The exams shambles: the best of a bad job?

Rescue Our Schools’s David Taylor, a former secondary headteacher, suggests the whole exam system needs rethinking.

Exams and controversy are not uncommon bedfellows in England. Every year brings a degree of cohabitation, most notable in recent times being 2012 when Ofqual’s decision to significantly increase GCSE grade boundaries in English Language caused results to plummet in a large number of schools, particularly those with a high number of students on the old C/D borderline. A judicial review followed.

This year is almost certain to surpass 2012. The recent fall-out from examination results north of the border, and the Scottish government’s belated acceptance of teacher assessments, has rattled Westminster to such an extent that they have created a “triple lock” for students so as to give them  the opportunity, through their schools, to utilise mock results in the hope of bolstering their grades. This quite absurd knee-jerk reaction will exacerbate questions about the fairness of the system and accusations of discrimination against students in disadvantaged communities.

As a start, let us be clear. Examinations, whether they be SATs, GCSEs or A Levels, are not fair even at the best of times. They are fundamentally biased and riddled with inbuilt class and cultural advantages and disadvantages, a fact that is likely to be largely ignored during the inevitable musings about the upcoming debacle.

Ofqual’s response to Covid-19 has exacerbated this unfairness. Asking schools to give a CAG (Centre Assessed Grade) for every student in every GCSE and A Level subject they have studied based on their judgement as to the grades each student would have achieved if they had sat the exams is entirely sensible, particularly as the evidence for these judgements could come from a variety of sources, including classwork and the results in any practice examinations. However, it seems likely that many of these CAGs will be totally ignored by Ofqual.

Some argue that Ofqual’s approach is making the best of a bad job because teachers are not capable of accurately giving grades as they naturally give students the benefit of the doubt. There is nothing wrong with teachers having this attitude, but their optimism is not only born of doing the best for their kids, it is also being driven by a system that – despite the restrictions of comparable outcomes – demands year-on-year improvement to satisfy teacher targets, headteacher targets and school targets, all of which are intrinsically linked with school league tables and Ofsted judgements. Tackle these scourges in the name of “raising standards” and teachers might be more inclined to give an accurate grade.

So, best of a bad job is still a bad job. To remedy it for this year, students could select the best of their grades awarded by their schools or the exam boards. To that you could also now presumably add the results of any mock examinations. Is there really any harm done if this were to happen? Schools could then immediately focus on 2021 and beyond rather than on investing an exorbitant amount of time and money on appeals and possible litigation, when they have significant other pressures associated with planning for a potential full return of students and staff in just over a fortnight.

At a time of coronavirus and associated lockdowns, some are calling for a Plan B in 2021, highlighting the sheer lunacy of nationally assessing students at set times on set days in exam halls throughout May and June. They are right, but will Plan B go far enough? To do so it must eradicate the inbuilt unfairness and social injustice in our examination system, reduce its reliance on terminal examinations and allow all to have the opportunity to show their talents.

This will inevitably mean a shift to an acceptance of a broader definition of what it is to be successful. It will mean greater choice for students regarding the subjects they wish to follow, rather than coercion into those that comprise the EBacc or Progress 8, which remain solely school measures. Crucially, it will also mean a move to more authentic forms of assessment, with portfoilos, presentations and exhibitions sitting alongside practicals and some written examinations.

For this to happen, the government will need to trust teachers and schools. Unfortunately, this seems an increasingly distant prospect. Consequently, it is beyond time that schools, led by their headteachers, say enough is enough. We no longer want to make the best of a bad job.

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