Regulating vocational qualifications: implementing our regulatory strategy

Glenys Stacey's speech to the Federation of Awarding Bodies conference in Leicester.

Dame Glenys Stacey

Good morning.

The theme of your conference this year is ‘building business’. A great aspiration. And probably a ‘must’ for awarding organisations in these challenging times.

But I won’t be talking about how you should do this - our job at Ofqual is to make sure that we provide a clear and stable regulatory foundation so that you can confidently plan ahead, invest and grow your business.

So I want to talk to you this morning about that foundation – our approach to regulation; the work we’ve done, and will be doing. I’ll also be talking about some of the challenges that the awarding industry faces over the coming years – that your organisations will need to respond to effectively, not only to survive, but also to thrive.

Because over the coming years the skills landscape will be changing, significantly.

In its Productivity Plan, published along with the budget in May, Government made it clear that it sees skills as critical to improving productivity levels.

Their figures show that the number of people receiving in-work training has dropped significantly over the last ten years, and also that UK productivity has recently stalled, relative to other major economies.

So a key plank of the Government’s skills strategy is to encourage greater employer involvement and investment. Trailblazer apprenticeships, using employer-developed standards, are a key focus – and an ambitious target of 3 million apprenticeship starts within this Parliament.

As you will know, trailblazer apprenticeships take a new approach: employers who develop the standards are not obliged to include qualifications, and apprentice assessment organisations do not need to be awarding organisations regulated by us - although I know there are some of you already approved for this by the Skills Funding Agency.

We have made very clear to Government that whatever arrangements are in place for quality assuring assessments, and whether or not they involve Ofqual, a one-off up-front check is insufficient, and will create big risks for the apprenticeship reform programme.

Without some sort of ongoing regulation, there is a clear risk of unscrupulous assessment providers driving a race to the bottom.

And the concerns highlighted today by Sir Michael Wilshaw in Ofsted’s report on apprenticeship provision only underline the need for effective and ongoing governance and oversight to secure quality apprenticeships. I know that many of you would agree with our advice on that.

But it’s not only apprenticeships that are changing, is it? Government is also moving control of wider skills budgets to employers, and, to some extent to learners too. Funding is being devolved to local areas, primarily through employer-led local bodies. And, if FE loans take off in line with ambitions, it seems likely that learners will make more of the decisions about which qualifications are taken.

In parallel with this, Government is decreasing state funding for skills. Most of you will be well aware that, outside of apprenticeships, the adult skills budget in England has fallen by 25% for this academic year. And more cuts can be expected, since unlike the schools budget, adult skills funding is not protected.

In addition, we are likely to see a significant reshaping of skills provision over the next few years.

Reviews of post-16 providers are taking place in every part of the country over the next 18 months or so, and it seems likely that in future we will see fewer, larger FE and sixth form colleges in England, operating under tighter financial controls.

As well as this, college accountability is likely to change – colleges are to be held to account at a more local level, with more data published about the outcomes achieved by their students - whether those students are finding employment or have progressed into higher levels of study – or whether they haven’t.

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.

The Productivity Plan also set out an ambition to ‘simplify and streamline’ the ‘thousands of qualifications’ available.

Now, our position on this is that there is no magic number of vocational qualifications that is right for our economy. We do not set any form of target.

The qualifications market must be sufficiently responsive to the many, diverse and changing needs of learners and employers across our country. Different qualifications are designed to be used in different ways, and it is important that students are given good advice and that purchasers make wise choices.

However, all of us in this room must ask ourselves why there is this continuing and pervasive view that the vocational qualifications landscape is overcrowded. Is it because these qualifications are not effectively demonstrating their value? Is it because some of them do not have clear value or purpose?

Of the 22,500 vocational qualifications on our Register, only 13,000 were awarded in the past twelve months. That’s less than 60% of the available qualifications. What does that tell people about the value of the remaining 9,500? I’ll leave that for you to consider and reflect on. And in the meantime, remember that any of your qualifications could be selected for scrutiny by the regulator.

So – changes to apprenticeships, to skills funding and to learning providers: but what might all these changes mean for qualifications?

