Raising the Standard

A speech by Glenys Stacey, Chief Regulator, at the Inside Government conference on GCSE and A level reform.

Students sitting an exam

“I want my car to be composed purely of those components whose principles have been tried and tested and accepted as reliable standards, in fact, I will name my car the Standard car.” This is a quote from Reginald Walter Maudslay, founder of the Standard Motor Company (see note 1).

Starting my speech today with a quote from the founder of a now defunct motor company might initially appear rather odd. But do please bear with me.

Many of you here will know that our head office is located in Coventry, which was for many years the principal home of the Standard Motor Company. The firm was an engineering pioneer and in its heyday one of the biggest employers in the city. Immediately before the Second World War it was building just over 50,000 vehicles a year, rising to nearly 140,000 in 1960. Then everything changed. The company’s new flagship vehicle, the Triumph Herald, was poorly received by the public, being viewed as both expensive and of poor quality. The firm’s reputation was damaged. And while the Standard brand was killed-off in an attempt to save the business, the firm never recovered. The last car rolled off its production line in 1984, and the factory was successively demolished during the 1990s.

So it is with perhaps with a fair degree of serendipity that nearly five years ago we - the then newly-vested regulator charged with ensuring ‘reliable standards’ in the field of assessments - was located to a building that sits on part of the firm’s once prestigious Canley Halt factory site. I rather hope our future is less torrid than that of the Standard Motor Company, but its story contains a number of lessons for the reform of GCSE and A level qualifications from which we can benefit. These include having a clear vision for what we are trying to achieve, and investing the time and energy in the design of assessments to ensure their performance over time. But arguably the most important is to remember is that what is being created must meet our end user’s wants and needs. The Triumph Herald arguably failed on all these fronts. We will not.

The then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, set out the current government’s vision for reforming GCSE and A level qualifications back in 2013. He called for GCSEs to be made more challenging so pupils are better prepared for further academic or vocational study, or for work. And said that the primary function of A levels should be to prepare students for university education (see note 2).

Those aims have translated into a rich programme of work for us, the Department for Education and the exam boards. Our role, as the assessment regulator, is to make sure the exam boards design appropriate ways of testing the revised curriculum and curriculum aims set by the Department. So our accreditation of the exam boards’ specifications forms the ‘accepted standards’ in Reginald Maudslay’s parlance. But we call it validity, and this is something we have been working on a great deal over the past few years.

Validity can be something of an abstract concept, and certainly much academic debate has been conducted in this area. Indeed the earliest discussions also happen to date back to around the time of the birth of the Standard Motor Company (see note 3). But for us, and I quote, validity is the degree to which it is possible to measure what needs to be measured by implementing an assessment procedure. I hope that is surprisingly underwhelming! Nevertheless, it is the absolute essence of what we do and why we matter, and therefore great care has gone into its definition. As such, let me just take a moment to unpack it a little.

You’ll notice that we do not talk about tests or qualifications here; instead our focus is on assessment procedures. That’s because they encompass each and every step in the journey from producing an assessment task to interpreting an assessment outcome. It means we are focussed on the features that are controlled, or standardised, rather than those that might vary from year to year, the most obvious of which are the questions asked on exam papers. This standardisation ensures that qualifications hold their value from one period to the next.

The other dimension to this description of validity is the measurement of skills, and specifically the right skills. For example, if the primary use of the outcome of a vehicle maintenance exam is to provide reassurance of a learner’s ability to change a tyre and spot weld a repair, then what needs to be measured in the exam are the learning outcomes that are fundamental to completing those tasks.

So that’s the vision, but what about the nuts and bolts of the new design? The reform process has been phased over three years, starting with the most high volume and traditional A level subjects prioritised to be available for first teaching this September. In order to deliver reform, we have run public consultations on a subject-by-subject basis in conjunction with the Department for Education. Those consultations have looked at how each qualification is designed and how the Department’s proposed content is to be assessed.

So far we’ve carried out consultations on just over 40 subjects at A level and GCSE, covering the subjects to be taught in schools and colleges for the first time in either September 2015 or September 2016. In each case this has involved the publication of an initial policy consultation, its findings and a decision; followed by a ‘technical’ consultation and its findings; and in turn regulatory requirements and subject guidance. Only after that have the exam boards submitted specifications to us for accreditation, and these have frequently required several iterations to achieve approval. And we haven’t finished yet; in the next few weeks we will confirm the subjects that will be available for teaching from 2017 and begin the process again.

