Our statement on possible reforms to the examinations system

This statement sets out Pearson’s perspective on the debate on the examinations system in England.

We give this perspective as the parent company of the awarding organisation Edexcel, and as one of the leading providers of educational resources and learning technologies.

Context

Public confidence in our examination system and concern that the education our children are receiving is falling behind the best in the world are matters of enormous significance for our society, our economy – and for Pearson.

We welcome the continued debate about how confidence can be strengthened, and are committed to playing our full part in finding solutions. This includes support for structural change. However, if we are to take that course, we must be convinced that this is in the best interests of learners over the long term.

In having this debate, we must make sure that conclusions about standards are reached based on evidence, not anecdote. We must also be mindful not to undermine the hard work and achievements of the students who will receive the results of their GCSEs, AS and A levels over the next few weeks. Their performance will be a reward for a tremendous amount of hard work. In praising their efforts, we have to ensure we put in place a system that meets the needs of young people and our economy in the future.

Looking to how the system can be improved to deliver that, we should focus on key principles which must underpin reforms, and evaluate the options in the light of them. We believe that ambition, inclusion and relevance are central to any successful education system.

Ambition

Education Secretary Michael Gove was right recently to stress that setting high expectations for all children must be at the heart of any reforms. Helping foster ‘a culture of ambition’ was the goal of our ‘Leading on Standards’ consultation on our examinations system earlier this year – and the recommendations which came out of it.

Many of these recommendations, such as a limit on the number of resits which can be taken to improve grades, need action from Government and regulators as well as examining bodies like Pearson in order to be implemented. But there are also steps which we have already taken to protect and improve standards.

To help counter concerns about conflicts of interests and encouraging teaching to tests, our senior examiners will no longer be solely responsible for authoring textbooks. We have also taken the lead in improving our BTEC vocational qualifications which, from this year, have a greater emphasis on maths and English and increased external assessment.

But ensuring our young people are supported and encouraged to fulfil their potential is a challenge which will require more thought and action. We need to ensure our ambition for education at minimum matches the expectations set for children the world over, and we must set about developing the global benchmarks. We need to ensure our young people can compete with the very best.

Inclusion

We have to make these reforms, too, while ensuring our examination system fosters ambition for all young people. This is what marks out the best education systems and best performing economies. It is also key to social mobility.

In identifying what needs to be improved, we must not go back to the divisions which were a fundamental flaw in the system before the introduction of GCSEs. Only a third of pupils took O levels; another third sat CSEs, while the rest left education at 16 without any school leaving certificate. Decisions as to how high pupils should aim in education, and therefore in life, were made when pupils were just 14. We must never go back to a time when we asked so little of so many young people, and when lifechances were determined so early on.

With the slow-down in social mobility raising such concern, we should remember that it was often those in the middle - who had most to gain for having their ambitions set high - who found themselves on the wrong side of the divide. We have a duty to ensure we nurture, support and stretch across the range of ability.

Relevance

Nor can we afford to prepare children for non-skilled jobs which no longer exist. It is vital that our education system produces, and the examination system rewards, young people who have the knowledge, skills and ability to continue learning what they and our economy need to be successful now and in the future. Employers – and universities – complain that this is not the case at present. They have to be fully involved in reforming our examination system.

They complain about a lack of basic skills such as reading, writing and maths. Our examinations must do more to help drive improvements in these core areas.

But employers, as the recent CBI survey confirmed, also want a greater focus at school on initiative, problem-solving and communication skills. When the best education systems across the world are working towards producing adaptable and creative students, we must not measure success largely on an ability to repeat information learnt by rote.

The challenge

We are determined at Pearson to help find the solutions to all these challenges. We recognise, for example, that the concern about the impact of competition between awarding bodies is one reason why confidence in examinations and results is declining. The Education Secretary’s suggestion of a single examinations board for each subject could be an answer to the perception of a ‘race to the bottom’ in qualifications. Yet if we choose to take this forward, we must find a way to guard against the risk in the future that any monopoly might lead to a lack of innovation and stagnation.

Inertia won’t be a problem initially – our current well-resourced and experienced awarding bodies will compete against each other to offer each subject. But the diversity and capacity currently in the system across all subjects would be unlikely to endure if awarding organisations faced long periods without any opportunity to offer curricula, qualifications or examinations in certain subjects. Many of the investments made over the last decade – in examination administration, new technologies, in diverse specifications and in improved support for schools and pupils – may not have come to pass without the current competitive environment.

We must also not lose sight of the fact that countries with a range of different examinations systems suffer from concerns about issues such as grade inflation, and that some of the challenges we currently face originate in high levels of government intervention and regulation rather than the reverse. This argument has been powerfully put by the Education Select Committee and others with respect to the impact of the accountability system on practices within schools.

This is not to reject change, but rather to ensure that the changes pursued lead to incentives which match our aspirations. The goal in all reforms must be to ensure that changes to examinations drive the improvements in standards which we want to see in our education system and which, over the long term, will set the example for other countries to follow.