7 questions colleges have for Ofqual

Ofqual has done a remarkable job in the circumstances, says the SFCA - but questions still need to be answered in FE

Bill Watkin

Coronavirus: The questions that colleges want answered

The team at Ofqual have done a remarkable job in extraordinary times. But not even their superhuman efforts and speed of action can address all the challenges facing colleges and provide answers to every uncertainty. 

Ofqual is working concurrently on two different fronts: general qualifications (GCSE, A level and so on) and vocational and technical qualifications (including applied generals). It has already set out its position on both, though in considerably more detail on the former than the latter.

What both strategies have in common, and what characterises them, are refreshingly sensible, practical and sensitive principles: keeping the administrative burden on teachers to a minimum and placing faith in teachers’ professional judgement.

Ofqual has also adopted a consultative approach, talking extensively with practitioners and stakeholder groups, and has been sure to be entirely transparent every step of the way.


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So far, so good. The impact of Covid-19 on the summer exam season and students’ grades was always going to represent a complex challenge, with uncertainties clouding student destinations, whether sixth-form places, further education,  university or employment. Ofqual has given us hope that we can address these challenges successfully. 

The impact of coronavirus on qualifications

There are still some big questions to be answered and Ofqual, the Department for Education and the profession will be working closely together over the next few weeks to reach the best solutions.

One of these was resolved this week: the original position taken by the government was that exam results should be published earlier than scheduled this summer. This would have given exam boards more time to prepare for an early-autumn exam season, but it would also have created significant difficulties for colleges and schools whose staff are always on hand on results days to help students make the right choices about what to do next and to help them get set up in their next destination, but who might not have been available in late July or early August. The government has now announced that the exam publication dates will stay as they were – 13 and 20 August.

In this way, the questions are being asked and answered, as quickly as possible and in the most helpful way possible. We have to be optimistic that the DfE, Ofqual and colleges and schools will be equally pragmatic and will apply the wisdom of Solomon in response to some of the outstanding questions of the day: 

  1. With centre assessment grades due to be submitted in late May or early June, and with the need to exercise caution in considering any evidence based on work done since March 20, what can we expect of Year 11 and Year 13 learners and their teachers in the first half of the summer term?
  2. Should we be teaching all the other year groups right up to mid-July, either online or face-to-face if the situation improves?
  3. What can be done to address the enormous variability of opportunities to learn in different households? Insufficient or inadequate hardware and connectivity, an unsupportive domestic set-up – there are so many factors that can make a difference.
  4. What does effective pedagogy look like in the current climate? For example, should online teaching include live streaming or be limited to uploaded resources with tasks set by teacher and learner responses uploaded on completion of tasks, or perhaps a prerecorded film of the teacher teaching, or a live teacher teaching but with no image of the teacher?
  5. On receiving their final grades from the exam boards, some students will want to appeal. At the moment there is some uncertainty about whether the grounds for an appeal should be limited to cases in which the process has not been followed correctly.
    It is imperative that we avoid linking the appeals process to the autumn exam. If we are to build and maintain public confidence in the teachers’ professional judgements, we cannot afford to say that the autumn exam trumps the teacher judgement and can demonstrate that the teacher got it wrong.
    So, yes, let’s have appeals and resolve them. And let’s have autumn exams for those who want to improve their grade because they need a better grade to unlock the door to their destination of choice.
  6. In the secretary of state’s letter to Ofqual, he said that “some students will feel that they would have done better…in an exam rather than relying on teacher judgement”. But the former should not become a means to correct the latter. Let’s not undermine Ofqual’s excellent work by saying that exams are better measures of ability than teacher judgements, and if the teacher gets it wrong there’s always the safety net of an exam.
  7. The autumn exam season raises a host of further questions, including how students might prepare for them over the summer holidays and in the first few weeks of their post-16 or HE studies. How can we minimise the risk of disadvantaging the disadvantaged? How can providers build sufficient capacity for the extra exams? How many students will actually want to sit an exam and is it good business sense for exam boards to develop a whole season of exams in every subject at every level for what may be a very small number of entries? 

Questions for next year's cohort 

Increasingly, colleges and schools are starting to turn their attention to next year’s exams cohort, next year’s leavers; how will they ensure that their 2021 exam results and life prospects survive the events of this summer and a disrupted term working at home? How will they address any impact of the inequality of opportunity for young people from different backgrounds to make good use of this time, and emerge from it unscathed and well-prepared for next year? How will they keep narrowing the gap? How will they ensure that the workforce of the future will be sufficiently skilled to drive the economy forward in a time of such challenge?

In the face of the questions and challenges ahead of us, it is reassuring to know that Ofqual and the DfE are listening to the profession, that they are acting fast and that they are making some welcome decisions.

Bill Watkin is the chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

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