Not Ofqual? Not Gove? Is no one responsible for the exam fiasco?

It’s not that ministers wield too much power over our education system – but rather that they don’t wield enough

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The Independent Online

The latest exams fiasco is a story about power. Who wields it and on behalf of whom? However brilliant, no GCSE pupil would be able to answer the question, as there is no clear answer. For a long time in England, the distribution of power has been a fuzzy, chaotic mess and made worse by the current ideologically confused Government.

The story is a familiar one. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has made it clear that, in his view, exam grades are too generous. He wants excellence to mean excellence, although his definition of what that means is subjectively rooted in the 1950s. David Cameron has also declared, persistently and simplistically, that he is opposed to the culture in which “all must have prizes”, ignoring that his “prize” of being sent to the most privileged school in the country is not available to most.

But, in the short term at least, Gove and Cameron have no power over the conduct of exams. That lies in the hands of Ofqual, the non-elected regulator. The media in Britain demand an around-the-clock focus on politicians, most of whom wield little or no power, while the genuinely powerful are largely ignored. In this case, Gove insists half-accurately that he must not “meddle” in the activities of an independent body. For one summer, Ofqual’s chief, Glenys Stacey, has wielded power that will change the course of the lives of those whose marks were downgraded. Hands up those of you who had heard of her before this story erupted? Like so many wielders of power in England, she functions in the dark.

But Ofqual’s power is ambiguously defined. The 2009 Act states that: “In performing its functions it must have regard to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct.” I love the phrase “have regard”. In its woolly, slightly sinister prescriptiveness it is an emblem of chaotic, yet deliberate, confusion. Stacey carries out her duties in a way that “has regard” to what Gove wants. Yet he can distance himself from the delivery of what he wants by insisting that he must not meddle. No one is to blame because all are to blame.

We have been here before so many times. Here is David Frost in 2002 introducing the guest on his TV show, the then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris: “Well, we’ve heard of match-fixing in the world of sport but until this week exam-fixing hadn’t entered the public consciousness. Facing the music this week, Education Secretary, Estelle Morris has called for an independent inquiry to find out whether exam boards adjusted pass rates this year and whether or not there was pressure from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Government to do so.”

In that case, someone called Sir William Stubbs, the non-elected head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was deemed to have wielded his powers excessively. Hands up anyone who has heard of the briefly powerful Sir William? Perhaps unfairly, he was forced to resign. He probably thought he was carrying out what the government wanted, but ministers insisted they did not want him to do what he was doing, even though he had the power to do it.

In Wales, there is more clarity. The Welsh government is the regulator of exams in Wales. It has intervened to demand re-grades for those who sat the relevant exams this summer. As a result, Welsh students will secure different grades for the same standards as those met by pupils in England. In Wales, ministers use what limited powers they have through devolution. They are not going to give them away to non-elected regulators and quangos. Quite sensibly, the education minister in Cardiff recognises he can perform the equivalent functions of England’s regulator as an elected and publicly accountable figure. In England, the anti-government and anti-politics culture is deeper so ministers like to keep their distance, or feel the need to do so.

In theory, this is even more the case with the Coalition. Before they came to power, leading Conservatives planned to appear regularly on the Today programme and declare, “This has nothing to do with me”, as Gove has done in relation to the exams fiasco and Andrew Lansley had hoped to do with the NHS. But this is where the ideological confusion starts.

As a result of the Coalition’s theoretical attachment to inactive government from the centre, it has become dependent on quangos and other supposedly independent non-elected bodies to deliver. Even though Cameron promised a “ bonfire of the quangos”, he has created the biggest quango in history to run the NHS. Yet he has also felt compelled to guarantee personally that hospitals will deliver improvements. So who is ultimately responsible? The answer is unclear.

No one is to blame because all are to blame.

The confusion applies to Gove’s wider approach. He is an advocate for “free schools” and letting a thousand flowers boom, yet the City Academies he supports are accountable to the centre rather than to local communities. In theory, he supports the freedom of heads and teachers to decide largely what they wish to teach, but has revised the national curriculum to incorporate his own passions, including the three Rs, spelling and poetry, billed as a “good old fashioned curriculum”. He wants to wield power while being wary of what he sees as an overpowerful state. He wants to change exams, but is not responsible for changing exams.

The proliferation of non-elected bodies with ambiguous but important power is linked to a fear that politicians cannot be seen to be doing very much in an anti-politics culture. Yet those that contribute to that culture are confused, too. Right-wing newspapers often say they want politicians to get off our backs, yet when anything goes wrong they ask what are politicians doing about it and why they hadn’t done more before.

Lines of accountability and responsibility are becoming increasingly unclear, even though they lead repeatedly to avoidable chaos. It is not that ministers wield too much power, but that they do not wield enough or that they want to keep their fingerprints off the acts of delivery which are the consequence of their policies. They have the example of the Welsh administration for a simpler solution, and no one there seems to be complaining. It’s in England that chaos reigns.