Exams fiasco: Ofqual and DfE ‘must learn hard lessons’

Ofqual ‘buried its head in the sand’ this year, say MPs who want clear accountability and planning to allow 2021 exams to go ahead

Catherine Lough

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Ofqual's actions before the exam grading U-turn called its independence into question – and both the regulator and the Department for Education must now "learn hard lessons", an influential parliamentary committee has warned.

Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, said the committee's hearings with Ofqual and the Department for Education had raised "serious doubts about the independence, accountability and transparency of Ofqual".

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Mr Halfon said that the "unfairnesses" of this summer's grading fiasco could have been avoided had "Ofqual not buried its head in the sand".

The committee says that Ofqual should have published its standardisation model and alternatives to allow scrutiny by external experts, and that it should have carried out a "meaningful mock" of 2020's teacher-assessed grades to anticipate any problems.

The MPs advise that exams must go ahead in 2021 and that robust contingency planning should be put in place as soon as possible to ensure this can happen.

The news comes as headteachers have raised concerns over whether there will be enough invigilators for GCSEs and A levels next year

No concerns raised over 'impossible' grading task

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, Mr Halfon said the exams regulator had expressed a preference in March for exams to go forward in a socially distanced manner, but that the government chose to cancel exams and move to a system of calculated grades through an algorithm or "standardisation process".

Mr Halfon's letter notes that Ofqual chair Roger Taylor had said "he did not think it would have been appropriate to have ignored a ministerial direction on the basis that they did not believe that standardised grades would ever be deliverable in a way that the public would trust", as this would have been going beyond reasonable behaviour for an independent regulator.

But Mr Halfon points out that in his evidence to the education committee in September and in Ofqual's published board minutes, "Ofqual did have serious doubts about being able to deliver a system which would be fair to individual students."

He adds: "Ofqual were clearly aware that there would be problems for high achieving students in historically low attaining schools but believed the number would be statistically small and could be addressed through an appeals process."

"It was revealing to us that they recognised this problem but simply accepted that they could not find a solution to it and chose to carry on.

"Ofqual conclude that what they had been asked to do was in fact an impossible task. Yet when the chief regulator came before us in June, she did not use the opportunity to raise any alarm bells with us, choosing not to do so publicly at all."

The letter expresses regret that despite these concerns over the impact of the standardisation model "creating unacceptable outcomes", this was not raised with the education committee at the time.

Ofqual also did not point out that its model had a predictive accuracy of 60 per cent across all subjects, both at GCSE and A level. Prior to the government's U-turn on grading this year, 39 per cent of teacher-assessed A-level grades had been downgraded by the model.

'Last-minute' triple-lock policy

Mr Halfon's letter also raises concern over the government's decision to introduce a "triple lock" policy, allowing the highest grade of either A-level mock results or the calculated grade to stand.

His letter describes this decision as appearing to be "last-minute and rushed".

"Ofqual’s minutes show that its board was not afforded an opportunity to consider or agree this sudden change in policy prior to it being announced by the government, the consequences of which do not appear to have been thought through," the letter says.

He writes that the policy would have been "inconsistent with Ofqual’s statutory objectives and standards for qualifications".

"Despite this, given the ministerial direction was for this to happen, the Ofqual board seemed to have felt compelled to find a way to allow a mock-exam based appeal route," Mr Halfon says.

Ofqual's advice on the matter on the weekend of the 15-16 August was published, only to be abruptly removed. It eventually decided to switch to teacher-assessed grades, announced by Mr Taylor on 17 August. 

"This whole episode calls into question Ofqual’s independence, its way of operating and its board’s duty and ability to maintain standards," Mr Halfon's letter says.

"As a regulator, their board should have had a clear understanding and plan of what actions to take should they have considered a ministerial direction would not be likely to secure confidence and be in the public interest."

Mr Halfon adds: “The fallout and unfairness from the cancellation of this summer’s exams will have an ongoing impact on the lives of thousands of families.

"But such harm could have been avoided had Ofqual not buried its head in the sand and ignored repeated warnings, including from our committee, about the flaws in the system for awarding grades.

"Both Ofqual and the DfE must learn hard lessons from this summer’s exams controversy and move swiftly to ensure exams can take place next year in one form or another. They must ensure a level playing field for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have struggled during Covid. The catch-up fund and pupil premium should be used to help those left behind or at home due to Covid issues.

"Ofqual and the DfE must also make sure there is no repeat of the unfairness faced by pupils should the pandemic continue to impact on learning. Young people have already been among some of the hardest-hit these past few months and they must be properly supported to ensure they get the future their hard work deserves.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “Exams for 2021 must take account of the differential impacts of access to education across the country.

"Many students are having to access their learning remotely due to the pandemic and do not have the adequate equipment or resources necessary at home to do so. As such, it would make for grossly unfair grades next summer if exams were to take place on the full course content."

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The education select committee’s fire is directed chiefly at Ofqual, but it appears to have struggled to pin down the role of the Department for Education in the grading debacle that took place this summer.

“It is completely unacceptable that the government has apparently thus far failed to supply relevant papers and the minutes of meetings requested by the committee.

“We seem to be no nearer understanding what steps ministers took to ask the right questions at the right times to assure themselves on behalf of the public that the system for awarding grades would work and wouldn’t fall apart in the way that it did.

“We called for the government to commission an independent review of the grading fiasco immediately after it had happened to establish exactly what went wrong and to learn the lessons for next year’s exams.

“However, the government has refused to take this action despite the clear and overwhelming public interest in doing so.

“This is a completely unsatisfactory situation for students, parents, schools and colleges. They all deserve proper answers. They also urgently require clarity over exactly what the government and Ofqual’s plans are for next summer’s exams.”

A spokesperson for Ofqual said: "We are aware of this letter and the recommendations being made by the select committee. We are doing a great deal to learn lessons from summer 2020 as we look ahead to summer 2021.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All decisions taken this year were based on delivering the fairest outcome for students. At all times the department worked closely with Ofqual to find solutions that would allow young people to progress to the next stage of their education or career.

“We have full confidence in Ofqual as an independent regulator and it is right we continue to work closely with them, reflecting on 2020 and ensuring next summer’s exams are as fair as possible for young people, taking into account the disruption students may have experienced.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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