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Can Ofqual Recover?

  • 8 August 2021
  • By Jeremy Yallop

This blog was kindly contributed by Jeremy Yallop who is a trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association.

Ofqual is England’s exams regulator, established in 2010 as an independent body to increase public confidence in standards. For a decade, it worked effectively to keep grade inflation at bay. Then, in less than eighteen months, it lost control of exam standards, abandoned independence and demolished public confidence.

The happy decade (2010-2019)

The evidence of Ofqual’s early effectiveness is striking. Before Ofqual was founded, the proportion of top grades awarded at A-level rose every year. Its founding stands out clearly as the inflection point at which the rise was finally brought to an end.

Percentage of A-level entries achieving A/A* (Source: JCQ, bstubbs)

Available evidence suggests that this rise was due to falling standards, not – as is sometimes claimed – to improving teaching. In fact, as GCSE and A-level grades rose, the UK’s scores in international assessments fell. Suggestively, the UK’s international decline also came to an end around the time Ofqual was founded:

Ofqual’s effectiveness ensured that grades remained useful to universities. Without a way to identify outstanding students, A-level results would be of limited use for admissions. Admissions based on standardised assessments were valuable for applicants too, particularly high-performing applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who fare disproportionately badly on other measures such as personal statements and interviews.

The key to Ofqual’s effectiveness was its independence from ministerial interference. The influence of the Department for Education on Ofqual is limited to two channels: the Education Secretary can publish occasional official directions and the two organisations additionally agree to keep each other informed of developments. This restriction reduces the opportunity for political pressure, as the current Chief Regulator, Simon Lebus, explained in 2009, ‘to ensure public confidence Ofqual must not be viewed as a Government agency’.

The disasters of 2020 and 2021

The evidence of Ofqual’s loss of effectiveness is even more striking.

Percentage of A-level entries achieving A/A* (Source: JCQ, bstubbs)

In 2020, under Ofqual’s regulation, grade inflation far surpassed all previous records. Worse, the inflation was unevenly distributed: grades at independent schools increased by around 40 per cent more than grades at sixth form colleges. When the 2021 results are released this coming week, inflation is expected to be even higher.

The history of the 2020 exam disaster is well-known: in March 2020, the Education Secretary cancelled exams and directed Ofqual to design a replacement that would produce a similar profile of grades to previous years. Ofqual’s independence gives it discretion as to whether to implement ministerial directions, but it dutifully set about designing a system in which teachers would rank students using notional grades and Ofqual would translate the ranks into grades using historical data for each school. As it became clear that this second step would automatically downgrade thousands of results, public confidence collapsed and Ofqual was forced to award the unstandardised teacher-determined grades.

After the 2020 disaster, assessment in 2021 is simpler: grades are determined by teachers, using the available evidence, guided by some widely mocked descriptors released by exam boards. Since there is no attempt to standardise results, both inflation and inequality are expected to increase further than 2020 and public confidence has already collapsed, with students worrying that their grades will be seen as ‘fake’, and university vice-chancellors considering reducing reliance on A-levels for admissions.

What has happened to Ofqual?

Ofqual’s objectives to maintain the reliability and consistency of qualifications are set out in law. Nevertheless, it has largely abandoned these objectives in recent months. In a letter to the Education Secretary, Simon Lebus wrote: ‘Without exams we will not achieve the same degree of reliability and validity as in normal years’. In the consultation opened shortly afterwards, Ofqual admitted that:

The usual assurances of comparability between years, between individual students, between schools and colleges and between exam boards will not be possible.

As a trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association, I have seen this abandoning of objectives first-hand, having spent many hours trying to persuade Ofqual to make reliable assessments available to home-educated students. The 2020 and 2021 systems severely disadvantaged these students, who do not have teachers who can estimate their grades. It was startling to discover that Ofqual is no longer interested in grade reliability and considers itself powerless to deviate from the political objectives of the Department for Education.

While it is concerning that Ofqual has abandoned its objectives, its loss of independence is even more alarming. Following the public humiliation of the 2020 results week, the involvement of the Department for Education in Ofqual’s affairs has greatly increased. For the first time in Ofqual’s history, it is now routine for it to run public consultations jointly with the Department for Education, blurring the lines of responsibility. Worse, even ostensibly independent decisions now often involve ministerial support or veto. The formerly independent regulator is already well on its way to becoming a mere government agency.

Can Ofqual recover?

