Ofqual’s new chief: We can do more to prevent exam errors

Ofqual needs to do more to stop “simple errors” in how schools deliver exams — although mistakes, security breaches and malpractice will continue, says new chief regulator Sally Collier.

In her first speech since she took up office eight weeks ago, Collier admitted the workings of the watchdog and the wider testing system were “much, much more complicated and interconnected” than she had thought.

Collier’s stewardship has started at a critical time for exam regulation, with a consultation on marking appeals just completed, new GCSEs on the horizon and widespread concerns about Ofqual’s handling of problems in previous years.

The former Cabinet Office civil servant, who replaced Dame Glenys Stacey in early May, said the “whole system”, and Ofqual in particular, could do more to prevent errors at school level, adding that mistakes such as the opening of incorrect exam packs or the issuing of the wrong papers could have a “profound impact”.

“We can do more to help schools and centres understand how to eliminate, as far as we can, those errors,” she said, despite accepting that within the wider system, “mistakes will happen, security breaches will happen and in rare cases, malpractice will happen”.

Speaking at the Institute of Education on Wednesday, where she has been receiving training from academics on assessment, Collier also admitted she had been learning about how the prevalence of social media was affecting the exams system, with pupil complaints on public sites such as Twitter becoming the norm.

“In my day — showing my age — you didn’t come out of your exam and tweet about it, you went home and moaned at your parents and got on with your revision for the next day,” she said. “We live in a different world, regulators live in different worlds, and we have to move with those different worlds.

“It is our job, in the midst of all that commentary, and the exam boards to determine where there is a genuine problem that needs to be looked at and needs to be investigated, and we need to look at awarding patterns, and where the exams are just hard. That’s been a real lesson for me.”

She heralded the beginning of a new “slicker” accreditation programme for qualifications that will be first taught in 2017, but said standards for new frameworks would not be lowered.

It follows criticism over the speed Ofqual has accredited new qualifications for this year, with the watchdog still due to sign off on some GCSEs and A-levels that will be taught from September.

“I make no apologies that the bar for accrediting a subject is high,” she said. “If we get the assessment standard wrong in the beginning it will come back to haunt us at the end.

“Everybody has learned a lot from the process of accreditation in the first two rounds. I’m pleased to say that the timetable for first teaching in 2017 has started and is on-track. The process is definitely slicker, everybody has learned but we will not lower those standards for getting subjects accredited.”

Collier also announced that new rules for marking appeals would be firmed up next week following a recent consultation.

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