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Ofqual vs DfE: It’s just like déjà vu all over again

The title quotation is from the late baseball player and coach, Lawrence 'Yogi' Berra, who always had an amusing turn of phrase to hand. In the 1960s, he was describing the inevitable as two players repeatedly did the same thing in every game (see note*). It seems there is a danger that Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE) are about to repeat the same mistakes in 2021  This time the signs are of more government direction. The problem is that those least able to defend themselves will become the casualties as they trade punches again. The widening gap in educational inequality will continue as long as the government dithers. The suspicion is that maintaining standards will emerge again as the main objective and will hit the least advantaged hardest. Those with more advantages in our most selective universities are pressing for higher standards. 

On Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Education set out in very simple terms the alternative arrangements for qualifications as he cancelled most examinations in 2021. For some reason he wanted to continue with BTEC exams in January but then backed off and has let colleges decide for themselves. Today, there are too many questions to be answered about important details. But we will have to await the outcome of another ‘review’ that will be launched next week. 

The relationship between Ofqual and the DfE cannot be a good one. They traded punches in a blame game all summer and into the autumn term. TEFS reported this in December in one of five posts (TEFS 11th December 2020 ‘ONE: Ofqual fights back’). Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson wrote to Ofqual on the 2nd of December 2020 to state his position of “Holding a successful exams series in summer 2021 remains a vital component of our strategy”. He welcomed Ofqual’s advice that “grading for 2021 GCSE, AS and A levels will be aligned with the overall outcomes from 2020”. Effectively he was lowering educational expectations due to the COVID-19 ongoing effects. 

In a letter to Ofqual on 12th October 2020 Williamson included the instruction, “The priority now is to ensure that students have confidence that they will be fairly treated in terms of assessment in 2021”. This reversed his earlier priority in March 2020 that emphasised standards above all. However, there was still an allusion to maintaining standards without saying as much with “It is vital, of course, that we maintain the validity of qualifications as far as possible”

Importantly, in terms of contingency planning, he noted that, 

“It is critical that we plan for all foreseeable scenarios to safeguard students’ ability to sit exams”. He goes on with “schools and colleges within a locality may be adversely affected by the pandemic during the examination season in ways that put exams for students in those centres at risk. The work here will need to identify all the potential scenarios, and it will be important to evaluate the risks and possible unintended consequences of each of the contingencies we consider”

The coming weeks will determine if the scenario of ‘no examinations in 2021’ was planned for effectively. 

Ofqual Under new management. 

In his announcement in December, Williamson also added that he was to “establish an expert advisory group” despite Ofqual already having such a group in position to advise them. This seemed strange and nothing has been heard since about this. The inference is that the government will take control of the situation. Back in the summer of 2020, as the examination debacle unfolded, the Ofqual Chief Regulator, Sally Collier resigned and took the blame for Williamson who feigned having no knowledge of what had happened. On the 2nd of September 2020, the Chair of the Education Committee described Ofqual’s response as a "not me guv" defence. This might also have applied equally to Williamson who, it turned out, had been well informed and involved from the outset (TEFS 23rd October 2020 ‘Ofqual lets the cat out of the bag’). 

Now the government does not have to contend with such ‘turbulent priests’. Ofqual chair, Roger Taylor, has left his position. He announced this a few days after Williamson sent his letter on the 2nd of December 2020. He has been replaced by Ian Bauckham as interim Chair. Soon after on 22nd of December 2020, the interim regulator, Glenys Stacey, left to be replaced by Simon Lebus, former Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment. 

It may be no coincidence that Bauckham is chair of the project board of Oak National Academy. This was set up in March 2020 to provide online support for teachers, students, and parents. Many schools will welcome them expanding this provision along with the BBC this term. Williamson took care to plug it in his announcement to Parliament this week. 

What the government has decided. 

In his Oral statement to Parliament 6th January 2021, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson made a number of U-turns on promises that schools and universities will open and on setting examinations. It would not have escaped his attention that Scotland and Wales had abandoned the idea of examinations much earlier. 

With students planning to return to university, and some already there, they found out that “Those at university will predominantly study online”. The only response to that is ‘light the blue touch paper and stand well back’. University staff will welcome this move since it reduces the exposure of them and their families to the virus. However, the high workload and expectations of online teaching will continue to pile on the stress. 

This stress will continue in schools who are being told “We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education. This is mandatory for ALL state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted. We expect schools to provide between three and five teaching hours a day, depending on a child’s age”. 

