The Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) is set to investigate the “human and emotional cost” of government regulation, including the approach and conduct of regulators.
It comes after FE Week revealed how Ofqual was accused of driving an end-point assessment organisation out of the apprenticeship market with an “excruciating” and “unfair” investigation that left its owner feeling suicidal.
The situation emerged amid the Ruth Perry inquest, which concluded last week with a coroner’s verdict that the school headteacher died in January by suicide, contributed to by an Ofsted inspection.
It was also discussed at this month’s FAB annual conference, in which one leading awarding body chief executive said that, when regulation impacts on people’s health and wellbeing, it is a “red line we should not allow to be crossed”.
John McNamara, FAB’s interim chief executive, told FE Week he now plans for the membership body to survey members on their experience of regulatory approaches.
He said: “The significant issue about the human and emotional cost of regulation was raised at the federation’s recent conference and we will be conducting research with our members to better understand the emotional impact of the current approach to regulation.
“The results will be shared, and appropriate representations made to the regulator community and Department for Education should further action be required.”
Catherine Large, Ofqual’s executive director for vocational and technical qualifications, said the exams regulator “welcomes the news that FAB is working with its members to understand sentiment within the sector”.
“Mental health and wellbeing are very important issues, and we look forward to working with FAB and its members to consider the findings of their survey,” she added.
The awarding body that accused Ofqual of forcing it out of the apprenticeships market through a “traumatic” investigation is called QFI Ltd.
The company claimed the regulator used “minor” and “petty” data errors to impose strict conditions that would make its business untenable, as well as “inappropriate evidence gathering”. This included an almost five-hour “interrogation” of the responsible officer that forced her to turn to stress medication.
Speaking at FAB’s annual conference, NCFE chief executive and FAB non-executive director David Gallagher said awarding bodies operate in a “low-trust paradigm”, describing it as a “waterfall of mistrust”.
He told delegates: “There’s a very serious point here. We saw what happened in relation to Ofsted and the reform that’s been called for because of a very, very tragic event. I know it’s quite a dark thought, but I think some of the pressures I’m seeing in the sector, some of the impact that I’ve seen on people, it’s not OK.
“I think we’ve got to challenge back with evidence, with research, with insight, with togetherness.”
An audience member then said: “I was very grateful to hear mention about the emotional and human cost of regulatory burden in the week when Ruth Perry’s inquest is going on. We’ve also read about the human cost of regulatory outcomes in our field.
“It’s really, really important that FAB continues to step up and hold their [regulators’] feet to the flames in terms of the cost of that.
“I see an awful lot of it. The pressure it puts on organisations – and it’s not always as clear because it’s organisation to organisation – but there really is a huge human cost to this, and it’s on the exponential increase, it seems.”
McNamara said all FAB members believe in “fair and robust” regulation of qualifications and end-point assessments to “maintain public trust in the UK qualifications system and to protect the interests of learners”.
But he pointed out that the sector has seen an increasing regulatory burden. Three main regulators operated across the UK market in 2010. There are now eight organisations performing these functions.
Gallagher told FAB’s conference that, while the regulatory burden “is a problem”, the “approach” of regulators must also be examined.
He said: “I’ve spent most of my career within the sort of auspices of Ofsted regulation, and for me actually when it comes to Ofqual regulation, it’s so different. At least with Ofsted, you’re building up to an inspection, you’ve got a grade, you knew where you stood.
“Do you ever have any sense of achievement with Ofqual regulation? Are there any lessons that really come out of the, you know, the audits or the investigations?
“So, stylistically, it’s not just the burden, it’s the approach. I think it’s becoming really concerning and, when it impacts on people’s health and wellbeing, that is a red line that I don’t think we should allow to be crossed.”