Melanie McDonagh

Why is Ofqual trying to dumb down English exams?

Why is Ofqual trying to dumb down English exams?
(Photo: iStock)
Text settings

If you wanted a good working example of the concept of dumbing down in practice, look no further than Ofqual, the exams regulatory board, the one that covered itself in ignominy when it oversaw the exam algorithm fiasco during lockdown.

Its latest idea is to get exam boards for English to replace ‘complex’ language elements, such as idiom, sarcasm and metaphor, with simpler alternatives in some assessments to make the tests more accessible for pupils. The temptation at this point to respond with sarcasm, irony, idiom and metaphor – not at all nice ones either – is almost irresistible, but let’s not go there. How, in any language, but particularly one with the nuances and complexity of English, you can function without recourse to irony, sarcasm and metaphor, is beyond me. Presumably on Amazon rating sites they can do without any of these things, but for normal communication between sarcastic, ironic, idiomatic human beings, it’s not, I’d say, possible. And unless examination candidates in English can get their heads round the language as it is used, it’s hard to see what good the tests are.

It’s actually terrifying, the extent to which the body responsible for monitoring public exam boards is itself rubbish. Quis custodiet etc etc. The regulator had a bad pandemic – under its previous head, Sally Collier, it presided over the calamity of exam cancellations followed by significant grade inflation, as schools merrily marked their own papers, to the great advantage of their candidates. Miss Collier was a career civil servant who previously specialised in public procurement; quite what her qualifications for this really important job were escaped me at the time.

At least Jo Saxton, the brand new head, as of last month, has actual educational experience; she has been an adviser to the Department for Education on the regulation of schools during the pandemic. We should, however, note that her doctorate was from New York.

And we should perhaps have been warned by her statement when she was appointed to the position (annual salary north of £150,000): ‘I believe in the power of education to transform life chances, which is why I’m so passionate about qualifications. As chief regulator, pupils and students will be at the heart of every decision we make at Ofqual: their best interests will be my compass.’

(Compass? Metaphor!) As for a passion for qualifications… it’s always a bad sign when anyone says they have a passion for anything in the context of a job interview.

These changes towards treating English as a functional language rather than an expressive one are intended to benefit pupils who are in any way marginalised, including those with other first languages or who are deaf, blind or autistic. Well, I once worked for a blind man – Peter Utley at the Telegraph – whose language was as idiomatic, sarcastic and ironic as you like; I’m not sure Ofqual is doing people with disabilities any favours by intimating that they’re not up to the nuances of normal speech.

It also wants to remove elements in the exam system whereby some students are ‘unfairly disadvantaged by irrelevant features’. It also wants to make assessments ‘accessible, clear and plain’. Well, no one would argue with clarity. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of complexity in language.

Ofqual also recommends avoiding figurative language in tests – ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ is one example best avoided, apparently. I have never, myself, heard anyone use that expression but my loss… I rather like it; better than the coarse equivalent that I’m more familiar with. The point is, English as it was once spoken, and in many respects still is spoken, is expressive and nuanced. If you’re learning it at all, you’re learning to speak and write it as a human being, not as an automaton. Therefore, after the basics of grammar, the tools of expressive speech are what you should learn. Ofqual warns some students could take these figurative expressions literally… really? Raining household pets?

These recommendations are up for consultation. And it would be good if someone, somehow, could intimate to Ofqual and its dreadful head how rubbish all this sounds. But more worryingly, it makes you wonder just how people with damaging ideas of this kind can be appointed to positions of influence.

Ofqual regulates the exam boards which determine who gets what grades in what subjects. It also regulates the content of those exams. It matters. So how come so many duds get appointed to lead it? The answer lies in government, in particular with the Secretary of State for Education, until lately, Gavin Williamson. And who appointed Gavin Williamson? Quite so.