Well, first of all, it seems likely that fewer decisions about qualifications will be made – or influenced – by central Government. Employers, localities and learners will have more say. This could lead to greater diversity between different areas of the country.

It could also mean that market demand for qualifications drops – both the number of qualifications and the number of awards, particularly in some areas. It’s not for us to have a view on that, but I’m not going to say it’s necessarily a bad thing. After all, not all learning needs to be recognised by a qualification, does it? So on what basis might employers, students and learning providers make decisions about when and whether to spend their money on qualifications?

Well, colleges and other training providers will increasingly be looking for those qualifications that demonstrate the best returns, so they can support their local economies, meet accountability requirements, and get best value from increasingly limited funds.

Learners and employers – particularly where they are self-funding – will want to know what value the qualification will add to their earning potential.

And employers will want to know whether people with particular qualifications can really demonstrate the skills and activities they say they can.

So how will you influence their decisions? How will you demonstrate the value that you offer?

Well let’s, for a moment, imagine two different, fictional awarding organisations.

The first is well linked into a wide range of employers and industry groups in the sectors where it offers qualifications. It references relevant labour market information and talks to recruiters and specialists to understand the latest skills needs.

It reviews its qualifications regularly to make sure they reflect the latest industrial techniques and professional practice, and knows that the majority of students taking its qualifications gain employment in the relevant industry.

Although a minority of its income is derived from public funding sources, most qualifications are purchased directly by employers and learners themselves – their qualifications are trusted and well recognised, so learners can be more certain they offer real value and a good return on their investment.

The organisation regularly reviews its regulatory compliance, and in recent audits has been able to clearly demonstrate how it meets our General Conditions in a way that works for the variety of different qualifications it offers.

It doesn’t see compliance as the only target – it prioritises valid assessment and responsiveness so that it regularly goes well beyond compliance with regulatory requirements.

Now let’s paint the opposite picture.

The second awarding organisation is heavily reliant on public funding, including income from a few qualifications in SASE frameworks that will shortly be superseded by trailblazers. It doesn’t engage purposefully or strategically with employers in the industries within which it operates. It rarely seeks or responds to feedback on its qualifications, and it doesn’t really have the expertise or contacts to maintain the relevance of the content in all the sectors it works in. There are no regular reviews to make sure its qualifications reflect the latest technology or innovations in professional practice.

Moreover, the company has a good number of qualifications on offer that are little used. It claims full compliance, but a recent Ofqual audit found several areas of concern.

The regulator is also concerned about its financial position. To be effective, an awarding organisation should be financially stable – if an awarding organisation is under pressure and cuts corners, this could damage the interests of students, and impact on confidence and standards.

So this awarding organisation is likely to be subjected to further scrutiny from the regulator – both its finances and its awards.

I would suggest that these two organisations are at opposite ends of the spectrum in their ability to navigate the coming changes.

The first is likely to see – and grasp – new opportunities. The second may see only challenges, and without some big changes, it may fall at some important hurdles.

Because why would someone pay for a qualification that was not valid - whose purpose and value was not clear?

Why would a learner spend their loan money on a qualification that wasn’t going to set them up for a better career?

Why would employers put a penny towards a qualification they did not believe would effectively assess the skills their industry needs?

UK Commissioner Nigel Whitehead has, just this week, written about the importance of awarding organisations developing qualifications that have genuine support from employers and provide real progression to further study or employment.

No longer can awarding organisations rely on public funding arrangements creating a market for their qualifications.

They must engage with the real needs of the sectors they work in. And if the reputation of qualifications in those sectors is not as good as it should be, they must consider how they can begin to rebuild confidence. These are the kinds of issues I might be thinking about if I was responsible for an awarding organisation right now.

I would want to know that my organisation had good answers to these kinds of questions, to see it successfully through the next few years. And there’s no reason why every awarding body shouldn’t be able to prove its value and relevance, to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements and to help meet real skills needs.

So what, then, is Ofqual’s role here?

Our role is, as I said at the start, to regulate so that our requirements of you are clear and consistently applied. To regulate fairly and transparently to secure standards and public confidence in regulated qualifications. And to make sure that our regulations enable you to develop and award good, valid qualifications.

