Education CommitteeFurther written evidence submitted by Ofqual (Annex C)

1. Ofqual’s Chair and Chief Executive, Amanda Spielman and Glenys Stacey, will be giving oral evidence to the Committee on 21 March. To help the Committee prepare for that hearing, this paper provides an update on a number of developments since we submitted our initial evidence in early November 2011. Much has happened since then, so Ofqual welcomes the opportunity to provide this update.

2. This paper covers four areas:

The work to follow up the allegations about seminars made in the Daily Telegraph in early December.

Our plans for tackling concerns around GCSE standards.

Progress with the healthy markets work that we announced at the end of November.

The on-going development of Ofqual’s capacity and capability and our regulatory arrangements.


3. At the end of November last year, Ofqual announced the launch of our healthy market work to explore concerns about the impact of a market system on standards and the integrity of the examination system. Just a week later, allegations were made in the Daily Telegraph that examiners had been providing teachers with inappropriate information about the content of examinations during seminars run by awarding organisations. The following week, Glenys Stacey and others gave evidence to the Committee about these allegations. The week after that, on 20 December, we published our initial report into the findings. Our most immediate concern was making sure that the January examinations were secure, and particularly that guidance or seminars had not narrowed the breadth or depth of study required. One GCSE ICT unit, from the WJEC examination board, was clearly compromised and was withdrawn, and an alternative paper for that unit is being sat this month. We made a further statement at the beginning of January confirming that no other January papers needed to be withdrawn.

4. Since then, our focus has been first to ensure that this summer’s examinations are as secure as possible, and second that our regulatory arrangements are tight enough to secure standards and confidence. For this summer’s examinations we will be getting, and testing, assurances from the awarding organisations that study has not been narrowed as a result of seminars; we know that there have been improvements in the controls awarding organisations have put in place around seminars. Changes have already been made to three papers as a result of awarding organisations’ investigations. If necessary, other papers will be changed or replaced.

5. More widely, our position as regulator is clear: awarding organisations must have strong controls in place so that no teachers or students can access information about examinations which would give them an advantage. This does not mean that students should enter an examination hall with no idea about the type of questions that will be asked; a student who is taken by surprise by the structure of an examination paper, or the nature of the questions, will not be well placed to show what they have learnt. Teachers need to have consistent access to support that enables effective teaching, but a student should not know in advance which particular aspects of the curriculum will be tested. Teachers and students should know that the best way of preparing for an examination is a thorough study of the curriculum.

6. We have already taken action. We are consulting on a new regulatory condition that tightens our requirements around the confidentiality of examination materials. We are also giving serious consideration to banning awarding organisation seminars: we will need to judge whether the risks they pose to the integrity of the system outweigh the benefits—helping teachers prepare students appropriately for examinations. We have issued a call for evidence around guidance, training and textbooks relating to examinations and we will be making further announcements shortly.

7. Awarding organisation seminars are only one aspect of this issue, and they should not be looked at in isolation. There is a range of different ways that teachers could get information about examinations if controls are not tight enough: they could work out content if past papers are too predictable, they could attend seminars run by organisations other than the awarding organisation, they could read textbooks which claim to give hints about the assessments, they could get information from those responsible for setting or checking the examinations, or they could be examiners themselves. Whether we ban seminars or just tighten the arrangements, we will make sure that awarding organisations have stricter controls in place to deal with all these other risks. This issue goes to the heart of our role as regulator; securing standards and high quality assessments, promoting true learning and starting to rebuild confidence in the examinations we regulate.

GCSE Standards

8. In December we confirmed our plans to strengthen the assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) in a number of key GCSEs in England from September 2012. We will also be stopping GCSEs from being modularised; assessments will now normally take place at the end of the course of study. Awarding organisations are currently working on changes to their GCSEs to reflect these new requirements.

9. One of the allegations made by the Daily Telegraph was that Edexcel’s GCSE Geography allowed schools to limit the breadth and depth of their study, and yet still cover enough to get good results. We reviewed the current qualifications as a result of this, and then announced in January that we were requiring awarding organisations to strengthen the Geography GCSE qualifications for teaching from this September.

10. We also reviewed other GCSE subjects and identified several wider issues that caused us concern. These included the limited number of texts used in GCSE English literature and the number of different ways that schools were able to interpret assessment objective requirements and their associated questions in history. As a result, we have now written to awarding organisations setting out details of the actions they must take to strengthen GCSEs in English literature and history. These changes will be in place for September 2013 to be fair to those students who have already taken modules based on the current texts, and to ensure revisions are of the right standard.

11. Separately, we are halfway through a scrutiny of the new GCSE mathematics specifications for first full awards in summer 2012. We would normally report our findings after the first awards. This time we have reported our early findings to the awarding organisations because we believe they are serious enough to need action urgently. We think in particular that candidates at the key grades do not show the knowledge, skills and understanding set out in the grade descriptions. We will require awarding organisations to take action for assessments from November 2012.

Healthy Markets

12. In our written submission to the Select Committee we said that we wanted to develop our regulatory arrangements to enable and incentivise a healthy market for qualifications. We wrote to Ministers in DfE and BIS at the end of November to set out our plans. Events since then have confirmed the importance of this work. The problems exposed by the Daily Telegraph show that in the past the market has not been regulated tightly enough, and in particular that there has not been sufficient attention paid to the controls awarding organisations have in place to protect examination standards and integrity. Much of the work to follow up the concerns around seminars, as set out above, is part of our healthy markets work. We have shaped this work to respond to these concerns, including making the call for evidence on textbooks and guidance. We will be undertaking detailed research over the coming months to inform the development, by September, of a regulatory plan of action to address any confirmed problems with textbooks and study aids.

Ofqual’s Capacity, Capability and Regulatory Arrangements

13. As well as dealing with the immediate concerns set out above, we are putting in place arrangements that will make us better placed to prevent things going wrong in future. We are currently finalising our corporate plan for the period 2012–15 setting out our priorities in detail. We are also carrying out a substantial programme of work to move from the regulatory arrangements we inherited to more robust arrangements, in line with the our statutory powers and duties. As part of this we are currently consulting on our new approach to monitoring. Our regulatory arrangements will in future be stronger and more strategic, and awarding organisations will be more clearly accountable for the qualifications they award. We were also given new powers in last year’s Education Act, including the power to fine, and are consulting as well on how we should use those powers. On many of the issues set out, we are working with our fellow regulators in Wales and Northern Ireland.

14. To enable us to make proper use of these new arrangements, we need to build the capacity and capability of the organisation. We are currently implementing a change programme, Future Ofqual, which will restructure and strengthen the organisation. Change is always difficult, but we believe the end result will be an organisation fit for the future and able to meet the many challenges we face.

March 2012

Prepared 2nd July 2012