I’ve taken some pleasure in watching Ofqual squirm in the glare of public accountability.  Like most arms-length bodies their primary role is to protect the Government and in particular the Ministers. In return they have the full protection of the state and can act with impunity. So unaccustomed are they to media scrutiny, no senior member of Ofqual has publicly defended their position since the A level results were released. They are an organisation in chaos, releasing an appeals procedure (no doubt flawed) only to remove it again hours later. This statement from a student threatening Ofqual with legal action, sums it up.

Parfitt-Ford …… described the now suspended appeals process as “ridiculous and insane”, but said he was glad it was being reviewed following a late-night decision by Ofqual on Saturday just hours after it published its criteria for appeals based on mock exam results. theguardian.com/education 16.8.20

The truth is that Ofqual has been failing students since its launch on 1st April (no kidding) 2008. It exists to ‘maintain public confidence’ and is known as the ‘exam watchdog’. This particular watchdog maintains confidence by covering up any defects in the examination system and watches the backs of educational institutions allowing them to act with impunity against individual students. Ofqual get away with it because there is no mechanism to hold them to account. The sheer numbers of affected students and onslaught of negative media attention has caught them on the hop. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when they made that late Saturday night decision not to push their luck further.

I have a particular interest in Ofqual as this was the body I appealed to following suspect marking at a higher education institution. I know first-hand that their appeal process favours the institutions and their investigations don’t actually run as far as reviewing any evidence. But that’s fine because what are you going to do about it? You can ask for an internal review where a colleague rubber stamps the first decision or you can complain the the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) as I did.

It’s not easy to find an instance where PHSO has actually upheld a complaint against Ofqual or for that matter even investigated a complaint. This table from 2018/19 is typical. Although the number of complaints made against Ofqual appears to be small (7) you need to bear in mind that over 90% of all complaints made to PHSO are rejected prior to assessment and not considered to be complaints at all.

The PHSO’s latest annual report boasts that it has increased the rate at which it closes enquiries before they can be registered as complaints (from 92 percent in 2017-2018 to 96 percent in 2019-2020). Bruce Newsome 8.8.20 published in ‘thecritic’

It can be seen that apart from letting Ofqual off the hook the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman only upheld 0.6% of all parliamentary complaints which managed to pass through their assessment filter. No danger here for public bodies who fail the public. At least not unless they are failed simultaneously in large numbers, as in the A level algorithm fiasco 

Below is an account of one parent’s struggle to have her complaint fairly investigated by both Ofqual and PHSO. No doubt her experience has been repeated many times, certainly it mirrors my own. It comes from the book ‘What’s the point of the Ombudsman?’  and clearly shows how all the agencies collude together to defend against individual complaints.


K. Scott

I first contacted the Parliamentary health Service Ombudsman on 29th May 2018, this was following advice from my MP. I had spent since 2015 exhausting a farcical complaints process in regards to a grievance with my son’s former Academy School. There had been serious failings to my son’s education, wellbeing and breaches to policies by the school between 2012-2017, this included Safeguarding, Data breaches, and significantly suspected malpractice in regards to the GCSEs in summer of 2017. All these issues were reported to the ESFA, OFSTED, OFQUAL, NCTL, OCR, AQA, Local Authority and ICO. I had exhausted these government and public bodies and yet nobody took robust action against the academy school for failings and misconduct so I had no choice but to turn to the PHSO for help.

The PHSO told me that they could NOT look into my case as a whole, and I would have to separate each department into separate complaints. This was totally ridiculous because that would mean I would need to send in nearly 4 separate cases. They even stated to me they had  ‘ NO REMIT ‘to investigate the Academy school , so I had no choice but to water down my son’s complex case into 2 separate cases.

Case 1) was complaint against OFQUAL letter dated 29th May 2018.  I was complaining that OFQUAL had dismissed my son’s case from 30th Nov 2017 to the 2nd May 2018  OFQUAL complaints procedure stated that they could look into potential or actual malpractice by someone involved with an exam or assessment. I had reported a number of my son’s teachers for exactly this, because we strongly believed some of his GCSE coursework had been marked with prejudice or sabotaged, this contributed to him failing over half his GCSEs. However, OFQUAL quickly tried to dismiss me by stating that they had ‘no remit ‘to investigate the Academy school, which was in contradiction to their own complaints procedure. Instead they referred me back to the exam boards OCR and AQA.

On the 28th Nov 2017 I was contacted by AQA who promised an investigation into these matters (Geography / Business studies / English Oral. However, to this day I have never received an outcome to that investigation.

AQA stated in a SAR request dated 18/1/2019 that based on JCQs 13.2 suspected Malpractice, the investigation is confidential between the individual involved and the awarding body. Clearly by this statement my son has been denied answers to the investigation and this is just farcical, and outrageous !!

In regards to OCR I have seen no clear evidence that they had investigated the academy for not complying with reviews of marking so in turn I believe OCR failed to comply with their own complaints procedure. From the evidence I have, OCR gave misleading answers in their response in July 2018 when asked why they haven’t remarked/reviewed my son’s GCSE Science coursework they stated to me this was not possible because a review of marking had not been requested. This was not true because a sample had been sent to them in Sept 2017 by the Academy (have evidence in writing). There was another twist because my son’s GCSE coursework was not included in that sample sent back to OCR, even though I had requested this in writing to the school on the (5th sept 2017), furthermore the School had led me to believe (in writing 13th Sept / 22nd Sept 2017) that my son’s science coursework was part of the sample remarked/moderated externally by OCR. On the 15th Nov 2017 in a SAR request OCR confirmed that they had never seen my son’s science coursework, because he was not included in the sample for moderation or review.

