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Rage Against the Exam Regulatory Machine?

A sell-out Next Generation Assessment conference in Manchester this week saw digital exam contributions from learners, student voice, higher ed, policy folk, big education brands, and schools.


My attention was piqued by panellist Lucia Quadrini, 'Assessment is just being patched up. Change is needed, ensuring access for everyone'. I immediately thought of paper-behind-glass digital exams being proven, but are they merely 'digital patching'? Food for thought!


Delegate enthusiasm for project-based qualifications was clear. One asked me how digital could overcome ‘coursework cheating’ tropes and concerns. I won’t replay my answer, but some policy folk appear unaware of consumer-grade off-the-shelf solutions that help solve this issue. A delegate in front of me audibly gasped when told of how Wales personalised assessment is delivered online and adaptive to 600k school learners in-country a year.

A delegate gasped when they heard that 600k digital and adaptive school assessments are delivered in Wales.

All panellists I heard are seeking digital, 'un-boring' assessment, with inclusive, contemporary design and delivery. It struck me that digital delivery is catalysing the widening chasm of UK Home Nations’ education and assessment policies. Few delegates know that digital delivery is done formatively and summatively at scale in the UK. And that’s before we mention all those countries who’ve already made the digital journey.

Digital is widening the assessment chasm between UK Home Nation education policies.

AQA’s Colin Hughes started his session with a carefully worded (hopefully not heavily lawyered) script, ensuring alignment with the dead bat interview given by England’s exam regulator published last week. A few questions followed, where it became clear that AQA want paper-behind-glass digital exams first, and then will consider different (digital) assessment instruments. Food for thought!


I wasn’t expecting answers on funding IT kit and external capacity. But it’s disappointing to hear that AQA won’t be having that dialogue for '3-4 years'. A better strategy is to point out where it currently works now, and seed the ideas to exams officers, heads, and bursars. Rehearse arguments and overcome objections now, not in 2030.

Rehearse arguments and overcome digital exam objections now. Not in 2030.

Regular readers will know that digital school exams in England have been announced in 2004 and 2013. So why is 2024 different? For the first time, I felt a threat emerge.


Populism has corroded regulatory guardianship. If sky-high bills cause poverty, legislation becomes weakened, and practice becomes habitually sub-standard, the faith in Ofgem, Ofwat, Ofsted, and other regulators becomes a shoulder-shrug, with perhaps a flicked V-sign under the desk, unscared of deterrents. Internationalising and growing exam owners appreciate and leverage the regulatory badge, but brand and money is beating regulatory threat in UK 2024.

Populism has corroded regulatory guardianship - brand and money are beating regulatory threat.

The conference made stark to me that spinning the ‘boring guardianship’ line isn’t working for learners, parents, and educators. Sabre-rattling, threats of regulatory imposition, and ‘nothing to see here’ appear desperate. It also wilfully ignores the digital assessment progress outside of England’s state regulated schools. I can’t help but wonder who England’s exam regulator is trying to protect. 


I came to the conference expecting how future school assessment was being shaped. I left it feeling England’s regulator has lost its audience. And its appeal is becoming more selective. Pathways for schools to assess better, with what serves their learners best, guided by Big Education brands, are already in train.


Instead of providing open innovation sandboxes (similar to the ICO), growth support, international benchmarking, and protection of fairness, validity, and reliability, the regulator (aside from its excellent statistical service) may end up being redundant. Vulnerable to a new UK government regulatory reform, similar to the 2010 quango bonfire.


The huge irony of digital exams and assessment now being evolutionary, and public attitudes to rusting regulators being revolutionary, is not lost on me.


The assessment future is being shaped, but cadence, speed, and structure are real issues. All parties want assessment that is inclusive, trustworthy, relevant. They don’t want the ‘not on my watch, do nothing, boring is best’ quasi-paternalistic guardianship. And they’ve got the motivation, funding, and tools to go their own way. Daddy doesn’t always know best.

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