GCSEs: New Ofqual boss supports advance exam topics

Jo Saxton, the government's preferred candidate as Ofqual chief, spoke to MPs this morning about her plans for the role

Catherine Lough

The new chief regulator of exams regulator Ofqual, Jo Saxton, has vowed to act in students' best interests

The government's preferred choice as Ofqual's new chief regulator, Jo Saxton, has hinted that she would prefer 2022 exam students to receive advance notice of topics in their exams rather than modified papers.

Speaking at a meeting of the Commons Education Select Committee today, Dr Saxton, a former academy chief executive, said she would be "personally very interested" in how advance notice of topics could be used – but raised concerns over the use of modified papers.

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Modified papers, including the use of optionality in exams, had been considered as a means of addressing learning loss for the 2021 exams prior to their cancellation.

GCSEs 2022: Support for advance exam topics

Last month in the Commons education secretary Gavin Williamson said that there had been an "extensive package of measures that was intended for this year's awarding session" and that the government was looking at "having a similar set of measures that can be brought forward in order to be able to support pupils as they take assessments".

Asked by Jonathan Gullis, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and a former teacher, this morning about his concerns over "tweaking" exams for the 2022 cohort, Dr Saxton said: "Obviously I can't speak about government policy and I know that the secretary of state is working very hard to make sure school leaders have the certainty they need and young people, too, moving forward into the new academic year.

"My personal preference...the difficulty with changing papers is it's difficult to reverse out of it and actually one of the things you'll know, as a teacher, is how useful it is to see past papers to help familiarise your students, particularly the disadvantaged, with the kinds of formats that they're going to be faced with.

"But there's really, really powerful research about advance notice and how giving an indication of areas that are going to come up is important more in helping young people to streamline their revision, and I think there's research from New Zealand that that sort of approach is really effective. So I'm personally very interested in whether that's something that could be applied," she added.

Caution over moving to single exam board

Asked by Mr Gullis about whether there should just be one exam board to run qualifications, Dr Saxton said: "In terms of a single exam board, as chief regulator my job would be to make sure when government made a decision, if they made such a decision, that they were aware of the pros and cons.

"And I know from my regulatory studies that there are lots of arguments against monopolies. Equally there are arguments for. And I think, as chief regulator, it would be my job to present those arguments.

"I think my main caution around it would be just to make sure that we thought through how to avoid any single point of failure if there was a monopoly arrangement," she added.

Asked about whether schools should pay full exam fees this year to boards, she said: "The chief executives of the awarding organisations have all been clear - none of them intends to profit from the pandemic," adding that the boards had committed to giving rebates.

Exams 'should go ahead'

When asked by Mr Gullis about whether exams should be going ahead, Dr Saxton said "yes" but added the caveat that "one thing we've absolutely learned about the pandemic is it's unpredictable".

"Nobody saw the Kent variant coming – that changed everything in December – and the Delta variant, that's the recent unpredictability. None of us know what variants can be thrown, but, medical health allowing, yes, exams should go ahead next year."

Grading quality assurance is 'rigorous'

Dr Saxton was pressed several times by committee members on whether she feared rising grade inflation this year, and at one point was accused by committee chair Robert Halfon of thinking that everything for summer 2021 was "hunky-dory".

In response to his suggestion that "spot checks" of schools' results would generally focus on outliers, with many schools left unchecked, she said: "I would respectfully disagree about the quality assurance arrangements this year in that every centre will be touched by the quality assurance, and it's been an incredibly rigorous process that began with training for teachers and centres on awarding".

She added that every school policy on grading had been reviewed.

Digital assessment could be used for GCSE maths and English resits

Asked about how Ofqual could ensure that more disadvantaged pupils achieved their potential, Dr Saxton said: "I specifically talked about English and maths GCSE as an example where I'd like to see more disadvantaged young passing.

"How could Ofqual help with that? One of the key duties and functions of Ofqual is undertaking research and while I was on the board I was on a committee that was looking at the role of digital technologies in improving marking reliability, for example.

"So I would be interested in exploring, for example, could digital technologies have a role to play in something like GCSE English and maths? Perhaps, for example, in the resit versions where we see too many young people don't attend, have lost interest in the content and where it could be much more interactive, where technology would allow them to reteach elements."

Ofqual data from 2020 'needs to be in the public domain'

Asked by Ian Mearns, Labour MP for Gateshead, about releasing the source data for 2020 [used to award grades last year], which he had been told "on a number of occasions" would be published, Dr Saxton said she agreed on its publication.

"We need people who are capable and qualified of analysing that data to have access to it. I think that Ofqual's current officers would agree and, as I understand it, they are working on it, but apparently there are technicalities to do with legal clearances...I agree with you that that does need to get into the public domain," she said.

Dr Saxton has worked as a policy adviser to education secretary Gavin Williamson since leaving her post as chief executive of Turner Schools multi-academy trust in Kent.

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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