The government and Ofqual stagger from farce to tragedy

Is history repeating itself?

Referring to the work of Hegel, Karl Marx noted that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”.  With the UK public examinations and assessments nearing the end of a second year of confusion, could it be that Marx got it the wrong way around. Instead, the farce of last year may become the tragedy of 2021. We all hope not and wish students the best in a fair and open assessment. But with public confidence as low as it could get, there may be worse to come. This is a watershed moment that should trigger a search for a better more equal assessment of the potential of students. Everyone should be striving to promote those with ability regardless of background.

Last week saw schools and teachers finalising the grades of their students before they move on. GCSE’s and A-levels in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers in Scotland are all under scrutiny.   Yet the situation is confusing and causing terrible uncertainty.  In England, as elsewhere, the regulator, Ofqual, has yet again created confusion on the back of dubious government direction. There are calls for the education system to be ‘shaken up’ and this is a strong possibility. With ‘It’s time to shake up the English education system’ (The Times 8th June 2021), and writing from Glasgow, Louise Hayward tells us “There was a growing consensus that the current qualifications system pre-Covid was not working for far too many: not for many pupils, not for parents, teachers, the economy and wider society.”

This idea has taken hold and will be difficult to shake off.  Oqual is under the command of an interim chair, Ian Bauckham, and Simon Lebus, interim Chief Regulator, as the assessments of 2021 unravel. The Education Committee hearing on 6th July permitting, Lebus will be replaced in September by Jo Saxton, policy adviser to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. There are rumours that Baukham will be replaced as chair of Ofqual by former chair Julius Weinberg who currently leads the ‘Ofqual and data-sharing Committee’.  But for now, there is a temporary feel about the arrangements. Meanwhile in Scotland the new administration has cut its losses and decided to reform its equivalent organisation the ‘Scottish Qualifications Agency’ in the middle of the assessments.

Observers look on in amazement.

Various observers have taken a very a critical look at what is happening, and the UK administrations cannot bluff their way past the coming summer. Rob Cuthbert from the Society for Research into Higher Education has laid out ’Some different lessons to learn from the 2020 exams fiasco’ in an overview of the conclusions reached by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) in March 2021, These are in detail in ‘Ensuring statistical models command public confidence: Learning lessons from the approach to developing models for awarding grades in the UK in 2020’.  The use of an algorithm to determine final grades comes under intense scrutiny and the conclusion that “Public bodies should not underestimate the challenge of using statistical models to support decisions about individuals” is a warning for future endeavours where there may be a greater impact on disadvantaged students.

Looking to this year, the most vociferous critic of the ‘unreliable’ examinations system sets out how things might develop with ‘The school grading drama unfolds in five acts’ (Higher Education Policy Institute 8th June 2021). In a thought provoking critique he goes from Act 1- ‘The Stitch up’  of Ofqual by the Education Secretary to Act 5 – ‘The Aftermath’, where “This year’s process has set student and parent against school and teacher, with exam boards, Ofqual and the Department for Education as bystanders”. It is a tragic scenario that will cause long-lasting damage.

Richard Adams of The Guardian concluded earlier this month that ‘Teachers face ‘almost impossible task’ awarding A-level and GCSE grades’ (8th June 2021). They are now bracing themselves for multiple appeals arising from the Ofqual exam appeals guidance. Confidence and trust in both schools and teachers are likely to take a big hit this summer. It could take years to repair.

The Times went much further and vented its frustration by stepping directly into the government’s role. At the end of last month, it launched its own commission to report on education reforms in a year’s time (‘Revision Period; The pandemic has aggravated weaknesses in Britain’s education system’ 24th May 2021).  The government will have to respond with an inquiry and this will almost ensure there will be more than one version of events under consideration. There is a smell of education reform in the air.

Meanwhile in Scotland.

The situation for the government in Scotland could not be bleaker. A long awaited report by the OECD on its education system had been supressed until after the recent election there. The report ‘Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence : Into the Future’ sends shock waves through the government this week and must trigger major reforms in teaching development and examinations to prevent falling further behind.

