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Guest Post: Is Competition Between Awarding Bodies Good for Our National Curriculum?

Is competition between our examination bodies good for the national curriculum

All Awarding Bodies are competing for a sale of their qualifications, whether you provide one course, hundreds of courses or even thousands. You could be teaching Maths, Science, English, Computer Science or Food Technology. They want your business. Assessment and qualifications is a multi-billion pound industry in the UK and with the ongoing government emphasis on education it is an industry that is only likely to grow.


It’s a tough market, there are only 183 Awarding Bodies and a handful of them dominate the majority of the market. So, how are centres choosing which Awarding Body to use; well their decisions are usually based on cost, administration, exam results and in most cases support. But, most of the time there is so little to differentiate the qualifications, and what differentiation there is can be very difficult and time consuming to identify. This means that the decision makers often stay with what they know and don’t bother to look around for a better deal or specification.

With the advent of the new academy era and the more autonomous mind set within schools, is this all about to change? The Awarding Bodies definitely hope it will!

It would be fair to say that competition for market share is what drives the majority of Awarding Bodies, whether they are for profit, or not for profit. Many of the Awarding Bodies are charitable and not for profit.  Market share means success, popularity and profit or charitable donations. One Awarding Organisation donated in excess of £60million to charitable trusts in 2009.

In order to win or compete strongly, some of the Awarding Bodies concentrate on marketing messages that boast about their qualifications having the ‘best content’ or, the ‘quickest results turnaround’, the ‘cheapest individual assessment fee’s’, the ‘most comprehensive support and training initiatives’. These all seem like fair and honest areas of their business to concentrate on. But, is that what teachers and educators see? Do teachers and educators care? What is it that a decision maker is looking for? What will make them jump ship from one Awarding Body to another? The answer is, the Awarding Bodies don’t know and nor does anyone else.

Have Awarding Bodies been going beyond acceptable levels of competition?

The above might contain examples of the different and positive marketing messages that Awarding Bodies use and rightfully communicate to their customers. But, if we’re to fully believe the recent claims regarding exam question hints and Awarding Bodies making qualifications and assessments easier, then it would be irrefutable that competition has gone too far and that professional ethics have gone out the window.

I have personally spent many years both providing qualifications and working within Awarding Bodies. In my opinion these claims are exaggerated, the real picture should be one of a highly regulated, motivated and ethical industry.

Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, it is very difficult for an Awarding Body to differentiate their qualifications from those being published by their competitors as content, levels of study and assessment types are tightly controlled and regulated by Ofqual and the related sector skills councils. If a proposed qualification or revised specification doesn’t meet the predefined standards or difficulty benchmarks set out by the regulator then it simply gets declined acceptance onto the register of regulated qualifications.

I’m sure that if you studied AQA’s, OCR’s and Edexcel’s versions of a Maths GCSE and looked closely at their exam papers that you would see slight differences in style and perhaps context, but you would not see one that is easier to pass than the other.

The question of; are today’s exams easier to pass than those being taken 20 years ago has been going on for 20 years. If the answer is ‘yes, they are easier’, then it is a problem with the regulatory standards that determine the difficulty of attaining certain qualifications. If something needs fixing; is it not the regulatory standards?

I think it is fair to say that creating qualifications and assessments isn’t like creating and designing consumer goods.

What’s good for our exam boards is good for our National Curriculum!

Ultimately, I believe that the competition that exists between our Awarding Bodies is good for our National Curriculum. The National Curriculum was introduced to provide a tangible measure for our schools and education providers so that we could see their levels of success in the form of exam results.

Due to regulatory restraints the real competition between Awarding Bodies comes in the form of support, training and teaching resources that help schools and educators better provide the qualifications that sit within the National Curriculum remit. I find it impossible to find an argument that says developing support, training and resources is bad for education and those providing it.

If we had a single Awarding Body then yes, there would be no difference at all in qualification and assessment content. But, I am absolutely convinced that if there was a single Awarding Body that the emphasis on good quality support and training would disappear.

Competition between our Awarding Bodies is good. It pushes the bar in supporting and continually improving the way in which education is provided and taught to our modern cohorts. Competition breads innovation and for me it makes the future of education exciting.

If there is an issue with exam difficulty, then we should look at the regulator to raise the standards and not criticise the Awarding Bodies who are trying hard to make education interesting and brilliant!


About the Author:

Rachel Nickson – Is an education professional and writes on behalf of National – a new tool designed to make the qualification comparison process easier. It’s free and easy to use.


5 responses to “Guest Post: Is Competition Between Awarding Bodies Good for Our National Curriculum?”

  1. Avatar Louise says:

    A very interesting read. Having come from the British system with multiple exam boards (in the days of O’levels and CSEs) I am now working in a country where 50% of the final exam is set by the school and 50% by the one and only national (private) exam board. The inspectorate ensures the difference in grades between the school and central exam is kept minimal but I feel it’s rather ‘dangerous’ to have one all-powerful exam board and would rather there was some healthy competition to keep the exam boards on their toes. There are, of course, many sides to the discussion which I won’t go into here, but if anyone wants to read up on it:
    this is the national exam board:

  2. Avatar Ian says:

    Well, that’s one viewpoint – sadly, I don’t think it’s borne out by the evidence. There are clear differences in both the content and difficulty of material for different boards in my subject, Science.

    Many sixth form colleges have seen that candidates with equal grades in competing boards have very different levels of skill, not all of which can be due to classroom variations. (I’m not naming any, but I don’t think this will come as a surprise.) And I’m very curious about the idea that varied exam boards encourages innovation in the classroom. We’ve found the opposite – that only by following exam board ‘guidelines’ will students have the chance to get the highest scores, especially with controlled assessments. This ends up being more rigid, not less.

    Finally, surely innovation in the classroom should be up to the school and teacher, not driven by the qualification?

    • Avatar Tom Hesmondhalgh says:

      I think you’re right. Scotland manages perfectly well with just one examination board – and there are no charges there that they lack innovation. If anything I feel the problem in the UK is that there is too much innovation in terms of the volume of qualifications, too little in terms of the qualifications themselves. I always wondered whether a kind of ‘jury service’ for teachers might be a good idea, where practicing teachers set exam questions – supported by a permanent team in much the same way as a court is today.

  3. Avatar Archan Ghosh says:


    I needed some information so thought about replying to this post. Can someones please answer my questions below? It will be a big help.

    1. Who decides the GCSE/A level syllabus? So if a qualification is given by awarding bodies like AQA and EdExcel, do these awarding bodies decide on the syllabus?

    2. The Govt new initiative is to introduce more FREE schools? These free schools like private and public schools will also be affiliated to one of these awarding bodies to award the students. My question is that HOW do these awarding bodies EARN their revenue by catering to free schools unlike private and public schools where there are tuition fees to cover such costs?

    I will appreciate some response. Many thanks.


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