‘No one will be able to say I hid away in the Ofqual attic’

New exams chief Dr Jo Saxton says she likes a challenge. Just as well, as she faces having to restore confidence in what many see as a shattered system

New exams chief Dr Jo Saxton says she likes a challenge. Just as well, as she faces having to restore confidence in what many see as a shattered system


New Ofqual chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton doesn’t do easy.

After leading an academy trust founded by former academies minister Lord Nash, she set up her own – Turner Schools, in Kent – from scratch.

Not just that, it took over two schools in need of major rehabilitation after they had been failed under one of the sector’s biggest scandal-hit trusts, Lilac Sky.

With Turner established, she left in March last year to become policy adviser to then education secretary Gavin Williamson. A tough job got tougher when, a week after her appointment, Covid hit.

Then in September she became chief regulator of Ofqual, an organisation in need of major change after it was nearly brought to its knees by the 2020 exams fiasco.

So what draws her to such challenges?

“It could be that I’m the fourth of five children,” she says. “It could be that I hate, hate low expectations…I suppose I’ve said yes to things where there was a chance to do something about raising expectations, particularly for the disadvantaged.”

She cites her own school experience where teachers had “low expectations of me. That made me cross.

“I was really slow learning to read. OK, I probably have mild dyslexia. And my secondary school, which sent loads of kids to Oxbridge, didn’t think that I was in that pile. I was determined to prove them wrong and managed to get myself to Cambridge.”

But how does she prove the (growing) Ofqual doubters wrong?

The regulator’s own survey earlier this year found trust in GCSEs had plummeted after last summer’s exams fiasco. Just 27 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘GCSEs are trusted’ when asked about 2020, compared to three-quarters in a normal year.

‘What can I do for struggling schools?’

“Ofqual tried really hard to listen to the sector,” Saxton says. “But I’m going to try even harder.”

Robert Halfon, the education committee chair, even accused the regulator of “hiding away in the Ofqual attic” while the fiasco exploded.

The government U-turned on plans to award standardised grades after nearly 40 per cent of teacher grades were hauled down by an ill-fated algorithm.

Was Halfon right?

“It definitely felt like that. I don’t think Ofqual was trying to hide away in the Ofqual attic.

But how I’m going to work no one will be able to say that.”

I want to look at places that are struggling – what can I do for them?

Saxton has started to visit schools as part of a “listening tour” that will see her reach every region in the country.

She wants to start with those in areas worst-hit by Covid, as well as those in “coastal isolation”. One of the criteria for a visit is that schools must serve at least the national average of disadvantaged pupils.

“They often aren’t the ones who get to sit at the roundtables,” Saxton says. “But the people that need me to think differently are not the affluent suburbs in Guildford. I want to look at places that are struggling – what can I do for them?”

She says the “penny really dropped” while speaking to a parent governor during a recent school visit in Bristol.

“Policymakers and regulators are really good at talking to sector representative bodies, government and other policymakers. But I want to spend more time with the people who these qualifications are for, who our regulation affects.”

And she doesn’t just want to see the “lovely perfect bits. I’m not talking about kind of tokenistic visits. I want to talk to learners about the challenges that they face with the qualification system.”

It’s fitting we meet at the National Gallery, where Saxton fell in love with paintings at the age of 12. The former professional art historian says the location signifies her desire to make the “inaccessible, accessible” (she often brought both university and school students here).

“Due to the pandemic, the assessment blackbox has been opened to schools – and I want to keep doing that. I want parents to understand it.”

‘It’s a question of when, not if, on exams technology’

She says it’s also a response to the shifting purpose of the regulator. “Ofqual was founded to control grade inflation and [create] technical rules for exam boards. The ask of Ofqual is very different now.

“Now it’s having to work hard to deal with general qualifications and public confidence – and whether they are fair. It’s definitely taken a knock in the pandemic.”

While calls to reform exams are not new, that “knock” has amplified the arguments of dissenters. Do any reform proposals have merit?

“Lots of people are saying, and I agree with, ‘let’s get more tech in qualifications’.”

