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Anton Howes on Michael Gove’s plan to impose a government exam board monopoly

The answer to a market where the participants compete to make things worse by following bad incentives is to ask what is creating those bad incentives and to stop doing that, not to impose a monopoly.

That thought is my response to, and my almost entire agreement with, an ASI blog posting by Anton Howes, which is critical of Education Minister Michael Gove’s plan to replace competing examination boards with a state monopoly examination board. Gove says these are now racing each other to the bottom, racing each other, that is to say, in lowering standards.

But, says Howes:

The proposals to limit exam board competition to monopolies for every subject (or duopolies between O-levels and CSEs) would therefore exacerbate the problem by limiting healthy academic discrimination even further. With only one exam board to be lobbied for each subject, we would face a system where every self-interested education minister could easily ‘dumb down’ the system even further, no matter how much an overhaul could raise standards in the immediate short term.

Howes is spot on in identifying one of the biggest reasons why state action is so frequently resorted to, even by politicians generally inclined to favour free market solutions. To start with, state action sometimes seems to improve matters, definitely so to many eyes. Only later does the arrangement revert to brazen, monopolised incompetence. Markets, on the other hand, often start out as a bit of a shambles, and only yield their benefits to politicians who are prepared to be patient. In the long run, markets are incomparably superior, and some politicians do know this. But politics mostly happens in the short run.

Howes also notes that “free marketeer” Lizz Truss MP supports Gove in this move towards state monopoly.

Alas, Howes himself gets a bit confused in his final paragraph:

… the real solution to grade inflation may lie in more accurate and discriminating government league tables, …

Excuse me! Now who is putting his faith in a government monopoly? But before even the next full stop arrives, Howes corrects himself.

… or even their replacement with a competing system of tables by universities, employers, and other private groups.

Quite so. But lose that “even”.

5 comments to Anton Howes on Michael Gove’s plan to impose a government exam board monopoly

  • The market ought to figure out what credentials and learning systems work for the people who need to use them. And I don’t think a two tier exam system would win. Polycentric and networked is the future: http://jockcoats.me/goves_conservative_segmentation_education

  • Robbo

    Hmm. In the deep past the exam boards belonged to and had as their customers, the universities. The boards’ role was to set exams which discriminated between more and less able pupils, for the purpose of university entry. Of course many other institutions could use the same exams to make their selection decisions, a massive positive externality, now lost. A reset of the exam system would have to stop regarding pupils or schools as the customer – thereby going down the slippery slope to ‘all shall have prizes’ – and put the university back in charge. They should be able to say, if you want to go to our University you will take our exams and will we judge you based on your results. Actually a single board could work well on this basis, since if it stopped working for the Universities they would be well placed to start a rival board.

  • …a point, Robbo, I make in my linked post above. But not just the universities. Only 20% of kids even sat the GCEs set by university owned examinations syndicates. The CSEs were managed by regional skills boards which was also potentially a good thing lost in that it put regional emphases onto what regional kids were learning and being tested on.

  • Jim

    Is the answer not just to make the exams normative again? Then there is no incentive to dumb down the content in order raise ‘pass’ rates because it makes no difference. In fact its probably easier to grade pupils into deciles (or whatever) if the exam is a bit harder so the marks are spread out more.

    If only 20% of students could get an A in any particular exam boards syllabus, then there is little incentive for a school to put its pupils in for it over a harder one, even if it was an ‘easier’ exam. It would just mean to get an A you’d have to get nearly 100%.

    Hence the gaming of the system by both exam boards and schools would be thwarted. Schools couldn’t get better grades by going for an easier exam, and boards couldn’t offer higher grades by making their exam easier.

  • Anton

    Haha you’ll like today’s post on the same subject even more, Brian: http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/education/forget-competitive-exam-boards-we-should-abolish-o-levels-altogether

    I was just setting up the debate to make the more radical point… ;)