Jo Saxton has said she would “absolutely speak out” as Ofqual boss if she felt any government decisions were going to “undermine the interests” of students after being quizzed over her independence by MPs today.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson named Saxton, his policy adviser and a former academy trust boss, as his preferred candidate for the Ofqual chief regulator role. The current interim chief regulator, Simon Lebus, leaves in September.
At a pre-appointment hearing today, the education select committee questioned Saxton on her independence following concerns about her government links.
‘I am not afraid to speak my mind’
MP Ian Mearns asked whether she was “too close to government” to lead an independent regulatory function.
Saxton, a former Ofqual board member, said that “anyone that knows me knows that I am not afraid to speak my mind and act independently”, adding that she has an “entirely professional relationship” with Williamson.
She added: “I’m not a member of a political party, I was involved in the Labour party review of the national curriculum and for me, I’m interested in children, young people and learnings, I’m interested in policy, not politics.”
Committee chair Robert Halfon said the exams chaos in summer 2020 “did raise a number of questions” about DfE and Ofqual’s relationship “such as who had the ultimate authority and accountability”.
Saxton said that Ofqual “needs to use all the powers that it has to speak out about government policy if it has concerns about capacity,” adding: “I would absolutely speak out if I felt that any government decisions were going to undermine the interests of children, young people and learners”.
She added that being independent “doesn’t mean that you can’t have effective working relationships” with government.
School leader relationships is ‘what Ofqual needs now’
Saxton was previously in charge of Turner Schools, which she established in Kent in 2016. She was previously chief executive of Future Academies, the trust set up by former academies minister Lord Nash.
She told the committee that the appointment of a former school leader “who has good relationships with other school leaders is the thing that Ofqual needs now”. This will help “reassure the wider sector that it understands what school leaders need, what the young people they serve need and is open to positive relationships with them going forward,” she added.
Labour this week claimed Saxton was unqualified for the role. But she defended her CV today, saying she has management and accounting officer experience.
“I’m so fascinated by regulation that I’ve studied it at the London School of Economics in my spare time,” Saxton said. “So while I don’t have as much experience in being a regulator, I have worked in highly regulated sectors.”
Asked about the regulator’s diversity, she said “there’s some diversity on the Ofqual board, of course if could be improved”. Saxton wants to work on diversity in the senior executive.
She also wants exams in 2022 to go ahead, but “if I can caveat that with the one thing we’ve learnt about the pandemic is that it’s unpredictable”.
Saxton would also like a student panel, and will explore that with the Ofqual board.
The committee will now put together a report on whether they believe Saxton is suitable for the role. Williamson will then consider it before deciding whether to proceed with the appointment.