'Jury out' on future of exam regulation, says minister

16th November 2012 at 00:00
Grading fiasco could spell the end for agreement across UK nations

The fallout from this summer's GCSE grading crisis could trigger a fundamental overhaul of the way exams are regulated across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a politician at the centre of the controversy has said.

Wales' education minister Leighton Andrews, who has strongly criticised England's regulator Ofqual over the fiasco, said that the cooperation between the three countries - which are regulated separately but agree common standards across qualifications and exams - may be under threat.

Giving evidence to a cross-party committee of Welsh Assembly members about his decision to order the WJEC exam board to regrade English language GCSE papers in Wales, Mr Andrews said the system was being threatened by the "ideological approach" being pursued by Ofqual and the Westminster government. He said the "jury was out" on the future of how exam standards would be monitored and maintained.

"My officials have diligently sought to continue to operate on the basis of a three-country regulatory system," he said. "It is the case that since June 2010, and particularly in the past year, this has become more difficult."

The robust display from Mr Andrews was the latest instalment in his dispute with Ofqual over this summer's grading problems. As the regulator for Wales, Mr Andrews ordered a regrade of papers set by the WJEC board, leading to almost 2,400 pupils out of a cohort of 34,000 receiving higher grades. Appeals for a regrade in England were turned down by Ofqual, prompting legal action by an alliance of teachers, schools, pupils and unions, which is due to be heard in the High Court next month.

Mr Andrews accused Ofqual of having a "poor understanding" of devolution, citing a letter to Welsh government officials in July in which it claimed to have regulatory powers wherever qualifications were taken, including Wales. Ofqual withdrew the letter after the Welsh government contacted its lawyers.

In her evidence to the same committee last month, Ofqual's chief regulator Glenys Stacey claimed the Welsh government had jeopardised the system by ordering a regrade. "It puts three-country regulation into a very difficult position because we have one regulator determining after the event to set a different standard," she said. "We are not able to say we have a common standard for England and Wales. That creates very difficult issues for the regulators going forward."

But Mr Andrews said he had to order a regrade in order to deliver "fairness" to Welsh pupils. He said Ofqual had used an invalid methodology to predict the accuracy of English language grades, which led to significantly worse than expected results in Wales when grade boundaries were changed midway through the year.

Plaid Cymru assembly member Simon Thomas said Mr Andrews had "let things slip" and allowed the grading crisis to develop without "nipping it in the bud". But Mr Andrews said he became aware of the situation at the end of July and waited until a review had been carried out in September before taking action.

Mr Andrews' evidence came a day after dozens of emails and letters about the GCSE debacle were released by the Welsh government under the Freedom of Information Act. One email revealed that the WJEC warned the government that its decision to regrade would create a "split standard" in the qualification, which would seriously damage its integrity.

Despite the controversy, Mr Andrews has hinted that he is willing to keep GCSEs in Wales. The Welsh government's review of 14-19 qualifications, which is considering the future of GCSEs and other exams, is due to publish its report on 28 November.

PRIMARY GOAL

Secondary headteachers in Wales could play a key role in improving standards and aspirations in their "cluster" primary schools, under new plans unveiled by education minister Leighton Andrews.

Speaking at NAHT Cymru's annual conference in Chepstow last week, Mr Andrews said he wanted secondary heads to work with their primary school colleagues to identify and share good practice.

"There is an opportunity for more dialogue and sharing of information between secondary school and primary school headteachers," he said.

Anna Brychan, director of NAHT Cymru, said: "The only way this will work is if it is done on the genuine basis of sharing best practice and not one sector 'taking over' another."

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