Fledgling exams watchdog disappoints already

29th January 2010 at 00:00
What hope for the future if both preservation of standards and fairness to learners are beyond Ofqual's grasp?

Cast your mind back to the end of last term. While you were busy writing end-of-term reports, attending carol services or doing your Christmas shopping, you may not have noticed that yet another consultation was quietly released on an unsuspecting teaching profession.

The pre-Christmas launch by Ofqual of its most important consultation to date hardly inspires confidence (despite the title: "Regulating for confidence in standards"). The closing date, March 8, is just five weeks away. But in many ways this is a consultation exercise that is not worth responding to, because Ofqual has been almost strangled at birth by its statutory remit.

In law, Ofqual's first objective is to maintain standards over time, between awarding bodies and between qualifications. Its second objective is to "promote public confidence in regulated qualifications and regulated assessment arrangements". An additional overarching objective, although not statutory, has to do with supporting learners. In her letter accompanying the consultation Kathleen Tattersall, Ofqual's chair, states unequivocally: "Overall, learners are at the heart of all Ofqual does."

Regrettably, evidence to date suggests that none of these three objectives and aspirations will be achieved after Ofqual becomes a fully independent organisation in April.

First, the issue of standards. Since the interim version of Ofqual launched in 2008, its track record on maintaining standards has done little to inspire confidence. Indeed, last summer, for the second year running, Ofqual conspicuously failed to achieve its first objective.

In 2008, Ofqual pressured exam board AQA to lower the mark needed to achieve a grade C in GCSE science, in order to come into line with OCR and Edexcel. AQA did so "under pressure", claiming that its grading had maintained standards with its previous years' awards. A year later, after subsequent monitoring by Ofqual found that standards from 2008 had been consistently lower than predecessor qualifications, it asked all three English awarding bodies to "tighten their standards". Again, only AQA did so and the discrepancy of standards between boards reappeared. Ofqual believes that the differences between awarding bodies will be substantially reduced this summer - but for how long?

The lack of comparability in standards between subjects was well-documented long before Ofqual's creation. Back in 1996, the Dearing review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds noted that "the demands made in some subjects at A-level are greater than in others", adding that "this applies to a group of subjects which includes mathematics, physics, chemistry and some modern foreign languages". Lord Dearing went on to recommend that "the demand of any subjects found to be decidedly below the average should be raised to match the typical level of demand of the rest".

Yet in the intervening decade, nothing has been done to address this problem.

Turning to the second objective, even in its shadow existence Ofqual has already unwittingly driven at least two nails in the coffin of public confidence.

The first was an honest but naive attempt to unravel what was meant by "error" in public examinations - which led to such headlines as "Exam body pays #163;3,000 to find word for 'error'". As Ofqual admitted last month, its attempt to find a way of explaining technical issues to do with reliability and error in lay terms was interpreted by those outside the examinations fraternity as an attempt at engaging in "spin".

More recently, an equally well-meaning attempt at sharing Ofqual's challenges also had the potential to backfire. First presented at the annual Cambridge Assessment Conference back in October, a paper by Isabel Nisbet and Cath Judhaw examined the problems of "the 'ping' factor" in modular qualifications such as A-levels.

What Ofqual means by the "ping factor" is that once unit marks have been awarded, the overall result should pop out automatically at the end in the form of a non-negotiable grade.

But this makes it nigh impossible to make adjustments later to maintain standards in "qualifications as a whole" - indeed, for Ofqual to think it can is pure regulatory pie in the sky.

This problem emerged in the grim summer of 2002 when the regulator (then the QCA) interpreted its regulatory brief of maintaining standards over time in a way that failed to take account of the impact of modularisation at A-level.

As I wrote in The TES at the time: "With an A-level structure that now consists of six separate modules, standards can only meaningfully reside at individual module level. If the initial judgments made in relation to each of these are right, there can be little justification for changing the overall final result later, simply because it produces too many overall passes or too many high grades at A-level."

The grading of last summer's AS exams in certain subjects led some who experienced the summer of 2002 to feel an uncanny sense of deja vu. We await this summer's A-level awards with some trepidation.

If this is not enough to undermine public confidence, there are two other unresolved issues which have the potential to damage professional confidence in Ofqual.

First, the fact that any school or college located outside England, even if it offers qualifications awarded by bodies such as AQA, OCR or Edexcel, cannot appeal to the Examinations Appeal Board or whatever replaces it. It must be possible to set up an independent appeals mechanism which all schools (anywhere in the world) could access.

Second, many university applicants look set, once again, to lose their university place this summer because the results of priority re-marks cannot be guaranteed before the deadline set by universities. Surely Ofqual could broker an agreement between the awarding bodies and universities to put learners' interests first? Awarding bodies could shave two days off the deadline for priority re-marks and universities could hold open places for an extra two days.

In spite of its rhetoric about putting the learner first, Ofqual, so far, seems incapable of bringing its influence to bear on either of these issues.

If both fairness to learners and the preservation of standards are beyond Ofqual's powers, one has to ask what it is there for at all.

Geoff Lucas, Secretary, The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).

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