Stewart Foster, Chief Operating Officer and Responsible Officer at NCFE

@Ofqual VTQ consultation – What does this mean for the #FutureOfAssessment?

This is part of a series of pieces on how further education and skills can be the cure for the societal impact of Covid-19. We examine the impact that the sector can have in ensuring people are equipped for life and work in the wake of this crisis and how we can work together to recover and build a more resilient future:

The past 12 months have certainly brought about their fair share of challenges, and from an education point of view, especially as an awarding organisation, the challenge of how to adapt teaching and assessment has been the biggest by far.

When the country first went into lockdown last March, none of us could have foreseen the amount of time this crisis would last. We had to react quickly to adapt how we worked in real-time, often changing entire practices in days. But we did it, and what we now need to do is look at what we’ve learned from the total upheaval of our sector, and how we can put that learning into practice as we navigate our way out of the pandemic and back to life as we formerly knew it.

Last year’s issues were all about overcoming exam and assessment disruption at very short notice. Thankfully, as the year has progressed and we’ve seen extension after extension to both local and national lockdowns, we have been able to plan ahead and mitigate some of the risks associated with the pandemic to ease the burden on centres and learners approaching assessments in 2020/21 and beyond.

Education firmly in the spotlight

Earlier in the year, Ofqual launched a consultation on alternative arrangements for assessing and awarding vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) which received a staggering number of responses. The volume of interest in the consultation drives home the importance of getting the assessment model right, both for this academic year and for years to come.

People are realising the economic and societal impact of the pandemic and the huge part that education will play in building back our economy and closing vital skills gaps. The spotlight is well and truly on education which can only be a positive for us, helping to drive change and shape the future of both assessment, and the sector as a whole.

In anticipating the outcomes of the consultation ‘Alternative Arrangements for the Award of VTQs and other General Qualifications in 2021’, we knew how incredibly important it was to ensure that we were ready for whichever scenario unfolded.

Having the knowledge of how quickly the sector had to adapt last year gave us insight into how both centres and learners needed to be guided through the process. Centres look to us to provide the support and guidance they need to get through times such as these so being ready to implement the changes to assessment models was incredibly important, and communicating those changes and adaptations as clearly as possible to our customers was and is paramount.

Embracing change and collaborative working

The changes which have been brought about by the pandemic have meant that as a sector, we’ve had to work together more than ever. We’ve been working with sector bodies, awarding organisations, centres, employers and government to ensure that our offer is aligned and the validity and robustness of assessment is at the forefront of all decision-making. It’s been a time of unification and collaboration that we should embrace and continue to nurture.

What we now need to look at is how learners progress through not only this year but also the years to come, having missed out on significant milestones and experiences. There will not only be motivational and engagement barriers to learning, but also significant mental health issues that we cannot afford to overlook. As a sector, and as a society, we need to do all we can to support our young people in emerging from what has been an incredibly unsettling and stressful year for so many.

Using technology to transform teaching and assessment

In looking ahead to what the future of assessment could be, we need to look back at what has and hasn’t worked so far. The pandemic has most definitely highlighted the vulnerabilities of the system but has also provided an opportunity for us to rethink and redesign the assessment process.

One significant leap forward in the sector is the amount we have had to embrace and embed technology as part of teaching and assessment. The flexibility of things like remote invigilation and online learning have revolutionised how we operate and provided a whole new way of working with learners and teachers.

This is something that we need to further develop, keeping assessment aligned with technological advancements to create more streamlined and agile processes. More flexibility with assessment also means more inclusivity, ensuring that learners can undertake their assessments where and when they’re ready.

VTQs are practical for a reason

Assessing VTQs is completely different from assessing traditional academic subjects. In adapting assessment practices, we need to ensure not only that knowledge is assessed, but that capability to undertake the practical skills required for the job / field of work are accurately observed, especially when a learner is preparing for a role where they would handle or be responsible for tasks where safety is at stake.

Standards for VTQs are very closely linked to jobs and real-life experience so the assessment also needs to reflect this. Traditional exam settings don’t offer this which makes me question why the approach for so long has been to include this style of assessment at the end of an otherwise hands-on model?

We need to look at the role and purpose of education in each stage of life

This period of change and reflection is a great time for us to look at the education system as a whole. We need to examine the purpose of education at every stage and look to develop clear outcomes for learners, much like we have in early years and primary settings where the purpose is to develop key knowledge, language and skills.

The same should be done for the secondary setting to ensure that learners are equipped with the tools to succeed in their chosen path. The issue we face, and where this becomes increasingly complex and problematic, is that there are many paths to choose from and in trying to cater for everything, the message and purpose can become lost and diluted.

Do we want to make it very clear cut in that we define the paths absolutely so that we can tailor the content appropriately, or do we approach it with more fluidity?

Final thoughts

I think we need to take a long hard look at how we work to shape the system moving forward; it’s clear that we need to appreciate the scale of this and change can’t happen overnight but we have proved that we can make huge strides when we work together. It's up to us to keep this momentum going.

We need to find the best way of providing evidence of learner achievement, a strong foundation for further study and assessment, and provide a basis for schools and colleges to be held accountable for their learners' performance.

Ultimately what we want and need for the future of education is a system built on success and progression, and that is fundamentally what we are trying to achieve.

Stewart Foster, Chief Operating Officer and Responsible Officer at NCFE


The outcome of @Ofqual’s recent consultation on ‘Alternative Arrangements for the Award of VTQs and other General Qualifications in 2021’ has grabbed national headlines and given many learners, educators, parents and providers alike some much needed direction in a time of great unsettlement.

In this podcast, NCFE alongside a panel of voices from across the education sector, looks at the implications of the outcome on all affected parties as well as considering whether this marks a seismic shift the future approach to assessment, and the possibility that the impact of the pandemic might change the face of education forever:

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