So we’ve recently taken away some aspects of our regulation that may have distracted you from doing this, and which also may have blurred your accountability for your qualifications.

Lifting universal accreditation was our first step. This removed a process which was burdensome, and of limited use in assessing how good a qualification really was. It also led to widespread assumptions that our role was to provide a quality assurance service – when in fact our Conditions require you to provide your own quality assurance.

And of course at the beginning of this month we withdrew the QCF rules. Now you, yourselves, told us these sometimes got in the way of taking the most appropriate or relevant approaches to assessment and qualification design. They also allowed awarding organisations to say: this isn’t the best approach to take, but we think it’s what the rules require.

Well…no more. As I’m sure you’ve heard us say before, our focus is on the validity of qualifications. On their fitness for purpose.

Our approach to regulation, the withdrawal of the QCF rules, enables qualifications to be more valid, relevant and fit-for-purpose. It now helps you respond more effectively to the challenges set by the external environment: you will need to be flexible, adaptable, innovative. That’s why we didn’t replace the QCF rules with a new set of detailed design rules – there is no longer a straitjacket.

And we will be using a range of regulatory tools to drive good outcomes. Through our audit programme or qualification scrutinies, we may come and ask you why you think your qualifications are valid; why you think your approaches to assessment are suitable and relevant to your qualification’s purpose.

And if the answer is ‘because that’s what the QCF rules said’, I’m afraid that won’t be good enough. When we first proposed withdrawing the QCF rules, there was some initial reluctance. I think some of you saw us planning to take away rules that you saw a bit like a picket fence round a garden: something that stopped you worrying about straying too far.

However, others of you saw that the changes liberated you from that small patch of grass. You can now go further - you can innovate, you can adopt new and different ways of designing vocational qualifications. You can decide what works best. Not decisions about how to meet rules, but decisions about how best to meet needs. As we consulted on removing the QCF rules, we have been grateful for your engagement and your contribution. We’ve been able to discuss with you how the new world will work – and we continue to work with you in other ways, for example, to develop our new IT portal.

We’ve listened carefully to what you’ve told us and, thanks to the considered feedback from you and others in our final QCF consultation earlier this year, we’ve improved our approach in many ways, including using a more straightforward way of describing qualification time than we had originally proposed.

We know there are still questions about the post-QCF world, and Julie Swan, who heads up our regulatory policy team, is running a seminar here tomorrow to help you understand the new requirements and consider how you can respond to the withdrawal of the QCF.

From our point of view, withdrawing the QCF rules brings us to a more stable regulatory position and more future-facing.

We are clear about our approach to regulation, and the tools we have at our disposal, both to gather evidence and understand risks, and to take action when we find things that are not compliant with our regulatory requirements. Of course, there’s always more to do to develop regulatory approaches. But the broad shape is there.

Bryan Horne, from one of our VQ standards teams, is running seminars today to talk more about our regulatory approach, but I want to make some important aspects clear to all of you now.

We do expect you to make sure you fully understand our requirements. We’ve updated our General Conditions, guidance and criteria following the withdrawal of the QCF – and I shouldn’t really have to say this – but you should make sure you are working to and are very familiar with the most up to date versions of our regulatory documents, which are available on our website.

Now, I spoke of a stable regulatory environment. That doesn’t mean doing nothing or being quiet. Some of you are now starting to gain first-hand experience of our supervisory regime, and more of you will become familiar with it as we roll out our programme of audits and qualification scrutinies.

You will see a more targeted regulator that has made big investments in its standards, audit and enforcement teams. We are better geared up now to identify non-compliance and better prepared to take firm, proportionate action.

And let me say, we have already found evidence of non-compliance with our Conditions, which we will be taking action to deal with through our enforcement team.

We wrote our Conditions to secure validity across the lifecycle of your qualifications. And so we will be holding you to account with validity in mind - from design to awarding, and the evaluation of feedback afterwards too.

But, we won’t tell you how to meet our Conditions.

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, and expert judgements about the best approach to validity, how to make sure that each of your qualifications is fit for purpose, reliable, comparable, manageable and minimises bias.

