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  • Published in Education

As the uproar over the exam boards’ manipulation of results continues, a college lecturer looks at the role of the businesses profiting from the chaos

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Gove wants ‘academic rigour’ and wants rid of GCSEs but maintains that he never influenced the exams boards’ decision to bring the grades down in this summer’s exams. The exam boards and Ofqual bleat that the summer exams were not marked harshly, it was the January ones which were marked too generously. Students are devastated as they are denied college places. Teachers are demoralised and crying out for an answer. But those behind the fiasco are keeping mum. The truth is that the exams debacle proves what we already knew: big business and the desire for profit should be kept well away from our public services and especially education.

Exam system ‘diseased’ and ‘almost corrupt’

These are the words of a former director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Mick Waters, and he explained that this is because exam boards are ‘vying for business in a marketplace’. Last December, the Daily Telegraph exposed exam boards who touted for business by telling teachers that their qualifications were easier and would mean better grades for the school.

This is not a case of just one rogue exam board, it is a direct result of the so-called market in education. The Tory coalition, like New Labour before them, have done their best to create a market place for schools, colleges, and universities that is making the education system increasingly dysfunctional. The market is a concoction of arbitrary funding and competition that is supposed to improve performance but simply causes confusion. Schools are graded by their place in league tables, and get their funding, according to results, and with the obsession with these comes a callous attitude to both the kids and the teachers. The children most in need of education are often excluded for behavioral issues which affect overall grades, and teachers are bullied into teaching to the exam. Added to this, parents face a nightmare trying to find a school that will serve their children, whilst being fed misinformation by both the government and the schools. The result is that education is incomprehensible to all those involved in it.

Gove and his backers peddle the myth that state-run education in Britain is too expensive and that business will provide a more efficient system. But the evidence from the exam boards’ accounts drives us to the opposite conclusion: that businesses are only interested in profit and milk education for all they are worth.

Exam boards – milking our schools

Ofqal graphChannel 4 News recently exposed the vast profits that the exam boards are raking in from our schools. There are three main boards in England. The biggest and the wealthiest is Edexcel, which is owned by the Pearson group of publishers. The other two, AQA and OCR, operate as charities and therefore pay not one penny in tax on their massive profits. To claim charitable status there has to be evidence that the organization benefits society in general. We might note that the chief executives of AQA and OCR earn £182,000 and £170,000 respectively for their charitable works.

Schools are being forced to pay steadily increasing fees for exam boards' services. According to the latest Ofqual figures, schools in England paid £328m in exam fees last year - a 113% increase on ten years ago. Fees went up by 8.5% last year and spending on exams is now the second largest expenditure in secondary schools.

There is a massive knock-on effect for large state-run schools. For example at Phoenix High School in west London, the spending on exam fees has increased from £60,000 to £160,000 in the course of six years. Schools that are unhappy with the marking of their students’ exams are faced with bills of a further £40 per script if they want them re-marked. This is impossible for large state-run schools to afford, but not a lot for smaller fee paying schools. Working class kids are cheated at every turn.

Growing a business out of schools

And the profits are rolling in as never before. Latest figures show Edexcel had an annual turnover of £270m, while AQA had £159m and OCR, £115m. All are making millions in profits while teachers face a pay freeze and students are forced into debt to pay for their education.

The business approach to education has meant our kids are tested as never before, and at every turn the exam boards are there to help. From SATs to A levels there are ‘business opportunities’. And making the right sales pitch to schools is vitally important. Once a school signs up with an exam board, they become a source of future big bucks for the exam boards. With schools obsessing over league table places they are ready to buy the tailor-made support that exam boards offer. Since they set the exam, schools feel exam boards are the best people to provide text books, revision guides, conferences and e-learning products. Many teachers work for exam boards for extra cash, but also to get the feel of how the board operates.

The profits to be made are so huge that exam boards are prepared to go to great lengths to get schools on board. Of course, once a school has invested in all the books and materials they are then heavily committed to one board and so are reluctant to change, thus providing the exam board with a guaranteed market.

There is evidence that the service the exam boards are providing to their captive markets is in decline. The Channel 4 News investigation revealed serious flaws, finding careless marking, scores added up incorrectly and new markers being given minimum training. Advances in technology mean that markers can be trained on-line and scripts can be scanned and marked on-line too. This has reduced costs for exam boards massively, but there is little doubt that ‘easier and cheaper’ has led to error.

A senior examiner for Edexcel told Countefire: ‘The attitude is that if the schools are dissatisfied they can get scripts re-marked, but the re-marking process leaves a lot to be desired. For example, Edexcel will not change a grade unless it is at least three marks adrift, but this amount can mean the loss of a grade and therefore a place at university. Furthermore the re-marking is used as an opportunity by the board to actually show to schools that their marking was trustworthy in the first place. In effect the school pays for a quality assurance statement from the exam board. There is little doubt too that the exam boards are much more jumpy when it comes to the fee paying schools who tend to have more influence in government and the media.’

Slaves to Gove’s agenda

As the recent fiasco over the harsh marking of GCSE results has unfolded we have seen spin piled upon spin. Gove denied any involvement, while the exam boards and Ofqual claimed that English scripts in January had been marked too leniently, rather than the June ones marked too harshly. Head teachers up and down the country say this is outrageous.

This is a perfect illustration of how business involvement in education makes a clear understanding of the issues impossible, completely unfitted to an educational ethos. Nobody, it appears, is directly responsible. But the exam boards know that their profits depend on staying in line with Gove’s demands. He is providing further opportunities for profits and the exam boards will do his bidding. Together they see a future where business will be the key decision maker in the future of education.

Pearson Publishing who run Edexcel and also own the Financial Times and Penguin, are opening a ‘for profit’ college (Pearson College) with sites in London and Manchester. As their promotional literature says: ‘Our degrees are designed by business, delivered with business, for students who are serious about succeeding in business. We have a network of blue chip industry relationships, many of whom are working with us on the design and delivery of our degree programmes’.

This takes us further into the nightmare of a chaotic market-driven education where the wishes of the students and their parents can go hang, where the concerns of teaching professionals are overridden by faceless profiteers. And make no mistake, democracy itself has no place in this market madness. As the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills puts it: ‘Overall, we are keen to reduce bureaucracy and the burdens of legislation for the sake of it, and where we can institute reform without the need for legislation then that is what we will do.’ So government’s job is to ease the profit making businesses along with no reference to parliament, let alone the electorate.

March against the market on October 20 – teachers and students unite!

The TUC march for the future on 20 October can also be a rallying point for all of us who are determined to not only defend education, but campaign for a completely new and better system, one that is unashamedly equal and open to all. Let’s reclaim our schools and the future of our kids from the Tories market madness.

We need to stand against Gove’s juggernaut of confusion and demand a universal system of education that liberates and fulfills our young people.

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