What is an Awarding Organisation?
If you have ever gone to a mainstream school or college, you will most likely have taken exams along the way. Since the 1850s when test-based education became popular in English schools, exams have been devised and scrutinised by independent boards of experts and, more recently, mandated organisations. A board, or an organisation, that is mandated to set and monitor exams is commonly called an examination board (or exam board).
These days, only certain organisations are responsible for exams such as GCSEs and A/AS levels. Other organisations are approved to design, award and monitor ‘Vocational Qualifications’. Those kinds of qualifications come in all sorts of subjects and sizes but they have certain things in common that make them ‘regulated qualifications.’ Below, we will look at what that means, but first we need to get to know the regulator.
Who regulates the awarding organisation?
Today, it is the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (also called Ofqual) that regulates all awarding organisations in England and the qualifications they provide. Ofqual is a non-ministerial government department that reports directly to Parliament. Ofqual’s purpose is to “[…] maintain standards and confidence in qualifications in England:
- A levels
- AS levels
- vocational qualifications” (2)
So in order to become an awarding organisation, the applicant body has to show that it can meet the official requirements set out by Ofqual. Those requirements are called ‘the general conditions of recognition’ (3) and they describe in detail how qualifications should be designed, delivered, awarded and quality assured on an ongoing basis. They also set out how the organisation needs to be governed and structured.
A body wishing to become an awarding organisation needs to demonstrate to Ofqual that it can meet all the general conditions of recognition. Once approved, Ofqual monitors awarding organisations on an ongoing basis by looking closely at how they manage all the required processes, procedures and policies.
Ofqual regulate over 160 awarding organisations that between them award approximately 13,000 different qualifications. All qualifications that are regulated by Ofqual are listed on a framework called the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF).
Awarding organisations you may have heard of are City and Guilds, Open College Network, AQA, Pearson and OCR. But there are many others. Some of them specialise in particular approaches, subjects or technical skills development, for example: British Wheel of Yoga (specialising in Yoga); Royal Horticultural Society, (specialising in horticulture), Signature (specialising in sign language), or CFI awarding (specialising in – amongst other things – integrative education). There is a ‘Federation of Awarding Bodies’ (FAB), a professional association that offers guidance and advice to over 145 members.
What does an awarding organisation do?
As a student you will rarely have direct contact with the awarding organisation that issues the certificate you receive when you graduate from education or training. But that certificate represents a lot of work behind the scenes.
In order for you to get the certificate, your college or education centre has to be formally approved by the awarding organisation. This means that the awarding organisation needs to make sure that all teachers, leaders and administrative staff are doing the right things when it comes to the teaching and assessment, management and administration of the qualification you want to take. Also, the place of learning needs to be fit for purpose and policies and procedures must be in place to protect you if things go wrong. Only when a centre has been approved by the awarding organisation can it start to offer the qualification to you.
But it doesn’t stop there…
Once you are enrolled and you start taking the qualification, the awarding organisation will start to monitor how things are going, and in particular, how you are being assessed. It is the awarding organisation’s job to make sure that you are assessed appropriately and fairly at all times. The college, or centre, where you are taking the qualification is in ongoing contact with the awarding organisation. Only when the awarding organisation is content that everything is in order will you be issued with a certificate.
If things are not in order at the centre, the awarding organisation has to step in. If an awarding organisation fails to intervene at the right time, Ofqual will get involved and hold the awarding organisation responsible for any wrongdoing at the centre. So it is really important that there is good dialogue between the centre and the awarding organisation. This ensures that learners can rest assured that things are in order – and if things go wrong, they will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately according to Ofqual’s general conditions of recognition.
A lot of the work that an awarding organisation has to do is about communicating well with all the centres that are approved to offer their qualifications. The better that communication is, the better the experience for learners.
Awarding organisations offer qualifications in many different subjects. There are some that just offer one type and some that offer a whole range. On the RQF you will see just how many different subjects there are – and, indeed, how different all the awarding organisations are. But whatever the subject or approach, all awarding organisations have to follow the same rules about how qualifications should be designed, delivered, assessed and monitored.
Awarding organisations design their qualifications with different subject experts and educators. Qualifications are designed to meet a certain educational level. The different levels basically represent what is expected of a learner in order to complete the qualification and graduate successfully. There is a lot to say about levels, but, for now, you can learn more about what the different levels mean here. Levels of a qualification often determine what you can go on to do after you have graduated.
Some qualifications also offer ‘credit’. Credit is like an educational currency that you can bring with you and accumulate as you study throughout your life. Credit represents the volume of a qualification, and sometimes also level of achievement. So when you have an educational level and a certain amount of ‘credit points’, universities or employers can see what you have achieved and how long it took. They can rely on the fact that you were taught particular content and they know what you are qualified to do or ready to study. Essentially, that is what a certificate represents.
Power and influence
When you consider the level of responsibility that awarding organisations have, it is quite interesting that these bodies are so in the background. You don’t see as many adverts telling you about what awarding organisations offer as you see adverts for what colleges or education centres offer. In terms of having an influence on what kind of education and training is available in England, awarding organisations are incredibly influential.
Imagine that you wanted to develop a new discipline, or promote an idea through educating people in how to use your product or method? If you wanted to be sure that the employers and universities recognised your new idea, you would go to an awarding organisation, ask them if you can develop a new regulated qualification with them and apply to become a centre that delivers it. In England this is possible through the system that we currently have.
Some, but not all, awarding organisations will welcome ideas for new qualifications from people like you. If there is a strong case for why the new qualification will serve society and that it answers a real need out there, you may be able to get it regulated through one such awarding organisation.
Marking your own homework
Awarding organisations cannot deliver the qualifications they award. They are there to assure that those who do are qualified and competent educators and trainers. If an awarding organisation were to deliver its own qualification, it would, in effect, be like you marking your own homework. The reason it is good for your homework to be marked by someone else is that you can learn a lot from the feedback that someone else can provide.
When it comes to education centres and colleges, it is the same thing: they improve their practice when they, too, get feedback from people who care about educational standards and who are equally committed to your success as a student. So, all in all, awarding organisations are to your college what your teacher is to you: someone to learn with and someone to learn from.
Is education all about being assessed?
Sometimes it looks and feels like education and training these days is all about being assessed all the time. If you are wondering where all those things that cannot be measured and weighed fit in, that would be understandable. In the education sector, and within the community of awarding organisations, there is some exciting research taking place about assessment and how to find different ways of approaching this within our current system.
There are many experts and educators out there who are asking good questions about what education in the 21st century should be like. One very interesting educator, called Ken Robinson, has a lot to say about exactly this issue. Watch this short video and you will get an idea of what his views are but also about the kinds of conversations that may take place when awarding organisations go back to first principles and research them:
Hopefully, you now have an idea about what an awarding organisation is and what it does. If not, Ofqual’s website is a good source of more information.
You may also be interested to read our article about qualification development.
- http://www.eqavet.eu/qa/gns/glossary/a/awarding-body.aspx and http://www.cedefop.europa.eu/node/11256