Speech: Assessing the future: your qualification, our regulation

Forty years ago, almost to the day, a grand vision reached completion. Many of you here today will have passed this edifice on your way here, but did you ‘see’ it? And if you did, I wonder if you considered the important role it played, and continues to play, within its sector. Let me give you some clues. On 16 February 1973, it was none other than the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who travelled up from London to cut a white ribbon and initiate its construction. Back in 1986 it was described as ‘very computerised – when a telephone is needed they can wire it up in a few minutes’. And if you’ve not guessed already you’re close to being in the dog house – well nearly, as the Crufts Dog Show will, in 2016, celebrate a tenancy extending to a quarter of a century.

I’m talking about the National Exhibition Centre, of course. Hosting 2.1 million visitors a year, I suspect most of you here have passed through its doors to attend an event at one time or another. You may even be tempted to sneak away early to pick up a bargain on this, the final day of the Clothes Show, though I hope I can maintain your interest through the rest of this speech at least! But why do I choose to remark on this piece of architectural history?

Well, let me ask you to look around you right now. In contrast to the NEC, we’re in a brand new facility, completed quite literally a matter of weeks ago. I was, to be honest, slightly alarmed when I was told that the team had to wear hard hats when they first visited. But we seem to have more than just a roof now. The blurb goes that we’re in a ‘cutting-edge conference centre’ and they ‘don’t rely on old technology, [they] embrace new thinking. After all, why fade in to the background when you can stand out?’ They are impressive tag lines, but we are the users and it is for us to judge whether the product they are offering lives up to that billing. You all face a similar challenge in thinking about the users of your products. And so the users of qualifications should be at the centre of our regulatory thinking too.

Now let me be clear, I’ve led you to infer a distinction between the NEC and the Vox. One has existed for 40 years, the other for 40 days. The NEC could be considered staid, the Vox new and exciting. On the other hand, the NEC has a track record that can be inspected, the Vox is new to market with little information its potential customers can interrogate to make an informed decision about the quality of service it has to offer. But they have two things in common. First, they are built around user need, each trying to demonstrate its quality. And second, they have embraced innovation to try and set themselves apart from the competition. That may not be a coincidence, as they are, in fact, owned by the same company. Two very different products, serving different users, but in the same market.

Another obvious point, I hope, is that you are not currently sitting in a square box and I am not shouting to make myself heard to those of you at the back of the room. Clear rules have been established for all property development in this country, and builders are required to comply with them. They cover things like structural soundness, safety and accessibility to name but a few. But building regulations, planning rules, these are minimum standards. If all the developers of this facility wanted to do was build a conference centre that met those standards, we would probably not be here today. Not because the facility wouldn’t have done the basic job, but because the owners’ competitors would have offered a product that better met our needs. So here we are, I have a lectern and a microphone and you all have chairs! These are our demands as a customer. Your customers have expectations and demands too, well beyond the basic standards set by the regulations. Those setting building regulations would never say that their requirements were anything more than the starting point, the bare minimum for companies in the construction industry. If we ever fall into the trap of thinking differently from that, you should – you must – pull us up.

Those are the main themes of today’s conference: the importance of users’ needs, in your case their qualification needs; the relationship between user demand, innovation and regulation; and how the requirement to comply with our rules sits alongside the expectation that you will do more than the bare minimum to meet them. So after I have finished you’ll be hearing from a number of different users of qualifications to hear about what they are looking for from awarding organisations and your products. We have representatives who can speak from the perspectives of higher education, those who teach, from learners and from employers. Let me assure you that I and my colleagues will be listening to them as carefully as I hope you will, and reflecting on the lessons for our approach. But before they take their turn, let me expand on our perspective on these three themes.

Let me start with our first theme, the importance of users’ needs, in your case their qualification needs. We want to see valid, fit-for-purpose assessment that supports high quality education and training outcomes. The market for qualifications is as diverse as the population itself. Some individuals are looking for a qualification that recognises the basic, fundamental skills that will open doors to employment, perhaps for the first time. Others are looking for a qualification that demonstrates their specialist expertise, helping them and the firms with which they work to compete on a national or world stage.

