“Your remarks about Quicksort seem on track to me”, replied Ursula Martin, professor of computer science at Oxford, when I wrote to her to check my view that the mark schemes for Edexcel A level maths require that algorithm to be done wrongly, and penalise doing it correctly. But, she commented ruefully, “changing the mind of Edexcel sounds a somewhat challenging proposition”.
Paul Curzon, professor of computer science at Queen Mary University of London and a big figure in the Computing At Schools network, also wrote agreeing with me. His best suggestion was to put a post on a web forum which he knew some of the Edexcel people followed. It didn’t work.
As for me, a school teacher, over months of correspondence with Edexcel I got no mathematical argument, but only the insistence that they’ve always done things that way and must maintain consistency.
Exam boards get their immunity to informed opinion and to feedback from teachers from being private outfits whose judge is the market. Nominally six out of the seven exam boards are non-profits, but in fact they all compete to get revenues and to pay their bosses huge salaries. (In 2012 the TES reported that AQA boss Andrew Hall got £182,160, and Ziggy Liaquat of Edexcel, £243,428).
The market competition between exam boards drives each board to make exam papers as predictable, as formulaic, and as cheap and easy to mark as possible. (As far as I can guess, Edexcel’s stubbornness about the algorithm is driven by the fact that doing it wrongly makes it harder for the students but easier to mark).
It should be abolished and replaced by a single publicly-owned, publicly-accountable exam board, with teachers and teaching unions having a say in its governance.
Take A level maths and further maths papers as an example of the pressures of exam board competition. The student who develops mathematical imagination and resourcefulness may well lose out, since they will try things outside the mark schemes. The student who understands what eigenvalues and eigenvectors are, but makes a slip in solving the characteristic equation, will do worse than the one who has no idea what it’s all about but can solve characteristic equations parrot-fashion.
Mechanical fluency in formulaic tasks has value. But the exam boards enforce a structure where mechanical fluency, often of a sort that will be forgotten within weeks of the exam, is valued above lasting understanding.
One answer is greatly to cut down on exams in schools. Another is to have exams regulated by a transparent and public process, not by a competitive market.