If qualifications are to regain, and then maintain, the public's confidence - then their design and administration must be wrested of government control – claim James Croft and Anton Howes
In their bid for office, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom staked a great deal of their political capital on restoring public confidence in the quality of the education system. In tandem with measures to improve training and attract higher calibre entrants to the teaching profession, a key strategy for achieving that objective has been to introduce greater autonomy to the system so that headteachers can act to address poor performance and teaching professionals are treated as such.
Strange then, that when it comes to key stage four curriculum and assessment reform, the British government has adopted exactly the reverse of this approach. One of the most striking features of the consultation on the package of reforms announced last week is that the important aspects are not even being consulted on. Having successfully obscured the complexity of factors contributing to the rising proportion of pupils achieving the highest grades and having accused exam boards of deliberately developing qualifications that are easier to do well in, and then marketing them as such - for which the recent Education Select Committee inquiry could find little substantive evidence - the Secretary of State has presented a solution.
It is a single qualification per subject, introduced via franchising, for which there is almost no support among the assessment community. Designing a single paper to cater for the full ability range is far from straightforward and none of the exam boards are excited about the level of up-front investment required or the concentration of risk that franchising involves. Serious concerns were raised during the Education Select Committee inquiry about the inevitable compromises to the development of assessment expertise, responsiveness to practitioner-initiated new curricula and provision of more specialist subjects that are likely to follow – but these concerns seem to have gone unheeded.
Instead, though the consultation paper admits that the government has not the necessary expertise for the design of the new qualifications - and wants the exam boards, together with further and higher education and learned societies to make the running with this. The DfE will nevertheless determine, based on the criteria established through the public consultation and 'independent advice', which of the tendered qualifications wins. The consultation proposal outlines a two-stage process, the first of which involving in principle approval by Ofqual, and the second scrutiny by an independent panel appointed by the department.
Apart from the practical difficulties associated with recruiting that panel - assessment expertise is pretty difficult to come by outside of Ofqual and the exam boards themselves - whether it can be truly independent is doubtful. The plan is to repeat this process every five years. It is not hard to imagine that, given the constant and manifestly unhelpful changes to both content and means of assessment made by successive governments of the past several decades, the new qualifications will be just as susceptible to political whim as the old. If qualifications are to regain, and then maintain, the public's confidence - then their design and administration must be wrested of government control.
We need a qualifications market that is dynamic to the demands of our ever-changing economy and society and responsive to the nuanced and diverse demands of employers and higher education. Provision should extend to a wide variety of subjects. We must use the assessment methods best suited for gauging the level of skills and knowledge in the subject being assessed, therefore taking into account the full diversity of learner profiles.
A government-planned approach on behalf of employers and higher education, which pushes students down particular learning paths, will prove a poor substitute for an open market system in which the supply of human capital might follow the actual demands placed upon it. The government is right that the 'end-users' of qualifications need to be more closely consulted in assessment design, but the level of engagement necessary will only be compromised by its management of the framework. Neither the government, nor its regulators, have the incentive, let alone the ability.
James Croft and Anton Howes are the co-authors of a discussion paper When qualifications fail: reforming 14-19 assessment for The Centre for Market Reform of Education, in the United Kingdom