This will lead to multiple complaints landing on the doorstep of Ofsted. It’s a pity Williamson did not think to consult with Ofsted in advance. In a response, reported in the Telegraph (‘Ofsted 'angered' by Gavin Williamson's claim it will act as enforcer during school lockdown’), Ofsted Head, Amanda Spielman, was said to be 'cross' at the Education Secretary's use of language. Considering the fate of those recently in charge of Ofqual, I wonder how long she will last when Ofsted are dragged into the blame game. 

How to assess students for university. 

The key statement on this was “Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of this pandemic now means that it is not possible to have these exams this year. I can confirm that GCSEs and A and AS Level exams will not go ahead this summer. This year we are going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms.” 

It is quite an admission that exams merely assess “what a student knows”. It would be nice if we could somehow find a way to determine something about ability, potential and what a student understands. 

Responding to the inevitable expansion of the inequalities gap. 

It seems Williamson has tried to placate those who see the existing gaps in education inequality widening fast (‘Education Secretary outlines plans to support young people’). This is a real consequence as students disengage from education at all levels due to poor resources and little support. Meanwhile, those with advantaged home environments can push ahead with their studies. To counter this, Williamson promised more computers with “By the end of next week we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices”. Less quantitative was his observation that “We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet”. This is good news along with continued provision for those on free school meals who can expect “food parcels or vouchers”. 

However, there will be many vigilant observers checking if these promises are fully delivered. Within two days, the signs are not good. 

There was a concession in DfE guidance earlier today, ‘Children of critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings’ that is somewhat ominous. The DfE admits things are not so optimistic. In accepting schools will say open to “those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)”, it seems they are resigned to continuing problems. 

Surely this will lead to some schools having to stay open to large numbers of students. Already there are calls to review the situation and reports that ‘up to two thirds of pupils are still attending some schools’. This will not end well. 

Reviewing inequalities. 

We hope that the government and Williamson are taking careful note of the effects of inadequate provision for students struggling with disadvantages. He should be aware of another report released on Tuesday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), ‘The IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities: a New Year’s message’. One of the key themes of the review is the role of ‘Education’ as “one of the most important predictors of people’s life chances”. The latest report reinforces its first formal report in June of last year ‘11 JUNE 2020 COVID-19 and inequalities’. The conclusions on the widening gaps in educational equality are stark. 

Launched in May 2019, the IFS ‘Inequalities in the twenty-first century’ review has been chaired by Nobel prize winning Economist Angus Deaton leading a panel of thirteen other experts. It is fair to say that it did not foresee the COVID Crisis or opening of such severe wounds of inequality in the UK. It will be interesting to see how their analysis pans out in the coming months. 

Standards vs fairness. 

The motivation of the government in how it is handling education in the wake of the pandemic is surely still very suspect. The initial reaction was to maintain standards in examinations. It is likely that this will still be the case. Teachers in schools and colleges will be challenged if the try to offer grades higher than expected from past performance. In its now rejected plan from the 2nd of December 2020 (Grading GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021to carry out examinations), Ofqual continued to stress its objective was “maintaining standards and promoting public confidence”. In consultation with universities, it was not surprising Ofqual found that many “higher education representatives appeared willing to accept more generous outcomes in 2021”. However, “some selective institutions favoured something closer to 2019”. Now the more selective universities are jumping in with a determination to reject a 'safety net' for students. Although they have fewer students from less advantaged backgrounds, this means mostly those students with fewer resources. 

Yesterday, the elite Russell Group of Universities made a ‘Statement on ensuring fair assessment and protecting the integrity of degrees’. The title seems benign, but it has a sting in the tale for students struggling with their studies online. Provision is made for extenuating circumstances, but they emphasise that “Russell Group universities have a duty to all students to protect academic standards and uphold the integrity of our degrees”. To achieve this aim, they say “We therefore do not consider that using the same algorithmic approach to provide individual ‘no detriment’ or ‘safety net’ policies, which were introduced by some institutions as an emergency measure at the end of the last academic year, is necessary or appropriate this year”. I am sure many students will wish they knew this at the outset, not a few days before the start of a difficult second term. 

At this point, it is uncertain how many students are standing in the wings from 2020 after suspending their studies in this academic year. They could add to a bumper crop of students in 2021 and bring about considerable overcrowding. We might ask how many universities are prepared to offer face-to-face teaching to the high numbers they have accommodated online in this academic year? 

Yogi Berra also said “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded”. Perhaps he might have had universities in mind.


Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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