According to Companies House there are currently around 3.3 million active UK companies. Each of these businesses is a potential customer for you. But as I am sure you will hear today from Nigel Whitehead and Ken Young, many firms find it difficult to really understand what qualifications mean and be clear about what will meet their business’s needs. So I would encourage you to take the opportunity today to ask them about what you can do to give those 3 million businesses a greater level of confidence and understanding.

However, it is clear that many firms, education providers and individuals are buying your products. In 2013/14, the most recent year for which we have comprehensive data, some 8.5 million certificates for qualifications other than GCSEs and A levels were issued in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. A further 6 million GCSEs and A levels were awarded. We do not kid ourselves that most of the people taking those 14.5m qualifications will ever give regulation a second thought. However, if they ever did, we would want them to be confident that the awarding organisations had met our requirements and that, because of that, they could have some independent assurance about the value and credibility of those awards. Our regulation should – and we hope does – underpin and support user needs. And so, if you are meeting users’ needs, if you focus on validity, if you are well-governed organisations that people can have confidence in, then meeting our Conditions should be a very straightforward matter.

But the more frequently individuals fail to see the benefit from gaining a qualification, or assessment fails to reliably distinguish between candidates’ ability, the more that confidence in the system is eroded. I wish I could guarantee that this would never happen if awarding organisations met all our requirements. Of course I can’t. So we have complementary responsibilities if we are to maintain confidence in regulated qualifications: Ofqual must make sure that our requirements support validity, that they are not burdensome, that they enable innovation and that they are fairly and consistently enforced. You, the awarding organisations, need to stay focused on the needs of your users, and keep reviewing and evaluating what you do: by monitoring what happens to learners who take your qualifications; by seeking feedback from those who rely on your qualifications – whether they are employers, universities or the learners themselves; and by learning and improving your products based on that feedback.

Let me now move to our second theme, the relationship between user demand, innovation and regulation. We want you to have the freedom to innovate and respond to evolving economic and market demands. We know the skills landscape is changing. We are independent of government, but it is hard to argue with the point made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Autumn Statement a fortnight ago, that education and skills are ‘the foundation of opportunity in our country’. He announced that adult skills funding for FE colleges would be maintained in cash terms, adding that tuition fee loans would be offered to incentivise individuals to study higher skills in FE. Colleges and other training providers are increasingly looking for qualifications that demonstrate the best returns, so they can support their local economies, meet accountability requirements, and get best value from their funds – and the devolution agenda will only increase their appetite. Learners – particularly where they are self-funding – want to know what value the qualification will add to their earning potential. And employers want to know whether people with particular qualifications can really demonstrate the skills and knowledge they say they can.

And, in addition to this, the Chancellor has created a platform for the provision of funding for apprenticeships through the apprenticeship levy. The Government’s target is to achieve 3 million apprenticeship starts within this Parliament. This is a potentially huge market for you to serve, and one in which you can thrive if you can demonstrate your value as providers of valid, trusted assessments.

The Government’s ambition is also that, in future, funding will not be so closely linked to qualification achievement. We welcome this change: qualifications are designed to recognise the achievements of individuals, and the more they can be left to simply do what they were designed to, the more effective they are likely to be. If all study leads to a qualification, then the value of the qualification currency is downgraded.

So the Chancellor has arguably provided you with greater certainty than we might have expected that money will be available to pay for your products, and that there is a significant market out there which will demand them. But what is our role as regulator in this system?

Well, a key part of our role is not to impose any unnecessary barriers and burden, so that you are free to make sure your qualifications meet users’ needs. And if your qualifications are as valid as they can be, if they are well-designed around the skills and knowledge they need to assess, you will best-placed to meet these new opportunities. Central to that has been our removal of the QCF rules at the end of September this year. The evidence is that in some cases these rules were proving a hindrance to meeting users’ needs.

From our point of view, withdrawing the QCF rules brings us to a more stable regulatory position. But there may be other things that we can do, and I would encourage you to talk to us about them in our innovation seminar later this morning. While it’s not our job to promote particular forms of innovation, we must make sure we don’t get in their way – our regulation must allow you to respond to technological developments and changes in professional and specialist practice. We aim to avoid underpinning our Conditions with limiting assumptions about how things should be done, but if you find we’ve got that wrong please tell us. We will listen.