This could benefit exam security and make the system more environmentally friendly, she says.

“Think of the tonnes of paper … in the different delivery trucks that take papers to and from centres. There’s a big sort of green agenda.”

Saxton says one likely change could be introducing online, multiple-choice elements (think driving test theory) in GCSEs and A-levels.

“If you have a myriad of questions that lived in a wonderful database, and it can spit them out to candidates in a totally random order (obviously they will relate to the exam), yes, that could work really well.”

It would help spread the “benefits” from some vocational qualifications, such as functional skills, of being able to “test when ready”.

But she would want a “hybrid approach” that did not “undermine other skills. We shouldn’t lose the importance of writing.”

Talks will start soon with the department, while Nadhim Zahawi is said to be “very keen” to look at technology in exams.

“The pandemic has accelerated the involvement of technology. It’s not a question of if, it’s where might we involve it more, and when.”

‘It’s not comparable outcomes that have failed children struggling to write’

Another problem on her desk is criticism over the use of comparable outcomes. Ofqual’s “mutant” algorithm took much of the blame for the 2020 failures.

About a third of children leave school without a ‘standard’ pass grade 4 in GCSE English and maths. An independent inquiry into the “forgotten third” by the Association of School and College Leaders says this is “not an accident, but the product of the system of comparable outcomes whereby the spread of GCSE grades is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past”.

Saxton does not buy it – she says comparable outcomes just make sure there is inter-cohort fairness. And she has some choice words for the sector.

“The exam system is not intending to set anybody up to fail. The question you have to ask is what has happened in the ten years of education before that point that children fail?

“If you look at [those] candidate scripts, it’s just so dispiriting. There are children who are struggling to write. It’s not the GCSE that has failed them, or comparable outcomes.”

Saxton also isn’t worried about potential issues with future cohorts having no key stage 2 data to feed into the comparable outcomes machine, saying that the national reference test does the job just as well.

The nerdier aspects of regulation don’t seem to bother her, in fact she delights in it.

Working in the academy system ignited a passion for regulation (she has an “embarrassingly large” number of books about regulation on her bedside table).

Specifically, it was the academy scandals – and seeing the consequences at the “grassroots” – that drew her in.

When Turner Schools took over the Lilac Sky schools Martello Primary and Morehall Primary, she arrived to find one hadn’t had functioning heating for years. Staff and pupils would wear coats in certain rooms as it was “just what they did”.

A government investigation into Lilac Sky academy trust is still unpublished. But annual accounts have shed some light on what went on – from leaders spending public money on “luxury alcohol” to handing staff severance pay-offs before rehiring them the next day.

“The DfE has not got the powers it actually needs to be the champion for the vulnerable that it wants to be,” she says.

The solution? “It needs a bit of legislation, so that it could deal with abject cases of failure at school quick.”

‘Full academisation needs finishing’

She describes Williamson’s job during the pandemic as “unwinnable, just an impossible task”.

What did she learn from working with him?

“The importance of being nice to people even when something is really difficult.

“At the height of the most stressful days, with incredibly long hours, he always took the time to ask people how they were, and meant it. It was difficult being on the other side of it, and seeing the grilling that he was getting because he cared about learners having a high-quality education.”

Saxton says “fully academising” is the thing that she most would have liked to have seen through.

“It’s not a big ideological thing. High-performing jurisdictions don’t have mixed models of school governance and it’s just really messy in England. We have just over half of pupils in academies now; that needs finishing.”

She was keen on new policies to “nudge” people into it, acknowledging work was needed to “break down this myth that cases like Lilac Sky have built up – the concept that academy trusts are bad and evil. The majority are really good people who want to be able to affect change in more than one school.”

But rather than pushing the benefits of a new system, her exams challenge requires trying to restore confidence in a shattered one.

“I completely, totally, believe in my DNA that qualifications open doors for people. Once you’re armed with them – the world is your oyster.

“I want people to be able to fulfil their aspirations. And I firmly believe that the pursuit of qualifications contributes to that.”

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