The UK school exam system can be very confusing to parents, even if they are from the UK and experienced it as a student themselves. As educators, we are commonly asked by international parents, ‘Is Cambridge board better than AQA?’ or ‘Edexcel is harder than AQA, right?’
These sincere questions reflect a misunderstanding of UK examination boards. The idea is easily held by parents not familiar with the UK as international schools sometimes use examination boards as a marketing tool. With an increasing number of UK schools opening in Southeast Asia, this is certainly the case. It’s easy to think that a school that is Cambridge, who does all Cambridge International Assessment Examinations (CIAE) examinations, must be linked to Cambridge University, the world ranked university, but this is not the case.
Is one exam board harder than the other?
Education in the UK is overseen by the Department for Education, an arm of the government. They set out the Education framework. In terms of teaching, they set what students must be taught and this is known as the National Curriculum.
Second to them is the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual); this is a non-ministerial government department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England. Ofqual is often referred to as the exam "watchdog". It is the authority which regulates and accredits British examination boards offering GCSEs and A Levels, while it is the Joint Council for Qualifications or JCQ which regulates administration of the actual GCSE and A Level examinations.
Examination boards, of which there are many, such as Edexcel, Cambridge International Assessment Examinations (CIAE) formally known as CIE, and AQA to name a few, are boards that generally operate under the JCQ, but who are all regulated by Ofqual. These boards write curriculum and examinations that meet the teaching requirements of the English National Curriculum.
While these courses can be different, they must all meet the standards of Ofqual, so neither one is more rigorous or more difficult than another, simply different. Ofqual ensures that all examination boards meet the same standards.
It is a common misconception that certain exam boards are better than others; some feel that Cambridge International Assessment Examinations (CIAE) must be better than the others, it says Cambridge after all! However, this is not true. When students are being accepted to universities throughout the world, it is their grades that count, not the exam board. It does our children a disservice to devalue their examination results by thinking that another student’s grade A is better or worse than theirs simply because it’s from another exam board. A report from the UK government Ofqual reads ‘we believe that the search for the ‘easiest’ exam board is misguided’.
How does the school decide what exam board to use and why does it have different ones?
There are more than seven examination boards to choose from, and remember no one is more rigorous than another. So why have different ones? Each exam board will write examinable material for their offered subjects, but between exam boards there will be some differences. Some boards may offer coursework or controlled assessment options for students, others may have material that is more culturally appropriate, some may weight their assessment objectives differently to another board. These differences give schools a choice. The government report cited previously explains that:
‘Naturally, not all exam board specifications are the same. Our regulations allow for differences between specifications as long as the appropriate amount of stipulated curriculum is covered and the assessment is valid and is sufficiently challenging. These variations allow teachers to choose the specification that they would most enjoy teaching and which they believe would best suit their pupils’ needs.’
Some schools elect to simply have all subjects use one exam board, this often does make taking exams easier relating to the organisation of the exams themselves, however, this does not always take the needs of students into account.
Here at Alice Smith, our Heads of Department consider the context and needs of our students first when determining which curriculum to follow and then choose a board that maximises the students’ attainment through the most appropriate accessibility and interest.
Author: David Slade, Vice Principal, Achievement & Progression at Alice Smith School Secondary Campus