‘It took the most heroic of efforts from a whole cast of players’: Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton on the return of exams

It’s been a year of milestones for the qualifications and exam regulator, Saxton says

By CSW staff

30 Dec 2022


What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?  

As Ofqual’s chief regulator, without doubt, the highlight for me has been the time I got to spend in schools and colleges and to meet and talk to students to understand their experiences. To me, there is nothing more important than hearing directly from those that we regulate on behalf of, and I fiercely protect the time that I have each month to be out and about in schools and colleges.  

Over the last year, I spoke to hundreds of young people from over 100 schools spread across pretty much every region of the country, but one particular highlight was a conversation I had with a sixth former in Blackpool. Having experienced both forms of emergency qualification awarding created due to the pandemic, he was convinced that “real exams” would offer him the best chance of succeeding.   

At a macro level, securing the return of exams at 16 and 18 was the highlight of my first year in office. We know this is what students and teachers wanted. Students because they wanted the chance to show what they know and can do, and teachers because they didn’t want to have to repeat all the challenges of awarding teacher-assessed grades.  

Whilst it took the most heroic of efforts from a whole cast of players – my colleagues at Ofqual, the Department for Education, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and the exam boards, and essentially everyone from across the education sector, it was absolutely worth it, with August 2022 seeing millions of results for A Levels, GCSEs, Level 3 and Level 2 qualifications. It was wonderful, also, to see the very first cohort of students receiving their T Levels; a huge milestone in its own right.  

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?  

I took up post as chief regulator in September 2021, and just one week into the role, I needed to make a decision about how exams would be graded the following summer. I had the benefit of being very much up to speed with the issues as I had previously worked in DfE as a policy adviser to the ministerial team, and I had been a non-executive director at Ofqual prior to the pandemic, so I was fortunate to have a detailed understanding of the landscape and the challenges. 

Boiling it down, this was about balancing the need to recognise that young people up and down the country had experienced unprecedented disruption to their education over the past few years, with the need to get back to the tried, trusted and tested “normality”. Striking this balance for me was all about fairness and doing the right thing for students. So, I decided grades should be broadly midway between the previous summer’s grades (2021) and pre-pandemic grades.  

This was so that we as a nation could take steps towards normality, but in the interests of students and recognising the immense challenge of what they had been through, not in one fell swoop.  

Whilst this sounds relatively simple to achieve, it was difficult to deliver technically. But I’m absolutely clear that it was the right decision – it simply would not have felt fair to students to have gone straight back to pre-pandemic grades immediately. We needed a glide path.  

I also set out a two-year trajectory; having understood that everyone – students especially – needed clarity and that being fair to them would be letting those starting two-year qualification courses know how they would be graded at the end. 

What is the biggest challenge facing Ofqual in 2023, and how will you meet that challenge as an organisation?  

Time never stands still in the world of qualifications – whether that’s looking at how to make sure vocational qualifications are genuinely treated in every respect as being on equal footing with A Levels and GCSEs, or innovative new ways of students taking their exams, including the advent of moving – over time – to some exams online.  

On the former, earlier in the autumn I announced the largest review of how vocational qualifications are delivered each summer, and that is due to report at the turn of this year. This is a significant piece of work and I expect it to mark a major shift in how we do certain things in vocational education and how we make sure that everything is done in the interests of those students taking these qualifications. 

“I’m absolutely committed to continuing as I started, with students as my compass, and that means spending time with them in person”

On the latter, we’re very much keen to see new innovations and new ways of doing things, and indeed there is some very exciting work going on in this space by some of the exam boards. To my mind though, we need to make sure we don’t rush to new tech-based solutions without these being tested to destruction. And there are, of course, some things like handwriting, that must be preserved. Knowing what good classroom practice looks like is key to making sure that changes to how students are assessed doesn’t have negative unintended wash-back effects into teaching and learning. This will take time and we all need to have total confidence in any new approaches before we even make the first steps to implementing these across a system. 

And personally, as a leader?  

I think personally, I am determined to be a regulator that listens – I think all too often as public servants we can get caught up in round after round of meetings with officials and all the different organisations that have a role to play in our respective sectors. And sometimes that means time with “real” people – the students, the teachers, the lecturers in my case – gets squeezed, or even lost completely.   

I’m absolutely committed to continuing as I started, with students as my compass, and that means spending time with them in person. Over the last year, I travelled around the country doing just that – from Blackpool to Folkestone and from Plymouth to Newcastle. It’s something that I really relish and which I think provides me with the moral direction of doing what is right for them and on behalf of them.  

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?   

As a child I was in the chorus of the Lloyd-Webber musical Evita in London’s West End. My first ever performance was on Christmas Eve. Union rules meant I wasn’t allowed to stay for the curtain call, but it was still a magical experience.

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