I have to say I have been impressed by the degree of thought and the extent of public discussion through this process to date. It has been hugely encouraging to witness first-hand the passion that exists in this country regarding education and to receive the many innovative ideas that are being put forward. This helps to emphasise that we are not working through a simple mechanistic process, and in a limited number of circumstances it has become apparent that more time is required to build consensus around assessment design. In recent months, for example, the first teaching of GCSE design and technology has been deferred to 2017. Such decisions are not taken lightly, but we recognise that the additional time we invest in their design today will be worthwhile in terms of the additional confidence it will bring to those qualifications over the years ahead.

That said we are making good progress. There are accredited exam board specifications available for all subjects for first teaching this September. Some exam board specifications for some subjects are still to be accredited and we are working with those boards to ensure that they can be approved, but we must adhere to our robust accreditation process.

It should also be recalled that our changes do not begin and end at exam board specifications, we have been reflecting and redesigning a number of other aspects of the assessment process. As part of our reform programme we have removed modularisation, determined a new grading system and reconsidered tiering across GCSEs. We will also be making changes to non-exam assessment for both GCSEs and A levels. We have worked with subject and assessment experts as we have developed and tested our thinking on these matters, but these are rightly our judgements.

I hope it is apparent that we have taken care to involve and consult interested parties as we have considered how best to implement reform; we want our new standards to sell themselves. Some of our decisions have been contentious however, as we expected: for example our decision to implement new assessment arrangements for practical skills in A level biology, physics and chemistry. In each case, we have considered carefully the assessment and awarding arrangements most likely to deliver the best educational experience and outcomes for students. They are the end user after all.

Taken in sum, we are undergoing a period of unprecedented reform and confidence in the system’s operation needs to be earned. Returning to the derided Triumph Herald, it was unlikely that owners, or potential owners, found reason to fault the vehicle on their first journey. They gathered evidence with each bump along the road, and I suspect from each part that fell off. Similarly, the introduction of a new assessment framework can only take us so far in our reform journey. As the new qualifications are taught and assessments are undertaken, all parties would benefit from an extended period of stability. In particular, teachers would gain confidence in the qualifications and their ability to teach the new curriculum and those who use and observe the new assessments could be reassured that they are achieving their goals.

Now I don’t think I’m going to surprise anyone by saying that the upcoming General Election brings a degree of uncertainty to this aspiration. For example, there has already been some discussion as to whether a new government may wish to recouple AS and A levels. I spoke about this issue in November last year and we continue to hold a neutral stance. If any new government wishes to change policy and recouple, that can be done. However I would stress that assessment reform is not easy. This is a once in a generation opportunity to make changes that are well thought through and principled. Change has never been attempted in this way before and it will result in materially better qualifications that best reflect the needs of students and learners. As such, I would ask any incoming government to consider carefully before tinkering under the bonnet of GCSEs and A levels in the near future.

In conclusion, we have been given a clear vision for GCSEs and A levels and we are redesigning their assessment with the end user in mind. So what should this mean for students receiving the first reformed GCSEs and A levels in 2017?

To modify Reginald Maudslay’s quote: “I want assessments to be composed purely of those components whose principles have been accepted as reliable standards.” Our students will therefore have confidence that the qualification they receive at the end of their studies has a great deal of worth, to both them and those looking at their results. They will also know that it has measured the skills they have learned and compares favourably with international comparators. And finally, through our focus on validity they can be assured that the value of their qualification will not be eroded over time.

I therefore have great confidence that if the new specifications are taught well students will benefit from a better educational experience and fairer outcome from a more level playing field. We are raising educational and assessment standards and, in contrast to our Canley forebears, I am sure history will look favourably on the decisions we are taking today.

Thank you.


  1. Reginald Walter Maudslay quote taken from ‘The Book of the Standard Motor Company’ by Graham Robson

  2. Letter from the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP to Ofqual Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey, 6 February 2013

  3. Validity in educational and psychological assessment, Paul Newton and Stuart Shaw

Published 25 February 2015