How can we ensure public confidence in qualifications?

Sally Collier

It’s great to be back at FAB and to be joining you at such a crucial time for the sector.

It feels like vocational and technical qualifications and further education have never been so much in the spotlight – last week the Prime Minister name-checked further education in his speech to the Conservative Party conference and the Secretary of State has made very clear his ambitions to super-charge the sector over the next decade, and of course we welcome that.

And in just the last week the contracts for the second wave of T Levels have been awarded and the Department has also published the latest T Level Action Plan.

So now, more than ever, it’s important that vocational and technical qualifications can bear the weight of their profile, and the pressure and scrutiny that come with it. This is a time of great opportunity for awarding organisations, but also a time of challenge. These qualifications need to be – and to be seen to be – high quality, valid qualifications that can be relied upon by learners, further and higher education institutions and employers to act as a signal of what an individual knows and can do.

They need to be worthy of public confidence – and that’s what I want to talk about today. I’m not going to talk about specific reform programmes such as apprenticeships and T Levels, though I’ll be very happy to take questions on that later.

Public confidence is something that Ofqual takes very seriously; it is in our statutory objectives and it affects every awarding organisation. While your organisation might not be engaged in all the reforms and wider changes that are underway in the sector, you certainly will be affected by some. So this is a time to reflect, engage, and ask yourselves challenging questions.

So I want to begin by talking about three areas where risks to public confidence in qualifications have been identified, and where action is in hand to mitigate them.

First, the risk of malpractice. I’m pleased to hear that Sir John Dunford is speaking later about his Independent Commission’s report on Examination Malpractice because I think it would be easy – but absolutely wrong – for awarding organisations whose main business is not GCSEs and A levels to decide that this wasn’t relevant to them.

On the contrary, a large proportion of the Commission’s recommendations – many of which are far more important than the rather superficial media coverage around banning watches in exams – will have implications for your qualifications. We welcome the Commission’s report, and FAB’s involvement in taking forward its recommendations.

Many of the Commission’s recommendations are ones that we have also identified, that we support and have begun to work with other stakeholders to address. In general, there is a need for greater clarity and consistency in the ways in which malpractice is identified, sanctioned and prevented, and also how associated data should be collected and communicated.

And we support efforts to broaden understanding of what constitutes malpractice and what the anticipated responses might be when issues arise. For our part, we have already included tweaks to our guidance which will answer some of the points raised around conflicts of personal interest and what constitutes malpractice and maladministration; we will work with JCQ and FAB to consider whether other changes to rules or guidance are needed.

Related to this is the second area of risk I want to cover – something we have been concerned about for some time – that’s the inappropriate delegation of assessment judgements to centres, or Accountability for Awarding. This work started with our looking at Direct Claims Status where, unfortunately, the more we have learned, the more our concerns have been reinforced, rather than diminished. This issue is at the heart of many of the issues that require regulatory action.

You might recall that we held a policy consultation earlier in the year about how we might change our rules in this area. Our proposals are intended to strike a balance – on the one hand, ensuring an appropriate level of awarding organisation control over centre-assessment judgements so that there are consistent standards whenever and wherever an assessment takes place, and, on the other hand, ensuring your qualifications can be delivered in the flexible way the sector requires to meet the needs of users.

Taking on board the feedback we received in the policy consultation, we have made some important adjustments to our approach – specifically to address some of your concerns about the prescriptive nature of our requirements. So thanks to those who responded. We did listen and we are now in the middle of a technical consultation on the precise wording of our proposed rules in this area.

The changes will have an impact on all awarding organisations – some to a greater extent than others, depending on the operating model you employ and the strength of controls you already have in place. But all of you will need to introduce Centre Assessment Standards Scrutiny (CASS) processes by no later than September 2021.

Our proposed new rules minimise the extent of regulatory burden, while ensuring that you consider carefully the risks to qualification standards when your organisation does not make assessment judgements itself. As part of your consideration, you will need to think carefully about how you approve centres to make these judgements on your behalf and how you use the data and evidence available to monitor that they are doing so effectively.

Our technical consultation is open until 14 November, and I know FAB is marshalling a combined response from its membership. I encourage you to engage – come along to our consultation event on 29 October if you can – and do make sure you understand what these changes will mean for your organisation. My colleagues Yun Ding and Matt Humphrey will be talking about this consultation, our recent audits – and also some changes that we are making to our strategy for supporting compliance and taking regulatory action – in their seminars later today and tomorrow.

The third area of risk I want to talk about stems from pressures placed on qualifications as a result of their use in school and college Performance Tables. As many of you will know, we are working with the Department on how we regulate vocational and technical qualifications that appear in Key Stage 4 Performance Tables – in order to ensure that they reliably and validly represent the knowledge and skills that students should be able to possess from studying such qualifications.

We intend to strengthen our approach – making good on our commitment to regulate these qualifications with the same seriousness and focus as we do general qualifications.

We will shortly be launching a consultation on proposals for a new framework that aims to enhance validity and support a more rigorous process, but which affords an appropriate degree of flexibility and eliminates the overlap between our Conditions and the Department’s Performance Tables requirements. We are particularly mindful of the need to minimise disruption for schools and colleges.

