Boston speaks up for Ofqual's independence

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Government observers put public accountability at risk, says ex-QCA head

The new exams regulator has been warned that allowing Government observers to continue to attend its meetings will compromise its independence and integrity and "erode public accountability".

Ken Boston, former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, believes Ofqual is at risk of "being cynically out-manoeuvred by the Government" and that the presence of officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families at its meetings is particularly undermining.

Ofqual says it has to let government officials attend meetings because, for now, it legally exists as part of the QCA. Whether that continues once legislation is passed and it becomes independent will be decided by its new board.

Last week Dr Boston told MPs: "The appointment of DCSF observers to the QCA board and other QCA bodies has undercut the authority of the QCA and will undercut the authority of Ofqual, if we are not careful."

Observers had reduced the "formality of the relationship" between Government and the QCA that led to "pernicious", "negotiated compromises" which eroded public accountability. Dr Boston fears this will happen to Ofqual.

During an outspoken session at the Commons select committee, he said that the Government had used "ministerial feedback" from its observers to exert influence over the QCA, supposedly an "arm's length" organisation. "Observers advise on committees and boards that ministers are 'minded to' or 'not minded to' agree with this or that proposal," he said. "Or that ministers would be 'content to' or 'not content to' agree a recommendation, or even: 'If I put that idea to the minister it would be laughed out of court'."

Dr Boston, whose resignation from the QCA over last year's Sats was accepted last month, said prior consultation with the DCSF was important. But "too often" organisations such as the QCA were expected to negotiate the advice they gave to ministers in advance.

"That is a pernicious process which compromises integrity and independence," he said.

A DCSF spokesperson said it would not be in the department's interests to undermine Ofqual's independence and credibility. The regulator's work affected many areas of government so it was right that officials should attend its meetings as observers.

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