A cosy curriculum triangle

Posted in: Comment

Following a discussion about the status of DfE ‘approved' subject content which raised more questions than it answered, I asked my ‘man who understands the DfE' about it.  I wrote:
"I’m told that approved subject content is what exam boards use to decide what is in guidance and exam papers, and that there is no systematic review cycle with reviews only happening when subject bodies ask for it.  Does that match your understanding?"
He responded:
"Ofqual can ask for review, Boards can ask, and Ministers can decide.”
I then wrote:
"I find myself both surprised and unsurprised by all this.  Surprised that something so important is not subject to regular systematic review; unsurprised because it illustrates the small-c conservative nature of government processes.  Is this review process an elaborate one with multiple stakeholders (beyond regulators and exam boards) contributing, or is it a quicker in-house job?
I then got this detailed response:

"Your surprise is well placed.  Not many people are interested in these seemingly arcane aspects of qualifications policy, but they are very important.

In the 1990s, there was a lot of variation in GCSE and A level specifications and many subjects/options– this was good (meeting different school and pupil needs/interests) and bad (difficult to maintain standards, plus some issues regarding progression to advanced level). The then-quasi-regulator SCAA (School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) wrote general criteria for both GCSEs and A Levels and had broad content guidelines. This started the process of central specification of content of qualifications which since inception were developed by boards in conjunction with schools (which gave us brilliant quals such as SMP maths. Salters’ Science etc). Dearing then produced his reports and drove a lot of alignment of GCSE and National Curriculum subject content and GCSEs. Come QCA (1997-2012), the idea of subject criteria was well-established, and yet it all operated more by consensus than specific (and thus accountable) regulation – here’s an example of the QCA subject criteria (2006):
When Ofqual became the regulator, with a hard legislative base, the subject criteria still were vested with QCA. At that time, DfE developed lists of qualifications which would be permitted to receive public funding. This was and remains a principal instrument of control of qualifications – the legal base of this is more to do with legal powers regarding school funding than powers regarding qualifications. Successive governments (going way back to the 1952 reform of School Certificate) undertook periodic review (and Green and White Papers) – leading to GCSE (1980s), GNVQs (1990s), modular A level (2000s) etc. Abolition of QCA began during the 2010 Coalition Government, and the responsibility for the subject criteria passed to ministers. What then happened was that government set out to reduce the number of GCSEs - which it did through changed funding rules and ‘withdrawal’ of subject criteria during an announced review of GCSE and A level – leading to the 2015-17 reformed qualifications. There is no law which governs when a review can take place (although there are some legal restraints of process – eg demand for public consultation) and no schedule for review of the subject criteria in particular. Again, there are some legal restraints on the process of development (eg regarding pubic consultation). The minister owns the subject criteria (which focus on content and scope), Ofqual own the specific qualification criteria (which ensure the assessment and administration of the qualifications and make sure that they match the criteria), and boards develop specific GCSEs to meet the DfE and Ofqual requirements (and ‘legally own’ those specific GCSEs). But a lot of this is custom and practice, with just a few legal ‘touch points’ regarding process and legal ownership.
Quite a few key questions are simply left to ministerial discretion: how many qualifications should we have? What subjects should be part of the national ‘catalogue’ – when should something be retired and when should a new subject be admitted? what subjects should be treated as priorities (enacted through targets and funding criteria).  See this:
‘…The DfE is responsible for those proposals that relate to policy intent and the scope of the subject content to be taught and assessed. Ofqual is responsible for those proposals that relate to assessment arrangements. This division reflects the key roles and responsibilities of the 2 organisations, and these responsibilities will be reflected in the decisions that are taken following the consultation…’
You are not wrong to highlight ambiguity in legal duties regarding accountability – particularly periodic review. In 2013 the British Ecological Society stated:

In addition to GCSE changes, A level reform has also been proposed along the same timetable. Like GCSEs, these would become a linear qualification. AS levels would be classified as a separate qualification and no longer required for an A level. As part of these changes, Ofqual is beginning reviews of the subject criteria. With implementation of new qualifications intended for 2015, there’s a tight timeline ahead.

Much confusion and uncertainty remains around the process of review for A-levels making it difficult to report accurately what is expected to happen. However, the learned societies are expected to have opportunities to comment on subject content, assessment and practical aspects of biology qualifications.

Whilst White Papers have been used to determine the need for wholesale qualifications reform, and latterly the respective powers of DfE and Ofqual, there is no agreed framework for regular (eg 5 year, 10 year…) review of specific qualifications, specific subject criteria, or the ‘catalogue’ of qualifications/subjects. Ofqual can trigger review if they feel that specific qualifications are falling short of the expectations of the Ofqual criteria. It’s a complex legal web, with some areas of ambiguity and openness which are not obvious – in other words, people think things are a legal requirement…and Ofqual and DfE behave as if they are, and thus everyone else think they are. And there is some legal requirement which ‘trumps’ everything – back to the DfE lists of ‘approved qualifications’ which definitively give ministers power over what qualifications can use public funding and be delivered in schools. Much of the shape of arrangements (which really does matter) is the product of negotiated agreements between Ofqual, DfE and exam boards – reaching agreements which really do determine what is there and how it works, but much of the detail is not determined in any way by Law.
What to make of this, apart from noting its evolved messiness?
Well, I think that my main point would be how this cosy curriculum triangle (DfE – OfQual – Exam Boards) neatly excludes everyone else: parliament, schools (leaders/teachers/students), teacher associations, subject associations, interested agencies – and the public.
What a state of affairs.

Posted in: Comment


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