John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.