Dr Jo Saxton's speech at the Wellington Festival of Education

A speech given by Ofqual's Chief Regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, at the Wellington Festival of Education

Dr Jo Saxton

It’s really lovely to be here, and I’m especially pleased to be able to chat with Laura and you all about assessment.

One of the many duties of being Chief Regulator is regular appearances in front of select committees in both Houses of Parliament – and just last week I was in front of the Lords Education Select Committee on the same subject as today’s event.

As well as getting into the meat of this subject, it also provided a great opportunity to smite a few of those stubbornly persistent myths that exist about assessment and exams. I hope you’ll indulge me just to kill off a couple of those again today; because it’s too good an opportunity with an audience of educators not to do that.

So first, there is no such thing as quotas when it comes to grades. They simply do not exist in regulated GCSEs, AS an A levels. Grades are a product of the number of marks students accumulate; they are compensatory qualifications. No one is required to fail, and they are absolutely not forgotten. Secondly, there is no bell curve imposed. Anyone who is interested in numbers and statistics, compare the bell curve you get from the autumn resit results with summer series to see that that’s true.

But turning to the future of assessment specifically:

As I said to the eminent committee members this time last week, the future is big and just about anything is possible. But as Chief Regulator, the more pressing and central question is what is fair – and fair for the nation as a whole – and what is safe, and what is genuinely deliverable.

It’s our job at Ofqual to work out and then set those guardrails.

At Ofqual we are exploring the steps that would be involved in taking high stakes assessments on-screen. There are clearly considerations around national infrastructure, and we are going to work hard to really get under the skin of the practical considerations, barriers and what those solutions might be.

But just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily always mean we should.

I wanted to get a better sense of what the general public think about moving exams on-screen. So today, I’m going to share some of the headline findings from a new piece of research carried out to explore just that.

The first thing that came out of the research is that, strikingly, just 1 in 5 students and only 1 in 5 parents thought that all GCSE and A level exams should be taken on a computer. Forty-eight per cent of students and 54% of parents preferred to have a mixture: some computer, some traditional pen and paper.

Students and parents had quite strong feelings about which subjects were suited to being delivered on-screen. They felt it would work for many subjects but not for music, drama, art and PE. Interestingly, parents are significantly more likely to be confident about maths exams being on-screen than students were. Yet still 42% of parents felt things like maths equations would be better done in pen and paper than on-screen. Students also pointed to concerns around typing equations, plotting charts, and drawing shapes on a computer.

When we asked about concerns associated with moving to on-screen assessment, both students and parents raised concerns about all sorts of risks, but principally they were worried about forms of cheating.

They had concerns about data security, technical issues and potential unfairness arising from unequal access to technology.

In other words, while there is wide support for students taking more of their exams on computers it is not universal, and there is not support for making these assessments universally digital.

This is all consistent with where we are at Ofqual. We think that what England needs to be moving towards is a mixed approach. We should take the best of the traditional – tried, tested and trusted – approaches, and bring in some of the modern innovations too. In other words, we are not getting rid of handwriting any time soon!

When it comes to the public’s view on when all of this could happen, the most frequent response was 4 to 6 years away. Forty-three per cent of students and almost half of parents thought it would be in that kind of timeframe. Only a quarter thought it could happen sooner than that, within 1 to 3 years.

One of the aspects I think it’s really useful to be clear about when we are thinking about the digital future of exams is to be specific about exactly what that is, starting with thinking about things that have already happened and then those that will never happen.

There’s on-screen assessment; in other words, simply a simulation of a paper but on a screen. Then there are interactive exams; some schools like the one we’re in today probably use interactive assessments for entry, where the questions change depending on whether you’ve answered it rightly or wrongly. Then there is digital or AI marking in exams. I want to be absolutely unequivocal on this: when it comes to the latter – relying solely on artificial intelligence to mark students’ work – this is not something we will allow. Interestingly, almost half of parents agreed with me. Of those polled, 45% felt that that was something they would be opposed to, and 36% of students felt the same way. We do think, though, that it has a place to do things like quality assurance of human marking and spotting errors. But it cannot and will not replace humans, and Ofqual will make sure of that.

Of course there’s more to AI than just its potential use in marking and QA. I know other parts of the festival today and tomorrow are thinking about those things.

For one, I was curious about what AI itself had to say about AI in exams. So out of curiosity, I asked a well known chatbot for its thoughts.

It came back with a list of potential uses for AI in assessments, ranging from setting questions, adaptive testing, using AI tools to monitor on-screen exams and to spot cheating through facial recognition and eye movement tracking.

But the chatbot itself also highlighted a range of risks. In fact the list of risks seemed to be longer than the list of uses – I’d summarise them under clusters of issues related to fairness, accuracy, privacy and cost.

The rapid advance of AI tools in the workplace, and in creative industries and in education, means we are all having to think quickly about the opportunities. As Chief Regulator, however, my job is very much to think about the risks.

The inflexion point – striking the balance between the advantages of digital technologies and awareness of the dangers – is where we are at the moment. In finding that balance we are going to proceed carefully, making sure the necessary guardrails are in place and continually testing developments against this central question of fairness.

Thank you.

Dr Jo Saxton