A pandemic that has seen schools shut for months, exams cancelled for two years running and has consigned the majority of university students to a distance-learning model, was always going to wreak havoc with children and young people’s lives. However, time and again the government has, through a mixture of incompetence, carelessness and a desire to pass the buck, made things worse.
So it was with last summer’s examinations fiasco. The cancellation of all exams resulted in pupils enduring weeks of uncertainty as the government insisted on using a crude algorithm to adjust teacher assessments to reduce any grade inflation, then dropped this when all the problems – about which government had been warned – came to fruition. This created significant problems for universities, with some over-subscribed and others under-subscribed as a product of the resulting grade inflation. And it may yet have long-term impacts on the class of 2020 as employers regard their GCSE and A-level results as less reliable.
The government has had months longer to prepare for the cancellation of this summer’s exams and one might have expected last year’s experience to motivate Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, to publish a backup plan for consultation last autumn. Instead, Williamson clung to the unrealistic hope that schools might be able to stay open for the whole academic year. As a result, the government has only just published proposals for what will replace exams this summer, leaving little time for scrutiny and improvement. In trying to escape any accountability for student complaints about grades, Williamson has loaded far too much on to schools and teachers in interpreting how to allocate grades fairly. This creates a system that risks being just as dysfunctional as last year’s.
The government was right to cancel exams, as difficult as that is for young people. This cohort has missed so much school since March 2020 – with varying amounts of learning loss depending on where pupils live and their social background – that it would have been very difficult for any system to be fair. Moving to teacher-based assessment for another year means schools can take into account how much of the syllabus young people have been taught.
However, the government’s chosen route has given conflicting and unclear messages to teachers on assessing grades. On the one hand, schools have been told they should award grades based on the standard at which a student is performing, not at their potential standard without pandemic-related learning losses. This could be interpreted in different ways by different schools. On the other hand, the government has created the expectation that the grade distribution in 2021 should look similar to that of 2020, where there was significant grade inflation. These are contradictory signals.
In an ambiguous system with high uncertainty and little consistency, schools will feel as if they need to ensure their own students are not disadvantaged. In one sweep, the government has therefore created a system that risks more, not less, grade inflation than in 2020. This is damaging to the whole cohort of young people, because it undermines the value of their qualifications if they are seen to present an inaccurate, potentially inflated picture of their skills and knowledge. Little wonder that the Education Policy Institute’s overall assessment is that “the risks of an unsatisfactory outcome appear to be uncomfortably high”.
This system – whereby inconsistency is baked in through unclear guidance to schools – has been created as a result of Williamson wanting to wash his hands of any responsibility for taking a national view of how grades should be awarded; instead he is just pushing this on to teachers. In trying to avoid anything resembling an algorithm, he has abandoned any proper notion of moderation or standardisation of grades. Yet, in normal years, the exam system relies on such a formula: each spring, a representative sample of pupils sit national reference tests that the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) uses to judge the overall performance and determine the distribution of grades. This ensures that any improvement or worsening of grades comes as a result of genuine differences between the cohort sitting exams and those that came before.
The government has had enough time to implement a modified version of this system to help guide schools. Or, for example, there could have been compulsory but discrete assessments from exam boards to measure young people on parts of the syllabus they had actually learned in school, which could be used by teachers as an anchor around which to produce their assessed grades. Instead, students now face a double injustice: the lost learning due to school closures, and the lost chance to certify their progress for universities and employers in a fair and meaningful way.
There was no flawless system to replace exams that could have been deployed this summer given the protracted school closures but Williamson has decided to put minimising any political risk to himself – by giving unhelpfully vague guidance to schools and leaving it up to them – ahead of ensuring that we treat a cohort of young people whose education and wellbeing has suffered hugely during the pandemic as fairly as possible. Perhaps it was too much to expect anything different from an education secretary who, at every opportunity in this pandemic, has put off making difficult decisions to the detriment of children.
Yet again, he is letting down the nation’s youth.