Jill Duffy became Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment’s UK exam board OCR in November 2018, bringing over 25 years’ experience in education to the position. Here, Jill tells us about her own path into education and the challenges she faces in her role. This article first appeared in the OCR newsletter Agenda.
What was your background before taking on your current role at OCR?
I have spent many years in the education sphere, working across both educational publishing and qualifications. My job before this one was running the UK Schools business for Pearson.
What do you like about working in the field of education?
I really enjoy visiting schools and colleges and seeing the impact of what we do on teachers and students in every part of the country. Coming from a family of teachers, I have the greatest respect for them and know what a hard job they do and how dedicated they are to helping their students make progress.
Who do you admire in your field?
I very much admire teachers, as I know how difficult and demanding a teacher’s job can be and I respect the dedication that they have to their students. It’s always difficult to pick one person but I would say my English teachers at St John Rigby Sixth Form College made a big impression. You can read more about them below.
Was your own experience of education a positive one and what lessons did you learn from it?
My school days were spent in Skelmersdale, Ormskirk and Wigan. I very much enjoyed my primary school days, although I learnt that having my mum as a teacher in the same school was a bit of a disadvantage, as there was the danger that anything you did would be relayed back to her!
I remember enjoying the wider breadth of subjects at secondary school, especially early lessons in languages. I really liked my time at sixth form college with the smaller classes and opportunity to focus on the subjects I enjoyed. It felt like a very grown up place and prepared me well for university. I was very grateful to the three English teachers I had there, as they devoted a lot of time to preparing a small group of us for Oxford entrance tests, including taking us for a trip to Oxford to experience an Oxford college.
I think what I learned from my educational experience is that you need to get on with a lot of different people in life and school days are your first lesson in this. They also made me realise that if you want something in life you need to be focussed, determined and work hard but you also need to be kind to yourself and pick yourself up when things don’t go according to plan. More than anything, they provide some of the friends who are there with you through life. I meet up a couple of times a year with friends from my sixth form college and really value these friendships; they knew me when I was young and have grown up with me.
What do you do when – if – you have time off?
First and foremost, I like to spend time with my family – my husband, two daughters and two stepsons. As we now all live in different cities and countries, time all together is rare but I try to see my daughters most weeks. I am quite sporty and run and play tennis. I play tennis for a local club so quite often play league matches at the weekend.
What are your first impressions of OCR?
“I very much admire teachers as I know how difficult and demanding a teacher’s job can be and I respect the dedication that they have to their students.”
My very first impression was how friendly and welcoming people are, it’s definitely the friendliest place I have worked. I am also very impressed by the depth of assessment knowledge and experience both in OCR and in our parent organisation, Cambridge Assessment, generally. This comes with being an organisation focussed on assessment and having the largest research group on assessment in Europe. Everyone working in OCR knows how important the work they do is and that their focus is very much to give teachers and students the assessment experience they want and students the results they deserve.
What do you say to the criticism of OCR that it has a reputation as an academic awarding body?
Our focus at OCR is to meet the needs of all learners and to make sure that we cater for the full range of abilities and aptitudes in our assessments. We have a strong heritage both in academic qualifications and also in vocational qualifications and assessments. We have provided vocational qualifications for more than 20 years and over 1.5 million students achieved an OCR National, one of our best known vocational qualifications.
We have a depth of expertise in vocational education and work with employers and other stakeholders to really understand the skills that will be needed for the next generation. Facing an uncertain future, transferable skills and soft skills are increasingly important, as many people will have several career changes in their working lives.
What are the greatest challenges that your sector faces over the next five years?
I think we will need to review the last GCSE and GCE reforms to ensure that they are delivering what is needed and we will need to see what comes from the vocational qualifications review as this might have an impact on our vocational qualifications. As always, we need to predict what policy changes we are likely to see and prepare for these.
More generally, technology change hasn’t impacted the world of education and assessment as much as it has other sectors and we need to be at the heart of how technology can enhance education and assessment so we can make a positive difference to learning. One of the major challenges facing the education system is recruitment and retention of teachers and we need to continually look at what we can do to save teachers’ time and reduce their workload, especially if we want them to carry on examining for us too.
As CEO, how will you know you are doing a good job?
It’s early days but I will be looking at the business metrics, as well as what teachers tell us about how we are supporting them. One of the most important areas for me is feedback from staff. I have around 400 colleagues at OCR and I’m keen to listen to them. We have an online ‘Yammer’ community, for example, which is full of feedback and ideas about how to improve. It's very important to me that the team at OCR is happy and engaged.
If you were stuck in a lift with a government minister, what three things would you ask for on behalf of the sector?
I think what most teachers would ask for would be a period of stability with minimal changes to the curriculum, Ofqual framework and performance tables so that changes can be embedded and teachers can focus on their key task of teaching.
The second thing would be to ensure that education receives adequate funding so that schools can provide quality education to all students and don’t have to make the very difficult choices many of them are making at the moment. Finally, I would ask that vocational education is treated with the same parity of esteem as academic education so that we provide pathways that are appropriate for different learners from aged 16 onwards.