Ahead of the Skills & Employability Summit 2019 we caught up with Phil Beach, Executive Director for Vocational and Technical Qualifications at Ofqual to talk about applied generals, simplifying routes into employment, and increasing public confidence in vocational & technical qualifications.
Tell me a little bit about your core responsibilities and your priorities for this year?
Ofqual is the statutory regulator of qualifications and assessments in England, and we regulate around 160 Awarding Organisations. It is our responsibility to maintain qualification standards and to promote public confidence in regulated qualifications and assessments. We make sure information about regulated qualifications and the organisations that offer them is available to all, and we ensure that regulated qualifications indicate the knowledge, skills and understanding an individual has demonstrated.
Protecting the interests of learners is at the heart of what we do, making sure that the qualifications and assessments they take are fair, valid, and robust. So with that in mind, over the next 12 months my teams will be ensuring we continue to play our part in a number of reform programmes in particular the development of the new Technical Qualifications that will sit within T Levels; the introduction of new Functional Skills Qualifications and Essential Digital Skills Qualifications and our role as External Quality Assurance provider for apprenticeship standards. We will also handle a considerable caseload of Business as Usual regulation of many thousands of qualifications we regulate. And we are strengthening our regulation of vocational and technical qualifications, making sure that they are valid – that is, they test the right things, in the right way – and reliable.
What is the hallmark of a quality qualification?
The key word here is ‘valid.’ A regulated qualification will include an assessment. A valid assessment is founded on the most appropriate assessment method to test the knowledge and skills that have been gained. It will result in an outcome that is useful to those who use and interpret it, telling them whether someone has the skills or competencies required, and how they compare to others who have taken the same qualification. A good quality qualification will do all of this and ensure that the same level of performance results in the same result, wherever and whenever the assessment happens.
What is your response to the government’s plans to scrap applied general qualifications?
The government hasn’t yet decided on the future of applied generals, but the Department for Education is conducting a review of qualifications at Level 3 and below, and we welcome this. We agree that only qualifications which deliver a quality outcome for a learner should be funded, and it should be for the Department to determine the purpose of qualifications it will support. We support the notion of streamlining the publicly-funded market, and in particular the removal of funding for pre-existing qualifications where replacement ones have been developed for performance tables. It is confusing and unfair to have two qualifications with very similar titles and content, but varying approaches to assessment and different outcome profiles.
However, it is important that opportunities remain to take qualifications that reflect the breadth of knowledge and skills needed across industry, as well as those that support learner progression. we have fed back to government our view that its broad principles should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the variety of learners who need access to publicly-funded qualifications. In addition, there is a need for some flexibility in the size of qualifications on offer to accommodate the wide range of learners, such as those with caring responsibilities or special educational needs. We’ve published our full response on our website.
We will continue to work closely with Department as the review progresses. In parallel, we’re looking at how we can strengthen our regulatory approach to the qualifications that schools and colleges use – those which you see on performance tables – to secure greater assurance that they are sufficiently valid and reliable. For example, we are looking at the controls and processes we expect awarding organisations to have in place. We are conscious of the need to minimise turbulence for schools and colleges and if we do need to make any changes to our rules we will consult in the usual way.
How are you working to simplify the routes for people into employment- especially when some qualifications are seen to be in competition?
Government shapes the qualification landscape, through the policy decisions it makes. It is our role is to regulate the resultant qualifications, ensuring they are valid.
How will T levels fit into the existing vocational and technical landscape?
Ministers have made it very clear that their strategy is not to just add new qualifications – in this case T Levels and the Technical Qualifications that sit within them - to an already complex system, but rather to simplify the qualification landscape. This involves taking a holistic view– which includes a review of other qualifications at level 3 and below, and at levels 4 and 5. We’re working with the Department on these reviews.
What do you say to those who denounce exams as irrelevant, too difficult and unreliable- how are you increasing public confidence in vocational and technical qualifications?
Each individual who takes a qualification needs to be able to have confidence in it; it needs to be a reliable indicator of what they know and can do. Employers, educational establishments and professional organisations use qualifications to inform their decisions of who to employ, who to admit onto their courses and who to allow into their profession. And of course in many industries, qualifications are also a Licence to Practise, truly a gateway to employment. So having a challenging assessment, in whatever form, which properly assesses knowledge, skills and competence is both appropriate and important to maintain standards, and to give learners and users confidence.
That’s why we approach our regulation of every qualification with seriousness and focus. We review and refine our rules to ensure that they are fit for the purpose of regulating specific types of qualifications. And we consult, widely, on elements we are thinking of changing.
We recently ran a consultation on the arrangements awarding organisations have with schools, colleges and training providers who offer and deliver their qualifications, particularly looking to strengthen the steps they take to ensure judgements and standards are maintained – that’s how results are moderated and verified. We’ll be publishing the outcomes of this in a few months.
How are you working with awarding organisations to strengthen the design and delivery of vocational and technical qualifications, so they meet the needs of a diverse range of learners?
I’ve mentioned already the work we’re doing around moderation and verification of assessment judgements, as well as our review of our regulatory approach to performance table qualifications, both of which are relevant here. And our response to the government’s review of qualifications at level 3 and below particularly emphasised the diverse range of learner needs and circumstances that the qualifications market needs to meet.
Awarding Organisations are of course required to abide by the Equality Act 2010, as well as having to comply with Conditions (our rules) that we set. These require Awarding Organisations to monitor qualifications for features which ‘could disadvantage a group of Learners who share a particular Characteristic’ and to take appropriate steps. We take the appropriate regulatory action where we identify breaches of these, or indeed any of our other Conditions.
And we use the opportunity of Government reform programmes to ensure that new qualifications and assessments have quality built in up front. In Apprenticeships, we have reviewed over 120 Assessment Plans to ensure that they meet the needs of employers. We have subsequently completed technical evaluations of the End Point Assessment Materials that have been produced by organisations; we do this to ensure that they are both consistent and reflect the intent of the Assessment Plan. We have similarly scrutinised the newly reformed Functional Skills qualifications to ensure that they reflect the new content and support comparable and consistent outcomes.
What are the biggest challenges you are currently facing?
Our corporate plan sets out our focus on ensuring qualifications are valid, delivered safely and efficiently, with outcomes that are fair for each learner and the wider economy too. There is a wide range of change underway in the system at the moment, and keeping all the plates spinning is a challenge for everyone involved. At Ofqual we are particularly conscious of the burden of regulation. Whilst we are working to strengthen the effectiveness of our regulation, we do not want it to create unnecessary work and pressure for those impacted by our regulations. We are constantly striving to be more efficient and innovative.
How are vocational and technical qualifications meeting the skills shortfall?
Government and employers are responsible for specifying what qualifications are needed and what they should cover. Effective regulation leads to high quality qualifications, in which learners and employers are confident, which is essential to a productive economy.
What does the future hold for vocational and technical qualifications and how do you foresee your role evolving?
I think the future for vocational and technical qualifications is bright. Our research shows that employers are growing increasingly confident in qualifications, they have a better grasp of what they mean and how they can use them. We are seeing a growth in the value of regulation of qualifications too, for example from particular sectors and industries, where they want to be sure that qualifications cover what they need, and meet specific and current requirements. So, put that demand alongside the Government reforms of technical education, and I don’t think we can see the pressure letting up just yet – quite the opposite, in fact. But I would also reflect that we need to let the new qualifications bed in. It will take some time to establish new brands such as T Levels. We need patience.
The Ofqual corporate plan can be found here.