By Niall Boyd and Chris Colvin
Intentionally or by accident of history, England’s secondary-level education examination system operates as a quasi-market. Ofqual, the government’s regulator, sets down a national curriculum. A host of competing examination boards then set tests that examine this curriculum in subtly different ways. While universities do not tend to differentiate between school-leavers with different boards’ examinations behind them, some boards are nevertheless perceived by teachers to be easier for certain subjects than others, or at least more appropriate for the type of student they teach. Schools choose which board to adopt accordingly. A fall in quality is avoided, in theory at least, by the presence of the regulator.
Like most things, the situation in Northern Ireland is a little different. A devolved regulator, the Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), sets its own standards that are distinct from those on the other side of the Irish Sea. Ofqual has no jurisdiction here. In a further twist, CCEA also writes its own examinations. In addition to being able to useexamination boards that operate in England and Wales, schools in Northern Ireland can choose to adopt CCEA’s own tests. They do in droves: we calculate that CCEA has a 90% market share of A-levels taken by students at 13 of Belfast’s top grammar schools, with AQA and Edexcel making up the rest.
Why does CCEA have such a high market share? For one, CCEA’s fees are fractionally lower than both AQA and Edexcel. Another reason which is especially important for arts subjects is that CCEA’s examinations are more geared towards the subject matter demands of its localmarket; for example, CCEA’s history syllabus examines the Irish Famine rather than Tsarist Russia. Schools may prefer the way that CCEA structures its examinations: four exams and no coursework for history, versus Edexcel’s three exams and extensive coursework. And, of course, CCEA is unique in offering A-levels through the Irish medium.
But aside from these factors, something more sinister may explain CCEA’s market share.CCEA may be guilty of abusing a conflict of interest stemming from its dual role as both anexamination provider and Northern Ireland’s sole regulator. As regulator it is expected to maintain standards; as an examination board a major goal is to maintain its market share. Rather than setting its own specifications in line with the national curriculum as any other board has to do, CCEA, as an advisor to Stormont, can base Northern Ireland’s national curriculum around its own subject specifications. This creates a significant cost advantage over other providers, as competitors are forced to adapt their subject specifications to those of CCEA. In a market of limited size such as that of Northern Ireland, there is perhaps little incentive for the UK’s other examination boards to adapt their qualifications to CCEA’s specifications. In short, schools choose CCEA’s A-levels by default; given the institutionalconfiguration here in Northern Ireland, the optimum number of examination boards mightonly be one.
Perhaps this lack of competition is a good thing for standards. Northern Ireland’s A-level examination results are consistently higher than those of other UK polities. Finland and Hong Kong, two countries with highly successful secondary school systems that consistently outperform the UK, have no competition at all. Indeed, UK education secretary Michael Gove warned only last year that having competing boards might create a temptation for a race to the bottom.
We argue that if Northern Ireland wished to go further down the route of Finland and Hong Kong and move towards a system without any choice, with a single examination provider,then it needs to keep three things in mind. First, a significant portion of Northern Ireland’s school leavers chooses to study at universities in England. An A-level regulated and set by CCEA must therefore not vary significantly from those regulated by Ofqual and set by Edexcel or AQA. If it does, then English universities may start to differentiate between boards, potentially putting students here at a disadvantage.
Secondly, CCEA should consider splitting its regulation from its examination functions. Transparency is a good substitute for competition in situations where fair competition is difficult to maintain. Transparency cannot be achieved if the regulator is also the examiner.
Thirdly, CCEA must in future more actively seek the advice of university academics when writing its syllabi. For example, the economics department at Queen’s University Belfast is not currently consulted about the structure and content of CCEA’s economics A-level. The same is likely true of other subjects. As a major destination for students taking this A-levelsubject, Queen’s should in our opinion be involved in its setup; we must be asked what we need of our new students.
In response to Michael Gove’s plans to overhaul England’s examination system, Northern Ireland’s devolved education minister John O’Dowd commissioned a report last year to see what needed to be done to Northern Ireland’s curriculum. The Sinn Féin politician asked CCEA to carry out this report. Unsurprisingly, it concluded recently that nothing much was amiss with its own qualifications. Turkeys do not tend to vote for Christmas.
About the authors:
Niall Boyd is a final-year economics student at Queen’s University Belfast. He studied the market for A-level examinations in Northern Ireland as part of a second-year research project. He achieved the highest grade in his cohort of 45 in his second-year Industrial Organisation examination in June 2013.
Chris Colvin a Lecturer in Business Economics at Queen’s University Belfast and a Research Associate at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History. He won the Economics Network Best New Lecturer Award in September 2013 ‘in recognition of exemplary teaching practice that encourages understanding of and inspires interest in economics’.