Investigation: Exam boards’ ‘eye-watering’ costs could trigger fee rise and drop in qualifications

Exam boards are considering raising fees for schools and cutting subjects in reformed GCSEs and A-levels, as they struggle with “eye-watering” financial pressures, a TES investigation has revealed.

A range of government reforms has left England’s awarding bodies with falling income from entries and rising costs; leading some insiders to question the viability of the existing school exam system.

“Boards are desperate to keep a lid on fees, but there comes a point at which they just won’t be able to keep taking the extra costs,” a senior figure linked to one board said.

Raising fees would risk further depressing entries. But a source at another exam board said that rising costs of regulation might make it a necessity.

Asked about running school exams in the future, one insider told TES: “I’m not convinced it’s a viable model. All businesses running UK exams will be looking for a long-term sustainable position and that’s where you’ll start seeing pressure on prices.”

As TES completed its investigation, Pearson – which runs the Edexcel exam board – announced that it was to axe 4,000 jobs, of which up to 500 are expected to be in the UK.

The board has been hit by a drop in entries for its vocational qualifications, following the government’s decision to reduce their weighting in school league tables. A spokesman for the company said that it was not yet clear whether staff at Edexcel would be affected by the redundancies.

The three biggest exam boards – OCR, AQA and Edexcel – have already angered ministers by warning that they cannot commit to continuing to offer exams in “community” languages, such as Polish and Bengali, which tend to have low entries.

Now senior figures are also understood to be questioning whether they should develop some of the third wave of reformed GCSEs and A-levels, which are due to be taught from September 2017. This is because development costs would be high and entries low.

“There does come a point where, if overall you’re struggling, you’ve got to make those difficult decisions,” the source said. “The problem now is that it’s become more of an issue. These questions are being asked in a way they weren’t in the past [when] everyone sucked up [the costs of running small-entry subjects] for the good of education.”

The Department for Education told TES that it expected boards to offer qualifications with low entry numbers “as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility”. It has revived the prospect of bringing exam provision in-house to a single state-run board, warning that “long-term reforms” were under consideration.

OCR has now appointed a “turnaround” specialist as its interim chief executive. William Burton has said that his job will be to “restore the organisation to profitability”. He is understood to be working on plans that may include further staff reductions, as well as cutting back on academic and vocational qualifications.

The end of modular exams, a dramatic reduction in resits and the decoupling of AS- and A-levels have combined to result in plummeting income for boards.

All this has coincided with the huge cost of simultaneously developing new GCSEs and A-levels under a much tougher regulatory framework from Ofqual.

“We’ve seen a marked increase in the scope, frequency and number of regulatory requests, and it requires increasing resources to meet this,” one source said.

An OCR spokesman said the board was in a “difficult” situation and “challenging decisions will need to be made in the short and medium term”.

AQA, Pearson and WJEC said they were committed to delivering GCSEs and A-levels and saw a strong future in the qualifications.

This is an edited version of a story that appears in the 22 January edition of TES. Subscribers can view the full story here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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