Education secretary Gavin Williamson had the choice to empower Ofqual to come up with the right solutions for grading vocational qualifications this summer that would not disadvantage learners. Instead, he has taken the path of political imposition and Whitehall knows best, writes Tom Bewick

 

The Secretary of State for education, Gavin Williamson, has done something no other minister elsewhere in the United Kingdom has felt the need to do during the coronavirus crisis: in England he has brought the whole regulation of qualifications under direct political control. At least for the foreseeable future.

The evidence for this is contained within two ministerial direction letters he has recently sent to the regulator, Ofqual. Directions are quite rare in Whitehall circles, because they are essentially written orders to top mandarins, by their political masters, to pursue a particular course of action. One reason they are hardly ever used is because they indicate an underlying disagreement between ministers and their senior officials about what is in the public interest. We saw this in May 2018, when the then perm sec, Jonathan Slater, requested a direction from the then secretary of state, Damian Hinds, about the implementation of T-levels.

He has taken the path of political imposition, Whitehall knows best

Slater highlighted serious concerns about the September 2020 delivery for the new technical qualifications and questioned value for money issues on grounds of ‘regularity, propriety and feasibility.’ His recommendation was to commence T-level delivery in September 2021, which was subsequently overruled by Hinds in a written direction. Crucially, despite the major impact of the pandemic on colleges this September, current ministers have displayed the same uncompromising zeal when it comes to T-levels.

Last week, Williamson despatched the second of his two letters to the chief regulator for qualifications in England, Sally Collier. Following the cancellation of summer examinations, ministers moved swiftly to order the first direction. A handful of academic boards and the regulator will have to come up with a model of teacher-led predicted grades. This should enable the cohort of learners that were due to take GSCEs and A-Levels this summer with the means to progress onto further studies or apprenticeships.

The thing about general qualifications is that they are mainly taken by young people. They are homogenous, in the jargon. Centres are well established schools and colleges. Between them, teachers in these centres, are sitting on a gold mine of information about the prior attainment of candidates, often based on 10,000 hours of formal schooling. Take your typical A-Level candidate for example: a teacher will have access to their GCSE results; written coursework assignments, extra-curricular activities; formative assessments and because of the teacher contact time, a high degree of knowledge about a student’s commitment to the subject and overall work-ethic. Many educationalists, including training providers, argue that tutors are best placed to accurately predict the grades or results of their students. And during these exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, ministers are inclined to agree.

The problem with this kind of ‘blind faith’ is that it does not stand up to any kind of empirical scrutiny. Tutor-led grade predication is more of an art than science. Major studies by Tim Gill of Cambridge Assessment, for example, found that while some reasonable methods are available to tutors, the prediction rates are poor i.e. less than half of the predictions will usually be accurate. In 2017, UCAS published data which showed only 42 per cent of applicants to university were predicted the right grades. Behavioural psychologists have found that teachers employ positive bias when assessing their students. A study by Dr Gill Wyness of UCL (2016), looking into the accuracy of predicted grades for direct entry to university, found that 75 per cent of applicants had their grades over-predicted; and only 16 per cent were accurately predicted. In other words, without the objectivity and integrity of external independent assessment, including robust regulation of these qualifications, grade inflation would be rife.

The thing that worries many experts in the sector is that if tutor-led predictions are this dodgy for qualifications like A-levels, which have a pedigree dating back to 1951, how on earth are predicted grading models for the complex arena of mainly competency based vocational qualifications going to be anymore valid, reliable or safe?

It is the single most powerful argument for why, if ministers get their way on introducing a new extraordinary regulatory framework for academic and vocational technical qualifications in England, it could sound the death knell for public confidence in the actions of so-called independent regulators like Ofqual in future. After all, take the unfolding crisis of Covid-19. Here, politicians are at pains to stress how much they are following the lead of scientific advisers in tackling the disease. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, regularly appears in public alongside the chief medical officer (CMO), Professor Chris Witty. Together, they are shaping the government’s response to the crisis. Despite the unprecedented times we now live in, Hancock has not felt the need to order in writing the specific methods the CMO must pursue in tackling coronavirus. He has done the opposite, trusting his most senior public health officials to guide the government in its actions.

There is potentially one more sting in the tail of Williamson’s overt political take-over of Ofqual. The powers he has taken are granted under a 2009 Act of Parliament which gives the secretary of state the ability to ensure Ofqual is always aligned with government policy, ‘as he may direct.’ There is nothing to stop an extraordinary qualifications regulatory framework becoming the permanent one.

It means that, unlike the other emergency powers the government has taken, there is no time limits or indeed any other kind of limits being placed on the secretary of state in regard to regulated qualifications. Whatever the department’s real intensions of all this, there is perhaps one silver lining. If the tutor-led predicted results model for all types of regulated qualifications taken between now and the end of July does end up a complete Horlicks, at least Parliament will have no one else to blame but the secretary of state himself. Williamson had the choice to empower the regulator to come up with the right solutions that would not disadvantage learners. Instead, he has taken the path of political imposition, Whitehall knows best, rather than pursuing the higher cause of shoring up public confidence in the extrinsic value of independent qualifications regulation.