Testing times

Earlier this year examination board Edexcel suffered a spectacular fall from
grace – and much of the fault lay with HR. New HR chief Tim Williams (pictured)
explains why things are different now. Jane Lewis reports

The injunction ‘physician, heal thyself’ could have been tailor-made for the
troubled examination board Edexcel. Among the many NVQs it sets and tests is
one in ‘Professional Supervisory Management’: a skill so conspicuously missing
from its own organisation over the past year that it could be a joke – were it
not for the huge anger and animosity its many blunders have aroused in
teachers, students and outraged parents across the country.

For those of you who have not been paying attention, the charges levied
against Edexcel range from the ridiculous (its notorious ‘unanswerable’
AS-level maths question), to the morally criminal. According to one report,
"thousands of teenagers" face a blighted future because of the
board’s questionable marking techniques, its propensity for mislaying papers
and coursework, and its shortage of examiners.

Some grades appeared to have been plucked from thin air: 6,486 students who
were told they had failed their communication and numbers key skills test were
eventually awarded passes; 3,705 more who had been celebrating passing a
technology paper, were suddenly asked to take it again. Other results didn’t
arrival at all.

In February, Wyke College in Hull claimed some students were still awaiting
the results of exams sat last summer. Others claimed they had missed vital
university opportunities because of Edexcel mix-ups. To make matters worse, the
board didn’t seem to care. Head teacher after head teacher stood up to denounce
an organisation that apparently couldn’t even be bothered to return phone

In January the brewing tension, that even the autumn resignation of chief
executive Christina Townsend had failed to quell, finally erupted into a
full-scale storm. The furious Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, slammed the
board’s mismanagement and threatened to strip it of its licence, a Number 10
spokesman condemned its ‘sloppy’ and ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, and the press
went wild.

Edexcel’s new chief executive John Kerr endured a ritual humiliation on
Newsnight before issuing a grovelling apology and the promise to get ‘back to
basics’ (never a phrase to inspire confidence).

After a lightning investigation by examinations watchdog the Qualities &
Curriculum Authority (QCA), Edexcel was given a month to shape up. The
authority is now apparently satisfied that Edexcel has learned the lessons of
last summer and amended its ways enough to be allowed to continue as one of the
country’s three examination boards.

Many teachers, suspecting a whitewash, have denounced this conclusion as
superficial. It would be many years, says Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary
of the Association of Teachers & Lecturers (AT&L), before teachers
regained their trust in Edexcel. "Everyone who has suffered at the hands
of the board", adds David Hart, general secretary of the National
Association of Head Teachers, "will want to know that this really is the
last chance saloon for this organisation."

No doubt the man occupying one of the least enviable positions in the whole
saga will find this analogy easy enough to digest: prior to assuming joint
responsibility for HR and external relations at Edexcel, Tim Williams was HR
director at the Whitbread pub partnership. Now this genial-sounding Welshman is
in the first line of fire. Critics say that it was surely his department’s
responsibility to ensure that shortcomings in management, procedures and
service, identified by the critical QCA report, were spotted and nipped in the
bud before they had a chance to manifest themselves so spectacularly.

It should also have been up to HR to ensure Edexcel’s mainly hard working
and conscientious staff were organised properly. Clearly, said the QCA, they
weren’t. The organisation relied heavily on the experience and knowledge of
individual staff members and had failed to translate these assets into
"fluent working practices supported by an appropriate management
structure". According to one former director, these problems of mismanagement
had been allowed to fester for years.

And who else but HR was responsible for ensuring enough examiners were
recruited to handle last summer’s exams – and that the right procedures were in
place to make sure satisfactory standards in marking and grading were

So what does Williams have to say for himself? His defence, briefly
summarised, runs as follows:

First, Edexcel was unfairly singled out – the other two boards, OCR and AQA
experienced similar problems, but these went largely unreported. Moreover, the
whole affair was blown out of proportion by the media in January because
"it was a quiet news weekend".

Second, many of the individual cases quoted were either misreported or, in
some instances, downright untrue (it wasn’t Edexcel, for example, which mislaid
a tranche of coursework in its cupboards, but actually the college involved).

Finally – and this is the big point – the real culprit of the whole debacle
was the over-crowded exam system itself. Ultimate responsibility for that lies with
the two bodies doling out much of the criticism: the Government and the QCA.
Some cynics go further, arguing that the Government decided to give Edexcel ‘a
good kicking’ to deflect attention from its own shortcomings, in particular
damaging publicity about grade inflation. No wonder Williams is indignant.
"We tried to get our side of the story across", he says,
"unfortunately no-one was listening."

It is very easy to blame ‘the system’ for any botched job, but it is clear
there is a groundswell of support for Williams’ argument. ‘There but for the
grace of God…’ was the reported response to Edexcel’s travails from the chief
executive of a rival board. Only last month OCR (formed from the amalgam of the
prestigious Oxford, Cambridge and RSA boards and owned by Cambridge University)
had to apologise for an error that left some students with the wrong marks, and
to promise improvements in the training of its staff.

