This issue needs examining, closely

Centre Assessed Grades are almost done.  The bane of every GCSE and A level teacher is almost over, the marking is largely done and standardisation will then occur by the exam boards.

As an economics teacher, I get curious about numbers.  Particularly when teachers, not exam boards were asked to do the marking this year.  The back of the envelope figures look roughly like this:

There are roughly 800,000 A level students in England.

Most do three subjects, so that’s 2.4 million subjects that need marking.  Exam entry fees are around £60 at a minimum.  So that’s roughly £144 million in exam fees.

Marking I’ve done for A level papers.  You tend to have a contract of between £800-£1000 and end up marking over 400.  So around £2 per paper is a rough estimate.

Students usually sit 3 papers per A level.  At 2.4 million subjects sat, that’s 7.2 million papers that need marking at a cost of £14.2 million

The situation is even worse with GCSEs.  GCSEs cost around £40 per subject.  There were 4.7 million GCSE entries in 2020.  So that’s £188 million in income. 

Most GCSE exams have on average 2 papers that need to be marked by examiners.  So that’s 9.4 million+ papers to be marked.  At £2 per paper that would be another £18.8 million.

This means that the exam boards have taken over hundreds of millions in exam fees. Headteachers estimate this to be £440 million with other qualifications added in, and they’d like half back – £220 million (Headteachers in England call for refund of £220m summer exam fees | Exams | The Guardian)

Now exam boards still have a lot to do – alternative question papers this year (although they just used a mix of the past papers in most cases), standardisation, appeals – they do need some money to function.  

But there’s still the money not spent on marking – £33 million!  This £33 million – at a bare minimum should really go to schools and FE colleges (particularly the latter as they receive lower funding than schools).  There is a strong moral case for this when schools and FE colleges are making staff redundant due to a funding crisis for education, as is the case at my college. 

Finally, there is a limited number of exam boards in England – so much so that they fit the very definition of an oligopoly.  So, we have all the problems that come with oligopolies – sticky prices, and the danger of low consumer surplus.  Meanwhile, the Exam Boards, and the international companies connected to them, achieve high supernormal profits.

My final thought is this:  The Government prides itself on being pro-business.  So, lets treat the exam boards like the businesses they are.  Let’s have the Competition and Markets Authority investigate this oligopoly with a view to reforming it so that students, parents and schools and colleges get a fairer deal.  Let’s look at how and whether the current market structure works fully in the public interest.  Let’s look at the powers of the regulator and decide whether Ofqual is acting in the public interest, or whether there’s a danger of regulatory capture materialising.

Liberals, like any good A level economics student, know that markets can work well, but that market failures can also occur, especially in concentrated markets.  We’re naturally suspicious of power, and believe in justice, including social justice.

Let’s apply it when it comes to examinations this summer with a basic principle – if you did the work, you should be paid for it.

This issue (and the Government’s response) needs examining closely.

* Simon Foster is a lecturer in Politics and Economics, and has published twenty-five books on Politics, PSHE and Citizenship.

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  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Jun '21 - 3:03pm

    Thank you for a most interesting and important article!
    Where does the »surplus » money go?
    Do exam boards have shareholders?

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Jun '21 - 3:19pm


  • >This £33 million – at a bare minimum should really go to schools and FE colleges
    Well given total exam fee income is £332 (144+188), that figure is looking a lot like a 5% margin and/or contingency allowance – which I note the lecturer has omitted from his thumbnail analysis…

  • Do we not need to examine the effectiveness of the present exam system? Perhaps as well we should look at the private tutoring which goes on, especially in view of the present discussion about this?
    If we are serious about thé mental health of children surely we should talk about the things we know cause unreasonable stress? One is poverty. The evidence is huge. Another is the exam system. The evidence is huge.

  • Simon Foster 5th Jun '21 - 7:48am

    Steve: Yes companies like Pearson which runs the Edexcel exam board are a PLC and have shareholders.

    Some would say the supernormal profits are being used to invent new materials and achieve dynamic efficiency. I would argue it’s more likely that shareholders are benefitting. There may also be bonuses for their senior staff.

    Roland: some people might agree that it is a contingency, however I believe most people would think it is unjust that the exam boards keep that contingency whilst staff are being made redundant in schools and learning will suffer further as a result in a very disruptive year.

    Note: schools and FE colleges did eventually receive some refunding last year, there is precedent for this.. That will come too late for some of my colleagues though.

    Teachers did the exam marking, schools and FE colleges should get the money. Unless you believe that one group of people should do the work for free whilst another group get the money?

    Ruth: thanks for the positive feedback.

    Tom: yes I believe you are correct. Two issues:

    1) The exam boards act like an oligopoly and don’t achieve allocative efficiency. Take archaeology as en example. AQA the last exam board to do these scrapped archaeology as an A level. The regulator should have intervened at this point. We now have no A level in the subject and a shortage of archaeologists. And we’ve lost all that experience from archaeology teachers who are now gone from A levels should we ever decided to replace it. Madness.

    2) £1.5 billion for tutoring is mistargetd and b) about a 10th of what is needed, said the Givernment’s advisor who resigned on the issue. There’s room for a whole other article on this.

    Finally, apologies for the delay in replying. I was in Chesham and Amersham yesterday leaving a lovely trail of orange stakeboards erected behind me as I drove round the constituency. I encourage all member and supporters to gio.

    PS: Sorry if there are any typos in this.. Working on my phone at the mo.

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