Although the situation in Scotland has changed somewhat since the election in April, the same issues as in the rest of the UK are brewing. The newly installed Education Minister in Scotland, Shirley-Anne Somerville, immediately announced a “cast iron guarantee” that teacher grades would stand. But this was economical with the truth and a row erupted. Opposition was led by Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, who observed that local councils were making adjustments based on previous exam results. He was quick to add in parliament that “This is the same shambles as last year – it’s just more sleekit because instead of the SQA marking pupils down at the end of the process, the system will force teachers and schools to do it first.”

It is likely that many schools across the UK are also checking the credibility of their grades with past results and risking accusations that they are also using their own ad hoc ‘algorithms’. 

Covering up last year’s debacle.

The examinations last year were beset by a lack of openness and obfuscation from the outset. This simply served to foster mistrust and lower confidence in both the government and the regulators. That situation has not changed, and the scepticism has been fuelled by the conclusions of many close observers. Freedom of Information requests were needed last year to extract minutes of the Ofqual Board meetings. They only released the information from as far back as September 2019 in October 2020 (TEFS 16th  October 2020 ‘Ofqual holding back information’ and 23rd October 2020 ‘Ofqual lets the cat out of the bag’).

The ‘algorithm’ used to calculate grades, and then abandoned, was a closely guarded secret in the run up to the first results. Data obscurity is now also clouding the transparency that we expect.  Back in December 2020, Ofqual set up an ‘Advisory Board’ to review all the data they gathered from the 2020 examination cycle. They promised the Education Committee to release it to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) by May 2021 to build “trust, openness and accountability”.  It seems that was a promise too far as there are further delays. Schools Week has been pressing on this issue and reported last week that ‘Time is running out’: Exams fiasco data promised by Ofqual to ‘rebuild trust’ delayed’

Fallout from 2020 is still landing.

One reason for delaying the release of key data could lie in the legal action being taken by some parents. The full data might fuel further action by more parents and students.  In May, the Times reported ‘Families to sue over ‘wrong’ marks given by teachers’ (23rd May 2021). The full extent of the problem has still to be uncovered but there is no doubt that there were consequences for many students in their quest for university places. One example of a student who was finally awarded an A and B in Mathematics and Further Mathematics A-levels, after being predicted to get both as A*s, lost a university place. However, the same student got the two A*s in the Autumn resits, exactly as predicted by the school earlier.  This illustrates what many believe happened. Some schools adjusted their grades to fit in with results from earlier years before the Ofqual algorithm was deployed to a similar effect. Other schools may have pushed the grades as high as they could, mirroring their UCAS predictions from earlier in the year. The result was effectively a free for all that was inconsistent. It seems the same could happen this year where schools are given more autonomy and responsibility.

What will 2021 bring?

One thing is certain as the situation develops, there is no standard assessment across schools. Instead, an anarchic system of different schools deploying different assessment methods is in play.  This will lead to a magnification of the same problems as last year. Many schools have adopted their own examination assessment in an attempt to remain more objective. But the wide range of methods means there is little chance of any consistency.  

It is worth reminding Ofqual of their responsibilities as reiterated in their 2021-2022 Corporate plan  of the 18th May 2021. They still have five statutory objectives arising from the  Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. These are to:

1. Secure qualifications standards.

2. Promote National Assessment standards.

3. Promote public confidence in regulated qualifications and National Assessment arrangements.

4. Promote awareness of the range and benefits of regulated qualifications.

5. Secure that regulated qualifications are provided efficiently.

The consequences of breaching all, or just some, of these responsibilities are far reaching.  Universities are preparing for the likelihood of grade inflation and have held back on the number of conditional offers made in advance. This has caused considerable anger from those affected as shown in the Guardian on 22nd May 2021 with ‘Top pupils rejected by universities in A-levels fiasco fallout’. But it is common for universities to do this as they are always guessing in advance how many students might accept offers. It ensures they are not suddenly overwhelmed by more students than they could cope with. This is especially important in Medicine, the Sciences and Engineering that use expensive laboratory facilities.

