Some thoughts on perceptions

The latest YouGov report is the 13th annual exploration of attitudes to general and vocational qualifications, as well as to Ofqual.  The research, which we commissioned and was conducted by YouGov, investigated perceptions and levels of confidence in qualifications and the examination system, as well as awareness and ratings of Ofqual.  The survey fieldwork was conducted between 19 January and 27 February 2015, by when overarching decisions about reforms to GCSE and A levels had been made and communicated.  Details of subjects for first teaching in 2015 had been published, although we were conducting further research on GCSE mathematics and considering options for the spoken element of English language.  We had consulted on a number of subjects for first teaching in 2016, with our proposals for science practicals drawing particular interest.  We were also considering options for the final batch of GCSE and A Level subjects for reform, which will be due for first teaching in 2017.

The objectives of this survey were to investigate:

  • overall perceptions and confidence in qualifications taken by young people
  • confidence in qualifications’ standards and the examination system
  • awareness and perceptions of Ofqual

The survey follows the approach adopted in wave 12 and has been conducted using an online methodology.   However, there have been changes to how the questions have been structured between this and the previous wave so it is not always possible to make direct comparisons between surveys.

Levels of trust in qualifications

A majority in all groups (heads of schools, teachers, students, parents, the general public, employers and those involved in higher education institutions) agreed that GCSEs are a trusted qualification.  Levels of trust among many groups remained comparable with previous surveys although there has been a marked increase in trust among parents. A significant majority amongst all groups agreed that A levels are a trusted qualification and there was consistent agreement among all groups that A levels are well understood.

Standards and accuracy

In nearly all groups, more people agreed than disagreed that the accuracy of GCSE and A level marking has reduced this year.  This finding echoes the views provided by a number of teacher representative organisations in October 2014, following our publication of provisional information from the summer 2014 exams.  Our report showed that the number of enquiries about results and appeals had increased noticeably and more so than in previous years. We have outlined the steps we are taking to evaluate this provisional data and the work we have commissioned on marking and enquiries about results, so that teachers and the general public can see what we are doing.

Change in the system

A significant majority of teachers and headteachers consider that there is too much change in the system at both GCSE and A level.  These findings show that concerns over the amount of change in the qualification system remain high.  Despite high levels of concern over the amount of change in the system, more headteachers and teachers agreed than disagreed that GCSEs needed reform.   Views on specific aspects of reform varied in a number of areas:

  • Linear assessment and tiering.  A majority of headteachers, young people and those involved in higher education consider that the move to linear end of course assessment is a bad thing at GCSE.  Teachers were almost equally divided in their view.  On tiering, headteachers, teachers and young people were more likely to consider that a reduction in subjects with tiers is a bad thing although there was a sizeable proportion of remaining groups that were either undecided or did not know enough about the issue.
  • Teacher assessment.  There was broad agreement that the reduction in teacher assessment in GCSE is a good thing, although students did not agree.  It is worth noting that this finding considers the issue of teacher assessment as a whole.  A separate survey  of responses to consultations on reform proposals showed that views on the appropriate proportion of teacher assessment varied by subject.
  • Grading.  The level of understanding of the new 9 to 1 grading scale is low amongst young people and parents; 64% of young people and just over half of parents do not understand the new grading system.  This compares to around two thirds of headteachers and 39% of teachers.  First awarding of reformed qualifications with the new grading will be in summer 2017 (mathematics and English) and we are developing communications plans to improve levels of understanding of grading ahead of this.

Unlike GCSE, more headteachers, teachers and students disagreed than agreed that A levels needed reform. This contrasts with the view of those involved in higher education and employers; a quarter of those involved in higher education disagreed that A levels are good preparation for further study. Concerns were also raised from those involved in higher education and employers that A levels did not develop a sufficiently broad range of skills.  The ongoing A level reform is updating content in consultation with those involved in higher education.  The first tranche of reformed AS and A levels will be taught from September 2015 and this cohort will enter higher education in September 2017.

  • Linear assessment.  The groups closest to the school system were most likely to feel the move to linear end of course assessment is a bad thing at A level.  Headteachers, teachers and students were all significantly more likely to agree than disagree that the move to linear end of course assessment is a bad thing at the A level.  There was uncertainty among those involved in higher education, parents, employers and the general public.
  • Decoupling the AS from the A level.  Headteachers were, by a significant margin, more likely than any other group to feel that the disadvantages of decoupling AS from A level outweigh the advantages, followed by teachers and young people.  A fairly consistent proportion of all groups (between one fifth and one quarter) considered that the disadvantages of decoupling did not outweigh the advantages.

Perceptions of Ofqual

Awareness and knowledge of Ofqual is greatest amongst those working in the school system.  However, despite some high profile events and numerous consultations, overall awareness of Ofqual remains low among some groups.  At one end of the spectrum, some 99% of headteachers and 92% of teachers were aware of Ofqual’s role; by contrast, 64% of students were not aware of the role of the regulator of qualifications and half of the general public had not heard of Ofqual.

Around one in three teachers and headteachers disagreed that Ofqual is a trusted organisation; more than other groups. Teachers were also more likely to agree that Ofqual has a negative reputation (37%).  This can, in part, be explained by perceptions of Ofqual communication, with a majority of respondents in most groups considering Ofqual communications to be poor.  There was an even stronger sense in all groups, and in particular among teachers and those involved in higher education, that Ofqual is too close to Government.

Next Steps

The reform of GCSE and A Level qualifications continues. We are accrediting GCSE and A level qualifications for first teaching in 2016 and have identified to the Department for Education those subjects for first teaching in 2017 for which content could be developed.  Concern over reforms and a lack of understanding of some of the key changes are, to an extent, a reflection of a lack of awareness of Ofqual and a consistent message that communication needs to improve; we are considering our options, particularly for our consultations and announcing our decisions.

Concern over quality of marking and enquiries about results is recognised.  We have asked exam boards to carry out further analysis of their data to provide the reasons for grade changes, particularly where such changes were by more than one grade. We have also asked them to review their marking processes and examiner recruitment and training.  We are making some improvements to our Enquiries About Results (EAR) process for 2015 and we are reviewing the enquiries about results and appeals system, in line with the commitment we made in our Quality of Marking Report (February 2014).

We are clearly concerned that a proportion of teachers and headteachers disagree that Ofqual is a trusted organisation and that the organisation has a negative reputation.  We are engaging with stakeholders to understand the issues that underlie these perceptions in order to inform our response.

Phil Beach
Director of Strategic Relationships, General Qualifications

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