What does the Journey to a Million mean for the assessment of qualifications and qualification outcomes?

Dr Jo Saxton, Chief regulator, Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual).

Since I started as Ofqual’s Chief Regulator I have been travelling the length and breadth of the country meeting students, their teachers, and school leaders. Through literally hundreds of conversations in schools and colleges, I heard first-hand how students and teachers understood the importance of exams and qualifications as a passport to the future. The pandemic disrupted that, but the desire to return to exams and take a step forward to normality was incontrovertible.  

A vast, collective effort from students, parents, teachers, schools, colleges, exam boards and Ofqual meant that exams returned successfully, and that critical rite of passage was restored. 

Indeed, qualifications are a decisive moment in students’ educational journey. Each is distinct. Many navigate a route that includes A levels of different kinds. Thousands more combine them with or take exclusively vocational and technical qualifications.

In 2022 for the first time, students took brand new T Levels. It is Ofqual’s role, and my personal duty as Chief Regulator, to make sure that whatever the journey, whichever qualifications students take, that awarding organisations ensure qualifications are good quality, fair, delivered well and accurate. 

The right qualification for every student

As we move ever closer to one million applicants, with thousands more 16-year-olds making those critical decisions about which qualifications to take, it matters all the more that there is parity between academic and vocational qualifications. And that means a genuine level playing field where there is no judgement over whether an A level or a T Level, or another vocational course is the better qualification, but rather, which is the right qualification for the individual.  

No route is better, or more important, than another — just as it would be ridiculous to claim that a journey to Birmingham on the M40 is in some way better than a trip on a country lane in Northumberland. The scenery, speed, surface and navigation may be different but that is not the same as either one being better or worse. 

At the tail end of 2022, Ofqual announced an important step forward in securing parity for all students. This summer, awarding organisations will be required to issue results for those vocational and technical qualifications used in higher education entry, to schools and colleges by a set deadline — 3 days before A level results day. That’s crucial for ensuring all students, whatever qualifications they have taken, have a level playing field when making higher education choices. 

The vital role of schools and colleges

Ofqual has set a clear expectation that awarding organisations offering vocational and technical qualifications will improve their communications to schools and colleges. They will also improve the support given to exams officers who play such a vital role in navigating the important arrangements that underpin successful delivery of a broad range of qualifications.  Teachers and exams officers will make use of two new term time checkpoints to ensure that students get their results when they expect them.

But there is more work to be done. In the years ahead we know that the quantity of external assessment — exams and other types of assessments that are set and marked by awarding organisations — will continue to grow. Combined with the population growth at 18, this means the vital role played by schools and colleges in supporting students in their ambition to progress to degrees, apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications will increase in complexity too. 

In short, we are at an inflexion point. The coming period will see us taking a deep, considered and probing view of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 2023 will be a year in which we engage widely on a whole range of questions that this prompts. Central to this will be a thorough exploration of ways in which to improve the experience of students in securing the qualifications that they need to progress from school and college into higher education or employment. 

Time for technological developments?

Alongside that sits the work we have committed to do looking at the role of technology. I have said before that I am neither a technophobe, nor an out-and-out evangelist. Technology must never be deployed simply because it can be. It must be a means to an end: where it can demonstrably improve validity and reliability in how students are assessed, and where it delivers in efficiency and reduction in the workload for colleges and schools, we will be the first to champion such developments. Such change must be coordinated, and Ofqual will work to do that, so that the interests of students come first. 

So, the journey ahead, the Journey to a Million, is one of challenge and opportunity. And one million is a big number. But in that big number, we must not lose sight of the individual, and making sure that they are in the best position possible to make the right choices about which qualifications provide the right pathway for them. Those individual students are my compass and Ofqual’s true North as an organisation.

Dr Jo Saxton

Chief Regulator of Ofqual

Dr Jo Saxton became the Chief Regulator of Ofqual on 18 September 2021. She brings a decade of experience in school leadership to the role. She has been a government advisor and was formerly an academic. Jo held senior roles at multi-academy trust Future Academies and founded Turner Schools in 2016, leading it as Chief Executive until 2020.

Jo was an external advisor to the Department for Education and Ofsted on various policy areas from 2008, and became policy advisor for the school system to the Education Secretary from 2020 until 2021. Jo served as a Trustee of the New Schools Network, as a Trustee of The Brilliant Club, and as an Ofqual Board Member from 2018 to 2020.

Jo taught and examined at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. She holds several academic qualifications including a PhD from New York University and an undergraduate degree from Cambridge University. Jo is also a published art historian.