It is clear that the Government and the QCA "have to take at least part
of the responsibility because of the hasty introduction of Curriculum
2000", says Andy Westwood, head of policy research at the Industrial
Society. "The [exam] system needed reform, and I wouldn’t underestimate
the Government’s need to address it. But if you’re setting in place incremental
change year-on-year, it is a lot to ask of any delivery agency. Less than two
years into Curriculum 2000, we’ve already got a Green Paper that proposes a
whole lot of amendments to those changes.

"The Government should have realised the strain [that the new AS-levels
and Key Skills] would place on an already creaking system," adds one head
teacher. "It is clear the boards simply cannot cope." Exam boards
have always made mistakes, but the explosion in the number of papers has
overloaded them and widened the scope for errors. In 2001 almost 50,000
examiners handled 24 million exam papers and pieces of coursework. And this
increase comes at the same time as the number of exam boards has been reduced
from 24 to three in England (see box on page 26).

"To some extent we were a victim of our own success," argues
Williams. "We went out and sought a large share of the [Key Skills] market
and ended up with the lion’s share. The difficulty we had as an organisation
was the rapid growth rate – we couldn’t cope with the pace of change."

But although the constraints of the system meant Edexcel frequently had to
operate "with one arm tied behind its back", it is clear there were
"a lot more things it could and should have done with the remaining
arm", says Westwood. From an HR perspective, Edexcel’s greatest failure
was its apparent detachment from the people it should have been concentrating
most on understanding – the 15,000 examiners (mostly teachers looking to
supplement their income) who contract their services to the board each year.

"There was huge resistance from teachers about the introduction of
Curriculum 2000 – most didn’t want to teach it, let alone assess it,"
Westwood adds. But Edexcel ploughed on regardless. "It didn’t understand
the dynamic going on in its market; there should have been people in place with
enough knowledge and experience of staff to understand how people felt and what
the issues were." What the subsequent furore underlined above all was how
far the management team were removed from the core business.

Many teachers agree. According to Gwen Evans at the AT&L, far from
working closely with partners to iron out difficulties, the board ignored clear
warnings from teachers that the system could prove unsustainable.
"Edexcel’s disregard of teacher expertise led to a crisis of confidence
that could have been avoided."

The failure to win the hearts and minds of this critical group was to have a
huge knock-on effect because many were ‘double customers’ of the board. As well
as being examiners, a substantial number – in their capacity as heads of
department at their schools – were also paying clients who had selected
Edexcel’s examination curriculum above the rival offerings of the other two

Williams admits that much of the uproar that blew up in January was the
cumulative result of months of poorly handled customer contact issues.
Edexcel’s failure to be "efficient enough at dealing with these feelings
of ill-will" ensured that when its infrastructure buckled under the strain
of last year’s huge workload, it received no quarter from angry teachers who
might otherwise have taken its side.

Can these deep-seated management issues really have been ironed out in the
space of a month, as the Government and QCA apparently believe? Williams is
confident the answer is yes. Effectively, he says, the board has rejigged its
structure, creating three new general management areas and reclassifying who
does what.

Edexcel has also apparently learned the lesson of communication: it has hired
a professional customer services manager with former experience at Telewest, Go
and BT, who, Williams says, has already "revolutionised our strategy in
complaints". The company has also had to work hard to restore the morale
of its 800 permanent staff, which hit rock bottom at the height of Edexcel’s
vilification. It’s never easy having regulators crawling all over you, says
Williams. "But our attitude was: let’s react positively rather than regard
this as an intrusion."

His main concern at the peak of the crisis was to quench fears among the
board’s 800 permanent staff that the Government would carry out its threat to
withdraw Edexcel’s licence. In fact, as commentators agree, the threat carried
very little weight and the Government was disingenuous in issuing it – Edexcel
handles nearly one-third of all exam entries in England, so it was clear the
board could not be closed down overnight and other boards had no spare capacity
to take up the slack.

Indeed, Westwood believes many of the reforms Edexcel pushed through at
short notice were merely a cosmetic reaction to sector-wide problems. The wider
macro question thrown up by what happened at Edexcel, he argues, is the
viability of a system that relies on hybrid companies.

Like the other two examination boards, Edexcel is both a limited company and
a charity. Although it ploughs its profits back into education, it operates
like a commercial company so it can respond to the theoretically redeeming
pressure of free enterprise. In reality, says Westwood, Edexcel operates in the
bizarre construct of a sham market situation – and it may have become
over-complacent precisely because of the frighteningly safe nature of its

But other critics argue the opposite point. According to one former
employee, many of the board’s mistakes can be attributed to the replacement of
its education ethos with a need to compete for market share. David Hart, at the
National Association of Head Teachers, agrees: he argues that Edexcel’s
preoccupation with chasing new business came at the expense of its existing
commitments. "What it has forgotten is that it is responsible for
providing a service to schools and colleges which leaves precious little room
for error."

Williams concedes that many of Edexcel’s HR problems have sprung from its
transition from an outright quango to a modern not-for-profit organisation.
"We are subject to the whim and vagaries [of external government]
influence", he says, "but at the end of the day we are an independent
organisation and we’re trying to be more business-like." Whichever way you
cut it, it’s a fine line to walk.

