Dr Jo Saxton at AELP national conference 2022
The Chief Regulator pledges to carry forward innovations made during the pandemic and discusses the benefits of regulation for apprentices and students
Good afternoon. I’m Jo Saxton and I’m really pleased to be here with you today. Thank you for the invitation. This is my first AELP [Association of Employment and Learning Providers] event as Chief Regulator.
I’ve been hearing at first hand in recent weeks how important AELP is to its members, the role it plays in helping you interpret guidance, in representing your interests and providing you with a key network, one which I can imagine has been particularly powerful in the pandemic years.
We have all experienced many professional challenges and everyone has worked together in such a pioneering way to serve students. And I know I’m one of many who have thanked you for this, and I’d like to thank you for your continuing flexibility and dedication to providing education to those that we serve.
As Chief Regulator, I’m really keen that we keep the adaptations which have helped you serve the students and apprentices that you work with; that those innovations don’t have to disappear.
Today I’ve been asked to talk about how Ofqual is looking forward – for the short, medium, and long term.
It would be remiss of me not to point out that we have recently published a new corporate plan that covers the next 3 years. We’ve tried to make it as readable as possible so I hope that many of you will have a look at it if you haven’t already done so.
It is a plan that I am proud of, not least because I’m excited about the work it represents that we will do over the next 3 years, but also because it confirms the centrality for us of students and apprentices. They are our compass.
You know as well as I do that qualifications open doors and change lives, giving students and apprentices new opportunities to flourish and achieve. I see myself as their Chief Regulator.
Since taking up my role at Ofqual, I made a firm commitment to spend as much time as possible on the frontline, visiting colleges, schools, apprenticeship providers – and more recently, I’ve started to get to some independent training providers. I want to hear directly from those delivering qualifications, and, critically, those benefitting from them.
This is something I’m going to continue to do as I discharge my duties as Chief Regulator. I’m open to any and all visits, so invitations are welcome, please.
For me it’s all about how to make regulation personal, how to make it meaningful for individuals. That will include the language that we use. You’ll notice a change in tone of voice in the corporate plan that I’ve just mentioned.
Personally, I find the word ‘learner’ depersonalising. Whereas talking about ‘students of all ages and apprentices’, creates a clearer picture in of precisely who we are regulating on behalf of.
This might sound like a point of semantics, but for me it really isn’t. It’s about making sure that Ofqual keeps a clear-eyed and focused vision at all times on those who matter most, that we tilt our statutory powers in their interests.
Just last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a childcare apprentice at the private training provider, Busy Bees. I heard from her about her plans to move on to level 3 and about others who were preparing to do level 5. It’s fascinating that that trajectory of qualifications was very much her future plan. I was able to see at first-hand how the provider helped her not only get to grips with the childcare discipline in theory and in practice, but with literacy, numeracy and those less measurable but vital skills such as self-confidence.
As important as meeting students and apprentices, talking to you is also essential. Understanding how assessments are working for you, what barriers you’re finding, how we can enable you, is critical to Ofqual’s effectiveness. I can tell you loud and clear that I’ve heard your concerns about functional skills and it’s something I’ll come back to later.
For the immediate term, we are about to move into the awarding of the first GCSEs and A levels, general qualifications, in 3 years. Today is the last day of the GCSE, AS and A level series, and I’m sure that is a reason for many parents and guardians in the room to celebrate, as I hope it is for the 1.3 million students who have sat around 1,300 exams throughout this period.
Overseeing a reintroduction on this scale and securing the delivery and awarding of qualifications has been understandably one of our key priorities for 2022. And why? Not just because it was about getting back to what’s always been done. But because we know that students and society at large value the importance of exams and formal assessments and welcome their return. From polling, for example, we know that two-thirds of parents of 11- to 18-year-olds support GCSEs and A levels returning to the examined format.
The conversations I’ve had with students between Plymouth and Durham confirmed this view. I’ve heard at length about students really wanting to show off their hard-fought learning. They told me that they really wanted to do exams and formal assessments, even when they didn’t know anyone apart from their teachers who had done them. And how they really didn’t want ‘COVID grades’.
Regulating on behalf of students like these during the pandemic has meant we have had our eye firmly fixed on what is the fairest action to take, trying to be fair to students individually but also so that qualifications continue to work at a national level, so that they can demonstrate their achievements – and do so in perpetuity.
Disruption has meant changes and adaptations for exams and formal assessments. But of course, the richness and diversity of VTQs [vocational and technical qualifications] has meant it was not possible to have a single common adaptation approach that was right for every qualification.
That’s why Ofqual gave awarding organisations a framework and scope to decide which adaptations would be most appropriate for their qualifications. Ofqual also asked awarding organisations to work together where they could. This increased consistency has meant the fairest approaches to assessment would be available. It is my intention that we carry forward the more flexible, principles-based approach to the regulation of VTQs that our pandemic framework has allowed, because it is the best way of enabling you to meet the needs of the students of all ages and apprentices you serve.
The central principle that we will carry forward is that no student or apprentice will be advantaged or disadvantaged compared to their peers taking similar VTQs or GCSEs, AS or A levels.
In terms of grading, this year, for GCSE, AS and A levels, grading will be more generous than it was before the pandemic. Qualifications must still represent what students know, understand and can do. But we recognise the disruption of the last 2 years is significant. So, we are directing exam boards and their examiners to use all the tools at their disposal to give students the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this summer’s grading.
For vocational and technical qualifications that are used for similar purposes such as progression, we also expect those awarding organisations to take account of the grading approach for GCSEs and A levels when setting standards in their own qualifications. And this includes this summer’s first ever awards for T Levels.