The new relationship between the Department for Education and Ofqual is politically convenient. Ofqual has the legal authority to regulate exams, but its newfound openness to political influence allows ministers to use that authority as they choose and its facade of independence makes it a useful decoy for public anger. For students, universities and others who rely on grades, the unequal partnership is a matter of grave concern: it is unclear how or whether the stability of 2010-2019 will ever return.

The disaster of 2020 led to an internal crisis in Ofqual, and a subsequent focus on restoring public confidence. It is unlikely, however, that public confidence will be restored by the subjugation of the regulator to ministers. Ofqual’s disbanded predecessor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), failed as a direct result of ministerial interference:

It’s too easy for Ed Balls and Jim Knight to say ‘It wasn’t me, guv, it’s an independent body’. QCA wasn’t independent. If someone is looking over the QCA’s shoulder all the time watching and observing them, even if it’s informally, quietly, beneath the radar, you can’t claim it’s independent.

The [Sutherland] report attacks the [Department for Children, Schools and Famalies’] parachuting of observers into bodies such as the QCA, after evidence that they regularly instructed bodies about ministers’ opinions. Observers should be banned from Ofqual, and non-governmental bodies should have a memorandum to establish lines of responsibility, it recommends.

Interference from Ed Balls contributed to Sats fiasco, MPs report finds, Guardian, July 2009

Ofqual is now in a similar situation and is likely to face a deservedly similar fate unless it rediscovers the importance of independence.

The next test will come within weeks, when the Department for Education and Ofqual will publish contingency plans for the 2022 exam series. This year’s system carried Ofqual’s brand but showed little trace of its objectives. Will the regulator rediscover its purpose and refuse to support politically-motivated grade debasement? If it will not, we would be better off without it.


  1. Rob Cuthbert says:

    A well-argued piece, but there is no hope that Ofqual will somehow free itself from ministerial interference, with the Secretary of State having just installed his former adviser Jo Saxton as chief regulator. As with the Office for Students, the present government has accentuated the tendency of most governments to try to capture the ‘independent’ regulators by appointing government stooges through an obviously inadequate public appointments process, wanting the regulators to comply with government instructions while also wanting to avoid the blame if anything goes wrong.

  2. Keith Geary says:

    This is a timely piece, weaving together several threads of thought and setting them in a historical context broader than the last 18 months.
    I have several observations.
    The ‘history of the 2020 exam disaster’ may be well known in broad terms but what actually happened is not so widely appreciated because of the smokescreen of obfuscation that the DfE and Ofqual generated—and continue to generate, as Dennis Sherwood demonstrates, highlighting the re-writing of history by those responsible, still going on as recently as last Friday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme. I agree with him that scrutiny of statements to the Education Select Committee by both ministers and Ofqual representatives is telling: pull together all the baseless assertions, refutations of the clearly true, avoidance of giving straight answers, claims to hand-wringing on the moral high ground—‘Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart’ as Troilus might say—and a clear picture of responsibility emerges.
    Why are we expecting Ofqual to do any better this year when it’s the same group of people doing things? The departure of the previous Chief Regulator is fairly irrelevant as her Select Committee appearance back in June 2020 suggested she was little involved and understood even less about the processes proposed.
    You are absolutely right about Ofqual’s visible loss of independence over the last 18 months. That’s why your quotation from Simon Lebus in 2009—‘to ensure public confidence Ofqual must not be viewed as a Government agency’—sounds like it comes from a prelapsarian world. Ofqual exists now, it seems, only to do as it’s told, and if what it’s told to do turns out to be foolish or disastrous, to be the fall-guy and take the blame.
    In 2020 Ofqual showed a striking lack of moral courage in not standing up to the DfE as was revealed in the Select Committee’s autumn post mortem hearings. Essentially Ofqual said we know what you want us to do will go wrong but we’ll still do it and then when precisely that happened in spectacular fashion took the stance that Robert Halfon memorably summed up as ‘Not me, guv.’ Last week’s Ofqual Blog post ‘What to expect from AS, A level and GCSE results next week’ skates rather disingenuously over the weaknesses of the process used for 2021, but at least the comments you quote from Simon Lebus’s letter to the Education Secretary and from the consultation document—make explicitly clear that Ofqual’s statutory function cannot be fulfilled in the circumstances the Education Secretary has prescribed.
    Sadly, just like last year, it did not have to be this way as I argued in this blog back in February.

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