Williams’ contention that "Edexcel is not very aggressive" in the
market – "we don’t have an active strategy to go out and become number one
by constantly growing our market share" seems to go against much of the
rest of the evidence. For instance, part of Edexcel’s quest to be more
business-like involves actively assessing how much each qualification it offers
costs to run. "We can tell by product, what’s profitable and what
isn’t." The inevitable consequence of this, surely, is that non-profitable
qualifications – those that fall outside the mainstream, say, or those that
involve extra work in preparation and assessment – will be quietly dropped.

Meanwhile, much of the board’s energy in recent years has been diverted into
developing lucrative markets overseas. Although it has offices in the Middle
East, Malaysia and China, Edexcel is active in more than 100 countries. Williams
insists overseas business represents less than 10 per cent of the board’s total
interests and "we’re growing at a rate and speed we can cope with".
But critics say Edexcel’s overseas interests were part of the reason it took
its eye off the ball in the UK with such spectacularly disastrous results.

Edexcel is far from unique in its business growth preoccupations – the two
other boards face similar pressures. One retiring OCR examiner, Jeffery
Robinson, claimed last year that the boards deliberately made exams easier in
an effort to get more schools to sign up with them. This accusation was
vigorously denied by all three organisations, but the pressure they are under
to raise cash is incontrovertible: a leading cause of Edexcel’s recent problems
has been its failure to turn in a profit for the past three years.

Ironically, the boards’ hybrid status as not-for-profit organisations only
adds to the pressure to act in an overtly commercial way. As Williams points
out, unlike ‘true businesses’, the boards cannot go to the money markets to
raise cash.

It is clear that this inherent conflict of interest lies at the heart of
Edexcel’s HR problems. One constant criticism from disgruntled customers is
that its management is more in tune with commercial considerations than it is
with promoting vocational and academic excellence. But how could it be
otherwise when so many of its senior managers, from its chief executive –
former British Steel man John Kerr – downwards, had gained most of their
experience in the private sector? And the introduction of some distinctly
private sector practices – most notably paying senior board members a total of
£110,000 in performance bonuses at the peak of Edexcel’s troubles – hardly
helped its reputation.

"Edexcel was about assessing competence in education," concludes
Westwood, "But the majority of its managers had no interest in the core
business and believed the hype that it was a market-led organisation and that
[generic] management skills would take it anywhere." As the Government
looks to build on its private/public initiatives throughout many other areas of
the public system, the HR conundrum demonstrated so clearly at Edexcel, must
surely give it pause for thought.

As for Edexcel, as it dusts itself off from its annus horribilis, the future
is already looking brighter, says Williams. The board has just returned another
tranche of results without incident, and new plans to spread out exams over the
year mean that the peaks and troughs which did so much to derail the organisation
"are now running into each other". He is confident the board has
managed its way out of a repeat debacle on last year’s scale. "We are
determined to get back to where we were and restore the pride of staff and the
confidence of customers," he concludes. Only time will tell on that point.

From gold standard to laughing stock

Edexcel’s plummeting reputation over
the past year is all the more poignant because of the excellence of its
historical record. As Andy Westwood at the Industrial Society points out, it
may come to be regarded – alongside Consignia – as one of the great rebranding
disasters. As he remarks wryly: "it’s very hard to forgive a

In common with the other two boards OCR and AQA, Edexcel is the
product of a series of government-inspired mergers in 1996, which sought to
rationalise the exam assessment system (then consisting of at least a dozen
separate organisations) into three main boards, and put vocational
qualifications on a par with academic ones. This trend also saw the merger of
the hitherto separate departments of education and employment.

Edexcel was formed out of the merger of BTEC, then the
"gold standard of vocational education", says Westwood, and the
University of London Examinations and Assessment Council. "Within three
years it had become a laughing stock." Westwood is in a good position to
know: a former NVQ teacher, he worked for the Employment Policy Institute in
1998-99 and was seconded to Edexcel to research its operation.

Despite Edexcel’s travails, it is still the country’s leading
provider of vocational qualifications. Moreover, it has always boasted an
enviably close relationship with powerful government figures. As its former
head of corporate affairs, Gordon Tempest-Hay said in 1998: "We have regular
day-to-day contact with the front bench team." As if to emphasise the
point, Cherie Booth recently contributed her thoughts as a mother to Edexcel’s
guide to top exam tips for parents.

Early in January this year, Edexcel appeared to have put its woes
behind it and, in the words of one commentator, was once more "luxuriating
in approbation at the highest level". During the Blairs’ visit to India,
they joined chief executive John Kerr at the opening of Edexcel’s new online
knowledge and learning centre. Barely a fortnight later, when the public storm
surrounding Edexcel’s performance blew up with renewed strength, that support
was withdrawn with almost unseemly speed, culminating in Number 10’s dismissal
of the board’s management as ‘shoddy’. When it came to the crunch, the
Government that had wielded such influence both on the formation of Edexcel,
and on the ongoing framing of its remit, not only abandoned it to the wolves,
but joined them.

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