The exams regulator Ofqual is planning to step up its regulation of technical qualifications offered to 14 to 16-year-old pupils, amid concerns they are open to “grade inflation or misuse”.
Technical awards are level 1 and 2 qualifications with an applied or practical focus offered by some schools and colleges to pupils alongside GCSEs. They include BTEC tech awards, which were the subject of controversy earlier this year after exam board Pearson upped their grade boundaries just before results were released.
The subjects are less-well-known than GCSEs, but are still incredibly popular. In 2017-18, they were taken by around 35 per cent of pupils at key stage 4.
At present, technical awards are designed based on technical guidance issued by the Department for Education, and Ofqual has no specific rules that apply to the qualifications, beyond its general conditions of recognition.
In a consultation document published today, Ofqual acknowledged “concerns over the potential vulnerability of these qualifications”, including that they “may be open to grade inflation or misuse for example”.
“Our proposed approach to regulating technical awards demonstrates the need for tighter rules that can contribute to better control of qualification standards while still allowing for appropriate differences in the qualifications’ design and delivery.”
Ofqual wants to regulate vocational and technical qualifications “with the same seriousness and focus” as general qualifications.
But the regulator believes that some of its current requirements and those of the Department for Education “appear to overlap or create challenges for awarding organisations to design qualifications that ensure standards and validity as effectively as they could, while remaining deliverable and manageable for a wide range of schools, colleges and other education providers”.
As a result, Ofqual is proposing a new regulatory framework for performance table qualifications, which will see exam boards submit new technical awards to be reviewed by both Ofqual and the DfE.
Under the framework, exam boards will have to develop an assessment strategy, which will be assessed by Ofqual, while the DfE will review submissions against its own technical guidance.
Although the new rules won’t give Ofqual a say in which qualifications are included in school league tables, it will allow the regulator to require exam boards to make changes to any qualifications approved by the DfE.
If the proposals are approved, a submission window will open next spring for qualifications that will be taught from September 2021 and included in performance tables from 2023.
Pending the outcome of the consultation, the DfE is also expected to lift its current moratorium on new qualifications being added to performance tables from 2023.
In a statement released alongside the consultation document, chief regulator Sally Collier said the proposals “demonstrate our commitment to regulate vocational and technical qualifications with the same seriousness and focus as we do general qualifications”.
“We have worked closely with the Department for Education to strengthen our regulation in respect of these important performance table qualifications, while ensuring an appropriate degree of flexibility in their design.
“As a result, users of these qualifications can continue to be assured that they are a reliable and valid assessment of the knowledge and skills acquired by students.”