What of fairness and equality?

With many schools setting their own assessments in recent weeks, they will no doubt have seen the consequences of lost teaching time amongst their students. Those with advantages at home may find they are well prepared, some benefitting from home tutors or parents who are degree qualified or academically inclined.

Indeed it appears from a study by researchers at the LSE that ‘Pupils with graduate parents received an unfair advantage in their A-level results last year’ (9th June 2021). This is hardly surprising, and it might be they quickly moved ahead of their less advantaged peers during lockdown. Add to the equation the loss of support from teachers this year, and it is more likely that the gap has widened further for less advantaged students. The conclusion reached by the Guardian on the 8th of June 2021 that ‘Teachers face ‘almost impossible task’ awarding A-level and GCSE grades’ is a fair assessment of a deteriorating situation. While the government might indicate that they ‘trust the teachers’, this simply puts the problem squarely on the teachers shoulders and spares the government from any blame. 

Where should the buck stop?

Clearly this lies with the government, the Department for Education and its regulator, Ofqual. Allowing schools to self-regulate the examination system is poor judgement that will fuel many accusations of unfairness. The students with fewer advantages will find they fall between the cracks in the system.

Former Ofqual chair, Roger Taylor, tried to ‘set the record straight’ over last year’s debacle. His qualified and feeble ‘mea culpa’,  ‘Is the algorithm working for us? Algorithms, qualifications and fairness’, still defends the idea of using algorithms for moderating grades.

Taylor also adds that the use of ‘non-qualification’ leaving certificates to issue grades was proposed as the best way of ‘maintaining qualification standards’ if there were no examinations. This option was indeed proposed amongst several others on the 16th of March 2020 in an ‘Official Sensitive’ report  ‘Summer 2020 GCSE and A/AS level exam series Contingency planning for Covid-19 – options and risks’, not released until September 2020.  However, it hardly got a glowing recommendation from Ofqual. 

But the core root of the problem lies with government direction that stressed standards over fairness. It dismissed the plight of the individual and cemented it behind a concrete wall (see TEFS 7th August 2020 ‘Qfqual builds a concrete wall’). It started with examination reforms by Michael Gove many years earlier (see The Student Room ‘Five ways Michael Gove has changed GCSEs and A-levels’). The emphasis on one off final examinations left few alternative ways out when the pandemic struck. Wedded to this idea, the government called the shots in 2020 and put Ofqual in a difficult situation. This came with the original letter sent by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson to Ofqual back on 31st March 2020. He stressed maintaining standards as the main objective and this led to the algorithm approach emerging.

But Taylor doesn’t hold back on disadvantaged students. He further defends the use of algorithms with the observation “The proportion of A* and A grades going to students in more deprived areas was lower with teacher assessed grades than with algorithmically moderated grades”.  This is not a good omen for the system in place this year. But Taylor’s arguments appear confused. He further states that “There were certainly instances where bright kids in schools with few or none like them in the past, got unfairly marked down and would have had to appeal their grades. But overall the algorithm did not disadvantage this group”. That is surely one good argument for not deploying an algorithm.

In the end, it is the individual who counts, not groups, disadvantaged or otherwise. It follows that fairness, ability and equality should lie at the core of any assessment system. Universities are looking for students of ability. Yet the exam system is mostly based on attainment, advantages, and quality of teaching. Attainment is important in ensuring students are able to cope with more advanced courses, but it is ability that sustains their efforts to the end of a degree.


  1. A quick add-on to Ofqual’s statuary obligations, as defined, as Mike says, in Section 128 of the 2009 Act. The first requirement is indeed about securing qualification standards. But there’s a detail in a sub-clause placing a duty on Ofqual to “secure that regulated qualifications give a reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding”.

    “Reliable”. Not “accurate”, “right” or even “fair”. “Reliable”.

    With that in mind, what are the implications of the statement made by Dame Glenys Stacey, at the time Ofqual’s Acting Chief Regulator, in her evidence to the Education Select Committee hearing of 2 September 2020, that exam grades “are reliable to one grade either way”?

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