‘Over time, some exams will move online’ – Ofqual chief

Head regulator cites importance of not rushing to use technology

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The chief regulator of Ofqual has predicted that some exams will shortly begin moving to being delivered online.

Jo Saxton said that the biggest challenge facing the watchdog this year is that “time never stands still in the world of qualifications”. This could manifest in the organisation “looking at how to make sure vocational qualifications are genuinely treated in every respect as being on equal footing with A-Levels and GCSEs,” she added.

Another looming change that will occupy Ofqual in 2023 is “innovative new ways of students taking their exams, including the advent of moving – over time – to some exams online”, according to Saxton.

“We’re very much keen to see new innovations and new ways of doing things, and indeed there is some very exciting work going on in this space by some of the exam boards,” she said. “To my mind though, we need to make sure we don’t rush to new tech-based solutions without these being tested to destruction.

“And there are, of course, some things like handwriting, that must be preserved. Knowing what good classroom practice looks like is key to making sure that changes to how students are assessed doesn’t have negative unintended wash-back effects into teaching and learning. This will take time and we all need to have total confidence in any new approaches before we even make the first steps to implementing these across a system.”

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The chief regulator – who was answering questions as part of the annual Perm Secs Round-Up published by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World – added that the biggest challenge she had faced the past year was delivering the grading system for summer 2022 exams after two years of pandemic-related disturbance. This included the disastrous use of an algorithm to initially award grades to students sitting exams in summer 2020 – a year before Saxton took on the post of chief regulator.

“This was about balancing the need to recognise that young people up and down the country had experienced unprecedented disruption to their education over the past few years, with the need to get back to the tried, trusted and tested ‘normality’,” she said. “Striking this balance for me was all about fairness and doing the right thing for students. So, I decided grades should be broadly midway between the previous summer’s grades and pre-pandemic grades.”  

Saxton added: “This was so that we as a nation could take steps towards normality, but in the interests of students and recognising the immense challenge of what they had been through, not in one fell swoop. Whilst this sounds relatively simple to achieve, it was difficult to deliver technically. But I’m absolutely clear that it was the right decision – it simply would not have felt fair to students to have gone straight back to pre-pandemic grades immediately. We needed a glide path. I also set out a two-year trajectory; having understood that everyone – students especially – needed clarity and that being fair to them would be letting those starting two-year qualification courses know how they would be graded at the end.”


Sam Trendall

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