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GCSE, AS and A level reform: The accreditation process

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With the reform of GCSEs, AS and A levels well underway, many will be wondering how accreditation of these qualifications works. Accreditation is a formal process to decide whether an individual qualification can be awarded by an exam board and taken by students at a school or college. Exam boards can choose whether they submit specifications to us for accreditation, but government has decided that only reformed GCSE, AS an A level qualifications can be offered in state schools.

We completed accreditation of exam boards’ subject specifications for first teaching this September (2015) earlier in the year. Exam boards have since submitted a second wave of specifications for 20 GCSEs and 11 AS and A levels they intend to be available for first teaching in September 2016, assuming they are accredited. We will conduct a further wave of accreditation in 2016 for subjects to be first taught in 2017. You can find summary information about all new GCSEs, AS and A levels on our website.

The regulatory framework

Decisions regarding the content taught in new GCSEs, AS and A levels rest with the Department for Education; we review that content and decide whether to incorporate it into our regulatory framework. Exam boards then use this information in their proposals for reformed specifications. We designed our accreditation process so exam boards can demonstrate that, for each reformed qualification, they are capable of complying with all of the regulatory requirements associated with that qualification (the accreditation criteria) on an ongoing basis.

In addition to our General Conditions of Recognition, we also publish qualification-level conditions that apply to all GCSE, AS and A level subjects. These requirements are specific to the level of qualification and involve aspects such as the level of difficulty and the grading to be used. Exam boards must also show how they will design, set and deliver high quality and effective assessments.

Finally, we publish subject-level conditions, which cover requirements such as assessment objectives and any non-examination assessment arrangements. We have also provided guidance to help exam boards comply with our conditions without stifling innovation. Exam boards must consider this guidance but, unlike conditions, they can take a different approach provided they demonstrate that they can meet the conditions to which the guidance relates. Our guidance varies by subject.

The accreditation process

Any proposed qualification includes a specification, an assessment strategy and sample assessment materials (SAMs). Exam boards are permitted to publish the specifications and SAMs, but they must ensure such publications are not misleading by making clear the qualification is yet to be accredited and therefore subject to change.

We consider each subject proposal by arranging a dedicated accreditation panel. Each panel includes two of our staff, who provide regulatory expertise, and independent subject experts. These panel members meet to undertake collective training prior to the receipt of submissions for accreditation.

Each panel is chaired by one of our senior managers, and one of the subject experts is assigned to maintain an overview of the submissions from all exam boards. The panel is supported by advice from the Accreditation Technical Advisory Group; an Ofqual-led group that provides additional technical expertise, particularly in the area of assessment.

Before any accreditation panel meets, each specification is considered independently by a minimum of two of the panel’s subject experts. Their systematic desk-based reviews provide objective evidence of any potential areas of non-compliance with our regulatory requirements.

To assist these reviews, the conditions that apply to each subject are consolidated into subject-specific accreditation templates. These set out each condition that has to be met before a qualification is considered to be compliant with our regulatory requirements. These completed templates form a key input for the accreditation panel.

Following the desk-based reviews, the panel meets to consider in turn each exam board’s submission against our regulatory requirements.

Crucially, accreditation is not a comparability exercise. It occurs at the start of the lifecycle of a qualification when there is insufficient evidence to compare each board’s specification with the others. For example, no students will have sat the proposed exams (nor necessarily been taught the new subject content, if it is new). The accreditation panel does, however, consider the expected level of difficulty of each submitted SAM and will only recommend accreditation where the expected level of difficulty is judged to be within acceptable tolerances and allows differentiation of performance across the full range of student ability.

The final stage of the panel meeting is to recommend whether or not to accredit a board’s specification. Where the recommendation is not to accredit, the panel discussions inform a detailed, evidence-based report to the exam board with issues of potential non-compliance illustrated with examples, which are shared with the exam board when a decision is issued. Discussions on any one subject normally last a full working week.

The final decision, whether or not to accredit a qualification, is made by another member of Ofqual staff, who has the opportunity to challenge the panel’s decision and clarify any areas of misinterpretation. This staff member must accredit specifications they believe meet the relevant criteria, but, in turn, cannot accredit a qualification if it does not. This process ensures that we adopt a consistent regulatory approach for each individual specification.

Once a decision is made, the accreditation result is sent to the respective exam board. Where accreditation has not been successful, a follow-up meeting is organised with the exam board to explain the reasons for rejection, and to discuss resubmission. The entire process from submission to decision takes about 8 weeks.

Phil Beach
Director of Strategic Relationships, General Qualifications

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