Delivering confidence in standards - Cambridge Assessment's First Reading brief

26 January 2009

With educationalists expecting the new Education and Skills Bill to appear any day now, Cambridge Assessment is working to use its expertise to ensure that Government proposals for the introduction of a new standards regulator achieve the goal of improved education for all. However, we believe that vital questions must still be asked...

The Education and Skills Bill will be tasked with delivering a regulator that will be the guardian of education standards. We believe the below issues must be addressed in order to achieve this:

Accountability 

There is a commitment that the new regulator must report regularly to Parliament – and this is key. Questions that arise include: How will accountability to Parliament be secured - through the Select Committee? Will that Committee have the right to ratify the appointments of key personnel (Chair, CEO) and the right to require associated documents to be presented to it? How often and on what occasions is it envisaged that Ofqual should report? Should Ofqual be required to report specific information to Parliament each year, rather than having complete discretion?

Independence

To secure public trust, most commentators recognise that it is essential that Ofqual is viewed as a regulator of standards and not merely as a Government agency. The best regulators look to create long-term trust and credibility by acting transparently, authoritatively and with integrity. Ofqual needs to have the capacity to do that. How will this be written into Ofqual’s remit? What residual powers will – and should - the Government keep to direct Ofqual?

Qualification design criteria - the heart of education standards

It is, of course, entirely right for the Government to decide on what should be taught in our schools. But, if standards are to be maintained, the design of qualifications must be carried out independently; at the heart of the 2002 A Level crisis lay a design decision.

Qualification design criteria include: the number and weighting of units, the grading structure and the methods of assessment such as the split between practical work and exams. They are far more important to the maintenance of standards than the annual marking session.

A regulator can either set standards at the beginning of the process, through design criteria, or comment on whether the standard has been maintained at the end of the process – after qualifications have been delivered to students.

Which of these directions is the Government following? Are there any plans to ensure the regulator has the power to set standards at an early stage? Why do current plans envisage Governmental input into design criteria? On what occasions would Ministers want to use powers to design qualifications? What powers will Ofqual have to veto design criteria it felt would undermine standards, if it did not have the powers to set them itself?

Policy churn

One of the causes of uncertainty around educational standards has been the sheer amount of change that successive Governments have required. The new arrangements could enable Ofqual to manage expectations about what rate of change is prudent and achievable. A robustly independent regulator could ensure that there is a proper understanding of the consequences of change - and the risks associated with it. How will the Government ensure that the regulator can speak out when it believes that the examinations system is at risk of compromise?

Economic powers

Many regulators are largely (some almost solely) economic in their focus. In the field of education, different imperatives apply. Of course there are costs associated with qualifications. Schools, colleges, learners and employers need to know that they are not being overcharged. But the wider economic picture is that of a system which ploughs the vast majority of its income back into education. 

The current proposals for economic sanctions will only add complexity and expense to the system. Crucially, as currently drafted, the proposals could lead to an increased expense on the public purse. Fines placed on an awarding body will inevitably be transferred back onto the cost of qualifications (as a result of the pricing of risk, if for no other reason). The Government, as the largest buyer of qualifications, would therefore incur these costs, creating a needless cycle of expense and inefficiency.

It is therefore sensible to invest the regulator with the power to impose punitive financial sanctions? What is the proportionate level of economic regulation for this sector which will not distract Ofqual from its prime purpose to maintain standards or put uneconomic minority-interest qualifications at risk?

Parliamentary debate

Tracing back the development of the QCA, through its predecessors the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and School Examination and Assessment Council, reveals that no substantive Parliamentary debate around the regulation of standards has taken place over the last 20 years. Public understanding of how exam standards are to be maintained has suffered because of this.

It is, therefore vital that detail about the functions and responsibilities of the regulator are included on the face of the forthcoming Education and Skills Bill and that proper scrutiny takes place. Will the Government commit to ensuring that substantive debate on this section of the Bill takes place both on the Floor of the House and in Committee?