OFQUAL’s Chief Regulator comments on the upcoming Summer assessment period

Sir Ian Bauckham, Chief Regulator, Ofqual

After a long career as a teacher and school leader, and three years as Ofqual’s Chair, I took up the role of Chief Regulator in January. I led a school trust in Kent and East Sussex, so I understand the tireless work that you and your colleagues will have been doing to prepare your students for this summer’s exams – which, of course, are now just around the corner.

I think of qualifications as a kind of currency of education. Some say that qualifications are just pieces of paper. But I don’t think qualifications are any more just a piece of paper than the £20 note in your wallet. That £20 note represents value – it means something. When you gain a qualification, you gain something which represents education, knowledge and skills – the ability to apply what you have gained during the course of study. Qualifications really mean something – they have to be valued by those that use them, and trusted to show what a student knows, understands and can do.

A stable, reliable system

After the disruption of the pandemic, Ofqual completed a two-year staged return to normal grading for GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2023. This year, normal grading arrangements will continue – so, we expect outcomes to look broadly similar to last year. I say “similar” advisedly – the outcomes won’t, of course, be exactly the same subject by subject. Grades are determined by the performance of students in the exam hall, and we don’t know exactly how students are going to perform subject by subject. 

One adaptation that was put in place by the Department for Education during the pandemic will remain for this year only – formulae and equation sheets in GCSE maths, physics and combined science. 

Grading arrangements for level 3 vocational and technical qualifications, such as Applied Generals and Tech Levels, will continue as normal in 2024. Technical Awards, which are taken alongside GCSEs, have been reformed and students must now take the exam at the end of the qualification to satisfy the terminal rule. We have asked awarding organisations to take into account that Technical Awards have just been reformed and consider accepting a slightly weaker quality of work when grading them.

Measures to embed the timely delivery of results for vocational and technical qualifications include a term-time checkpoint to confirm which students need a result in August to progress, early release of results to schools and colleges before results days, and an updated VTQ Information Hub bringing together the key dates and deadlines from a wider range of awarding organisations. 

National assessments (SATs) for key stage 2 are fast approaching. Ofqual recently published its report on the 2023 SATs. This found that the SATs overall were effectively delivered and that, although the reading test was more difficult than in recent years, it was a reliable indicator of pupils’ performance and standards were maintained.

A resilient exams season

We have a very large qualifications system in England, and it’s vital that the system is resilient against the many pressures that it faces – including the security of assessment materials. Clearly, exams cannot be fair if some people get access to secure materials beforehand – for example, through a cyber breach. To help maintain security, we’ve asked awarding organisations to introduce additional security measures, including multi-factor authentication for accessing secure websites to make sure they’re only accessed by authorised people. Most of us are well used to these processes when using other online services, such as bank accounts. They are an important part of protecting materials from security threats. 

It’s very unlikely that we will again see the national cancellation of exams or assessments, but the experience of the pandemic shows it is not impossible. This is why we asked schools and colleges to keep evidence that could be used to determine students’ grades in the unlikely event that they can’t be assessed in the normal way. For many schools and colleges, that shouldn’t mean much more than a properly administered mock exam using a past paper, marked according to awarding organisation criteria and securely stored until after qualifications have been awarded. We understand completely that that means some extra work, but I think most people would agree it is important to make sure that there is a plan B.

As you look ahead to this year’s exam series, you can find relevant resources on Ofqual’s website, including:

I wish you and your students all the best for this summer’s exams and assessments.

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