CIEA ten years on
By David Wright
In 2002, in the wake of that year’s A Level grading controversy, Dr Ken Boston the newly-installed Head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) declared the examination system ‘a cottage industry’. This helped create the political impetus to help modernise the system that had not changed significantly in decades. It led the Education Secretary Charles Clarke to announce a £100m investment programme to help modernise the examination system.
QCA set up the programme, which was managed by its subsidiary - the National Assessment Agency (NAA). There were several aspects to the programme, including improving the Exams Offices in schools, training Exams Officers, and supporting a nationwide examiner recruitment campaign. Crucially, another strand to the programme was setting up a professional body to raise the prestige of and provide a professional voice for all those undertaking assessment roles. When established in 2005, it was initially called the ‘Institute of Educational Assessors’. It gained its Royal Charter in 2008 and became the CIEA. Now fifteen years on from its inception, how has the Institute impacted upon the face of education?
Back then over 60,000 examiners were needed each year to make the GCSE, GCE and national Curriculum Test system work. Each examiner would typically mark around 500 complete exam papers, not just questions or items, at between £2 and £3 per script, depending on its level, length and complexity. The recruitment and retention of examiners especially in the shortage subject areas of maths and science was particularly challenging.
Most examiners came from the teaching profession and would attend a standardisation day, usually led by the Chief or Principal Examiner before being sent away to mark at home a number of scripts in what became a traditional three-week marking window around the end of the summer term. Giving up your own precious time in return for £1000-£1500 to help pay for a summer holiday came at a price, and not everyone was willing to sacrifice their time to mark.
The challenge of establishing a professional body was immense. Teachers, who formed the majority of part-time examiners or markers, were usually paying to be members of a trade union, often belonged to a subject association and were also subject to a central levy from the General Teaching Council for England (akin to a General Medical Council for Teachers). Having to pay a fourth subscription to a professional body for assessment meant that the proposed Institute had to demonstrate real and lasting value.
The first step was to develop something unique which could help professionalise the role of the those carrying out assessment roles, along the lines seen in other professions. A competency framework was devised that captured and codified the roles of all those engaged in all assessment roles
The Teacher Unions were nervous about a professional body moving in on their territory of collective representation. Awarding bodies were concerned about how a professional body might interact with them. Teachers also wondered what an Institute might do and how it would prove relevant to their needs.
The first step was to develop something unique which could help professionalise the role of the those carrying out assessment roles, along the lines seen in other professions. A competency framework was devised that captured and codified the roles of all those engaged in all assessment roles, from those who devised assessment, those who managed and conducted assessments, those who marked and assessed students’ work through to those who supported the assessment process.
Awarding bodies were helpful in providing role descriptions, especially Kathleen Tattersall the CEO of AQA who later became the first Chair of the CIEA and later Ofqual’s first Chief Regulator. These role descriptions delineated the different tasks each role performed, from that of Chief Examiner, to Team Leader or Examiner. These tasks were grouped into activities that individuals took to prepare for, undertake, or follow the marking process. Supporting skills of interactivity, engagement and communication provided the threads that flowed throughout all roles and at all levels.
Once the roles were defined and the tasks detailed, the next step was to sense check these with the Awarding Bodies and use focus groups of examiners, markers and other assessment personnel to verify the value of the Professional Framework. At the same time a wider public consultation was undertaken through the NAA to validate the proof of concept that a professional Institute of Educational Assessors could help support better examiner performance by identifying what examiners needed to do in order to be effective in their role, and then to help them improve.
The building blocks of services which could deliver improved performance included
- information (a monthly magazine/newsletter and website)
- networking (an annual conference)
- training on assessment and offering a range of continuing professional development opportunities.
The pinnacle of the training available was the award of ‘Chartered Educational Assessor’ status that recognised individuals with significant assessment expertise capable of supporting all aspects of effective assessment practice in schools, colleges and workplaces.
The eventual aim for the Institute was to become self-financing through membership following the years of funding by Government. Enrolling examiners as members became a core part of our initial focus as we worked with Awarding Bodies to recruit members to the new institute, eventually reaching a membership of 5,000 within three years.
A rolling programme of engagement saw the five full-time staff members of the Institute undertake visits across 156 local authorities, key higher education bodies such as Durham University’s CEM centre, and key influencers such as Professor Dylan Wiliam or Eton College’s Head, Tony Little.
So fifteen years on what has changed? At the time I used the institute magazine ‘Make the Grade’ as a platform to call for greater independence for professionals working in education. For too long the sector had been hampered by initiative upon initiative, with successive governments moving onto a new policy before an existing one had time to get bedded down and take effect. If teachers felt punch drunk by policy announcements it was for good reason.
For the period from 2005 – 2010 when we were funded by QCA it felt that the CIEA was a leading voice shaping the educational assessment agenda, coinciding with a range of initiatives that CIEA was able to support in various ways. Our message was to move the lexicon from simply ‘teaching and learning’ to ‘teaching, learning and assessment’. The move to use ‘Controlled Assessments’ in GCSE assessments reflected widespread concerns, shared by our members, over the variability of conditions under which students produced their coursework. The development and delivery of the Diploma qualifications to offer students general vocational qualifications as alternatives to GCSE and A Level saw the CIEA actively supporting quality assessment practice in schools and colleges. Like too many educational initiatives they were both dropped by the incoming government in 2010 in favour of more traditional approaches to teaching, learning and assessment methods.
One of our major initiatives was the proposal to have a Chartered Educational Assessor in each school or college, to lead and manage high quality institution-wide assessment practice. Our plans were supported by an educational review led by Tim Brighouse, and gained wider support from the Teacher Unions, in particular ASCL under John Dunford. Sadly the general election of 2010 also put paid to that initiative and the political agenda changed.
Today the examination system is more modern, more professional and more integrated as a comprehensive system of accountability. Practicing teachers still make up the majority of examiners and markers, but now they are standardised and conduct their marking online. While not all examiners have welcomed this move, it has brought benefits in terms of quality assurance and checking on aberrant marking. It also means we no longer have tens of thousands of packages containing exam papers moving around by Royal Mail which always created issues when scripts went missing.
The CIEA has continued to have a role, arguing the case for greater professionalism in assessment and continuing to support those who undertake this important work that underpins our education system.
Since 2003 the use of examination and National Curriculum Test results as part of the school and college accountability system has become a set feature of educational landscape, albeit one that remains controversial with many teachers and parents. Recent revisions to GCSEs and A levels have seen the weighting given to coursework reduced significantly, with more reliance on final examinations and tests. But the debates from the early part of this century concerning the validity, reliability and fitness for purpose of our examination and testing system, which the CIEA and its membership comment on all those years ago, remain as important now as then.
The funding that CIEA received from government ended in 2011/2012, as the new government sought to remove ‘quangos’ from the educational scene and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency become one of the first to disappear. However, the CIEA has continued to have a role, arguing the case for greater professionalism in assessment and continuing to support those who undertake this important work that underpins our education system.