Watchdog plans surprise raids on exam boards

11th June 2010 at 01:00
Awarding bodies cut up rough at prospect of 'entry and inspection'

Qualifications watchdog Ofqual wants to raid exam boards' offices when it feels their standards have slipped or fees are too high.

But the regulator's plans are encountering strong resistance from the awarding bodies, it has emerged.

The law setting up Ofqual, which came into force in April, will allow the raids, or "entry and inspection", so that it can study and copy exam board documents.

But the watchdog has been conducting a major consultation on how its powers should be used.

The results, published last week, show "significant opposition" from the awarding bodies. They argue that the visits are unnecessary because Ofqual has the power to withdraw recognition, and impractical because the raids could trigger data protection issues.

All exam boards will be subject to a general condition to co-operate with Ofqual. But the law allows it to raid premises for documents when "co-operation is not otherwise forthcoming".

"Such a condition may be used to allow us to seek assurances that standards are being maintained or to secure information that will help us determine whether a fee-capping condition should be imposed, and, if so, what that condition should be," Ofqual's proposals say.

Suspicion of malpractice, the need to preserve evidence, gathering information to decide whether or not to cap fees and security breaches could also lead to raids.

The watchdog says private homes will not be raided and "visits" will only be carried out by authorised members of Ofqual staff.

It pledges to give exam boards "reasonable notice" of visits where possible, but warns: "We would have to balance the requirement to act reasonably with the need to preserve the integrity of the informationevidence being sought and the urgency of any remedial action."

But teaching unions broadly support the plan and see it as necessary to protect pupils' interests, the consultation found.

Ofqual has the legal power to cap exam fees, which it plans to consider using where there is evidence that an exam board's charges are not "fair and reasonable" for the service provided.

Twenty out of 26 exam boards consulted felt this was "inappropriate" while all four of the teaching unions that responded felt that it was "appropriate".

Ofqual says more detailed consultations will now take place.

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