'We can be trusted'

5th April 2013 at 01:00
As the head of exams watchdog Ofqual, Glenys Stacey faced fierce criticism after the GCSE grading crisis. Nonetheless, she has proved herself to be a formidable operator. She talks to William Stewart about an extraordinary six months

Glenys Stacey has spent the past six months on a professional roller coaster. Unexpected GCSE English results in August plunged Ofqual's chief executive into the eye of a storm as she defended dramatic changes to grade boundaries that teachers say led to tens of thousands of students unfairly missing out on crucial C grades.

"Regulators never expect to be popular," Stacey says today. But this was more than mere unpopularity. She instantly became public enemy number one as far as a large percentage of secondary teachers and heads were concerned. They called for her resignation, described her as "offensive" and said they had lost confidence in Ofqual.

And it wasn't just teachers: she got a good going-over in the media, too. One national newspaper accused Stacey of "babbling" "unfathomable jargon" in a "whining, scraping monotone". In these very pages she was accused of being "insensitive" and "stupid" and compared unfavourably to Pontius Pilate.

And if that wasn't tough enough, she ended the year having her actions scrutinised in the High Court, where they were attacked as "capricious" and an "abuse of power".

It was, she admits now, a "very difficult period". But since then things have changed dramatically for Stacey - almost as suddenly as when the GCSE grading crisis first exploded.

On 7 February her pressure on Michael Gove paid off as the education secretary screeched into a humiliating U-turn, abandoning his unpopular plans to replace GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates and to introduce an exam board franchising system. He was, he made clear to Parliament, acting on Ofqual advice. Then, just six days later, came the long-awaited High Court judgment in the GCSE grading scandal that completely cleared the regulator.

Today, relaxed and in good humour, Stacey says she is "pleased" with the result. There had been "unfairness", the judges ruled, but it was "the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness . and not any unlawful action by either Ofqual or the awarding bodies".

So how did she feel when she first learned of the judgment? "It was very important to be able to have the opportunity to set out what we did, how we did it and why," Stacey replies after a long pause. "That this wasn't a statistical fix, that this wasn't some sinister plot, that it wasn't political interference.

"I was happy that a court had understood that and had concluded that in a difficult situation we had . done the fairest thing. `Grasping the nettle' was the expression used by Judge Elias and it did feel like a nettle."

She is careful to acknowledge that it was also difficult for teachers and pupils, and says she wants Ofqual to improve the way it communicates with schools. Now would also seem a good time to go further and regain the trust of teachers. In November, a TES poll found that 93 per cent of secondaries had lost faith in Ofqual because of the grading affair. More than half of the schools said it had left them with "no confidence" in the exams watchdog at all.

But, asked what Ofqual could do to get that confidence back, Stacey seems almost resigned to the situation. "One can expect bad results to flavour everyone's opinion, whether they are affected or not," she says. "Being an independent regulator means you have to make the right decisions come what may. Sometimes they upset schools and sometimes they will please schools."

Moreover, she is quite open in saying that the terms of her remit mean that schools are not always her first concern. Discussing the possibility of delaying A-level reforms beyond September 2015, Stacey talks about the need to make the process manageable for exam boards. But, asked if she is also considering the burden that the simultaneous introduction of new A levels and GCSEs will place on schools, she says: "That is a matter for the Department (for Education). It isn't our role to advise government on whether that is going to be particularly testing for schools."

That narrow focus may infuriate some. But Stacey is unlikely to have any regrets. It has, eventually, left her in a very strong position. Today, Gove may have taken too many urgency pills but Ofqual is managing to dictate the pace of exam reform. The education secretary is listening to Stacey and acting on her warnings, even when they get in the way of his priorities. And there are not many who can say that.

Meanwhile, Stacey has reluctantly gone to court and seen her critics off. More positively, and just as importantly, she recently saw national sample testing - something she has been "banging on about" and championing to ministers for "quite a while" - proposed in a review of school accountability.

The chief regulator hasn't always seemed so sure-footed. In her first TES interview in May 2011 she condemned the term "grade inflation" as unhelpful and negative, suggesting that the rise in grades could be down to "young people being taught well and working hard". But within a year Stacey conducted a U-turn big enough to match any of the coalition's, warning that there had been "persistent grade inflation" for "at least a decade" that was "virtually impossible to justify" and had done "more than anything" to undermine confidence in GCSEs and A levels.

Stacey prefers to concentrate on the poor design of a modular English GCSE and what she describes as teacher "over-marking" when identifying the causes of last year's grading crisis. But, for many, her organisation's subsequent government-approved drive to stamp out grade inflation through the use of the "comparable outcomes" approach to setting standards was an equally important, if not bigger, factor. Critics saw Ofqual as being the key player in a process that put the political imperative of preventing climbing grades above the need to be fair to students. And they were not afraid to say so.

