Catherine Large, Ofqual Director of Vocational Qualifications

The last year has seen unprecedented disruption to teaching and learning caused by the pandemic, and assessment is no exception. It is Ofqual’s role to regulate for the validity and safe delivery of vocational, technical and other general qualifications (VTQs), regardless of the circumstances, so we have drafted a new regulatory framework to ensure that learners taking these qualifications are able to get their results and progress. 

Unfortunately, many learners have continued to miss out on learning due to the pandemic, and some may have experienced personal circumstances that have adversely affected their access to learning. The cumulative effect of this is not yet known, but arrangements for 2021 require awarding organisations to award results that allow learners to progress, that are fair, and that do not undermine the qualifications themselves.

How VTQ awarding will work in 2021

All of this means that in 2021 qualifications will be awarded in one of three ways, depending upon their purpose.

1. For some qualifications, it is essential that learners can show and be assessed on occupational or professional knowledge and/or skills, or proficiency in a skills area. We have put in place arrangements that support awarding organisations to deliver these assessments so that they can be adapted in response to the circumstances. Unfortunately, there will be rare occasions when qualifications can’t be adapted sufficiently, or where adaptation would undermine validity. In those cases, assessments will have to wait, although we hope that awarding organisations are able to minimise the period of delay.  

2. For qualifications that are used to support progression to further or higher study or into employment, and which are used instead of, or alongside, GCSEs and A levels, awarding organisations can issue results to learners based on a teacher assessed grade.

3.  Assessments for shorter or on-demand qualifications, such as Functional Skills or ESOL Skills for Life, should go ahead if in line with Public Health England guidance. These are qualifications that provide a foundation for progression into employment or further technical education and develop skills for everyday life. Assessments for functional skills qualifications should provide reliable evidence of a student’s achievements against content that is relevant to the workplace. Students need to show knowledge as well as their ability to apply this.

For learners taking these types of qualification, assessments should take place where it is possible for them to do so safely in person, or remotely. Taking an assessment enables learners to get their results more quickly than going through a process that requires evidence to be gathered to support a teacher assessed grade which often will also need to be checked by awarding organisations. This should lessen the impact of disruption as learners are still able to take the assessment now or can catch up later.

Nevertheless, if learners are ready and need results to progress, but are unable to safely sit an exam or assessment, either in person in a college, training provider or school, or remotely, then they may be able to receive a result based on a teacher assessed grade.

Where exams and assessments continue, they may take place as normal or they should be adapted where necessary.

Innovation in awarding

One of the other key differences between awarding qualifications in 2020 and 2021 is the amount of progress that has been made in enabling learners to take assessments in novel ways. I’m pleased to say that the challenges of the past 12 months have resulted in some good work from awarding organisations which have adapted their assessments and looked to see where they can adopt innovative solutions.

Many awarding organisations have invested in remote invigilation software or have adapted their assessments to make them COVID-safe for all – perhaps by using different venues, by using simulation, observation, professional interviews, or by using video evidence or online testing. Ofqual wishes to encourage innovation and current circumstances have made it easier, and more necessary, for awarding organisations to adopt innovative practice – we have said as much in a remote invigilation blog by Emma Scott.

This means that many learners will have been able to progress despite not being able to access assessments in what, pre-COVID, would have been considered the ‘normal’ ways.

Consistency in awarding

We also expect awarding organisations to develop consistent approaches across similar qualifications where possible; and require them to provide clear and timely guidance to colleges, learning providers and schools, on how results will be awarded and what they need to do. And they must be mindful of the burden they place on teachers.

We have heard from centres the need for awarding organisations to work together to bring clarity and consistency, and we expect awarding organisations to collaborate where there are similar qualifications offered by multiple organisations.

Since January, we have held a series of workshops with awarding organisations on the new framework for policy development and implementation purposes – this includes specific workshops for some subjects taught in colleges and schools. This is to ensure that awarding organisations, where possible, are mindful of the similarities and legitimate differences in their approach to awarding in 2021 and that these can be clearly communicated. 

We expect awarding organisations to make their messaging for centres, learners and parents as clear as possible, and that most will be able to say more about their own specific qualifications soon.

What’s next?

If you are working in a college, independent training provider or school, you should have already started to receive information from your awarding organisations about what the 2021 awarding will look like. More information will be on the way now that the final stages of our consultation have concluded and we have published the statutory guidance to support the new framework.

Awarding organisations can now finalise and tell their centres about their arrangements. We will continue to talk to awarding organisations and expect them to share their requirements with centres as soon as possible. We will continue to monitor awarding organisations’ roll-out of their arrangements throughout the year. An upcoming article, by my colleague Emma Scott, will give you more information about how we will do this. 

We have collected data from awarding organisations about how results for each qualification will be awarded and we have published this information in our interactive ‘explainer tool’

It is our hope that this tool will help those interested in these qualifications in the unique and challenging months ahead. 

Catherine Large, Ofqual Director of Vocational Qualifications

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