As she prepares to leave the role of Ofqual chief regulator for the second time, Dame Glenys Stacey spoke to Schools Week about the continuing impact of Covid on education, and why she’s not leaving the organisation behind for good.
Stacey, who came out of retirement to fill the role vacated by her successor Sally Collier in August, spoke to reporter Samantha Booth for an exclusive exit interview.
It comes after the government announced it would allow more generous grading in 2021 in recognition of the impact of the pandemic on the current exams cohort. The move followed a plea from Stacey for greater generosity next year and beyond.
Q: Do you envisage the grading standards that are in place now will eventually fall back to 2019 levels?
A: I think there’s a discussion to be had really. What we’re going to have in summer 2021 – it’s still a pandemic cohort, it’s a cohort that is going to be adversely affected really by an unprecedented set of circumstances and the baleful effect of this pandemic.
I think you might argue actually that in summer 2022, those students who are studying now in their first year of two years of study, will be affected as well. And it’s interesting to think through as well, future A-level students that may not have quite had the right experience of study for their GCSE subjects.
So I think there’s a long backwash to this pandemic in education and there will need to be a good and considered and open discussion about what the right thing to do would be. One thing I am sure about is, whatever is to happen needs to be open, it needs to be discussed and people need to understand what to expect.
But for the moment, Ofqual has reserved its position on that, because now isn’t the right time to decide it. It wouldn’t it be right, we need to see this pandemic wash through and then as a society really take a view.”
Q: Won’t grade inflation devalue qualifications?
A: In my first five years at Ofqual, we had quite insidious creeping grade inflation.
We had results going up by 1 or 2 per cent each year and it wasn’t believed by the public.
I wouldn’t wish to label this grade inflation
We did our own surveys at the time and discovered how public confidence was falling because of this insidious issue. And so we did take steps, quite technical work, but over a period of about three or four years, did actually contain that and public confidence rose.
This is entirely different. I wouldn’t wish to label this grade inflation, I do think it needs to be separated from that and what we will normally use that term for.
What we’ve got here is a purposeful step to recognise what an exceptional year this has been in education and what a difficult year it has been for all students. And also recognising how things fell in summer 2020.
In this circumstance, there isn’t a right answer, There’s a judgment, really, about what is the fairest thing, and certainly what we are doing here is recognising an extremely difficult year, an exceptional, unprecedented year.
But we’re also recognising, through all of the discussions and work we’ve done with a good number of people across the sector and the public, parents, carers and students, that actually public confidence is more likely to be sustained if we take this route.
Q: The DfE is refusing to release details of meetings with Ofqual to the education select committee. Do you have any qualms with them providing that information?
A: That’s entirely a matter for ministers, I’m afraid. We provided all our minutes, all the information we’ve been asked to provide because we do seek to be a transparent organisation.
Q: It’s been suggested that Ofqual and Ofsted could merge to become a super regulator. Do you think that should happen?
A: Not at all, they are completely different organisations. Amanda Spielman, chief inspector, was chair of Ofqual for five years when I was chief regulator. We know very well the difference between these two organisations.
I’m enormously grateful to Amanda for coming to Ofqual in August. And be in no doubt, Ofqual will be ever in Ofsted’s debt for the assistance they’ve given us in recent months. But we are entirely different organisations.
Ofqual is a regulator it must be independent, it’s a non ministerial department. Ofsted is an inspectorate. I have been a chief inspector as well as a chief regulator – the things are entirely different. Never confuse the two, would be my advice.
Q: Do you think it’s the right decision to replace you with another interim chief regulator?
A: It takes quite a time to get a campaign for a new permanent chief regulator going. All sorts of ducks have to be in a row and of course it’s not Ofqual’s role to do that, it is government’s.
So, in the time we’ve got, there is little alternative. But what I do know is that the likely candidate will do a very good job.
Q: Were you asked, or tempted, to stay on for longer?
A: I was not expecting to have the privilege of doing this role. I was actually retired and taking the chance to go out on a canal boat at the time all this happened. I was very happy to come in and help but I always made it plain that this would be until December 31.
I have got other commitments which I have suspended. I’m a board member of an organisation, I’m a panel member of something else and these things are suspended. I suspended them so that I could step in at very short notice. Ofqual quite understood that this would be coming to an end at the end of December.
Q: Ofqual has pledged to provide advance notice of some topics covered in exams. Can you commit to a date when Ofqual will release these, and if not, when would be the latest date schools can expect to find that out?
We’re all working extremely hard to get this done. And at the moment we are aiming for early in the new year, I would say early February. If we cannot reach that date we will say something well ahead. But for the moment we’ve got our foot right down on the pedal to get to that point.
And the discussions I’ve had in focus groups with headteachers and teachers has been that actually, February would be about right. I feared that there would be a clamour to have them by the end of this calendar year, but people have actually said ‘no, no February will be okay’. There’s a balance to be struck isn’t there? I mean, there’s still a curriculum to be taught.
Q: What would you like to see going forward?
A: I would like to see shot of this pandemic. Although I’ll no longer be chief regulator at Ofqual, I will likely chair a board subcommittee of Ofqual as an independent chair, and that will be overseeing 2021 awarding. So I’m not walking away entirely and it does provide some continuity for Ofqual and for exam boards as well. So I retain a stake.
It will come into effect on January 1. It’s a new committee so the Ofqual board determined this approach when it met earlier this month. It will have some Ofqual board members on it and some independent members as well. So it brings in more capacity and insight.
The remit of the ‘2021 committee’ as it’s going to be called, sounds like a rather smart restaurant to me, but it’s actually a board subcommittee, the remit is much more narrowly focused on examinations and qualifications for 2021 but including vocational and technical, which is so important because there are so many ways in which we must be consistent, there are some ways in which they are different.
Q: You spoke at the education committee about recommending the approach of teacher ratings for lost learning to help level the playing field. How might that work?
This isn’t actually now directly a matter for Ofqual.
We did think one way of doing it would be to have some sort of assessment of lost learning. It would have to be at an individual level in our view, students within the same school, and within the same class that still have very different personal experiences of Covid, and it will be, in our view, pretty difficult not to recognise that.
But these are matters now for the working group that DfE is setting up to look at [differential] lost learning, and I really do welcome that. I think it’s the issue of our time. I’m hoping that there’ll be other ideas as well, this is just an idea that we’ve put up really as sort of a starter for ten.
But what I’d really welcome is a really good debate now about what we are going to do in the wider system really about this. And as I’ve said before, as these grades mean so much in terms of progression, it is those institutions where these students progress that really have a stake and actually have a role in deciding the best solution as well.
Dame Glenys Stacey was the chief regulator of Ofqual from 2012 to 2016, and interim chief regulator of Ofqual from August 2020 to the present day.