How independent will Ofqual be?

07 Dec 2008 BBC News Online

How independent is independent?

By Mike Baker
Boy sitting an exam
The debate over exam standards continues
An "independent" regulator to "maintain confidence in the exams and qualification system" will be created by the new Children, Skills and Learning Bill, outlined in the Queen's Speech this week.

 

But just how independent will the new qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, prove to be?

The interim body, which is already shadowing the Ofqual role until the bill is passed by Parliament, has given a few warning barks so far. But the real test is yet to come.

There has been plenty of high-sounding rhetoric about the new body reporting to Parliament rather than to ministers. But, when the crunch comes, will government really take the risk of creating a regulator it cannot control?

After the problems with the national curriculum tests, and widespread concerns about the standard of qualifications, Ofqual's task will not be just to "maintain" confidence.

Instead it will face the much bigger task of trying to restore the badly broken trust in the standards of GCSEs, A-levels and other public exams.

Just consider some of the genuinely independent evidence that has come from elsewhere.

'Illusory'

The CEM Centre at the University of Durham, which has conducted extensive research on exam standards, argues that official statistics "overstate the actual improvement in educational performance".

It also claims that some subjects, such as science, are more severely graded than others.

Or consider the words of Professor Peter Williams, chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics and Education, who said that "over 20 or 30 years, I don't think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen".

And, most recently, the Royal Society of Chemistry has suggested an erosion of standards in science examinations, saying record-breaking exam results are "illusory".

By contrast, the current Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has rarely led the public debate, or conducted or commissioned research, on exam standards over time.

So when the Shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove, stated recently that "examinations, like the pounds in our pockets, are no longer worth what they were" we have, in truth, no sure way of knowing whether he is right or wrong.

Most people agree that the government was right to recognise that the QCA is no longer perceived as an independent watchdog of standards.

Crown appointment

It was, in effect, being asked to mark its own work. Moreover it answered directly to government, which has a vested interest in believing that school standards are rising steadily.

So the proposals in the new bill to split the regulatory function of the QCA from its advisory and development functions have been welcomed by many in the education system.

The aim is that Ofqual should be quite separate from the other new body, the re-named Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, whose job will be simply to advise ministers and to deliver exams.

But the real test will be just how separate Ofqual will be, not from the QCDA, but from government.

One way to ensure genuine independence would be for ministers to give up the right to appoint the head of Ofqual.

The current proposal is for the chief executive to be appointed by the secretary of state.

The secretary of state will also appoint all of the non-executive board, except for the chair who will be a Crown appointment. This hardly seems the way to demonstrate a genuinely arms-length relationship.

Transparent

There is an alternative approach that would do more to inspire confidence in Ofqual's independence.

This would involve the entire board of Ofqual being appointed by the Crown, not by the secretary of state.

It should then be for the board itself to choose the chief executive through an open and transparent competitive process.

Another way forward would be for the Secretary of State to propose several candidates to head Ofqual but for the final selection process to be run by the House of Commons Schools Select Committee, which has cross-party membership.

That would reinforce the idea that Ofqual is answerable to Parliament, not to ministers.

Stakes are high

In recent evidence to the select committee Schools Minister Jim Knight suggested its members would get the chance to interview the ministerial nominee, but he did not say they would have the final say over who gets the job.

Despite this the select committee chairman, Barry Sheerman MP, says that if it decided the nominee was "unfit for the post the government would have a difficult job pressing ahead with it".

However, he too has concerns about the way Ofqual has been designed: "There is some question in my mind about how independent Ofqual will be", he says, adding that "they will have to prove that they are - and it'll be the select committee's job to check on them".

The stakes are high. This is not just about whether ministers or Parliament get to appoint the head of the new exams watchdog.

It is, ultimately, about whether Ofqual will be able to tackle the huge job of restoring public confidence in exam standards.

To achieve that, the greater its distance from government the better it will be.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7768078.stm

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