With the freedom not to have to meet prescriptive QCF rules comes a responsibility on you to make sure your qualifications are valid, and as part of that showing you meet our Conditions – ‘your qualification, our regulation’. Just as architects can design impressive buildings, or IT engineers can prototype the next piece of audio visual equipment, taking the industry standards and innovating beyond them, the key test is that the end product works. Sometimes – indeed we hope it is the case – your innovation may well take us beyond current industry thinking. And as the market evolves or we find new challenges to our statutory objectives that our Conditions need to address, we will review and if necessary change or remove our requirements, or offer additional guidance. If you can find new, valid ways of meeting your qualifications’ purposes, we will try and make our requirements evolve to allow you to do that.

New Conditions or old, it’s your responsibility to decide how best to meet our requirements – that’s the way regulation works; to make decisions given the sector and the context you’re working in. You will know that some of our rules are black and white, while others have an element of judgement associated with them. That reflects the different requirements needed to support delivery of effective, valid qualifications. But if you believe aspects of our rules are not clear enough, or you think we should indicate what sorts of judgements we’d like to see, tell us and we will consider offering more guidance. We want you to be confident users of our Conditions. Today we have brought some new draft guidance with us on which we would like your feedback, so please take the opportunity during the breaks to head to our stall and do just that. And for those of you who want an introduction to how our Conditions work, Julie Swan, who heads up our regulatory policy team, is running a seminar this morning to help you understand the basics of our framework.

Of course, ours are not the only rules with which you have to comply. Good assessment requires that you have regard to equalities legislation and our Conditions reinforce that. There is a clear link between validity and equality – your qualifications must meet equality requirements to be valid. A qualification which in some way does not allow people with particular characteristics to demonstrate what they can do is not doing its job properly. And that’s not just in the design stage, it’s throughout the life of the qualification. It wouldn’t be any good for the owners of this new venue to have incorporated lifts only to turn the power off after opening to save money; equality is for life, not just for grand unveilings. I will not linger on these issues now, but if this is news to you, or you are in doubt, I would recommend you come to this afternoon’s breakout session on equality in assessment.

Since you can now, with the removal of the QCF rules, more effectively focus on meeting the needs of end users, we would encourage you – perhaps alongside your review of the TQT allocations – to review your portfolio of qualifications and clear away those products which are either not demanded any more or do not function. Depreciation is a fact of life. Qualifications fall out of use just as buildings or technology depreciate. Those in charge of the NEC have not rested on their laurels for 40 years. I very much doubt it still takes ‘a few minutes to wire up a phone call’! We’ve been very conscious of the need to update the IT we use to support our regulation, indeed we’re offering you a demonstration of our new portal today. The changes we are making will make it significantly easier for you to manage your portfolio – and the information you provide us will feed directly into our improved Register – a window for you to show the world what you offer. Yet what we see on our qualifications Register are literally thousands of apparently unused qualifications. Now I don’t wish to pretend to tell you how to run your businesses, but it cannot be healthy to retain inventory that is simply not selling – have we learnt nothing from that other Apprentice programme and Lord Sugar?! We know that when commercial property falls out of use or no longer serves the needs of its tenants or customers, the owners are encouraged to demolish it and clear the way for new projects. Why is your market any different?

We know that the qualifications landscape is often criticised by users for being too complex. We are playing our part by making information easier to access. But – complementary responsibilities again – I hope you will play your parts too. Redundant products can be confusing to users and damage confidence more generally.

Finally, I want to touch on our third theme, how the requirement to comply with our rules sits alongside the expectation that you will do more than the bare minimum to meet them. If you are compliant that’s enough for us, although if you just scrape it that may raise alarm bells for us about future compliance. But a healthy, competitive, dynamic, responsive market – which the qualifications market can be – should be doing more than just scraping by.

So when we see evidence of good practice we will highlight it and consider whether we should incorporate it into our guidance or our Conditions. Similarly, if you are non-compliant, or risk non-compliance, we will highlight that too: we will be clear and transparent in the way we regulate because we want all awarding organisations to learn from our findings – not just those who have been scrutinised. The report last week of our Spring Audit was the first such report following an audit. We would welcome your feedback on it.

