Speech: Challenges for the year ahead in general qualifications

Thank you for the opportunity to come and talk to you today and give an Ofqual perspective of the year ahead. Recognising that we regulate both general and vocational qualifications, I do want to focus on the former, where we are balancing the demands of an ongoing qualification reform programme with the need to maintain the high standards of GCSEs and A levels. So I thought I would start today by looking at some of our ongoing work of continuous improvement to the examination system, starting with the enquiries about results system.

Enquiries about results

We listened to concerns expressed about the enquiries system and conducted a significant piece of research to evaluate the current system. Our research was ground breaking and reflects our determination to take evidence-based decisions. And the importance of this is reflected in our findings, because some of the most immediately attractive alternatives to the current system proved in our research to be less effective than might have been expected.

We looked at a number of alternatives including single-blind and double-blind review. Interestingly, none of them performed markedly better than the current system. And there would be significant additional costs and burden imposed by some of the alternatives, not least double marking which would cost up to £10m, we estimate. We are consulting now on changes to the enquiries procedure as part of a wider consultation on the removal of the current code of practice. Our consultation includes a number of important proposals, such as making GCSE scripts available to centres to inform decisions about submitting enquiries. The consultation ends early next month and I encourage you to participate.

Quality of marking

Quality of marking is often confused with the grade changes resulting from the enquiries system. I think it is important to be clear that the volume of enquiries about results should not be used as a proxy for quality of marking. Nevertheless, we do acknowledge that quality of marking is the subject of much scrutiny and comment, particularly after the summer exam series.

Our own research shows that the quality of marking at both GCSE and A level is generally good but we do not consider the system perfect. In December 2014, we published our report on the delivery of summer 2014 General Qualifications. We made clear that changes of two or more grades, while relatively rare, are indefensible and have a significant impact on students and schools. We identified measures that we required examination boards to take to address this.

Our report also reflected the importance of distinguishing between marking errors and differences of opinion between equally skilled professionals. It is unavoidable that, in subjects that require judgemental marking, a paper might gain (for example) 49 or 50 marks. This is not a measure of quality of marking, but the reflection of valid differences in professional judgement in applying a mark scheme. Clearly, where such small mark differences are in close proximity to a grade boundary, it has significant implications given the use of qualifications for selection and accountability purposes. This is not unique to our system; rather, it is an inevitable consequence of marking and awarding grades in examinations of subjects that demand the subjective assessment of extended responses.

Nevertheless, we do receive correspondence from some schools and colleges expressing concerns over awarding and in particular results achieved by particular cohorts in some subjects. There are many reasons to explain volatility of results at school level, despite the stability of results at a national level. However, we are considering further work here to look at these concerns and provide a clearer national picture of this type of volatility.

So we are maintaining our focus on the delivery of qualifications and this summer our attention will be particularly drawn to the first awarding of reformed AS levels.

AS level awarding 2016

The first tranche of reformed AS qualifications will be awarded in England this summer. We are expecting a reduction in the number of candidates entered for AS levels following their decoupling from A levels. For these reformed subjects, research suggests that the uptake will initially be around 70% of the current level. And within this reduced cohort, it is not yet clear whether the reduction will be proportionate across the ability range. It is also not certain how candidates sitting the reformed AS qualifications will perform, since their marks will not count towards their final A-level grade. So, in addition to a possible dip in performance due to unfamiliarity with new specifications, students could have a different level of motivation than they do now.

Together, these changes mean that the cohorts sitting the reformed AS qualifications in 2016 are unlikely to be directly comparable to those sitting the existing AS specifications. We have considered carefully the potential impact of these changes, and we have discussed possible awarding options with technical experts within the exam boards. We believe our comparable outcomes approach, using predictions to guide these awards, remains appropriate and provides the best way to ensure that standards remain in line between exam boards. That said, in some subjects the reduction in entry numbers will mean that greater emphasis will be placed on senior examiner judgement. We are discussing our approach with the exam boards to make sure that they are using examiner judgement in a consistent and appropriate way in order to minimise awarding volatility. We will also work closely with the exam boards in the run up to the summer exam series to monitor the entry numbers and identify those subjects where there might be more awarding turbulence this summer.


Turning now to reform, I thought you would want to know how the accreditation for subjects to be taught from 2016 is progressing. I would first reflect that accreditation is, of course, the last stage of the reform programme prior to teaching. For all subjects, content has been developed by the Department for Education, working with a range of stakeholders to ensure they represent the intended gold standard. Following this, exam boards have worked hard to develop specifications and sample assessment materials. It is only after all of this intensive development work that examination boards submit specifications to us for accreditation

To give a sense of scale of our current accreditation programme, in September this year there will be new GCSEs, AS and A levels taught in 31 subjects which have generated 156 specifications. To date, around a third of specifications have been accredited. The number accredited is increasing steadily, albeit it may appear that progress is slow.

We know that parents, students and particularly teachers need specifications swiftly to help them inform their choices. We also recognise the need to keep people up to date on the progress being made with accreditation. So we are making information available in an open and transparent format on line and providing frequent updates.

But accreditation is a process that requires a great deal of care and thought, and necessarily time. We have been working very hard with the exam boards to ensure that specifications are being accredited, but we will not short change anyone by making short cuts. Exam boards need to demonstrate that, for each reformed qualification, they are capable of complying with all of the appropriate regulatory requirements, both now and into the future. They also need to convince a panel of subject experts that what they have produced will perform well in assessment. Where accreditation is not successful, detailed feedback is provided to the exam board to explain the reasons for rejection, and to discuss resubmission. The entire process from first submission to our decision takes about eight weeks. If the submitted specification is not accredited, then the process begins again, but each subsequent submission invariably takes much less time.

So on accreditation, we remain confident that our process is an appropriate balance of pace with precision. We are striving to accredit all specifications as soon as possible, and they will be. But above all, it is our responsibility and duty to ensure that these new specifications are right and we can be confident they will stand the test of time.

Accreditation 2017

And of course there will be no let-up in accreditation as we turn our attention in the summer to subjects that will be developed for first teaching from September 2017. Following consultation, we decided that all GCSEs, AS and A levels will need to be reformed by 2017 or withdrawn by exam boards and we confirmed the principles against which we will determine those GCSE and AS and A Level subjects that may be offered for first teaching from 2017. We published a list of those qualifications that were taken forward by examination boards and the Department of Education (DfE) to the subject content development stage and these are feeding in to the accreditation process.

One area of particular interest has been the future of lower uptake foreign languages. We did not ask exam boards to submit proposals for foreign languages in which they intend to offer reformed qualifications. This was because the DfE had already published subject content requirements for reformed GCSE, AS and A levels in modern foreign languages. Exam boards are developing specifications for French, German and Spanish for first teaching in September 2016.

However, there are some specific challenges here, because of how and where some of these languages are taught, access to examiners and other operational issues – particularly at A level. We are working with the Department and exam boards to see how these obstacles might be overcome, mindful of the need to maintain the integrity of the GCSE and A level brands. We expect that this work will mean that a number of reformed lower uptake language qualifications will be first taught from 2018.

So our accreditation process is focused on first teaching in 2016 and we are planning for our approach to 2017 subjects. But there are, of course a number of reformed subjects that are already being taught. I have mentioned AS levels already, where we are looking carefully at awarding. We are also in the process of confirming other arrangements, starting with resits.


We have just completed a consultation on the arrangements for resits in what some describe as ‘legacy’ qualifications that reformed GCSEs and A levels will replace.

Our consultation set out an expectation that all those that have started legacy A level or AS qualifications will have a resit opportunity in the summer after the they took the qualification. This recognises the fact that these are important qualifications in terms of progression into higher education, and it is relatively common for students to resit their exams for these qualifications. Any students starting a new AS or A level course this year in subjects where new A levels are available will be taking the newly introduced qualifications and will not be affected by the arrangements. To ensure this, we intend to put expectations on exam boards to limit the availability of resits to those for whom this is a genuine resit.

At GCSE we have already decided that there will be a resit available for English language and mathematics in November 2016. Following engagement with a number of stakeholders, we consulted on whether to provide an additional resit opportunity the following summer. Beyond these subjects, we do not think that there is an expectation that there will be resits available in every case although our consultation did seek views to confirm this. We received a good response to our consultation and expect to make decisions soon.

We know that there will be a similarly keen interest in our approach to awarding.


We have already announced our approach for first awarding GCSE in 2017. To ensure fairness to learners during the transition to new qualifications, we will use statistical predictions so that in 2017: broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 and above as currently achieve a grade C and above; the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 7 and above as currently achieve an A and above; and the bottom of grade 1 is aligned with the bottom of grade G.

At the top of the ability range, the new GCSE grading system will allow us to differentiate more clearly. So for example the top 20% of those who get grade 7 or above will get a grade 9 in each exam in English and maths in 2017. But we have not yet decided our approach to awarding GCSE subjects beyond 2017. We think that for grades of 7 and below, the approach that has been taken for the first awards in 2017 is likely to be most appropriate.

However, unlike English and mathematics, which are taken by the national cohort, the awarding of the top grade 9 in other subjects, particularly those with smaller cohorts, is somewhat more complicated. In particular, using the approach in which the top 20% of grade 7 candidates gets a grade 9 could introduce disadvantages in some subjects. We have looked carefully at a range of alternatives, and hope to launch a consultation on these in March.

National Reference Test

I wanted to finish where I started, reflecting on our relentless drive to seek improvements to the qualification system. One such example is the National Reference Test (NRT) which is one of a number of strands of activity that we are considering to improve awarding. It is being introduced to provide additional information to support the awarding of GCSEs in addition to the use of Key Stage 2 attainment at the national level.

We’re on target to run the full-scale trial of the NRT in schools between 7 and 15 March. Over 300 schools have agreed to take part in this year’s trial. We’re very grateful for their support. We’re testing out all aspects of the new Tests. We want to make sure that the Tests differentiate well students’ performance. We also want to confirm that our approach to selecting the sample of students who will take the Test gives us results that are representative of all students in year 11 who will take their GCSEs in the summer.

Our Test Administrator, NFER is finalising arrangements with each school to confirm the students that will take the Test and when the Tests will be held. There are two Tests – maths and English. At each school, up to 24 students will take the Test in maths and another 24 students will take the English Test. The Tests in each subject will last an hour and are based on the new GCSE maths and English language curriculums.


I close by acknowledging that this is a period of significant change and we are keen to ensure that these reforms are well understood. There will be a period of a few years where we have a mixed economy – of both reformed and unreformed qualifications and different grading systems at GCSE. We are working hard to ensure that everyone who uses these qualifications understands the changes and that students are not disadvantaged.

Thank you.

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