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'Unhelpful': new exams watchdog chief rejects 'grade inflation' label

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 13 May, 2011 | By: William Stewart

'Negative' phrase is unfair and diminishes hard work of pupils and teachers, she says

England's new exams regulator has condemned talk of "grade inflation" as unhelpful and negative.

Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey told The TES she rejected the term because better grades could be the result of good teaching and pupil effort.

Decades of relentlessly improving GCSE and A-level results, forcing the creation of new A* grades, have seen the phrase "grade inflation" become common currency. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and even the head of research at one of the big three school exam boards say it could be a reality.

But Ms Stacey said: "I don't find 'grade inflation' to be a very helpful expression. 'Inflation' has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard."

Speaking in her first interview since taking over in March, she said she was curious how much grade inflation would come up as an issue in a public debate on exam standards she is planning for the autumn.

"There is still a public concern that things aren't what they used to be," Ms Stacey said. "As a regulator it is entirely right that we should understand those concerns.

"We have recognised the issues that those close to the system are truly concerned about and we have to see to what extent they are myth or reality."

The former local government regulator says the debate will determine Ofqual's priorities for the next five years. But Ms Stacey already has plenty on her plate.

This summer a large number of modular GCSEs will be sat for the first time. It was the A-level modularisation in 2002 which prompted the grading scandal that did for one of her predecessors, Sir William Stubbs.

The latest GCSE change is already controversial, with education secretary Michael Gove saying he wants to "get rid of the modularisation of GCSEs" and move back towards single final exams.

But Ofqual is reportedly resisting another full-scale overhaul of GCSEs in the near future. And Ms Stacey is keen to ensure that people understand the reality of this summer's changes, particularly on resits - one of the most criticised aspects of modular exams.

"It is limited to one resit per module at the moment and still 40 per cent of the GCSE qualification is assessed at the end of the two years," she said. "There is maybe some misunderstanding here, with people withpre-determined views."

Asked if she meant ministers, Ms Stacey said she was "not aware" if they had misunderstood the changes.

But was that not exactly the public accusation made by her immediate predecessor, Isabel Nisbet? "The past is the past," said Ms Stacey.

Some reports have billed her appointment as heralding a new era ofteeth-baring from Ofqual. But its new chief seemed intent on keeping her powder dry for the moment and studiously avoided any hint of controversy.

Ms Nisbett marked her departure with a warning that pen and paper exams "cannot go on" for today's digital natives. But Ms Stacey only envisages computer assessment in "some areas of some subjects".

She is, it appears, playing a long game. "It takes a fair while for regulators to develop, to mature, possibly 10 years," she said.

Some might question whether that is wise when four people have left her job, or its equivalent, in less than a decade - two amid huge acrimony.

But Ms Stacey describes herself as an "experienced regulator" and "pretty well seasoned" leader. In a previous role she led the Government's response to bird flu and the 2007 foot and mouth outbreak.

She intends to keep a "very close eye" on the increasingly commercial activities of the big exam boards, and warned that they would have to prove they were "up to the mark" under a new approach that focuses on the boards rather than every individual qualification.

Ofqual's extended remit - set out in the Education Bill - could be seen as a bit of poisoned chalice.

Under it, the watchdog has to ensure not only that England's exam standards are consistent over time, but also that they are comparable to the latest standards in other countries.

Even ministers have conceded it is a contradiction. Ms Stacey admitted a "seeming tension" but insisted: "I actually find the tension quite helpful."

So if Ofqual's international comparative studies find that A-levels are of a lower standard than their equivalents abroad, will the regulator have to stop maintaining standards and start raising them?

"That is possibly a rather simplistic, if you don't mind me saying so, view as to what might come out of our research," Ms Stacey replied, pointing out that many other cultural and national factors may affect exam "standards".

That may be true, but it is unlikely to be the nuanced answer ministers want. Mr Gove is demanding that Ofqual "guarantee exam standards match the best in the world".

If he sticks to his guns then Ms Stacey may have to bare her teeth sooner than she expected.


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