It is fair to say we have tightened up our regulatory approach over the past year – we have renovated our own house so it is in good order. We are now a more targeted regulator that has made big investments in its standards, compliance and legal teams, with whom you can meet and speak at our seminars later today on audit, risk and enforcement. We are better geared up to identify non-compliance and better prepared to take firm, proportionate action. Our regulations set minimum standards that are applicable to all, just like in the building industry. And like in that sector, if we find evidence of non-compliance we will take action where it would be proportionate for us to do so. We want you to be confident to invest in your products, in research and development, by knowing that we will take action against your competitors where we find problems.

And we are taking action where we need to. Where we have looked so far this year we have found problems in a number of areas. We are currently following up 40 cases of non-compliance stemming from our annual Statement of Compliance process – and let me be clear, we have identified, are concerned about, and are following up, awarding organisations which have claimed compliance but where we have evidence that such a claim is wrong.

Let me highlight one area in particular. From the evidence we have gathered so far through this year’s audits, we are particularly concerned about poor centre controls. Internal assessment is of course a valid assessment approach, particularly where qualifications need to assess practical skills. However, in a number of audits, where we have looked for evidence of compliance with our requirements for effective centre controls, we have found non-compliance, again and again, in different awarding organisations. And we are and we will continue to refer those non-compliances to our enforcement team. It is critical that those who rely on qualifications can have confidence in the way assessment is delivered – that they can rely on the outcomes of assessment no matter where or when it takes place. So you must make sure you have enforceable agreements with centres where you rely on them to deliver your assessments; that you have appropriate standardisation, sampling, moderation and other checks in place to make sure centre assessment, online assessment and internal verification are done properly; that your approach takes into account and mitigates risks of malpractice; and that you act professionally and reasonably if you do find problems within the centres that deliver assessments on your behalf. That is what our Conditions say, and it is essential to validity. We will be saying more about this in the New Year.

We are not just looking at what is inside the regulated market, of course: we also control entry to it and manage exit from it. And some awarding organisations have surrendered recognition – for others we have withdrawn it. There are 23 fewer awarding organisations recognised today than there were four years ago. We are quite comfortable with this. We are not here to defend you, to do your job or to whitewash over any cracks that we find. Our responsibility is to those who rely on your qualifications. They want to know what we find and to know that we are securing appropriate standards. It would be irresponsible of a building inspector to sign-off a shoddily built or unfit construction, and so it is with us. But I also know you understand we do this for your own benefit. You want us to make sure your competitors, or potential competitors, are playing by the same rules – that there is a level playing field. So while we receive around 50 applications for recognition each year, only two or three typically make the grade. We are unapologetic about protecting the regulated market and maintaining high standards. None of you wishes to be tarnished or suffer from the actions of a few ‘rogue builders’.

In many ways I hope that a great deal of the interest we have seen from you in attending today’s conference – and we have representatives from all but a handful of the 161 organisations we currently regulate – is to reinforce your understanding of our regulatory approach. We use a range of regulatory tools to drive good outcomes which my colleagues will describe in more detail during the course of the day. And my senior team will be on this platform this afternoon answering questions that you can submit to us via twitter using the hashtag you see in front of me: #ofqual15.

But as you know by now, they won’t be telling you what your own NECs or Vox Centres should look like: you should expect us to come and ask you why you think your approaches are valid and you should – as most of you, I’m sure, do – ask those who rely on your qualifications what they need from you.

I’m coming towards the end of my thoughts for this morning, indeed I am close to the end of my tenure as Chief Regulator. But before I hand over the microphone, let me leave you with this thought. This building was designed by skilled architects and designers. It was constructed by expert builders. It was fitted out by qualified electricians, plasterers and plumbers. It is run by educated administration staff and managers. The food we eat at lunch will have been prepared by qualified cooks. This building only exists in this form because of the training and skills that your qualifications support and recognise. The same is true of every other business, hospital, charity, or dare I say it, qualifications regulator, across this land. We only achieve everything else in life because of the things we learn. I care deeply about education, and I know you do too. So let’s look to assess and help build the future of this country together – with your qualifications, and our regulation.

Thank you.

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