Exam regulator in the front line

Exam regulator in the front line

guardian.co.uk |July 2, 2012

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, the exams regulator

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, says: ‘If we moved to a single exam board, the transitional risks would be very significant’. Photograph: Andrew Fox

When foot and mouth disease struck Britain in 2007, Glenys Stacey was in the front line. As chief executive of Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service), her job was to ensure it didn’t spread. In that, as she proudly explains, she was successful, averting the crisis in British agriculture and tourism caused by the outbreak of 2001. “We had about a dozen outbreaks and we contained them all,” she says. We may have her to thank that meat supplies weren’t wiped out and that, when the virulent H5N1 virus was found among Suffolk turkeys, we didn’t all fall victim to avian flu.

But can she now cope with what some would describe as an outbreak of Mad Gove Disease? In March last year, she became chief executive of Ofqual, the examinations regulator. If the education secretary goes ahead with plans to scrap the GCSE, bring back O-levels and put them under a single exam board, she will have to make them work. When we meet at the Commonwealth Club in London, I ask if she knew about them before they were leaked (by Gove himself, according to some accounts)?

“We’ve known for months,” she says, “that ministers were concerned about the quality of GCSE qualifications. Our job is to give ministers wise and timely advice about how policy aims should be met and how transition can be managed without putting standards at risk. We’ve had opportunities to provide that advice.”

Which I take to be a “yes”. So what was that advice? “Significant change takes very careful planning indeed and, in that time, children are still taking exams and still need viable qualifications. We have to advise the minister on what is an achievable timetable. It depends on the details. His immediate interests are in English, maths and science. It makes sense to focus on some subjects, not all, and to choose the hard-hitting ones that affect people’s life chances.” The implication – though she won’t confirm it – is that Gove may have to rethink his ambitious timetable to scrap GCSEs by 2014.

Ofqual is answerable to parliament, not to Gove, but John Bangs, a former National Union of Teachers official, now a visiting professor at London University’s Institute of Education, says “it acts as if accountable to the secretary of state”. That view was shared by others I spoke to, but Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education at Buckingham University, was more generous: “She has brought a sharp brain and considerable political skills to the job. She briefs herself very thoroughly. She knows the world in which she has to operate. She navigates the political landscape, rather than confronting it.” The political reality, he said, is that “she may be at arm’s length from Gove, but it’s not a very long arm”.

Stacey herself says: “It’s a relationship. Government can take a policy decision on qualifications but, if it tries to change the nature of assessment, and we believe that will affect standards, it’s our obligation to say no.”

So far, there has been no overt clash. On the contrary, Stacey shares many of Gove’s concerns on GCSE and has striven “to strengthen the qualification, to get it to where it should be”. When she arrived at Ofqual, she dismissed grade inflation – the suggestion that “dumbed down” papers and more lenient marking made it easier to get top grades – as a “not very helpful expression” and argued that it could be attributable to “young people being taught well and working hard”. A year later, after looking at data that “just didn’t make sense” and discussing it with “real experts in assessment”, she said there had been “persistent grade inflation … over at least a decade” at both GCSE and A-level.

She ordered that some GCSE syllabuses be rewritten to ensure candidates cover wider ground; agreed to Gove’s demands that marks be awarded for grammar, spelling and punctuation, albeit so far only in four subjects; launched a review of “controlled assessment” (a new version of “continuous assessment”), arguing that it eats too much into teaching time; and announced a review of how GCSE results are graded. When we first talked at Ofqual’s headquarters in Coventry, two weeks before Gove’s plans were revealed, she echoed another of the minister’s concerns: the growth of non-academic GCSE courses. “Should there be a GCSE in flower arranging?” she asked. “Where is the line drawn? I don’t have a predetermined view, but at the moment the line isn’t drawn.”

On one matter on the Gove agenda – having a single exam board to set and mark GCSEs – she has seemed consistently cool. “If we moved to a single exam board,” she says, “the transitional risks would be very significant.”

For now, she says, her job is to ensure that the competitive market at GCSE and A-level operates in a “healthy” manner. Each board has an incentive to bump up pass rates so that it gets a higher share of the hefty exam entry fees. This, Gove believes, is partly responsible for grade inflation. Stacey has already banned seminars in which board representatives “coached” teachers in how to get their pupils through the exams – sometimes giving strong hints about that year’s questions – and has now begun “a very close look” at whether boards should continue publishing textbooks, which schools are naturally tempted to buy and follow slavishly. She has a new power to fine boards up to 10% of turnover for misbehaviour. Has she used it yet? “Give me a chance, we’ve only just got the power.” Has she issued any warnings? “I wouldn’t be warning them, I’d be giving notice of an intention to fine. I’m not in that position now, but I am ready.”

Stacey has a soft voice and great charm, but there is also an underlying sternness and, if I were Gove, I would be wary. She has no background in education – beyond two children and 25 years of marriage to a teacher – though she is taking an MA in educational assessment. She has spent most of her working life in important public-service jobs, yet is unknown to the public and not well-known even to practitioners in areas where she played a leading role. That may be because she has never worked in London.

Now 58, she is a living embodiment (her words) of mid-20th century social mobility. Her father was a painter and decorator, her mother a factory worker. She went to grammar school near Walsall and got “seven or eight” O-levels, but left school at 16 because that’s what people of her background did. Armed with a couple of science O-levels and (she thinks) a short skirt, she landed a job in a Royal Ordnance laboratory, quality assessing explosives. “I realised I wasn’t going to be a Nobel prizewinner, so I went to work for a local law firm, and fell into something I really enjoyed.” After taking A-levels at evening classes, she read law at Kent University before qualifying as a solicitor and working first in private practice and then for the Legal Aid Board, where she became an area manager.

Her first big job, at 43, was to set up the Criminal Cases Review Commission, created after the belated acquittals of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four on IRA bombing charges. She moved on to run the magistrates courts in Greater Manchester and, after Animal Health – the job which, to judge by the enthusiasm with which she recalls it, gave her greatest pleasure and success – she became chief executive of Standards for England, responsible for dealing with misdemeanours in local government. The latter body disappeared in the coalition government’s quango cull.

Her work there was largely about stamping out corruption. Now she is dealing with a system that Mick Waters, a former official at Ofqual’s predecessor, has described as “almost corrupt” and which has never before been properly regulated. It involves 25m exam scripts a year, 2,500 different papers, 15,000 qualifications (most of them vocational) and 180 awarding bodies. She has taken a more proactive approach to this daunting portfolio than many expected. For example, she commissioned a study of how other countries assess exams at the equivalent stage to A-level, concluding that they make far more use of teacher assessment and multiple-choice tests. On the latter front, we can expect activity.

“I have never sought a public profile,” she tells me. But before the GCSE saga is over, she will surely have one. It is impossible to believe she won’t cope.

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