Each of your qualifications should effectively measure what needs to be measured; assessing the right skills and knowledge sufficiently well, enabling results to differentiate fairly between learners and allowing results to be clearly interpreted. This will help people to be confident that your qualifications’ results can be relied upon.

And public confidence is important. Especially if you reflect on the challenges I spoke of earlier. I suspect the most successful awarding organisations have found, or will find, ways to encourage learners, training providers and employers to invest in their qualifications. If people don’t have confidence in your product, they will either not invest in the first place, or will look to take their business elsewhere.

What’s more, you will not enhance the confidence of Government, which still holds the public purse strings, and, of course, decides policy on how qualifications might be used. In one of our recent audits we have seen evidence that, to be candid, would probably not fill those who fund, rely on or use qualifications, with a lot of confidence. Whilst we didn’t find clear non-compliance, we weren’t exactly impressed.

We found a number of examples where we had limited assurance, where awarding organisations appeared to be at risk of future non-compliance, or where evidence was a bit ‘thin’. Many examples were not consistent with the lifecycle focus on validity and continuous improvement that we have been speaking to you about for some time now.

And we will be transparent about our work. We will publish the outcomes of that audit, and of other audits and scrutinies as we complete them, so that all of you, not just those of you involved in each audit, can consider what you can learn from them.

We will be checking too that our regulations and processes are doing what they need to do. We will be making sure that compliance is likely to lead to good outcomes and so that we are not placing unnecessary burden on you, or getting in the way of those good outcomes.

It’s not easy to set requirements that work for all types of qualifications, and which give you all the confidence to invest in quality. And we don’t claim that all our requirements are precisely right at the moment.

So if our rules or systems are getting in the way of you producing a good quality regulated qualification, then tell us.

But we’re not waiting or assuming we can rest on our laurels. We’re continuing to work on improving our approach to regulatory burden and enabling innovation.

We’ve been conscious of the need to improve the IT we make you use – we know RITS has not always worked effectively in the past.

So, as we have been working to develop the new IT system that will replace RITS, we’ve been listening to the feedback from our transition advisory group, of which FAB and some of you are members.

We are on track to bring the new system into use by spring next year and will continue to work with you, and the other agencies that have an interest, to make sure we implement and develop the new system efficiently and in a way that supports what you do.

Another area of focus for us in the coming months will be innovation. And we will be asking you, at our conference in December, to tell us if you think our rules get in the way of innovation and development, and to tell us about the kind of changes you see happening in the industry.

While it’s not our job to promote innovation, we must make sure we don’t get in its way – our regulation must allow you to respond to technological developments and changes in professional and specialist practice.

And where might we see innovation? Well, if the industry becomes more responsive, this could be in any number of ways. We’ve already seen the increasing use of things like on-demand and online assessment, but those aren’t the only innovations in town.

All I would say, is that, whatever your approach to assessment, you should make sure it is the best way of measuring what needs to be measured. In other words, it should be a valid approach.

This responsibility, for the validity of your qualifications, sits squarely with you.

Engaging with your customers, your learners and those who rely on your qualifications, helps you determine how you best to design your assessments. It should help you understand how the outcomes of your qualifications will be used and judged, and how you can manage any risks that creates.

There are undoubtedly some daunting times ahead in the world of training and skills. Some qualifications may come under more pressure. Budgets will reduce. Old assumptions will have to change.

But this change could present a real opportunity for the awarding industry to demonstrate its relevance and its willingness to engage, especially with the end users of qualifications. It certainly incentivises that, doesn’t it?

And if we see public confidence increasing, people choosing qualifications, not because they’re funded, but because they trust and value them, then we will know that you have succeeded in demonstrating your value and your relevance.

It is not up to us to help you do this.

Our requirements – so long as you are meeting them – provide a firm foundation; set you in the right direction. But we will not come to the rescue. We cannot guide you.

It’s up to you to demonstrate the value of your qualifications to the world out there. Will you choose to stay in that small, trampled garden, even though we’ve removed the fences? Or will you use your new found freedom to new ground, move forwards, do better?

More than ever, your future is in your own hands. Choose wisely and choose well.

Thank you

Published 22 October 2015