Constant flux and interventions erode confidence


Cambridge Assessment (CA), Europe’s largest assessment agency, made it clear last year that it was worried that OFQUAL the new regulator will not be independent enough from Government and its establishment will not be sufficient in itself  to win back trust in the  system.

CA has called for an honest open debate about perceived grade inflation, centralization and Government ownership of the curriculum. It is worried about the constant state of flux fed by ever more political interventions which serve to undermine stability and over the longer term serves to shake stakeholder confidence in the system. If CA is concerned, then we should all be.

Politicians continue to believe they have a perfect right to meddle with our qualifications and curriculum, without understanding, or perhaps not caring too much about the longer term consequences of doing so.  A couple of weeks ago Ed Balls said schools should teach Mandarin, on top of proposals for lessons on debt management, parenthood and domestic violence. Clearly, there will be no period of consolidation on his watch.  One rather obvious longer term consequence of politicians and officials interference was the demise of the QCA which could never quite establish the perception that it was   functionally independent.

Results must always be seen to improve. So, surprise, surprise they do. But admissions tutors see no improvement in the students they see. Nor do employers. Terry Leahy, Chief Executive of Tesco, has attacked standards in British schools as has Michael Rake, Chairman of BT, who went as far as to call for GCSEs and A levels to be replaced.  A lack of confidence in the exam system has led to extraordinary growth in demand for alternative qualification such as the IB, and its junior the Middle Years Programme, the International GCSE,  and the Cambridge Pre-U.   The Tories have given a policy commitment to allow state schools to opt for the IGCSE and even the O level. They have been more wary about the IB because it requires more teaching time and is therefore more costly.

Meanwhile, the troubled Diploma seeks to establish its credibility and rigour. It has to succeed because Ed Balls says so, but has been largely cold shouldered by the independent sector. At the last count just three independent schools were offering the Diploma while top ranked Universities have yet to give their unqualified endorsement of Diplomas.

The Engineering Diploma though has won plaudits, though  regarded  as more expensive to deliver than most others.  Some Diplomas are overly expensive and too complex to easily deliver. Significantly, Ofqual has accepted that there are some problems that need addressing. It has determined that “In the longer term there may need to be some simplification of the qualification structure”. Something of an understatement it has to be said   And more work is needed to ensure assessment schemes for Functional Skills are ‘appropriate’; and there should be better value for money in terms of admin costs. This at a time when there will be less money available in the system. Nobody seems to have thought too much about the relative costs of different qualifications-which could lead to a post code lottery in qualifications as poorer areas offer less expensive qualifications.

The Tories in the meantime are committed to dumping some of them -the more academic variants- but don’t want to leave pupils high and dry, so they look as if they will reform some of them too  to ensure greater rigour and less complexity. But they dont  see them replacing the A level.  The danger is that they might begin to the look like a second class qualification. The big divide between vocational and academic study is not helpful and there is much to be said for  promoting  more practical study and greater flexibility for those with more practical skills -but the Diploma  doesn’t seem to tick as many boxes as perhaps it should in this respect. And the uncomfortable question remains-will it encourage more pupils to stay on post 16?

Ofqual as the new, independent regulator will have a key role. It has shown that it does have a bark, blaming the exams agency, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, over the science GCSE, for designing flawed criteria and the boards for setting “poor quality” assessments. But the finger was also pointed at ministers (no surprise then) after it emerged the government was criticised for rushing in the GCSE before pilots were finished.But the jury will be out for a while on whether it has a bite too.  Some critics are concerned too about the move away from core academic subjects as schools seek higher league tables postitions  and choose softer less demanding options. The The think tanks Reform and Civitas have recently published reports highlighting this practice called ‘gaming’   .The Civitas report claimed that repeated attempts to “weaken the academic basis of the curriculum” – a backbone of the education system since the mid-1800s – had widened the gap between rich and poor pupils. “All these changes to the national curriculum are progressively making it ever less academic,” it concluded. Eamonn Butler of the ASI condemned the practice of gaming  in his book ‘ the Rotten State of Britain’ 2009 and suggested that one of the highest performing comprehensive schools in England ,Thomas Telford, secured its top place by choosing softer options, in particular ICT, described by some critics  as a  ‘tick box’ exam with less teaching required than most other subjects. There are  currently 3,529 other Level 2 qualifications that  are  recognised as acceptable “equivalents” to the Government’s own home-grown GCSE. Does anyone have confidence that  that officicials  have made the right call in all these qualifications?  Credibility can only be stretched so far.

Civitas strongly suspects that many Academies are gaming too,  not least because they are shy about telling anyone about what exams  their pupils sit.  Others, of course, on this fluid battlefield, disagree about Academic subjects.  They  believe that there has been too much concentration on academic studies, with a silo mentality developing  at the expense of joined up thinking and  cross-curricular approaches, making subjects more engaging for pupils and  relevant to the  skills required by good citizens in a real world. (there is a common  inability also, it seems, among our politicians  to  be able, or willing ,to distinguish between  training and  education).  But this perpetual  quest to make qualifications more relevant has  been condemned by some.  Professor Roger Scruton in his book Culture Counts criticizes attempts to make the curriculum more relevant. Making the curriculum more relevant means, in his view, little more than excising from it “the difficult core knowledge”.  Scruton sees attempts to modernize the curriculum, aimed at helping to motivate pupils and improve their engagement, as a retrograde step, placing less value on the need for a body of core knowledge. The teaching of core knowledge can be a challenge, but without it pupils do not have the tools to make sense of the broad themes they are supposed to be exploring.

Ofqual  which has been operating in interim form since April 2008, had its powers enshrined in legislation under the 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act (ASCL) and is due to be established as a separate statutory body from April 2010. Its core objectives were set out in the Act basically to secure the standards of regulated qualifications and to ensure their integrity.  The Chief regulator’s Second Annual report reviewed qualification and assessment system at the end of 2009; it also published a detailed consultation on how Ofqual should exercise its powers and duties following the ASCL Act- Regulating for Confidence in Standards, available at It has published too a third  smaller, more technical Paper proposing the transitional arrangements under which Ofqual will operate from 1 April 2010 while its statutory powers are being implemented

Ed Balls appointment of Kathleen Tattersall , who was Chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors 2005 – 2008,  as  head of Ofqual, has irritated the influential head of the Select Committee, Barry Sheerman, who feels that Parliament should have approved the appointment . Sheerman said that as the  Ofqual chair reported to parliament, not the government,  it was therefore important that whoever got the job was “totally independent” and had been vetted by MPs on the committee. There is no suggestion that Balls action was illegal  nor indeed that Tattersall is under qualified  and  it is worth noting that  there is some bad blood between Balls and Sheerman (Sheerman is a Blairite)  but the unfortunate consequence of this   is that Tattersall is  already   perceived by some  to be  very close to the Secretary of State ,when distance surely   is required to assert  her independence.  Nor is it probably a sensible idea at this juncture , either, to alienate the Select Committee, as Parliamentary reforms may in due course give them much  more muscle.

Ofqual, in the meantime, has quite a lot to do to demonstrate its independence. Tattersall will have to tell politicians at some point to get back in their box. Is she capable of this? We shall see.


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