The outsider who has the ultimate insider’s job

3rd January 2018 at 18:31
Referring to her limited experience in education, Ofqual boss Sally Collier says that 'the boss doesn't need to know it all'
Sally Collier talks to Eleanor Busby about her first year at the exam regulator – and why, despite the bumps along the way, she’s still enjoying the job

Entering the education bubble for the first time is no easy feat. Especially if your new job is to lead the country’s exams watchdog through an intensive period of GCSE and A-level reforms.

Almost a year ago this was the challenge Sally Collier faced when she was appointed chief regulator of Ofqual after two decades in the civil service.

Before she had even had the chance to start the role, MPs who grilled her on the detail of subject comparability concluded that her overall knowledge of the exams system was “somewhat lacking”.

Speaking to Tes in her first interview since taking the reins as chief executive and chief regulator in April 2016, Collier admits that it took a little while to get clued up.

She decided to return to the classroom to prepare and learned from experts at University College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science last summer.

Collier says she has loved swotting up on education acronyms and delving deep into the puzzling world of assessment. “I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve really enjoyed it,” she says.

And now – after 11 months overseeing qualifications and exams – she feels “steeped in it”. But she still keeps her notes close to hand. Next to her desk at Ofqual’s Coventry HQ, there’s a cabinet full of green folders that match her green office. One is marked “LSE May 2016”.

Before starting at Ofqual, Collier was running the Crown Commercial Service, the UK’s largest government buying organisation, spending £13 billion a year.

She “fell into” the civil service in 1992, she says, when her father told her that she needed a “proper job”. Today, after 20 years trying to carry out impossible tasks for ministers, Collier is enjoying her new-found independence heading Ofqual.

But she says she still looks back fondly at her time in the civil service. “People in the civil service are just passionate about what they do and doing their best,” Collier says.

“They have a core set of values that are often not triggered by money or status, and are driven by what they achieve. That has been the making of me really.”

So why make the move to education? “I am a public servant at heart. It’s in my blood,” she says. “I wanted to do something that was a bit nearer the frontline than buying things, which is a bit in the back office.”

Working for an exams regulator is not necessarily everyone’s dream job, but Collier was drawn in. “I was looking for something really interesting and this was like, ‘Wow. This looks amazing,’” she says.

Collier was confident she could bring a lot of skills from her previous experience leading organisations, but she says the education factor was the major attraction. “What’s more important than looking after our kids and the standards of their qualifications?” she says.

And moving from a top job in the fast-moving commercial sector to running a much smaller organisation, with a more measured, considered pace, has been quite a journey.

“Here it is much more reflective and evidence-based. And if you want the system to change, it takes a long time – and you can’t shock the system,” she says.

‘You need to be credible’

One of Collier’s top priorities has been getting to know her staff, and finding out what motivates them. “It’s what gets me up in the morning, she says. “It’s always all about the people for me.

“We have got quite a lot of introverts, quite a lot of specialists. In the commercial world, usually you have got a lot of male extroverts and they respond to different sorts of things.”

For example, Ofqual staff like to be left alone to get on with their research, she says. “They don’t want people interfering. They have got the most amazing insight and knowledge, but you need to give them the space and time and opportunity to get that out.”

And she isn’t too worried about her limited experience in education pre-Ofqual, because she has that team of assessment experts behind her.

“You need to know enough, you need to be credible,” she says, “but the boss doesn’t need to know it all.”

When Collier applied for the job, she was aware of Ofqual – but she admits she didn’t know about the 2012 English GCSE grading affair that led to heads calling for her predecessor, Glenys Stacey, to resign. “I am afraid that passed me by.” She pauses. “I am aware of it now, obviously”, she laughs.

Despite the scandal happening five years ago, Collier says it still comes up in conversation.

“Clearly that was a big thing and people were either on one side or the other side,” she says. “You find when that happens people are affected by that many years later.”

Today, she believes that one of the most pressing issues for Ofqual is a feeling among schools that the quality of exam marking has deteriorated. Collier says this view does not reflect the reality.

“I think there is a real difference between the perception of the quality of marking and what’s actually going on,” she explains.

In the summer of 2016, the number of challenges to GCSE and A-level grades fell by a quarter. However, almost a fifth of challenges still resulted in a grade change – something the chief regulator says could be improved.

“I am trying to work out how we can do our upmost to minimise those mistakes, accepting that we will never get perfection,” she says.

“I am working really hard for us to be as transparent as possible. I have spent a lot of time on the frontline just listening to people and encouraging all my team to do that.”

Those talks with schools also convinced her that the accreditation of the new GCSE and A levels – and how quickly schools will be able to get materials – had to be addressed.

Collier is clearly very busy and works long days, with a commute from Norfolk to Coventry. She apologises when her phone rings close to the end of the interview, and laughs: “That’s not a deliberate, ‘We must finish there’. It’s the chairman.”

But she is likely to become even busier this summer, ensuring that the new GCSE and A levels are safely awarded – and that the GCSE grading changes, from A* to G to 9 to 1, in English and maths are communicated widely.

The chief executive usually spends three days in Coventry and two days out and about. But her office – which former Ofqual chair and new Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman had painted green for her – and the yellow daffodils on her desk make for a calming environment.

“It is the colour of my football team, Norwich City. I don’t see Norfolk very much, which is why I like to have the green and yellow here,” she laughs, “to remind me of home.”

This profile was originally published in Tes magazine on 24 March 2017. 

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