Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR, gives an indication of what 2019 might bring in the world of qualifications.
This article first appeared in the latest issue of our UK exam board OCR's Policy Briefing.
The recently updated T Level Action Plan reveals a major programme of work that is gathering momentum. The multiple strands of activity covered by the plan and accompanying announcements from the Secretary of State are impressively comprehensive.
This includes details of colleges, schools, and other providers eligible for delivering the first wave of T Levels in 2020, analysis and lessons learned from industry placement pilots, plans to develop higher level technical qualifications, new accountability measures to cover achievements in T Level programmes, the establishment of Skills Advisory Panels, proposed funding arrangements, Ofqual’s announcements about its approach to regulating T Level qualifications, arrangements for recruiting and supporting T Level teachers, and – perhaps one of the simpler achievements – agreement that UCAS points will apply to T Level qualifications.
This is an impressive list but, of course, there is always more to be done - British Education Secretary Damian Hinds has promised future announcements about the ‘transition year’ - a programme to support people entering post-16 education who, for a variety of reasons, are not yet ready to embark on a full Level 3 programme. This is hardly new territory - such young people have always existed and schools and colleges have developed many approaches to supporting them. There is an opportunity here, though, to establish a more formally recognised (and properly funded) approach. We await details in the coming year.
Meanwhile, the Department for Education (DfE) must continue its wise approach to managing the arrival of T Levels in a contained and phased manner. For T Levels to be a success and for the interests of the first T Level students to be protected, we have to guarantee quality in all aspects of the programme from the outset. This is why it was the correct decision to delay two of the pathways originally scheduled for first teaching in 2021.
A period of stability for A Levels and GCSEs?
Unlike T Levels, the new, reformed A Levels and GCSEs are now largely in place. We are now in a phase of reviewing how the qualifications are bedding in and what changes or improvements might be needed. This on-going monitoring as carried out by the regulator, Ofqual, working in conjunction with the exam boards, has resulted in the publication of some interesting technical reports.
Examples of this include two investigations into comparability – one looking at A Levels in French, German, and Spanish, and one looking at the A Level sciences. Questions about the level of difficulty of one subject in relation to another are always fraught with complexity and contention. For example, the perceived difficulty of language qualifications is blamed by some for the continuing decline in uptake of these subjects. In its report, Ofqual makes the case for the status quo whilst promising further monitoring and research in the coming years. It also argues that it would be wrong to lower standards in order to make a particular subject more popular.
In another report, Ofqual looks at the quality of marking of examiners and the outcomes of reviews of that marking. The conclusions of its latest report are reassuring although the report highlights the well-known difficulties of arriving at consistent views of what should be the ‘right’ mark for extended essays in subjective subjects such as English.
Getting the right balance between exams that encourage and reward creative, individual thinking and exams which have only one ‘correct’ answer will always be a challenge. Nevertheless, this is an important matter and we the exam boards and the regulator are right to continue this conversation in an open and transparent way and to remain open at all times to exploring new ways of improving the quality and consistency of marks across all subjects.
So far, the technical evidence seems to suggest that reformed qualifications are performing well. Some subjects may be subject to further change, sometimes at short notice, as we have seen with Computer Science GCSE, but, overall, we seem to be heading for a period of stability where hopefully there will be time to work on system improvements and issues of key importance such as comparability or quality of marking.
Further scrutiny for vocational qualifications
If general qualifications look set for a period of bedding in, vocational qualifications are heading for yet another period of review. We are expecting the DfE to launch a consultation on the future of vocational qualifications early next year, probably in February, but with further reviews and consultations to follow.
The aim is to ensure that the DfE funds far fewer vocational qualifications than it does now, leading to a simpler, more rational qualifications system. We anticipate that it will consult on criteria for determining which qualifications should survive such a review - criteria covering such things as purpose, market recognition, ‘rigour’, and relationship to any future T Level qualifications.
The review is ambitious, with the intention, probably in the following order, to review all post-16 Level 3 vocational qualifications, including Applied General Qualifications, higher level vocational qualifications, Level 2 and below, and then pre-16 vocational qualifications used in school performance tables.
Not only is this a big undertaking in terms of the volumes of qualifications involved, but it also forces difficult questions about the range and purpose of qualifications and the sorts of learning we wish our young people to have access to. The process of consultation may start next year but reaching decisions and implementing them looks set to be long and drawn out.
The thinking around what is needed in the ‘Level 2 and below’ provision for 16-19 year olds seems underdeveloped. The answer will need to be much more sophisticated than providing the proposed transition year. Ofsted has pointed this out in its thematic review of this provision whilst also making the strong case that young people who find themselves in this category of provision are often treated by politicians as ‘other people’s children’.
Of course, the DfE and Ofsted are not the only bodies turning their gaze to vocational qualifications. The teams within Ofqual with responsibility for vocational qualifications have doubled over the last year or so. Quite rightly, Ofqual is keen to play its part in informing the review of all vocational qualifications. It has already committed to a full review of non-examined assessment in vocational qualifications. Local assessment by teachers or trainers ‘in-situ’ has long been a critical part of vocational qualification design, but of late, there has been a loss of faith in it from some regulators and policy makers.
In a high stakes, highly accountable system, concerns have grown about the risks of malpractice or poor practice where responsibility for assessment and some of its quality assurance rests with institutions which are also rewarded for the outcomes. It is still early days but this issue is bound to rise up the agenda next year as the review of vocational qualifications gathers pace.
Head of Policy, OCR
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