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.

Exam boards should not set their own syllabuses, say MPs

Exam boards should not set their own syllabuses, say MPs

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 2, 2012

A-level students

The chairman of the education select committee said confidence in exams had been eroded by ‘grade inflation’. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

MPs have acknowledged the problem of “grade inflation” and recommended stripping exam boards of the right to set their own syllabuses.

In a report on the future of exams published on Tuesday, the education select committee proposes a single syllabus for each subject with the aim of restoring confidence in the system by removing the “significant pressures” to drive standards down.

But the report comes out against moving to a single national exam board, which the MPs say would be a disruptive change that would hamper innovation and make it harder to control costs. “There could be a competition to decide which exam board would design the syllabus for a particular subject which would then be accredited by the regulator, Ofqual. After that any board could set an exam for that syllabus and compete on innovation, efficiency, service and support,” the report suggests.

Graham Stuart MP, Tory chairman of the select committee, said public confidence had been eroded by grade inflation.

“There has been grade inflation. There has been a denial of that going on. I think a recognition of where we’re at will help restore confidence. If you see the denial of obvious truths, that people see in their own lives, they will lose confidence in those who are vouching for that system.”

Grade inflation has been a problem for decades; analysis by an expert at Durham University has found that candidates of the same ability have been awarded A-levels a 10th of a grade higher every year since 1988.

The MPs’ report acknowledges the challenge of maintaining standards over time, as increasing numbers of children sit exams.

“A-levels cater for a broader ability range, with larger numbers going to university, then they did 30 years ago,” the report says.

The MPs advocate “explicit recalibration” of grading standards, with ministers and the exams regulator openly saying what the consequences will be for exam candidates, rather than a “slow creep”.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, is phasing out modular GCSEs from this September and plans further radical changes to the exam system.

Leaked proposals to scrap GCSEs in favour of a system modelled on O-levels and CSEs provoked a row within the coalition last month. Under the plans, children would sit new exams in English, maths and sciences in summer 2016.

This timetable was described as “reckless” by the chairman of the education select committee on Monday.

“This is not an area for anyone who has got the urgency bug,” Stuart said.

The select committee’s report is critical of school league tables based on GCSEs. The inquiry heard evidence about the resources schools invest in getting students across the “C/D” grade boundary so their results count towards the standard measure of five A*-C grades including English and maths.

The MPs praise the idea of “sample testing” schools to gauge information about standards without judging individual pupils or schools.

The MPs’ report raises concern that allowing examiners to write textbooks creates a potential conflict of interest. It warns exam boards against marketing text books as narrow guides to passing exams, with descriptions such as: “All you need for your course.”

The exams regulator has announced a ban on examiners conducting face-to-face seminars with teachers, which comes into force in August 2013, after finding evidence of “serious malpractice”.

But the MPs’ report finds that while exam boards charge for attendance, they make a loss on training courses.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, said: “AQA has never competed by lowering exam standards, although I accept this may have been the case elsewhere in the market in the past. We have been pressing for stronger regulation of standards between awarding bodies for some time and have been pleased to see that the regulator has addressed many of our concerns over the last year.”

School spending on exams doubles to £328m in a decade

School spending on exams doubles to £328m in a decade

BBC |May 9, 2012

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent
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School spending on exams rose to £328m last year – up from £154m less than a decade ago, according to figures from the exam watchdog Ofqual.

The annual report on the exam market in England, Wales and Northern Ireland also shows the number of qualifications has doubled to 18,000 in five years.

This includes 300 different A-levels, 250 AS-levels and 800 GCSE options.

Altogether in 2010-11 there were 16 million separate qualifications awarded, including vocational training.

Ofqual’s report shows the scale and cost of the qualifications market in 2010-11 – with the amount spent on exam fees rising by 8.5% on the previous year.

Rising costs

The report shows that the amount spent by schools on exams has increased above inflation every single year since 2002.

This increase has outstripped the rise in school running costs -and means that exam fees have taken a growing proportion of budgets.

The reasons for the sustained increase are suggested as higher fees, more pupils taking exams, more re-sit fees and a shift to pupils taking more expensive exams.

The average A-level fee, the report says, is now about £81 for maths and £93 for French.

Within the total of 16 million qualifications awarded there were 5.5 million GCSEs – drifting downwards from a high point of 6.2m in 2007.

The report suggests that this might be because schools are offering more non-GCSE qualifications.

The number of A-levels awarded has remained a small proportion of the overall total – 880,000, the same as the previous year.

Among the biggest areas of business for the qualifications industry is the wide range of vocational, training and basic skills awards, with eight million qualifications awarded.

There has been a continuing growth in the number of bodies awarding qualifications – rising to 179 from about 100 a decade ago.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our reforms to league tables mean that while GCSEs will continue to count, low-quality qualifications that don’t help young people into further study or jobs will be stripped out.”

“We are concerned about the scale of school spending on exams -this is money that could otherwise be spent on teaching.

“Expenditure on exams, including exam fees, is one of the most significant calls on school and college budgets, and has been growing in real terms, as has the percentage of budgets that this represents.”

Exam boards face fines for test paper errors

Exam boards face fines for test paper errors

BBC |May 4, 2012

By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News
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Exam boards face multi-million pound fines for mistakes in test papers under new powers granted to the exams watchdog Ofqual.

Just days before the exam season gets under way, the regulator has given details of new sanctions – including fines of up to 10% of annual turnover.

The regulator can also order exam papers to be rewritten or ban boards from offering certain qualifications.

Fiona Pethick of Ofqual promised to “act firmly and robustly”.

The biggest exam boards have turnovers of up to £300m, so fines of 10% would be substantial.

The government says the money will go to the public purse.

Ms Pethick, Ofqual’s director of regulation said: “We want awarding organisations to provide high-quality qualifications and good levels of service.

“Our additional powers, including the power to fine, mean that when things go wrong, we have more ways in which we can sanction an awarding organisation.

“With exams starting shortly, this is a timely announcement for us as we now have our new powers in place should there be any problems during this important period.”

‘Unanswerable questions’

The move follows a series of unanswerable questions and printing errors in last summer’s A-level and GCSE exam papers, sat by 140,000 students in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

After about a dozen mistakes were found in national test papers, the government promised to have new regulatory powers, including a system of fines, ready for this summer’s exams.

Last summer’s mistakes included multiple-choice questions where all the answers were wrong, and questions which were impossible to answer because wrong information had been given.

The subjects affected were geography, maths, chemistry, biology, business studies and Latin.

Pupils vented their anger on social networking sites, with some calling for the exams to be re-staged.

At the time the exam boards apologised for the mistakes and said they were taking measures to ensure pupils would not be advantaged or disadvantaged by them.

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