Ofqual, another bit of the British state that failed in a crisis

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents, will be hearing Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, Roger Taylor, row back on its use of an algorithm based moderation process for A levels and revert to grades assessed by teachers on news bulletins this evening. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or a place closer to their heart.

The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. 88% of students had got their first choice university places on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high. Similarly the number of disadvantaged students.

Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38% of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40% of exams get the tops grades next year?

Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on Ofqual’s part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle flexing going on.

Ofqual’s chief executive, Sally Collier, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant rather than an educationalist the right person to lead this public body? Her chairman, Roger Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes but again is not an educationalist.

This was bound to be a political hot potato and one that got hot in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of students and their families will be happily planning for the start of term but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

Once again we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.

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