Shining light on the exam process - Paul Steer

Shining light on the exam process - Paul Steer

The latest Ofqual perceptions survey confirms that GCSEs and A Levels continue to attract strong public trust. They are highly valued brands, deeply embedded in our psyche and encapsulate an understanding of our education system and people retain a sense of their purpose and fundamental design. This robustness shouldn’t be taken for granted, though, with signs of concern over the pace and nature of current reforms.

The new grading system for GCSEs will take some explaining..."

The new grading system for GCSEs will take some explaining, not least the definition of grade 5 as a good pass, which will have a significant impact on pass rates. The decoupling of AS is not a trivial change either and it will take time before this is widely recognised.

All of the reforms will require careful explanation, reassurance and transparency, not least because the days when things were simply taken on trust and public institutions were relatively free from close scrutiny are long gone. We have seen, for example, how young people have used social media to challenge and debate questions in this summer’s exam papers. It is important that the exam boards and the regulator respond to this sort of scrutiny with openness and transparency. OCR has taken steps to shine light on the exam process with a series of illuminating guides aimed at young people which are available on OCR's website.

In this spirit we must also welcome Ofqual’s proposals to publish metrics on quality of marking, and the boards should be vocal about the processes they have in place to secure and improve the quality assurance of marking and the important role teachers can play as highly trained and professional examiners.

...candidates simply don’t always perform on the day quite as expected."

There are always dangers, of course, that public debate can lead to an oversimplification of issues and it is important that we take every opportunity to explain that which is more nuanced and complex. We must be robust in explaining why exam papers contain some highly challenging questions and, indeed, surprisingly simple ones. Any metrics on quality of marking must point out wider issues, such as volatility, as described in Cambridge Assessment’s fascinating research which highlights how candidates simply don’t always perform on the day quite as expected.

Whereas public awareness and trust in general qualifications overall remains high, it is dismaying that Ofqual’s report shows that the same levels of regard are not held for vocational qualifications. Young people themselves, we learn, regard Level 3 vocational qualifications as inferior to A Levels. There are many deep-seated cultural reasons for this, but one factor, surely, is that VQs simply haven’t had the same kind of enduring stability associated with general qualifications. The names have changed over the years almost as frequently as Secretaries of State. Hopefully, the reforms introduced as a result of Baroness Wolf’s report on vocational education will prove more enduring than other ill-fated attempts to impose order and clarity in this complex area. This is important not least because the recent JCQ report highlights the value of vocational qualifications both to the economy and the people who achieve them.

...we cannot afford to continue to overlook the importance of vocational qualifications."

There is a risk, however, that with poor advice and guidance pushing people into wrong choices, government policies focussed on a binary system of A Levels and Apprenticeships and the sort of signals sent by the introduction of the ‘compulsory Ebacc’, that vocational qualifications stay out of the limelight. Quality vocational qualifications, such as Cambridge Nationals and Cambridge Technicals, can lead into technical and professional careers and a pipeline into higher education and apprenticeships. Following the Queen’s speech, it is clear that funding will be tight, especially in the Further Education sector, but we cannot afford to continue to overlook the importance of vocational qualifications.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy and Public Affairs, OCR