Education & Family

Ofqual head: End paper exams for digital generation

Students using computers (file pic)
Image caption Ms Nisbet says students are increasingly learning on computers, so should be tested on them

Computerised exams should replace pen and paper tests for a generation used to digital learning, the head of England's exams watchdog has said.

Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbet said the current reliance on handwritten papers "cannot go on".

Only a few sections of existing exams can be taken on computers.

Two exam boards welcomed her comments, but head teachers said resources would be a problem for a computerised system.

Pupils are becoming increasingly "techno savvy", Ms Nisbet wrote. "They use IT as their natural medium for identifying and exploring new issues and deepening their knowledge.

"Yet we are even now accrediting new GCSEs, due to run for several years, which are still taken largely on paper," she said.

"This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as their medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which youngsters learn," she added.

Currently, the three exam boards offering exams in England - Edexcel, AQA and OCR - offer only a small number of papers that can be done online.

Handwritten scripts are, however, widely scanned onto computers and marked on-screen.

Image caption Some say there is still a place for pen and paper in schools

Edexcel managing director Ziggy Liaquat said: "Technology has the potential to transform education by making its delivery more personalised, efficient and effective and more transparent and secure."

AQA chief executive Andrew Hall welcomed Ms Nisbet's comments and said it was "really important" that students be "assessed in the same way that they learn and using the technologies that are commonplace in the world outside the classroom".

"The real prize here is to have assessment, online, on-demand, when the student is ready," he said, suggesting a future where students did not all take their exams at the same time.

'Real challenges'

However, a spokesman for OCR said the board's focus "was not to make existing paper-and-pen tests electronic but to explore ways that computers can add real value to assessment".

The board's chief executive, Mark Dawe, said that moving to a computer-based system posed "real challenges" in terms of providing fair, secure computer access in schools.

Sion Humphreys, a policy adviser for the NAHT headteachers' union, echoed his concerns, adding that resources were a "thorny" issue at a time of cuts to technology investment in schools.

"You might have a large comprehensive where there are 240 young people in a year group - it's just not conceivable to think of 240 computers being available at the same time, all in working order, at the same time under, the same conditions," he said.

Mr Humphreys also disagreed that pen and paper could make exams become "invalid".

"Yes, they are using technology increasingly in schools as a medium of learning, but they're still also using pen and paper as well and there's a place for that," he said.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own exam regulators.

GCSEs and A-levels offered by the three exam boards can be taken all over the UK, although most Scottish students sit Scottish highers instead.

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