Exams

Beyond Ofsted? And what about ‘Beyond Ofqual’?

There are striking similarities between Ofsted's judgments and Ofqual's exam grades, writes Dennis Sherwood, but who is fighting for the victims of the latter?

There are striking similarities between Ofsted's judgments and Ofqual's exam grades, writes Dennis Sherwood, but who is fighting for the victims of the latter?

29 Apr 2023, 8:45

The NEU’s recent announcement that it has launched an inquiry into school accountability, chaired by former schools minister, Lord Jim Knight, is yet another manifestation of the ongoing outrage provoked by a school inspection system that is no longer fit for purpose. Single-word judgments are inadequate in describing what a school actually is and snapshot views fail to recognise achievement over time. The stakes are too high because the consequences of a bad grade are disproportionate, and the overall stress causes great damage.

But there is another aspect of school life with exactly the same attributes –  single-symbol judgment, snapshot view, high stakes and stress: GCSE, AS and A level exams, as administered by Ofqual.

Just as an inspection judgment of ‘Inadequate’ determined by a brief visit is unfit to summarise everything a school is and does, so too a  GCSE grade determined by a brief final exam is a poor way to ascertain everything a student can actually do. As to the stakes, the highly negative consequences of a grade 3 can last a lifetime. And every teacher, parent, and student knows all about the stress.

The analogy between school inspections and GCSE, AS and A level exams is striking. But there are two important differences too.

The first is reliability.

Is it possible that a different Ofsted inspection team might give the same school a different grade? Quite possibly: a February 2023 report states:  “Robust evidence emerges that male inspectors make more lenient judgments about primary schools than female lead inspectors”.

When it comes to Ofqual’s exam grades, however, the evidence of their unreliability is much stronger, albeit somewhat hidden. Is it possible that a student might be awarded different grades if the same script were marked by different examiners? Quite probably.

Who is fighting in their name for a ‘Beyond Ofqual’ inquiry?

I’ve written before, in these pages and elsewhere, about what I perceive as the scandal of Ofqual’s grades being “reliable to one grade either way” – not my words, but those of former Ofqual chief regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, speaking to House of Commons Education Select Committee on 2 September 2020.

So I was pleased when the new House of Lords committee on education for 11- to 16-year-olds recently took up this line of questioning with Ofqual’s former executive director for strategy, risk and research, Dr Michelle Meadows last month.

In answer to a question from Lord Watson, Dr Meadows, now associate professor of educational assessment at Oxford’s department of education, said: “It’s really important that people don’t put too much weight on any individual grade”.

What do those words mean? If “people” – which presumably implies students, teachers, parents, employers, admissions officers – are not to “put too much weight on any individual grade”, what are they supposed to do with them?

If this August, a student holding an offer of ABB is awarded ABC, should that student say to the admissions officer, “Dr Meadows says we shouldn’t put too much weight on that C, so I’d like to accept my place, please”?

What about a student awarded grade 3 in GCSE English? Can they go off for their summer break thinking, “That’s OK. I don’t have to put too much weight on that so I’m sure I won’t have to resit”?

The simple fact is that these two statements, from Dame Glenys and Dr Meadows, convey quite authoritatively that that GCSE, AS and A level grades aren’t as reliable as we might all hope.

Which brings me to the second point of difference.

The primary victims of unreliable grades are students. And unlike the victims of Ofsted inspections, students are not represented by powerful unions with highly influential spokespeople arguing their case.

Who is fighting in their name for a ‘Beyond Ofqual’ inquiry?

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