We hope that this work on Key Stage 4 Performance Table qualifications will be just the first step. We continue to feed in our analysis of the regulated qualifications landscape to the government’s ongoing review of qualifications at level 3 and below.

You may have seen our response to the government consultation earlier in the year. In this, we signalled our support for the Department’s intention to streamline the publicly-funded market to enhance clarity. However, we also flagged the need to ensure sufficient qualifications remain to cater for the diverse range of learner needs and circumstances, as well as to reflect the breadth of knowledge and skills needed by industry.

Anyone who ever gives speeches knows that lists should always come in threes – so perhaps I ought to stop my list of risks there. However, I want to cheekily tag on another one – which is at the same time, a great opportunity. That’s international exports of regulated qualifications.

We know that the Secretary of State is an enthusiastic supporter of the export of qualifications, and I want Ofqual to play our part in this. We absolutely recognise that the Ofqual logo confers value to qualifications overseas, and we’re proud that it is recognised as upholding a high bar that signifies quality. As Paul mentioned earlier, in 2018 we saw over 1.3 million international certifications of Ofqual-regulated qualifications, from over 90 awarding organisations.

It is worth saying that we are currently limited by our founding legislation in relation to what we can actually regulate. Qualifications can only be regulated by Ofqual where there are, or the awarding organisation reasonably expects there will be, some learners who are assessed wholly or mainly in England. That’s not a choice we’ve made – it’s a current legislative reality.

It also bears emphasising that regulated qualifications are subject to the same Conditions wherever they are taken – that’s the high bar. Maintaining appropriate centre controls and accountability for awarding can be particularly challenging if the assessments are overseas – that’s why there is some risk – but where you want to offer regulated qualifications overseas, and you are able to do so in line with our rules, we’re fully supportive of you. Many of you are clearly already doing this and will want to do more.

We have just extended our data collection to ensure that we are capturing the entirety of the regulated market overseas, which supports the Department for International Trade in its work to showcase and promote UKPLC.

So now I’ve started a new list – of opportunities.

We have taken the opportunity, prompted by our colleagues at Qualifications Wales, to look at our respective Conditions of Recognition.

We are currently consulting on a number of changes to our Conditions including, in particular, those focused on provision of information about qualification fees – we think this will improve transparency and better enable purchasers to make informed decisions. A number of the other changes are aimed at improving structure and clarity of wording of our rules or to bring them up to date, for example in respect of data protection law, without changing the expectations placed on regulated organisations.

We have worked really hard with our colleagues in Qualifications Wales and CCEA Regulation to ensure the proposals are aligned as far as possible. One of the main messages of the consultation is the very significant degree of alignment we have achieved – including reducing some historic divergence. Indeed this is the first time that the three regulators have produced a joint consultation on a set of proposals since 2010. And we are about to publish a joint statement about how the three regulators work together to minimise burden.

The differences in the three legislative frameworks that underpin our respective operations means that a degree of divergence is inevitable (and indeed has always been the case since the systems were devolved). But this consultation illustrates our commitment to ensuring that any divergence is not accidental and that we will explain it and give you an opportunity to help shape the proposals.

The consultation is open until 25 October and I would encourage you to respond.

Another opportunity I’d like to pick up on is the opportunity to learn from when things didn’t go as planned or went awry.

Some of you will have seen the sector press coverage around the grading algorithms used to calculate overall qualification grades for Level 1 and Level 2 Tech Awards being changed at very late notice, just before results were issued this summer.

This was an unfortunate set of circumstances, in which an awarding organisation found itself having to make a decision to amend previously published and expected algorithms. The timing was regrettable. However, on the basis of the evidence we saw, our view was that the action taken to set and maintain standards was appropriate.

Being clear what learners and centres can expect, and sticking to commitments made, is an important part of maintaining public confidence – and we need to avoid a situation where this comes into conflict with your obligation to maintain standards. So we have recently asked you to review your published material and ensure that you have in place appropriately clear statements about the potential for aggregation algorithms and/or overall grade thresholds to change where this is necessary to maintain standards. So, that’s an opportunity to learn from others.

To mitigate those risks and take advantage of those opportunities, we want you to be in the best shape you can be. So now’s the time for you to take stock of your capacity and capability. In addition to the issues I’ve already covered, the three questions that are on the top of our minds and I’m sure you’re asking yourselves, are these:

  • Do you have enough assessment expertise in your organisation – people who really know how to design, develop, deliver and review qualifications? And if you don’t employ such people, how can you access them on a sustainable basis?
  • Is your technology, and your technology expertise, up to the challenge of facing the increased risk posed by cyber threats and keeping your data safe?
  • If you are a Responsible Officer, do you know what is expected of you, in terms of fulfilling your obligations as the key accountable person? For example, are you clear about how you should be using the Portal? We try to make our Portal communications clear, helpful and timely, and to highlight where things are important. Can we do it better? Please tell us.

And finally – just one very brief mention – what is your state of readiness for Brexit, particularly in a no-deal scenario? Have you considered the contingencies that might be necessary to maintain qualifications delivery if there is disruption, or a failure in your supply chain?

So we’ve had three and a bit risks, three opportunities, three questions and Brexit. If you have considered all of these, you’ll be well placed to rise to the challenge of ensuring that your qualifications deserve the highest level of public confidence – and that’s what we all want.

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