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NCFE fined £300k for 2022 T-level exam fiasco

A major exam board has been fined £300,000 for “major failings” in its 2022 health and science T-level exam papers.

In a notice published this morning, exams regulator Ofqual said its “unprecedented” investigation into NCFE found several regulatory breaches that resulted in around 1,200 first-year students’ results being withdrawn and recalculated that year.

Over 700 of those received amended grades.

Ofqual said NCFE failed to develop “valid” question papers for the healthcare, healthcare science, and science T Level exams in 2022 and experienced “additional issues” in 2023 relating to the management of assessment evidence from settings.

NCFE has admitted the breaches and accepted the fine.

The organisation, which is a charity, said it had invested in additional experts and enhanced its staff training, guidance and procedures.

The £300,000 fine, around 0.7 per cent of NCFE’s annual income, comes as its latest accounts revealed the charity had written off over £2.5 million because of low student recruitment on the flagship T-level qualifications.

DfE recently launched a “route-by-route” review of T-level content and assessment to boost recruitment to the flagship qualification following government data confirming “worrying” dropout rates.

However, where T-levels, and the successor Advanced British Standard qualification, now stand in light of Labour’s promise of a “comprehensive post-16 education strategy” remains unclear.

‘Major failings’

NCFE’s exams fiasco began in summer 2022 after large numbers of health and science T-level students complained about receiving lower-than-expected first-year grades. 

Catherine Large

An initial Ofqual investigation found a catalogue of issues including question errors and inadequate mark schemes. The watchdog ruled that students’ grades did not validly measure their performance.

Last year, David Gallagher, chief executive of NCFE, told our sister paper FE Week the awarding body raised issues about the T-levels’ common core science content, designed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’s (IfATE) route panel, and queried the breadth and depth of the technical specification.

Catherine Large, Ofqual’s executive director of vocational and technical qualifications, said the watchdog had been closely monitoring NCFE since the “serious” case in 2022.

“Students must have confidence in their results, whatever qualification they take. To achieve this, we set legally binding standards for all awarding organisations to adhere to.

“NCFE has co-operated throughout the enforcement process and accepts the outcome of our investigation and the fine.”

Large added that it was a “serious case in which we identified major failings in 2022, and NCFE have been closely monitored by Ofqual since. I am pleased that they are committed to making significant improvements.”

NCFE apologises

Gallagher said today: “We have apologised to students, providers, and parents for the issues that occurred with the delivery of the T-level assessments, which led to regulatory action. 

“Since these incidents, we’ve taken a number of measures to ensure these issues do not happen again and so that all our qualifications and assessments going forward are of the highest standard.

“This has included, among other things, enhancing our quality assurance processes, introducing a new risk management system, bringing in additional experts and resources, and enhancing our training, guidance, and procedures. 

“We look forward to working collaboratively with Ofqual on our robust action plan and further strengthening our commitment to quality.”

This is the latest set of regulatory fines imposed on awarding organisations by Ofqual. 

AQA was fined £1.1 million in 2019 for failing to ensure re-marks and moderations were carried out independently. 

A similar issue led to a record-breaking £1.2 million penalty issued to Pearson in 2022.

And earlier this year, City and Guilds was fined £200,000 for errors in some of its exam materials.  

Funds recovered from these fines are passed to the Treasury.

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