Each and every aspect of the delivery of qualifications this year has been given careful, expert consideration by Ofqual’s team. That, along with the huge effort from you and awarding organisations should mean students and apprentices, and their current and future employers, can have confidence that the qualifications awarded this year are at once meaningful and fair. And, that we can transition together into a more business-as-usual educational landscape.
Business As Usual
But what does business-as-usual look like for Ofqual as we move beyond the pandemic?
As it happens, business-as-usual at Ofqual involves a lot of change. Development and reform are at the heart of ‘business as usual’ for Ofqual. Reforms that are in train across vocational and technical qualifications are deep and broad. I share the government’s ambition to create a world-class post-16 education system, with technical and academic routes. Where IfATE [Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education] sets the approach and acts as the voice of the employer, Ofqual regulates for students and apprentices. Together these complementary roles were designed to make the skills system stronger.
It’s a personal priority for me to ensure that these reforms don’t inadvertently cause disadvantage to students. In particular the most vulnerable, and those with protected characteristics.
So, consideration of the benefits and impacts of our regulation is particularly important during our consultations. Our recent work on accessibility, for example. Students and apprentices need to be assessed against what you have been able to teach and expose them to – not against things that they may or may not have experienced outside of education and work-based learning. Good qualification design should open doors to opportunity, not create hurdles that only the privileged can cross. We will apply these accessibility principles and also our considerable assessment expertise on the review of level 3 and level 2.
One group who are beginning to benefit from quality improvements that regulation can bring are apprentices. It is coming up to 2 years since it was decided that Ofqual should be the external quality assurance provider for most end-point assessments. As of last week, 57 EPAOs [end-point assessment organisations] have achieved Ofqual recognition, covering 98% of the apprentices in the first phase.
Regulated quality assurance brings apprentices what they deserve – assessment opportunities that fairly test what they have learned and enable them to demonstrate their newly gained skills. Assessment opportunities delivered by organisations in which Ofqual has confirmed they can have confidence.
Ofqual’s recognition process is rigorous, and rightly so. It is an important step in protecting the quality of assessments for apprentices and their current and potential employers.
As Jo Tipa from the National Skills Academy Nuclear has said of their recent achievement of recognition: ‘Ofqual recognition demonstrates to our customers the quality of our End Point Assessment service and provides assurance and peace of mind.’
Ofqual recognition is not just a moment in time. It is a commitment to adherence to a framework of quality criteria that provide assurance and peace of mind. It will be an ongoing process.
Ofqual recognition is only one element of the quality assurance that we’ll provide. Some of you will experience detailed scrutiny of assessment materials – by assessment experts and professionals from the relevant field. That has long been something that Ofqual has been proud of. So too has the monitoring of EPA [end point assessments] and EPAOs, assessment methods and assessment through data collection and audit.
Our regulatory approach also must be different and tailored to each unique set of circumstances. The Ofqual Field Team has been established to engage with those directly delivering assessments. It was interesting hearing last week on my visit about how that is working in practice.
Through this kind of engagement our aim is to better understand the quality of the assessments being offered to apprentices and their experience of them. In these ways, working hand in hand with IfATE we are able to serve the interests of apprentices.
I know many of you in the room today will have an interest in reformed Functional Skills. These qualifications are an important element of what many Apprenticeships and other programmes of study contain.
Those at Busy Bees supporting the apprentice I met last week were clear that it can sometimes feel like an insurmountable barrier although we all agree how important it is to be truly literate and numerate.
The performance of reformed FSQs [functional skills qualifications] continues to be on Ofqual’s radar and mine. I’ve heard loud and clear the concerns about the level of demand and the pandemic-related impact on accessing assessments and teaching. We continue to monitor these qualifications carefully, and we will shortly be publishing some interim research findings on these critical qualifications.
I’ve increasingly been hearing requests for domain-specific functional skill qualifications and I’d really welcome your thoughts on this.
As regulator, we have an important role in influencing and enabling innovation to refine assessments and qualifications, and the pandemic has clearly catalysed and accelerated this, including conversations about the greater use of technology.
We know from our research that during the pandemic awarding organisations introduced remote assessment and remote invigilation more than any other form of adaptation. I’ve been hearing at a visit this morning about how transformational that’s been in enabling employers to be more engaged in the process of teaching and learning, and how it’s enabled tutors to support more students and apprentices, as well as reaching parts of the country that otherwise might not have benefited.
Having gone through such rapid testing and implementation, it’s clear that, used right, technology can further strengthen how qualifications and assessments are delivered.
I’m very clear that Ofqual should not be a barrier to innovation like this. Where new approaches, including the use of technology, have potential to bring improvement in accessibility, we will support that.
The perceived benefits of greater innovation must of course be weighed against potential risks. I’m thinking of students and apprentices with special educational needs, those with disabilities but also the socio-economically disadvantaged. We need to ensure that our national infrastructure is ready to enable equal access to such provisions, for example, and that that isn’t a barrier to them.
Ofqual, working with the Department for Education, is about to do a feasibility study to look at exactly this. We need to make sure, for example, that access to the fastest broadband or the best laptops isn’t a thing that could provide advantage. Innovation must drive further inclusivity, further reliability and validity, and not create divergence.
Ofqual will continue to engage and provide support to awarding organisations exploring the use of innovative practice such as this, and where necessary, we will consider the removal of regulatory barriers which restrict or prevent innovation. But with the proviso that any innovative new practice must not undermine the value of the underlying qualification.
Students of all ages; apprentices and employers – whether that is this year, next year, or 5 years hence – should all be able to have confidence in the value of qualifications that they have worked so hard to achieve.