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An open letter to Ofqual: 'We need a valid and reliable way of marking the achievements of young people'

The former ASCL general secretary poses some questions to Cath Jadhav in response to her blog on setting standards for new AS qualifications

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The former ASCL general secretary poses some questions to Cath Jadhav in response to her blog on setting standards for new AS qualifications

An open letter to Cath Jadhav, associate director of standards and comparability at Ofqual

Dear Cath,

I read your blog about setting standards with great interest. Thank you for your openness and clarity in setting out Ofqual’s thinking. I believe that this is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand or analyse results when they are published, and I have shared it with lots of teachers and school leaders, as well as some employers.

Although your blog contained nothing that was not already in the public domain, the reaction I have received is a mixture of bemusement, frustration and a large number of questions. I thought it would be helpful to summarise what they are saying so that you might be able to respond.

We all understand the predicament Ofqual is in with simultaneous changes to just about every single qualification. The government was warned by all kinds of experts about this but chose to ignore that advice. We therefore understand how difficult it will be to ensure that young people do not lose out during the years of turbulence that are underway. Ofqual’s efforts to limit the damage to students' life chances caused by this degree of uncertainly are appreciated.

Michael Gove made it very clear that the reformed national curriculum at key stage 4 was effectively the examination specifications. I admit to being amongst those who disagreed strongly with this move because examinations can only sample knowledge and there is much more to a rich and inspiring curriculum than what can be demonstrated in an examination hall.

With the degree of accountability placed on these results, it is not surprising that schools feel pressured to focus on them sometimes to the exclusion of broader aspects of education. I am not advocating that approach but it is not of schools’ making, nor is it Ofqual’s fault.  

Teachers, therefore, work hard to cover all parts of the specification. It has to be said that the late publication of many of these still presents a major challenge. Many of the numerous schools I work with have become adept at assessing the students’ progress, identifying gaps in their learning and putting in place appropriate interventions to address these. By the time the students sit the examinations the best schools have a clear grasp of what their students know and understand and should therefore have a good idea what grade they might achieve.

'Where things go wrong'

This, however, is where things go wrong, and the situation will not improve until the new qualifications bed down. For the reasons you describe in your blog the actual grade depends on more than whether the students have got the answers right. You explain how they are adjusted and it is good to read of the role senior examiners will play. Nevertheless, all of this has the following impact and raises some important issues and questions:

1. Comparisons between the results from one year to the next cannot be made. Thankfully, the DfE recognised this and made it clear in the published RAISE (Reporting and Analysis for Improvement through school Self-Evaluation) data last year.

What should employers, HEIs and FEIs make of this? If they have two candidates with the same grade in the same subject in different years who meet all of their other assessment criteria, do the examination results tell them anything meaningful?

In its excellent ‘First Steps’ report, the CBI called on the government for the "development of a clear, widely owned and stable statement of the outcomes that all schools are asked to deliver". Whilst I understand that Ofqual is not responsible for the setting of policy, what is your assessment of the extent to which the results students will be awarded will  fulfil that criterion?

How and when will we know whether standards in a school or our system have risen or fallen?

How and when will we know whether government policies to raise standards are effective?

2. Teachers are at a loss as to explain the results to students and parents who cannot understand why, if they got the answers right, their results may be different from their elder sibling who had an identical level of knowledge and understanding.

What is Ofqual’s advice to teachers and students about this?

3. A lot of schools are extremely exercised by the concept of predictions. On what basis is it possible at national level to predict future grades when there is so much change in the curriculum and qualifications? Schools are developing new assessment systems for their internal use but it is far too early to know what predictive validity any of the new qualifications including KS2 tests might have.

How is Ofqual going to be sure that its predictions are valid and reliable?

4. Your paragraph about the "ability" of the intake raises an enormous number of questions. Global statistics cannot tell you whether an individual student has made progress beyond what their prior attainment might have "predicted". Schools have rightly been warned against low expectations and the labelling of pupils, and many of the most spectacular achievements in some of our schools have been when inspiring and skilled teaching and leadership has enabled students to buck those trends.

Perhaps this is just a matter of semantics and, rather than "ability", you are actually talking about performance? At a time when Carol Dweck’s writings about "growth mindsets" have become a major influence, that may be safer.

Is there not a risk of this approach being a "cap on aspiration?"

My final point is this: I completely understand that schools’ results vary from year to year. I wish that was more widely understood by those who rush into sacking headteachers when such variability occurs. The issue here is not about the results of a whole cohort, in an individual school or across the country. It is about ensuring that we have a valid, reliable, comprehensible and stable way of accrediting the achievements of young people. If you have any advice for teachers and school leaders starting the new school year with the highest ambitions to do the very best for their students, that would be warmly welcome.

Thank you again for the incredibly difficult work you and your colleagues are doing.

Let us hope that results days this year will be a celebration of the hard work everyone has put in to giving the students the best start to their future careers.

Kind regards,

Brian Lightman, former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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