Did Gove Implement Comparable Outcomes?

Part of the furor over the English GCSE Fiasco last summer was the use of something called ‘Comparable Outcomes’ – a method through which Ofqual limits grade awarding by requiring that the number of grades given are comparable to the previous year’s cohorts or to exams the current cohort took when younger.

Much was made of the role ‘comparable outcomes’ in the lower-than-expected numbers of students getting English C Grades in August 2012. Gove, however, was adamant that the adoption of comparable outcomes had nothing to do with him. In fact, in an Education Select Committee evidence session about this issue he said:

Q4 Michael Gove: The first thing that I would say is that the comparable outcomes framework was something that was designed and adopted before this Government came to power. It was a previous Government that, under the QCA, as it then was, and then subsequently under the previous leadership of Ofqual, adopted comparable outcomes and outlined how it should work, first of all with respect to A levels and then with GCSEs. So the current team at Ofqual are dealing with tools that were designed by the last Government, rather than tools they have had a chance to fashion themselves.

Except, a recent FOI release from the DfE seems to contradict this fact. In a huge (and very delayed) release of correspondence between the DfE and Ofqual, one of the documents has a ‘comparable outcomes’ timeline and specification box on its last two pages. This is what the box shows:

gcse adoption of comp outcomes

It’s a bit tricky to make out but the fifth column is titled “Decision on use of comparable outcomes”. The decision to use it in new GCSEs in “most subjects”, the “new English suite, maths, ICT” and “New science suite” were all taken on 6th December 2010. After the current government came to power.

Now, I want to make clear – this does not mean Gove is to blame for comparable outcomes. In the 7 months between taking office and this decision it’s entirely probable that Gove didn’t know what was going on at Ofqual. After all, he was busy trying to push free schools and academies as quickly as possible. Secondly, the decision appears to have been made at an Ofqual board meeting on 6th December and it’s not clear how the results of these meetings were being fed back to the DfE if at all. Gove’s ignorance of the matter is therefore plausible, although to argue that the previous government adopted comparable outcomes is perhaps over-stating the fact.

However, before the policy was fully implemented in the 2011 exam season there was a report to Ministers about what was going on (although the date is unknown). Then, the FOI release shows how in the Summer of 2011 there were some issues that foreshadowed what would occur in 2012 – particularly in AQA’s History GCSE. So concerned is the tone in some of the released emails they speak of “letting teachers know” in advance that results are likely to be lower in order to start managing expectations.  It therefore seems likely that Gove knew before Summer 2012 there would be lower grades. And though he didn’t introduce comparable outcomes, given that the policy was only documented (and not even yet fully implemented) at the end of December 2010 was it really impossible before Summer 2011 – or even after it – to stop the policy if one were really against it? Or is it possible that the ‘crisis of confidence’ that one email refers to as a possible consequence of comparable outcomes was, in fact, a great way to push for a new exam system?

The many many FOI releases are here if you want to look for yourself in order to come to a conclusion. For what it’s worth I don’t think there’s any evidence that Gove acted improperly during the GCSE Fiasco, but I do object to him blaming comparable outcomes on the previous administration when its implementation happened under his watch.