OFQUAL stated to me in their response dated 9th march 2018 that they “could not compel OCR to remark the affected candidates work nor did they find any breaches to their conditions”.  (OFQUAL) from the letter dated 29th May 2018 the PHSO responded to me on the 14th June 2018 stating they were awaiting a case officer to look at my case. They contacted me again on the 7th September 2018 stating that after reviewing all the available information we have decided to NOT consider your complaint further.

I was shocked and upset at this decision by the PHSO and I felt totally let down so I wrote back to them and asked for a review of our case on the 17th Sept 2018. I did not hear anything back from the PHSO regarding a request for review against OFQUAL until May 7th 2019 this is approximately  8months later. In this response the 2nd case officer dismissed my request for a further review stating “we have considered the information you have given us and ultimately we do not believe this meets our review criteria”. They went on to state that they understood my complaint but they had found OFQUAL considered my complaint appropriately they also stated significantly “we were satisfied and remain satisfied that OFQUAL did investigate what they were able to within their remit. Additionally, as OFQUAL did not identify any issues with OCR’s moderation process they were unable to tell OCR to remark your son’s work.”  The case officer finished the letter by stating that therefore we will not be taking further action and that marks the end of their entire complaints procedure. So it took for complaint (1) a total of 12months and 2 case officers to dismiss my complaint without  a review .

In regards to complaint (1) against (OFQUAL) I have on the 24th OCT 2019 written back to the PHSO and asked them to reconsider my case because it has been brought back to my attention through the press that indeed OCR were reprimanded and AQA were fined for non-compliance of exam regulations in regards to reviews of marking and moderation in the summer of 2017 and 2018, this clearly contradicts not only the PHSO response to me but also OFQUAL and OCR. To this date I have received NO RESPONSE to my letter from the PHSO regarding the latest evidence.

In regards to complaint (2) against the ESFA (letter dated 29th July 2018) , the PHSO responded back to me and referred me back to the ESFA stating I needed to complete a further 3 stage complaints process at the ESFA, so they were not ready for my case yet, I wrote back again to the PHSO on the 7th Jan 2019 after completing yet another farcical process whereby the ESFA ignored the evidence presented to them and went as far as giving misleading answers in their responses. They did however partly uphold my complaint but failed to fully admit to their own failings.

The PHSO did not respond to me till I received a phone call from a case officer in (May 2019), sadly at that time my late father was terminally ill so they closed my case and suggested I took it up with them again when I was ready.

I did contact the PHSO again in (September 2019) I received an email from a case officer on the (28th Oct 2019) outlining a summary of my case that has been put forward but is still ongoing.  There are at least 12 bullet points against the ESFA  , but I will try to summarise this in short :

    • Incorrectly closed my case in (2017)
    • incorrectly stated that I had not followed the academy’s complaints procedure
    • misconstrued LORD AGNEWs remarks in his letter dated (23rd May 2018 )
    • failed to review my case because if they had then they would have seen that the academy had NOT followed their own policies or procedures
    • failed to sign post me to the ESFA own 3 stage complaints procedure
    • failed to evidence their own learning and actions against the academy school
    • failed to demonstrate any accountability or regulation of the Academy
    • failed to investigate the new evidence regarding the panel hearing held at the Academy on 18th June 2018.

In regards to complaint (2) (ESFA) I am still awaiting a case officer to see if they are going to investigate this part of my complaint, but already I am sceptical whether my son’s case is going to be transparently investigated if at all.  I believe The Academy School, regulators and exam boards mentioned in our case, have let us down considerably and failed my son. All I have ever asked for is accountability and an apology to the failings mentioned and evidence that they have learnt from this case, changed procedures so this never happens to another family.

I believe that the service I have received from the PHSO in regards to complaint (1) (OFQUAL) has been biased, not helpful in bringing about a resolution to my son’s case .

I would also say that I do not fully understand what the remit of the PHSO is because I do not feel that it is fully explained. 

LORD AGNEW PARLIAMENTARY UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR SCHOOLS, suggested in his response letter dated the (23rd May 2018 to my MP) that I could take my complaint to the PHSO for their review, however on the 1st OCT 2018 (letter) the PHSO confirmed that they had no remit to investigate the Academy School, so why was I advised to take my complaint there in the first instance?

In fact, in pursuing my son’s case, it became evident that the regulators or public bodies that I had complained to, had no clear remit or no remit at all to investigate the Academy School. This has resulted in the Academy being only answerable to themselves and still unaccountable. Would I recommend the PHSO to anyone I am afraid I would have to say no. Don’t waste nearly 2 years of your time and energy.

If the heat on Ofqual fails to die down there will be a reshuffle and a rebranding to restore public confidence.  I’m really hoping that some of the threatened legal action will go ahead and we can really lift the lid on this organisation, but I dare say the government will wave the white flag well before any dirt can be aired in the courtroom. In the meantime, the students from public schools managed to snap up the limited number of place available at the top universities despite the U turn which put re-graded students on deferred waiting lists. So every cloud and all that.