Erosion of trust and confidence in qualifications – is the culprit political interference?

Reforms may not improve confidence


Simon Lebus, Cambridge Assessments (CA) Chief Executive, attacked continuing political interference in our qualifications system, in a recent CA conference.CA are responsible interalia for innovations such as the IGCSE and Cambridge Pre-U .

Reforms are envisaged under the Apprenticeships Skills, Children and Learning (ASCL) Bill, completing its Parliamentary passage, which establishes a new independent regulator, Ofqual. The aim is to distance itself from qualifications regulation in the hope that this will improve trust in the system, and put an end to the annual dumbing down debate. But this is unlikely to happen, according to Lebus’ reading of the developing situation. He does not believe the new arrangements will be sufficient on their own to restore trust. This is partly because the long hand of central control continues to exert its influence through Government ownership of the curriculum. Lebus said, “ Whilst there is a legitimate issue of accountability here, the realities of bureaucratic activism and the need to reconcile competing interests among stakeholders make this self-defeating. Originally well intentioned efforts to ensure consistent minimum standards soon lead to overbearing and overloaded programmes of study.”

 Lebus used the new science curriculum as a case study to illustrate his point. The new science curriculum reflects the tension between the desire to promote general scientific literacy among non-scientists and the need to educate the next generation of practising scientists. So he said “the emphasis has been on producing a motivating National Curriculum which includes coverage of all sorts of contemporary social issues rather than a succinct statement of a common core of learning that lists key concepts and processes and establishes them within a sensible framework of conceptual progression.”

 He continued “So we have the paradox that the instrument of central control – in this instance the National Curriculum – destabilises the learning it is designed to protect, a good illustration of how concentration of control in the centre can generate its own entropy and a good justification for an approach along the lines of that locally-responsive ‘community curriculum’ proposed in Professor Alexander’s review.”

The producer cannot, as Professor Alison Wolf pointed out at the same conference, also be an honest inspector –and the Government now is clearly a producer. It has moreover a vested interest in showing ,year in year out, that performance is improving (which is now a political imperative) so it duly does, to most stakeholders continuing disbelief. Admissions tutors at Universities meanwhile continue to observe a mismatch between what they see in terms of the skills and aptitudes of new students and what official results supposedly tell them.

It is instructive that in most other countries, indeed almost everywhere, Government interference in qualifications is confined almost exclusively to vocational education and training for the young. As ever, our establishment feels that it knows best, though OECD league tables might suggest otherwise.

 The Progressive extension of state control over our qualifications is predicated on two assumptions – that the government can be both effective and impartial and top down interventions are preferable to bottom up. It also implies that the Government is more effective, and more impartial, than independent bodies can be, even under regulation. This is an unlikely proposition in the first instance. In practice it is demonstrably unsustainable.

Producer, or Regulatory capture, follows if governments are measuring their own success through the performance of tightly supervised, or nationalised, agencies.

These agencies self-evidently have a strong incentive to influence the way they are measured. The establishment of Ofqual was supposed to signal a move back to independent quality assurance with light regulation but it appears too close to Government and few insiders believe that it will make much difference. The Reform think tank recently proposed that HE Institutions should become more involved in the development of subject syllabuses for A levels. Lebus approves, as it would permit HE, schools and awarding bodies to re-connect and re-establish ownership of the curriculum, instead of its being mediated, as at present, through regulatory and other central points of control. Awarding Bodies would welcome such a development and would be able to respond quickly and effectively (A levels were designed primarily for HE entry)

Lebus also suggested that, more generally, we need to think about how to achieve a shift in control so that we establish a better balance between a less ambitiously stated ‘framework’ National Curriculum and giving room to teaching professionals, awarding bodies, representatives of HE and other interested bodies to create interesting and challenging learning programmes on the ground, programmes in other words, which incorporate a slimmed down National Curriculum but go well beyond it.

 What should drive any education system is the needs of learners. Teachers must be allowed to use their professional judgment more and to teach creatively to respond to learners individual needs and to deliver a rounded education. The qualifications system should be demand driven and while elements of our system are demand driven, far too much of it simply isn’t. You have to ask why most of the best schools are turning away from GCSEs and A level and towards the IB, IGCSE and Cambridge Pre-U.

The answer is that they are losing confidence in the qualifications and the quality assurance and regulatory regime that goes with it. Meddling politicians and civil servants are the primary reason for this state of affairs.

Sometimes centrally driven interventions, and the command and control model works. Literacy and numeracy policy is an example (it is easy to forget just how poor literacy and numeracy teaching was 12 years ago). But the default position should be programmes driven from the bottom up rather than top down. With qualifications the Government has simply got it wrong and needs to change tack.

The shambolic introduction of Diplomas has simply reinforced this message.

Cambridge Assessments concerns over the ability of Ofqual to restore confidence should be a matter of huge concern for all stakeholders.


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