‘Awarding qualifications fairly without exams isn’t straightforward’: DfE's Susan Acland-Hood reflects on a testing year

2020 may have been a year like no other, but 2021 was a chip off the old block and relentless from day one. The education perm sec tells us about 12 more months of dealing with Covid while pushing ahead with new challenges
Exam tables in sports hall, Epsom College. Photo: David Hawgood

By Civil Service World

22 Dec 2021


What was your highlight of 2021?

My highlight of 2021 was seeing pupils and teachers return to schools and colleges in March after the third lockdown, and knowing that we had worked really well and closely not just across the whole department, but across the whole education system to make it happen, including standing up a truly enormous mass testing programme extremely quickly, which meant we could test millions of pupils and help keep them safe. 

We’d kept schools open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and we’d also had much better remote learning going on than during the first lockdown. But the outpouring of delight from children, parents and teachers at being able to get back to school properly was amazing.

How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2021?

After everything that had happened in 2020, one of our biggest challenges was making sure we could award qualifications in 2021 fairly, despite having to cancel exams again. Making sure we had a policy and approach that worked for the people who were ultimately going to be delivering it – teachers and school leaders – was vital.

We, and Ofqual, the exams regulator, worked hand in glove with them to design what we would do, and how we’d do this in a way that put young people and their ability to progress first, but also built in safeguards and checks – because awarding qualifications fairly without exams isn’t straightforward.

We had an incredibly dedicated and talented team who worked tirelessly to identify potential risks and problems, and think forward – always working in partnership with schools, colleges and universities.

This constant horizon-scanning and strong partnership helped us spot and solve potential problems before they became issues. 

For example, having designed a system based on teacher assessment, which also involved some generosity to take account of the disruption of Covid, we knew we would be likely to see some grade inflation, especially in higher grades at A-level.

The problem was that some university offers had been made before exams were cancelled. But we were able to work with universities to make sure that was manageable, and there were enough places, so young people were able to progress and the grade inflation didn’t lead to other problems. 

The centre of all of this was careful forward thinking and close partnership working. 

What is your number one priority for 2022?

Delivery! We’ve got a good three-year settlement in the Spending Review, which has backed our big priorities in schools, skills and supporting families.

Now we’ve got to turn better per-pupil funding into great results for children; an absolutely massive increase in skills funding into a brilliant employer-led skills system, which delivers training that leads to great jobs; and funding for Family Hubs and (jointly with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) the Supporting Families programme into better support for those who need it most.

That’s all about strong, consistent delivery, backed with data and evidence – so keeping our eye on delivery is my biggest priority for 2022.  

Which historical, mythical or contemporary figure would you most like to join you for a New Year’s Eve celebration?

I’m tempted to say it’s my family and friends. They’re the best contemporary figures for me – and after the last couple of years, it feels pretty amazing to be getting together again. 

But if I had to choose someone else, then it’d be Arlette from Call My Agent – I think she’d have some amazing stories, bring an effortlessly chic French vibe, and of course bring a dog. What more could you want? 


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