Confidence in standards - Ofqual independence

Confidence in standards - Ofqual independence

LATEST: The Bill has been in Committee in the House of Lords for detailed discussion on individual clauses from 16 June 2009.

The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – which aims to deliver Ofqual, a new regulator of qualifications that will act as a guardian of education standards – has now passed through the House of Commons and is currently doing the rounds in the House of Lords.

During the House of Commons Stages extensive sector representation and media coverage indicated that there is a strong public desire to ensure the regulator has greater autonomy from Government and more accountability to Parliament.

There is also overwhelming cross-party political support for unequivocal Ofqual autonomy and accountability; a Cambridge Assessment survey of 150 MPs found over 90% of MPs agreeing that a regulator should have a duty to report its key regulatory decisions to Parliament, that Parliament should play a key role in ensuring regulators operate independently from government and that Parliamentary scrutiny is critical to making sure regulators are accountable and transparent.

Cambridge Assessment has been actively involved in offering suggestions on areas of the Bill which, in its view, require attention and/or change. It has also circulated a briefing paper to highlight matters of concern to a range of MPs, Peers, Officials and Stakeholders.

The Bill Committee took evidence from a range of stakeholders before starting its work. The CEO of Cambridge Assessment’s UK exam board (OCR), Greg Watson, gave evidence and answered MPs' questions on the written submission made by OCR.

A number of amendments aligned with Cambridge Assessment’s arguments were debated in the Second Reading and through the Committee Stage of the lower House of Parliament, although the Government remained committed to its own version. More details about our suggested amendments to the Bill are outlined in our Lords Second Reading briefing.

The first major debate on the Bill has just taken place in the UK’s upper chamber - the House of Lords. Again, many drew attention to Cambridge Assessment and its concerns. It went into Committee for detailed discussion on individual clauses on 16 June. A briefing meeting of Peers held by the Group recently showed a wide degree of concern on its issues, particularly amongst independents.

Indepth briefing

In our ongoing dialogue with Parliamentarians from all political parties, together with unaligned Peers in the House of Lords, we are focussing on a number of key themes:

  • Confidence in Standards – Clause 138; Power of Secretary of State to determine Minimum Requirements. This clause reinforces public perceptions of ministerial interference and undermines the shared aim of providing ‘Confidence in Standards’. To ensure public confidence Ofqual must not be viewed as a Government agency. In addition, it believes this clause to be inimical to good education, particularly as the UK department has control over funding as well as what is taught through the National Curriculum. It is calling for this clause to be deleted from the Bill.
  • Proportionality – Clause 143; Review of Activities of Recognised Bodies. This clause gives Ofqual wide powers to investigate any matter – such as contact with Parliamentarians. This will lead to Ofqual being taken away from its core duty of maintaining standards. Clarity is needed to define “connected activities” and it is suggesting that the clause be amended by adding in the words “directly or materially affecting the public examination system”.
  • Transparency & Accountability – Clause 164; Annual and other reports. This clause requires Ofqual to lay Annual Reports before Parliament. No detail exists and the Government retains huge reserve powers. The Lords Second Reading provides an opportunity to look at best practice with regard to securing maximum transparency.
  • We also have briefings on two other important issues which are Timeliness (Clause 125 and Clause 126) and Fairness (Clause 137).

"The regulator will need to command trust. This will be difficult to achieve if its authority is undermined by political intervention."

Simon Lebus, Group CEO of Cambridge Assessment, writing in ‘The House’ parliamentary magazine, 23 March 2009

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