GCSEs, A Levels 'Stronger, More Focused' - AQA CEO

We’re right in the middle of exam season for schools following the English National curriculum.  Students around the UAE are nervously turning over the first page when they hear the words: ‘You may open your papers.’ 

But what about the organisations responsible for writing and marking the exam papers?  What are the pressures facing them at this time?

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com caught up with Andrew Hall, Chief Executive Officer of AQA when he visited the UAE recently on behalf of Oxford International AQA Examinations to put a few testing questions of our own.


Could you tell me a bit about AQA and how you operate internationally?

AQA is the largest provider of GCSEs  and A Levels by some way in the UK and our market share is growing. Over time more and more schools and colleges outside the UK wanted to take our qualifications. It happened without us noticing to tell you the truth.  I came in and saw the situation and said if we’re going to do this properly we need to work with people who have experience working internationally. To help us do that we formed a relationship with Oxford University.  We do a lot of research with them and we have shared values on education.  We worked with them to put together international qualifications that were tailored to the demands of the international market.


So what are the main challenges you’ve had in adapting your curricula internationally?

One of the issues that we face internationally is cultural relevance. In our physics exams in the UK, for example, we’re quite likely to talk about heat loss through a radiator.  But is that relevant to children in Dubai? I don’t think so.  In an international context you’ve got to use language that young people understand. For most of our students who are taking our exams overseas English may not be their first language so you have to ensure in mathematics you assess mathematics not the ability to read a complex question. Our international range is designed to do that. 


Why are you visiting now and where does the UAE feature in your plans?

We’ve come to the Middle East to speak directly to the schools to find out what they like about our products and where we can improve.  The UAE continues to grow and we’re also interested in South East Asia and Malaysia.  We also do work in China. We came here first because we saw an openness, a willingness to engage as well as growth opportunities for the business.  If you look at the international schools here there are a large number of teachers who are from the UK.  People know us. For parents here some parents here would have seen AQA but the Oxford brand is also very important to parents. 


The British curriculum is the most popular in UAe with one in three pupils in Dubai currently studying in a school teaching this curriculum. We are though seeing increasing growth in other curricula in particular the IB curriculum. How do you see the competitive landscape?

My view is that the great strength of teachers is that they know what’s right for the individual pupil and A levels might be right for some pupils while IB might be right for others.  It’s about having that choice for the young person and having that choice is healthy.  I guess I’m quite relaxed about it.


One of the issues that is thrown back at A levels by proponents of the IB curriculum is grade inflation.  What’s your take on that?

I think in the past there has been. We led a big piece of reform with the UK government to address the issue. The best way I think to describe it is if your watch is out by five seconds in a day you won’t notice it, in a week you won’t notice it but if you drop a mark here and a mark there over ten years then there is an impact. 

The British government wanted to put a stop to it and so did we. What we did was to put in place a very strong statistical model called ‘comparable outcomes’ which has had a significant impact. 

The reformed qualifications we’ve launched in the UK are very strong, very focused and universities like them.  I think the other thing that relates to this discussion is what you put alongside A levels. We offer a qualification called ‘Extended Project’ which I believe complements the A level very well.  What universities want is students who can do independent thinking and the Extended Project has helped achieve that and the evidence is that the demand for this has grown and grown. 


That element already exists within the IB. Do you see elements of other curricula being pulled in to AQA qualifications?

There’s always a bit of discussion about who came first. My predecessor put in place a Baccalaureate which had an exam element, some community service and a test of critical thinking.  Now that has been around a long, long, time. We’ve never made a great deal of it so for us as an organization we’ve always recognized the need for a rounded education.


We’re seeing increasing focus in the UAE on vocational qualifications what do you think of that?

I came into education from engineering as I thought we were not giving people the right skills. I’m about to leave AQA in August to work with an apprenticeship provider. I think it’s really important to equip people with the right skills to enable them to contribute. But the skills must be portable.  For vocational qualifications that’s the chief challenge – how to provide qualifications that are recognized across different areas and different industries. 


We see a lot of criticism from business here about the quality of graduates coming out of universities but what should they i.e business be doing to help address the problem?

I’ve seen apprenticeships work well where organisations have actively been involved in the core training. One of the challenges in an industry sector is for employers to have a common view on what’s required.  Where organisations come together and agree these are the core needs and this is how we all agree they should be addressed is a recipe for potential success.  It’s then down to the educators to work out how best that can be delivered.  That engagement between both parties is crucial but it’s not straightforward. My personal view is that it shouldn’t just be large companies involved in this process. In the UK more people are employed in small companies than in big companies so that blended voice is vital. 


There have been allegations by certain commentators in the UK that the various examining boards are trying to establish mini-monpolies certain areas of the curriculum ensuring that there is a lack of competition across the board. How do you react to this?

Let me state clearly – on the record – that my ambition is for AQA to dominate all areas of the curriculum.  We are a charitable organization and we believe that our qualifications are the best. We want young people to have good chances.  I would say that allegation is absolutely nonsense.


You dropped a number of subjects last year including history of art and archaeology due to lack of demand. What’s your feeling on how subjects will develop?

There are a number of factors at work. In many parts of the world school budgets are under pressure. Some of the specialist, lesser taught subjects will of necessity be dropped from the curriculum.  We’re a charity and have cross-subsidized in the past. Where we’ve come out of subjects is where we can’t deliver effectively. With the history of art we were not comfortable that we could find the spread of markers for the breadth of curriculum required. 


Every subject has got to justify itself it’s got to be ‘for a purpose’. What do you think about  ‘learning for learning’s sake’?

It’s about choice. Children should be able to choose the subjects that interest them.  If you have a career path in mind – such as sciences or medicine you have to have a certain range of subjects if you wish to pursue this at third level. But a key lesson is that children tend to do well at lessons they enjoy. 


The issue of re-marking is hot with pupils and schools alike. How often do re-marks happen and are they worth it?

It varies by subject. One of the key things is to make sure that you have assessments that are capable of being marked.  History of art is a classic example of that – you’ve got to design it so that it can be marked.  There are judgements – more judgements in English than in mathematics since there are subjective elements.  We have qualitative controls and grade boundaries


With the recent changes in GCSE and A levels examining bodies such as AQA have had to employ more markers and we’ve seen people with PGCEs and Non-Qualified Teachers (NQTs) being employed to mark. Should parents and students be worried about this?

We ran a pilot last year where we went to some universities and spoke to their PhD students and got them to mark for us. They got a lot of supervision and what we found was that they were very good markers because they followed the mark scheme and this is the key to ensuring effective marking.  We will have more PhD students this year. If you put the right training around marking newly qualified teachers can mark well.  The research is quite powerful – following the mark scheme and not thinking you know better than the mark scheme is vital. 


What should parents be doing to help their children get into the best university?

My most important piece of advice is  ‘listen to what your teachers say’!