Tough at the top

At the height of the crisis she described her position as a "lonely place". When I ask her what that felt like personally, a slight prickliness surfaces for the first time.

"Whatever the pressures from whatever the source, we have to do the right thing," she answers sternly, before acknowledging that it is "difficult" to have "scurrilous remarks made about your organisation or about individuals leading it". "But it sort of comes with the territory," she adds.

Critics who viewed Stacey as a flaky beginner who would crumble under the pressure were sorely disappointed. As an experienced public sector regulator, she had previously led the "response to emergencies including foot and mouth 2007 and the first attacks of avian influenza". They did not land her in court, she concedes, but they did involve "attending Cobra meetings daily and accounting to a concerned prime minister about your control of an invasive exotic disease". So, she was used to a "challenge".

And whatever the rights and wrongs of her latest emergency there is no doubt that Stacey, a qualified solicitor, has proved herself a formidable operator.

More to the point, the court backed her, albeit within the confines of deciding whether Ofqual's actions last summer were lawful or not. The judges accepted that comparable outcomes was a legitimate priority and much of the rest of their conclusion followed logically from there.

There are, however, other outstanding bones of contention. What seems to have particularly annoyed teachers is the way that the watchdog chose to handle the grading crisis in the autumn after it occurred.

Last September, as Ofqual published its first report into the issue, Stacey concluded that June's grade boundaries were correct and set by examiners "using their best professional judgement, taking into account all of the evidence available to them". But no mention was made of Ofqual's own crucial part in the proceedings. "We weren't investigating ourselves. We were not trying to," Stacey argues. "If we had another week we probably would have included all that."

Instead, her first priority as regulator was to ask: "What has happened in exam boards that we do not understand?" The results "perplexed" Ofqual at that stage, she says, going on to describe the discovery of what had happened as a "very sobering moment".

That seems a little strange, as correspondence between the watchdog and exam boards Edexcel and WJEC from early August clearly shows that Ofqual already had intimate knowledge of the process. It was Ofqual that was insisting back then that grade boundaries were moved "further than might normally be required".

But the fact that the watchdog intervened and actually demanded that both boards overrule their examiners' professional judgements did not emerge publicly until the letters were leaked to TES and, belatedly, released under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

They showed "a regulator acting properly", Stacey says. In that case, why didn't Ofqual publish them immediately, before it was forced to? "It was part and parcel of our everyday business and we weren't in the habit in those days of putting everything we did up on our website for everyone to see." In future, she pledges, any such correspondence will be published as soon as the final grades become public.

Then there was Ofqual's assertion that it was partly teacher over-marking that caused the grading problems. Stacey acknowledges that this conclusion was "extremely difficult" for many teachers. But she stands by it today, despite the fact that only one of the four exam boards involved - admittedly the biggest one - said that it was a factor. The other three have contradicted her and told TES that "over-marking" had nothing to do with their decisions to raise grade boundaries.

But if there is one thing that shines through in the interview, it is that this is not someone who feels they have got away with anything. Stacey has "always had faith" that Ofqual was "doing the right thing".

And now she is bringing that same level of certainty to bear on the government's GCSE and A-level reform plans. "We have been given a really precious opportunity to shape new qualifications for schools, to be able to shape something better," she says. "I do hope that schools can see there is some evidence that we can be trusted to take the right stance on that."

As part of its drive for better communication, Ofqual is offering teachers email updates on its work. Sign up at www.ofqual.gov.ukstandardssummer-exams-2013


. Ofqual's reaction to the GCSE grading controversy: "Had it been appropriate to direct changes in the grade boundaries at that stage, we wouldn't have hesitated. If we could have found a fairer way to do it, we would have done it. But there was no fairer way and the court agreed with that."

. schools' reactions: "I've learned the way standards were maintained hasn't always been understood. So you can understand why schools were suspicious as to what might be happening."

. Ofqual's reports on the controversy: "It has just been a straight take on what has actually happened without any attempt to protect Ofqual or put any slant on it. We were interested not in protecting our own backs - not at all - but in understanding what happened."

. the High Court hearing: "We have set out for the court what we did and why. There was nothing that we did that was in any way underhand, not correct, in any way at odds with the notion of fairness. But we don't want to be in that position again."

. the aftermath: "What I do hope is that positive things can come from it, certainly in terms of being able to really design qualifications for the future and also people recognising the value of a standard. It is not a statistical fix. It's not a crude business like that."

. proposed school accountability reforms: "Every cloud has a silver lining. Maybe the hard experience of GCSE English 2012 has enabled government to recognise the relationship between qualifications and accountability. We should all welcome that."

. preventing another grading crisis: "There is never any absolute guarantee, but we have thought about what is the best way to protect and assure standards and we put in place steps that we think are right. We think we have got the right building blocks in place."

. the future: "We want to be as open as possible about how we do things and we really do want to communicate well with people about how standards are set."


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