A better approach to regulating qualifications standards

A better approach to regulating qualifications standards

In light of the upcoming Government White Paper on education due out this autumn, Cambridge Assessment explains how it sees the regulation of exams...

The current situation

The last Government sought to address the question of standards by setting up a new regulator, Ofqual, which has a more clearly defined role than its predecessor, the QCA. The Coalition Government has made it clear that it does not regard this as being the best way of ensuring standards are maintained and has committed to legislation giving Ofqual the powers it needs to enforce rigorous standards. 

Ministers have already stated that they are not interested in the direct regulation of ‘products’ - and are abolishing Ofqual’s partner quango, the QCDA. The QCDA is currently responsible for defining qualification (design) criteria - such as the number of units, the grading structure and methods of assessment - and subject (content) criteria.

The regulator is likely to be most effective if it is allowed to focus on a specific objective, rather than a collection of objectives which it currently holds. Narrow and deep regulation of providers creates a more effective regulator than a broad and superficial approach covering individual qualifications.

How can standards best be maintained?

  1. Users need to take the major role in specifying the content criteria of qualifications – enabling them to help set the standards.
  2. Exam boards need to agree between themselves on design criteria – enabling them to set and maintain the standard in relation to each other.
  3. ‘Communities of practice’ (see below) need to be set up around each qualification – enabling the standards of each qualification to be owned and maintained by all those with a direct interest in them.
  4. The regulator must focus on standards alone rather than its other current objectives. Its role is this system would be to underpin inter exam board agreements as well as those between boards and users. 

The best international qualifications (IB, Pre-U, IGCSE) are such because they have a minimum of state intervention, with producers and users of the qualification creating a community of ownership and practice that takes upon itself the responsibility for maintaining the integrity the qualification.

If one gives users of qualifications a leading role in determining the content of those qualifications and create communities of practice which include those users, the role that the regulator then plays can be redefined to better serve the nation’s need. Users are given a direct stake in maintaining the standard and a community is created that is bound to that standard. Therefore the regulator goes from being a mediator between the users and producers of qualifications which makes its own decisions on the standard, to allowing those with an interest in maintaining the standard a greater role in doing so.

Not all of this requires legislation – but all parties must agree to meet their obligations in order for a new regulatory approach to work. 

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