From The Editor - Ofqual must face the consequences of its cock-up

14th September 2012 at 01:00

The Ofqual grading fiasco is similar to the Olympics. It seems to last a long time, brings competing nations together (well, England and Wales) and includes bizarre point-scoring nobody understands. Yes, it lacks fair play, inspiration, organisational ability, competence, togetherness, compassion, selflessness, natty uniforms and euphoria. But in all other essentials, they're comparable.

Apart from one other thing. The Olympics had a pretty obvious narrative: nation overcomes doubts to dazzle and take on the world. The never-ending GCSE story is by contrast totally baffling. The Right thinks it's about a plucky regulator ending years of grade inflation and reminding schools what real, firm grades look like. The Left sees puppeteer Michael Gove pulling strings to fail schools and discredit courses so new academies and old-fashioned exams can bloom.

Both caricatures contain smidgens of truth. But both largely miss the point. This saga is essentially not about grade inflation, or modular exams versus linear ones, or if we would be better off with fewer exam boards, or whether examiners have been too lenient, schools too complacent or the Welsh too indulgent. It's much, much simpler than that. It's about a cock-up. It's about the sheer incompetence of the exam regulator. Not since Henry VIII debased the coinage and mucked around with the articles of faith has there been such woeful refereeing.

To be fair, the current team at Ofqual inherited this mess. Their predecessors identified the inflationary tendencies of the new modular exam three years ago, and the difficulty of finding a solution. But instead of tackling the problem they filed it away in a drawer marked "Very tricky!" and forgot about it.

Their successors proceeded to make matters worse. They ignored warnings and shifted the blame. Faced with mounting evidence early on that something was amiss, they did nothing. January's grades rose. Incredibly, as a collective "oops" started to form at Ofqual HQ, nobody thought to inform schools that Houston, well Coventry, had a problem.

The result was the August debacle. Exam boards were cowed or co-opted into stringent grading of June's English papers to compensate for Ofqual's neglect. Thousands of pupils were denied predicted grades while schools crashed through floor targets.

When pressed by MPs this week on why her watchdog failed to bark earlier, the chief regulator claimed it lacked sufficient data (see pages 8-9). Why were forecasts so wide of the mark? Well, schools are prone to exaggeration. Why were they not informed? Er, it was all terribly difficult. Why were January's marks so generous? Good Lord, is that the time?

Nowhere in this pitiful explanation was there any admission that Ofqual was at fault. To breezily insist once again that the large number of pupils in January who gained a good grade got "a lucky break" is not just insensitive, it's stupid. What faith should we have in a regulator that prefers to look away than to police; to shrug rather than adjudicate? Pontius Pilate had a greater sense of responsibility.

Obsessed with maintaining standards between years, Ofqual has failed to maintain them within a single one. It has completely undermined confidence in the exams it is supposed to protect. Ofqual deserves to be in the dock, not the schools it has so conspicuously let down.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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