Ofqual on alert for warning signs in A-level and GCSE reforms

The government is attempting to change too much too quickly in the exam system. Simultaneous changes to A-level and GCSE will put at risk many years of steady development. Many people believe that changes are needed – but not all at once – and the strongest voice of caution is coming from the regulator at Ofqual.

In letters to the secretary of state and in an interview in the Times Educational Supplement, Glenys Stacey is sending out clear signals that Ofqual is keeping a watchful eye on the pace of reform and may use its powers to slow down Michael Gove’s fast-moving ambitions on A-level and GCSE.

The TES reports that the regulator believes that “there is a question about whether the system would be able to cope with the simultaneous introduction of reformed GCSEs and A levels in September 2015, as the government wants”. The TES also states that Ofqual has yet to decide whether introducing non-tiered GCSEs that are tougher but still accessible, as proposed by Michael Gove, is achievable. Tiering may be with us for longer than the government wants, the TES predicts.

The proposed reform timetable is also an issue for Ofqual, as it is for the awarding organisations, which will have to re-write GCSEs and A-levels at the same time, and for the teachers who will have to change their approaches to GCSE and A-level simultaneously in English, mathematics, history, geography and the sciences.

Glenys Stacey said: “What we need to understand is whether what government now wishes by way of A-level reform can be managed by exam boards as well as new GCSEs, and if we think it can’t then we have to say that that will create a risk to standards or a risk to delivery.”

My recent blog, “Six-point plan to restore public confidence in exams”, proposed the following: Strengthen Ofqual; professionalise the exams workforce; clarify the purpose of each exam; re-affirm that exams are criterion-referenced; re-calibrate points score equivalence; and reform exams by evolution, not revolution.

I noted then that Ofqual’s warning had been critical in persuading the secretary of state to change his mind about introducing an EBC to replace GCSE. In a letter to the secretary of state, Glenys Stacey stated: “the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment”; and expressing her concern at “introducing completely new qualifications and removing provider competition at the same time”.

In her letter to the secretary of state on 6 February 2013 on the revised GCSE reforms, she stated: “If problems arise, Ofqual would, if necessary, delay the reforms.”

That’s strong language for a regulator – and welcome news for awarding organisations and teachers who capacity for change is being taken for granted by the government.

A particular worry is the way in which grades can be standardised as GCSEs and A-levels move from one system to another. Grade descriptions are notoriously difficult to define precisely, which is why Keith Joseph’s laudable intention to move from the inevitable limitations of norm-referencing to the fairer criterion-referencing was never fully implemented and why we still have a system based on evidence drawn from statistical analysis as well as evidence from expert judgement of students’ exam scripts. The standard of each grade is, as we saw in 2012, not a simple matter to determine and it becomes much more complicated as we move from one system to another.

The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) has now started a programme of training of awarding body senior staff and examiners, leading to accreditation of examinres by the Institute. This professionalising of the assessment and examinations workforce is a necessary pre-cursor to maintaining standards as wemove from one system to another.

But – as in the sixth point of my plan – any exams reform is likely to backfire if it is introduced too quickly, so evolution, not revolution, should dictate the pace of change. Ofqual is our best hope of keeping government ministers under some sort of control.

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