AQA's new boss just happy to break exam silence
Andrew Hall says he took his new job to "make a bigger difference". As head of England's biggest A-level and GCSE exam board he intends to "speak out" and become "more influential in the education debate".
Many assumed his move to the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) as chief executive, announced in March, had more than a little to do with the fact that his previous employer, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), was doomed.
By then, the Conservatives had confirmed that they would scrap the agency, where Mr Hall was also chief executive, if they won the election.
But not so, says Mr Hall. He would have left anyway, regardless of the fate ministers decided for the QCDA, and even though he had only held his #163;210,000 post permanently for nine months.
"I greatly admire civil servants for what they can do," the 54-year-old says. "But I know I have my beliefs and my values. I cannot flip-flop. In the QCDA you were clearly an agent of Government and one of the challenges for me was I wanted to increasingly speak out more."
"People who are civil servants - which is what we were, as near as damn it - shouldn't publicly criticise ministers or challenge policies. That is absolutely right. But I knew for me to fulfil what I wanted to do, it was only ever going to be for a period of time."
Mr Hall says he achieved what he wanted to at the QCDA and stabilised the agency after the 2008 Sats marking crisis that triggered the departure of his predecessor Ken Boston.
"But I think people that knew me always knew that I wanted to be in a position where I could be more influential in the education debate," he adds.
So, now that he has that chance to publicly criticise ministers and challenge policies, what does he think of the coalition Government's decision to scrap the QCDA?
"My view is that organisations come and go," he says. "This was a decision that was made by the people who had the right to make it.
"I wasn't at all surprised. It's a wimpish answer, but it's their right to decide that and they had clearly made up their mind. The die was cast."
It is a response that actually sounds remarkably similar to the diplomatic stance he took when he led the QCDA. There, he went out of his way to be less outspoken than Mr Boston. In an interview last year he said: "You look at giving advice that will get you the most influence and that is probably not on the front page of your newspaper."
But if Mr Hall remains reluctant to speak out about his former organisation, he has already proved himself much more comfortable talking to the media about exams as he seeks to raise the AQA's profile.
This summer he took the lead among the trio of new exam board heads when it came to the A-level and GCSE results press conferences.
Last month he made headlines when he told a national newspaper that there was a case for banning multiple resits of A-level modules and downgrading the value of AS-levels from half an A-level to a quarter or even an eighth of one.
And this week he has proved equally controversial by telling The TES that expertise in Ofqual, the exams regulator, is spread so thin it cannot conduct the international comparisons ministers now expect effectively (page 6).
Just as contentiously, Mr Hall, has told The TES he believes the growing trend of GCSE entry at earlier ages could be damaging some pupils' education. As with A-level resits, he points to the modular nature of exams as being a factor.
Mr Hall says he is not opposed to the concept of modularisation. Indeed, he was on the staff at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the QCDA's predecessor, when the system was developed.
But he admits: "If I knew then what I know now I would have called for the organisation to think it through in more detail. I think some more evaluation should have been done. There should have been more choice. I think the regulatory framework that says 'this is the route' is flawed.
"It is something I increasingly formed a view on during my time at QCA and we have a Government that is very much open to listening to the case for change."
It is this belief in choice that has prompted the AQA to develop a set of linear alternatives to modular GCSEs, assessed in a more traditional way with exams at the end of courses.
The board will be submitting the first subjects to Ofqual for approval in the next three to four months.
So, by the same logic, you might expect Mr Hall to welcome the call from Education Secretary Michael Gove for a re-introduction of linear A-levels.
Instead, he mounts a defence for the AS-level, pointing out the need from pupils and teachers for an assessment in Year 12 that allows them to monitor whether they are managing to close the large gap between GCSE and A-level.
"I think AS has a value, its weight in the total award is a matter of debate," says Mr Hall. "But it would be unfortunate to have a straight return to absolutely linear A-levels."
But surely he thinks schools should be given the same choice at A-level that the AQA is introducing at GCSE? Apparently not. "You need to look at what the purpose is of A-level and what it's used for," he says. "It is important to have comparability at A-level.
"With the Pre-U, the IB (International Baccalaureate) and (AQA's) Bac, it seems to me there is a lot of choice there already. There is something about being clear and having stability. A-levels largely work."
Ministers also want to see a bigger role for universities in developing A-levels. But Mr Hall, who trained as a maths teacher and as a chartered accountant, warns that engaging higher education is "easy to say but harder to do".
He says that, when asked what an A-level should look like, "each university department has a view and they generally have different demands".
Mr Hall does give an unequivocal welcome to one strand of the coalition Government's exams policy - its call for international studies to compare the difficulty of A-levels with equivalent exams in competitor countries.
"It is music to my ears," he says. "It is something I have been arguing for four years and is one of the things that brought me into education."
This is at least in part because he spent much of his career in multi-national industry. While working in large international engineering companies, he says he "got really fed up" of closing plants in the UK and moving the work.
"Not just to Asia, South America and all parts east," he adds. "I was also moving factories into France and Italy because I could get a much greater skilled workforce than I could get in the UK.
"Having watched children walk three miles to school in India, having gone and done due diligence on a factory in Brazil by looking at the local school, we need to know where they stand."
The TES understands Mr Hall's departure from the QCDA this year left some staff feeling "really let down". "People hit the roof," one source says. "I can't overstate the resentment. People refused to talk to him in the hall. They were standing there with their arms crossed."
"It's kind of hard," Mr Hall responds. "I can understand some people felt like that. In a perverse way I was surprised that I was that missed because I think the management team was quite capable.
"My view is that life moves on. I think I did everything I could to stabilise the organisation and then took an opportunity that came.
"I would have gone whether the QCDA was closing or not. I know that. But how do I convince others of that? It is almost impossible."
1956: Born in Bournemouth
1974-1978: Trained for B.Ed in mathematics and education, before becoming a maths teacher
1991: Qualified as a chartered accountant
1991-2006: General manager for various multinational engineering companies
2006: Director of strategic resource management at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)
2008: Acting chief executive of QCA, overseeing its change into the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) as regulatory functions moved to Ofqual
2009: Chief executive, QCDA
2010: Chief executive, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA).