Putting validity at the heart of what we do

Ofqual's Chief Regulator gave a speech on validity to the Federation of Awarding Bodies.

image depicting a vocational classroom

Good morning. I am very pleased to be here today, talking to you at this timely conference about change. I know you’ve been hearing about some of the change Government is driving, in apprenticeships for example, about some innovative ways in which awarding bodies are themselves changing. Doubtless today’s sessions will stimulate more good ideas and debate.

I’m here to tell you about changes Ofqual is making. I will set out what you can expect from us and I will explain what we will expect from you. I will talk in particular about how our regulatory approach is changing.

We are putting validity at the heart of what we do, and clearing out any rules and processes that get in the way of that. I will be setting out our clear expectations of the awarding bodies that we regulate: To take complete and sole responsibility for your qualifications, to be experts in your fields and to guard the integrity of the qualifications system.

We know that the qualifications system, vocational qualifications in particular, have a critical role to play in the health of our economy. We must all play our part in helping to make sure our industries can recruit and develop people with the right skills and knowledge. Learners should know that doors will open for them because of the qualifications they possess.

We, here in this room, are part of a complex system, a web of interdependencies and incentives. A healthy vocational education system, which develops the skills our economy needs, doesn’t just require the qualifications industry to play our part. Others must do so too.

A healthy system relies on high quality teaching and learning. It needs accessible and reliable information and data about training opportunities, qualifications and the labour market – and careers advice and funding that is driven by labour market need. It needs clear industry leadership; and feedback from business and employers about the qualifications they use. Funding, accountability, inspection and regulatory requirements should all align to incentivise valid qualifications.

But what of those of us in this room? What are our responsibilities as an industry within this complex web? Let me start with Ofqual’s responsibilities as the regulator. We must do three things:

One, we must focus on the quality of qualifications –the validity and the standards. And we must take action where there are problems.

Two, we must be flexible enough so that qualifications can respond to the needs of different sectors, to different employers and to developments in professional practice and technology.

Three, we must play our part in providing easily accessible information about regulated qualifications.

We know that Ofqual needs to change to meet these challenges.

So we are changing. The way we regulate, our rules and processes, the way we are organised, and how we work, will all look different as we put validity at the heart of what we do.

We know that our focus over the past few years has been mostly on general qualifications and particularly on reform. There were good reasons for that. But we are now making sure that our organisation is fit to regulate for validity across all qualifications. We have established an expert Vocational Advisory Group. We now have a vocational qualifications directorate, a group of people whose purpose is to understand both the theory and the reality of delivering and assessing vocational qualifications. And to make sure that the qualifications out there stand up to scrutiny. We will need to work in different ways, within the organisation and with you, to achieve these ambitions.

We are reviewing our rules and regulations to make sure they have validity at their heart. And where they do not, where they might encourage a tick box approach to assessment, where they might distract from validity, we will remove them. I can announce today that from the third of November this year, we will no longer require all qualifications to be accredited before they become regulated. We will allow awarding organisations to put qualifications straight onto our Register. Why? Because we found that the accreditation process was not an effective way of securing valid qualifications. Accreditation is a check at a single point in time, generally before a qualification is delivered. It is easy to assume that an accreditation process provides a lifelong seal of approval for a qualification. It does not. We know that developing a qualification is only the beginning.

We lift the accreditation requirement, not without some degree of trepidation. And you may feel this too. But we think you can, and should, be responsible for the quality assurance of your qualifications.

We are retaining an accreditation requirement for A levels and GCSEs. Not because we see them as somehow more important –we don’t. But because of their particular nature: we regulate these qualifications using detailed and specific criteria, and we expect very close comparability between different exam boards and different versions. We may also re-impose an accreditation requirement for a particular qualification or awarding body: as a sanction, or for a new awarding body, for example. We will shortly be writing to regulated awarding bodies, setting out our new approach and our decisions in more detail.

So, we are removing the universal accreditation requirement. What else?

The QCF. Earlier this year we reviewed the Qualifications and Credit Framework, a prescriptive and detailed set of requirements that was conceived and designed almost a decade ago. Seen by some, including our predecessor body, as the future for all qualifications. However well-intentioned the QCF may have been, we have looked at the reality on the ground and we have found the QCF wanting. We know and have heard about how difficult its introduction was. Some awarding organisations were forced to shoehorn good qualifications into the QCF. That’s not to say that all QCF qualifications are not fit for purpose, there are strong qualifications in there. But in many cases the QCF rules have done the opposite of what was intended. They have, at times, prevented the development of good, valid qualifications.

Many of you in this room will say ‘we told you so’. And you were right. I do wish we had had the time and space to tackle the QCF sooner. And I regret that we did not do so. I want to reassure you, though, that we are open to your views. We are hearing that there are some things about the QCF that some of you like. So please tell us what you think – our consultations on this and on guided learning hours are open until this Thursday, 16th October. We will of course be considering carefully the views and the feedback we receive before we make any decisions.

Some of you have asked us what rules and processes we will put in place to replace those we’re proposing to remove. Let me make it very clear now: we are not proposing a new set of rules. We will not be making the mistakes of the past. We will not require perfectly good qualifications to be redesigned to fit a new set of prescriptive rules.

We already have a good set of regulations in our existing General Conditions. They stand up to scrutiny and we will not be removing them. Our conditions have validity at their heart. They are flexible enough to allow for different approaches in different sectors. They set out what regulated qualifications should be: they should be valid, they should be fit for purpose, they should be responsive to user feedback. They do not prescribe a one-size-fits all approach. They expect you to know how to create a good qualification –after all, that’s what an expert awarding body is recognised to do.

Over the coming months we will provide more guidance on what our Conditions mean –and how we will judge in each case, for each awarding organisation or qualification, whether they have been met. We will be asking you what you think the priority areas for guidance should be, what you think good practice looks like. Again, we won’t be prescriptive –we won’t produce guidance that tells you or dictates how to structure or assess your qualifications. Guidance is not a rule by another name: it does what it says on this tin –it simply provides guidance. Incidentally, I don’t wish to put you off our seminars later today, but if you are expecting us to tell you all the answers you’ll be disappointed! We will be asking for your views on validity, what you think we should be looking for when we audit qualifications, how you think we should expect you to demonstrate that validity is at the heart of what you do.

You may also be wondering about how Ofqual will handle changes that we make, what will the administrative burden be? Although we won’t always be able to reduce the impact of regulation as much as you would like, we will aim to make changes as efficiently as we can. The good news is that lifting the accreditation requirement will not mean any additional burden for you, you won’t see or need to do anything new on RITS. On 3rd November you’ll submit information in the usual way. It will simply go onto the Register without needing our approval first. My word to you is that as we make changes we will always bear in mind the burden of regulation.

Of course, the changes we are making don’t provide a licence to put poor qualifications on the system. Qualifications must comply with our conditions before they are submitted to the Register. You’ll need to be confident that a qualification you submit is valid and that you can demonstrate to us that it is valid. You’ll need to provide evidence that you have checked and quality assured your qualification. We won’t prescribe your quality assurance arrangements. You may have a quality assurance process during development, or you may hold a review before the qualification is submitted. But the responsibility for the quality of your qualifications, at the start and throughout its lifetime, is yours.

So, we’re not putting a new set of rules in place. We are putting validity at the centre of the way we regulate and we see validity as the primary measure of a qualification’s true quality.

If I was sitting in your place I would be asking –how can we demonstrate to Ofqual that a qualification is valid?

Well, to state the obvious, you should be able to tell us who that qualification is for, why they want it. To tell us what knowledge, skills and understanding you are assessing to meet that need. And you should be able to use your expertise to explain in detail and justify the approach to assessment you’ve chosen, how it maintains standards, why it is sufficiently reliable. You should also be able to tell us, from feedback that you seek, whether the qualification is meeting the needs of those people that wanted it in the first place.

And when we come to audit your organisation, if you can provide solid evidence to answer those questions, then we are likely to have sufficient assurance that your qualification is valid. We will be looking for evidence of your approach to validity. If you’ve got views about this, about how you think we should be asking you and your competitors to demonstrate validity, do come along to our seminar later and talk to us.

Ofqual is not a big organisation, and so we will target our audits where we have concerns. But even if you think we have no concerns about your qualifications, you should be ready for an audit, we will be carrying out random audits too. We could ask you to demonstrate the validity of your qualification at any point in its lifecycle, design and development, delivery, awarding, evaluation and review.

We are, as we speak, concluding our validity audits of Tech levels and applied general qualifications. We are looking in detail at the design and development of these qualifications. And we will shortly be talking through our findings with those awarding bodies we’ve audited. Overall we have seen a mixed picture. Where audits have gone well, awarding bodies have been experts in their field, highly connected and linked in to their sector and to employers. They have been able to clearly demonstrate the need for a qualification, its purpose and what it will be used for. But we have also found some weaknesses: not all awarding bodies had good links into their sectors. Not all had clear plans about how they would maintain standards over time and between similar qualifications. And not all had effective plans in place to evaluate whether their qualification would meet its stated objectives. We will be considering and discussing with those awarding bodies what action is now required. However, based on what we have seen, we are confident that the approach we are taking – to regulate qualifications throughout their lifecycle and to focus on validity – is a good one and is right.

We also want to improve the quality and accessibility of information about qualifications. Our Register was designed for a different purpose. It is rather difficult to use and doesn’t help people in schools and colleges to make informed choices about the qualifications they buy. We will start to make improvements to our Register over the coming months so that it’s easier to get to and search the information we hold. We’ll keep you updated about this and seek your feedback on the changes that we make.

So, Ofqual is changing, and the way we regulate is changing to meet our responsibilities. But what of the responsibilities of awarding bodies in the system? Let me suggest four things you should be doing:

Firstly, it is clear from what I have already said that each awarding body must take responsibility for its qualifications –they must be high quality, they must be valid. They must have well-defined purposes and awarding bodies must regularly evaluate whether those purposes are being met. You must be ready to demonstrate validity to us when we ask you to.

Secondly, you must be experts – in assessment and in your profession, industry or sector. You must be clear what value you add,your assessment expertise, your sector and professional knowledge.

Thirdly, you must engage with the sectors that you work in. I know many but not all of you do this. You must be able to respond to employer and industry needs, to technical or other innovations in your fields. You must seek and act on feedback about your qualifications so you can be sure that they meet the needs of the sector as you intended.

Fourthly, you must do the right thing. This sounds easy and obvious but at times it is not. It means putting quality before funding rules. Really thinking about what perverse incentives might do to your qualifications and putting measures in place to guard against conflicts of interests. Doing what is right, not always what is easiest. That’s what we try and do in Ofqual and it is better if we do it together.

And we recognise the competitive pressures you face. So we will support you in this. We want you to tell us if you see your competitors breaking the rules, and we will take action where we need to. If you see another awarding body misrepresenting itself or your organization, delivering qualifications which do not stand up to scrutiny, simply chasing funding or mired in conflicts of interest, tell us. We will investigate, and if we find rules are being broken, we will take action. We want to give you the confidence to do the right thing.

We are also, for our part, talking to Government and others to try and make sure that funding, accountability and inspection arrangements support the development and delivery of good, valid qualifications. We think we can do more. For example, we are working with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to support their work on occupational standards. Standards that have employers at their heart and that support high quality, valid qualifications that have real currency and value on the ground. I know UKCES is hosting a seminar later on today on employer-led National Occupational Standards and I’m sure you will be interested to find out more about their plans. We recognise that the more Ofqual can do to assure Government that qualifications are valid, the less likely you are to have another set of rules imposed on you.

So, the responsibility for designing, developing and delivering good, valid qualifications is squarely in your hands. You own your qualifications. What will your response be?

The answer to that question is also in your hands. I know some of you are already reviewing your qualification portfolios –weeding out qualifications you’re not happy with, improving others. Checking, asking yourselves ‘will our qualifications stand up to scrutiny?’ If you’re doing that already, thank you, that’s great.

But it’s not just about a quick review. You’ll also, no doubt, be asking yourselves the same difficult and self-critical questions we have asked back at Ofqual–are your processes and procedures fit for purpose? Do they put validity front and centre? Is it clear where accountability for validity lies in your own organisation?

It’s not going to be a quick fix, an easy journey. But we are on this journey together –regulator and regulated. We will want to talk to you, as individual awarding bodies, as well as collectively, about your response to the changes we are making. We know that some awarding bodies have already seen our direction of travel and decided they don’t want to offer regulated qualifications any more. And that’s fine, and we can work with them to manage exit from the market without unnecessarily damaging the interests of students. But, if you do want to continue –if you are up for changing to meet our new expectations, to put validity at the centre of your approach, we will give you the space and time to do this. And we will provide guidance on validity and on our conditions to help you understand what compliance looks like.

We know your representative body, FAB, is also doing some hard thinking about how it can support you –developing skills within the sector and developing closer links with employers, for example. We welcome and support that work.

In conclusion, these are some very significant changes for us and for you. They have come about as a result of hard thinking, by us and others.

I hope what we are doing, what I have said today, starts to liberate you. I hope it gives you greater confidence that over time your regulated qualifications can and should be responsive, make a real difference to those that use them and have a future come what may.

Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 14 October 2014