. I have written about it before:

The solution is simple:

  • The UK needs one exam board which would be run by civil servants.
  • Exams should not be set, as they are now, by companies owned by large publishing corporations who will benefit financially if more students pass their exams.
  • Teachers should have no idea what will come up on the exam: they should teach ‘knowledge’ and then students who understand best will do best.
  • The definition of A and A* should be changed and defined not by the mark achieved but should indicate a percentile of the exam population. So for example an A* should indicate that a candidate is in (say) the top 1% of the exam group. An A would indicate (say) the top 5%. Marks B and C below this can be defined differently, and in this way grade inflation is avoided, but students who work hard can do better.

This is not rocket science – but we need to abandon the idea that ‘the market’ has any place in setting exams. Publishers should sell books – not exams. And certainly not set the exams and the books which will help students pass.

11 Responses to “Publishers should sell books – not exams.”

  1. Alan Henness Says:

    The UK needs one exam board which would be run by civil servants.

    Having been educated in Scotland where the same exams are taken by all children, I remember being bemused when I discovered that there were so many different exam boards in England.

    I’m not so sure that an exam board run by civil servants – sitting in an office in the Department for Education – would necessarily be a good idea. I think that would be open to political influence, but I’m sure an independent body could easily be set up to do it. However, I can’t see the present Government going down that road…and over Alex Salmond’s dead body.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Fair point. It doesn’t need to be Civil Servants – it could be academics, but it must be strictly independent from publishers government and teachers. And the system of expecting constant increases in A* grades must be scrapped. Nobody believes it!

  3. Alan Henness Says:

    The thought just occurred to me that in the future we might have a commercial company building schools, providing the teaching materials and running the exams. Doesn’t bear thinking about.

  4. Mel Williams Says:

    I agree with everything that you say on the subject of the conflict of interest between self-seeking exam boards/publishers, teachers under pressure to improve pass-rates and the subsequent de-valuing of external qualifications.

    You suggest in this blog, though, that “teachers should have no idea what will come up on the exam: they should teach ‘knowledge’ and then students who understand best will do best”.

    Does learning “loads and loads of stuff” lead to a better understanding?

    In the kind of exams that I, and probably you too (for we are of a similar age), sat at school, it was possible to cram and so gain a high mark. Understanding the “stuff” was never considered to be the aim (at least not by my science teachers). Because I wasn’t good at remembering the “stuff” – and, to be honest, because I spent too much time getting involved in school plays and the school newspaper – I quite spectacularly failed to achieve my expected A-level grades. I was all set to return to the sixth form for another year when Imperial College accidentally confirmed a place for me to study Zoology They had offered me BCC, so I was surprised when my EEF opened the door. I was informed of the mistake by the head of faculty two weeks into the first term, and assured that the 1st year exams would “weed me out”. I left IC, after three very enjoyable and interesting years, with an upper second in Botany and Plant Technology.

    My point? Two important things at IC were different from school. One of them was being among people who not only knew what they were doing, but also why; the other was that I was helped to develop a model of myself as an effective learner. The reason that I did not do this earlier was that my teachers had very little idea of what would come up in the exams, but they did know that it would remembering lots of stuff. The result was that they taught me how to accrete knowledge, but not how to apply it or to question it.

    Exams should be set by well-qualified teachers who have a both a good academic understanding of their own subject and the uses to which their pupils are likely to have to put those subjects when they enter the world of work.

  5. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Mel Williams: you speak so eloquently. Thank you. But I am not sure I agree about two point.

    1. While ‘Lots of Stuff’ may seem pointless, current courses have barely any content, and many teachers are unable to fill the content gap because they just don’t know ‘stuff’. Many children find facts and explanations fascinating and learn it easily.

    2. I just don’t trust UK teachers. I think that as a profession they have abandoned academic rigour, and embraced mediocrity with both hands and called it success. They have conned us. I would prefer industrialists with all their grab-grindiness to teachers.


  6. Mel Williams Says:


    Surely, “lots of stuff” is pointless unless it serves a purpose? Children do find facts fascinating, but explanations are a different thing altogether. Many children enjoy knowing the names of many dinosaurs, it is true, but few of those children can use that information critically because their understanding is merely superficial. It is not until you probe the depth of a child’s understanding of the facts you think you have taught him that you can discover whether it is surface-learning or deep-learning has taken place. But I guess that you are familiar with this from your own Protons for Breakfast sessions.

    I agree with you that teachers have lost (not abandoned) their academic rigour. The paradox in state education is now not dissimilar to the one that you point out in your comparison between carbon- and financial-debt.. External bodies, such as universties, employers and the press, are demonstrating that the current models for state education and the awarding of qualifications (both of them specified and imposed by successive governments) is flawed. After thirty years, however, the existing cohort of teachers in state schools can only recognise, and is only qualified to work within, those models, Those teachers can only measure their success against the outcomes of “objective” inspections of their work by Ofsted and the rates of success their pupils achieve in “standardised” tests, set by exam boards who are, ostensibly, regulated by Ofqual. Teachers have not conned you; Michael, they have been conned out of their own critical faculties and professional integrity.

    Whoever is to blame, governments, teachers, industrialists or exam boards, I suspect that we would both agree that the whole thing needs to be shaken out before it does any more damage. Whether we share the same ideas about what the new model should look like, though … that would be an interesting discussion to have.

  7. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    I agree with everything you say.

    Lots of ‘stuff’ is indeed pointless without a context, but this phase of life is critical – in their teenage years children can absorb and synthesise tremendous amounts of ‘stuff’ – and in the right context they can really learn stuff that they will ‘just know’ for the rest of their lives.

    As I read through what I had written I wondered whether I was being a bit hard on teachers. But while I do admire what many teachers do, I feel that collectively they have failed us. In fact the things I admire about teachers are what they do >despiteas< professional teachers.

    And of course I don't have all the answers, but I do feel able to point out that Education is critically important to us all. As I mentioned somewhere else – this is the process by which we communicate our collective knowledge of the world to future generations – there is no function of society which is more critical than this. And personally, the communication between teachers and students is really a sacred process touching on the transcendental. Integrating the sacred and the mundane has always been tricky.


  8. Mel Williams Says:

    Michael, you might surely just as well say that scientists have failed us because they have allowed their work to inform the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, or because they have failed to stand together toconvince governments of the need to collaborate effectively in order to reduce the risk of global crisis through excessive carbon-use.

    But enough – there is much that we are agreeing on in this question of education. The model is inadequate and the exam system is not sufficiently honest and rigorous; we are not allowing our children to make the most of their capacity to learn and we have de-skilled a generation of teachers.

    I hope that, between us, in some way, we will see a change for the better in education within our professional lifetimes.

  9. A level standards: A national disgrace « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] The ownership of all significant exam boards by publishing companies. […]

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    […] massive profits for their partner publishing companies. I look forward to their abolition. Publishers should publish books, not exams. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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