A shortage of markers could hit next year's GCSE and A-level exams, the head of the government's watchdog warned last night.

The chief executive of the qualifications and curriculum authority, Ken Boston, said this year's A-level grades debacle would have put some people off marking exams when there is already a general shortage of examiners.

He warned that England had the "most excessive" exam system in the world and added: "We are running here a 21st century education system on a huge cottage industry." This year more than 24 million AS and A-level scripts had to be marked.

Giving evidence on the recent exams crisis to the Commons' education selection committee last night, Dr Boston stepped up the pressure on the government to scrap some of the external exams children have to take.

"I would start by saying I certainly have no magic wand and I am not at all sure that the path to examinations in January and June will be smooth," Dr Boston told the committee.

"There are some major problems and some major risks ahead of us."

He has already set up an examinations task force that will meet at least once a fortnight to try to ensure next year's exams proceed without a hitch.

Dr Boston said: "The shortage of examiners I think is going to be exacerbated this year by many people not wishing to examine again, or perhaps not for one board again.

"I do believe examinations are probably the most excessive in the world for young people and we could get equally valuable measurement of student performance and progress with less examination."

Dr Boston said the technology used to run the exam system had changed very little, while the chief executive of Edexcel exam board, John Kerr, described it as "Victorian".

However, a spokesman for the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examination Board (OCR), which was at the centre of the A-level crisis, said while recruiting markers was a long-term problem, he predicted next year wouldn't be any worse, and that the crisis might actually encourage more teachers to take up marking.

"We would think that this year's problems demonstrate that we need good solid markers. It highlights the fact that we need more involvement from teachers.

"Exam officers need to be valued more by schools; the question is how do we do that."

But Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "There's no doubt about it, there is continued pressure for finding experienced markers, experience is crucial. I think it's foolish to pretend that there won't be a problem this year. The multiplicity of exams is reflected in the problem of markers. My instinct is that it may be more difficult because people will be more worried about getting involved in case there's another debacle."

Incentives being discussed to attract more markers include increased salary points.

Paul Holmes MP, Liberal Democrat member of the education select committee, said the exam system was fast approaching "overload". He added the Liberal Democrats were advocating a move towards more internal assessment.

· Dr Ken Boston told the committee he believed the former education secretary, Estelle Morris, had not acted improperly over the inquiry into the A-level grade fixing crisis.



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