Throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks

by Robin Head

December 3, 2020

Writing on the day that England’s Secretary of State for Education announced special arrangements for GCSEs and A Levels in 2021, New Visions Group Membership Secretary Robin Head challenges him on whether he has real understanding of what is at stake.

Given the debacle England currently has regarding how we approach GCSE and A Level qualifications, one is left wondering, does the DfE really understand what evaluating educational understanding, learning and attainment actually means ? The ever-decreasing circle with which the Government, ably assisted by Ofqual, appears to be disappearing into, seems less logical with every pronouncement.

The most recent announcements that exam papers might be marked “more generously” seems utterly ridiculous and nonsensical. Taking “aids” into exams too makes very little sense. What “aids” will be deemed appropriate?  Will different “aids” or more generous marking be allowed in some cities and not others? Will Cornish and Isle of Wight exam papers be marked more harshly than the rest of the country as they are currently only Tier 1? How will that be “fair”? Quite frankly, it’s a mess which I feel can only be addressed by the cancellation of exams in 2021.

Ever since September the elephant in the room has been, “How are 2021 qualifications going to be fairly assessed?” There were several responses at that time which alluded to different measures being considered, all of which were appropriate, however….and it’s a big however, Covid was never going away in the short term. Year 11 and 13 students had already lost huge swathes of time in the classroom, further isolation of pupils in both these year groups as bubbles were sent home was inevitable, certain parts of the country were always going to be affected more than others and areas of the country with the highest amount of disadvantaged families were always going to be hit hardest.

In my humble opinion, shared by many including those who publicly couldn’t but privately did, the only fair measure from the beginning of September was to cancel examinations in the summer of 2021 and move to “centre assessed grades” as moderated nationally to ensure the best chance of “fairness” across the board. Doing it then would have given ample opportunity for the DfE and Ofqual with the vast expertise of the profession behind them to work hand in hand in coming up with solutions to any structural encumbrance which might prove to be a barrier to the concept of “fairness”. Students, staff and parents would have known from the off where they stood and what was being asked of them in assessed output for each term with timetables and updates so that everyone knew the parameters. Never before has student progress been so closely monitored and “known” by teachers so this wouldn’t have been a problem.

The two issues held up by teachers as potential problems in this scenario were a) extra workload and b) a mass of appeals as per last year. However, as a counter to this, the latter should be of little issue as the parents will have been made aware of grades in an ongoing fashion as they are awarded and moderated throughout the academic year. The appeals window would only therefore need to be small, so reducing the chances of the situation becoming overloaded. In regard to extra workload, a proper consulted upon and negotiated policy of what work is required and when would reduce this. Work is being assessed all year round in any case and what would be required are milestone points at which data and sample work could be put forward and collected.

Of course we have now missed a whole term of making proper decisions which would have led to confidence for students, professionals and parents in how they were to be assessed, however I do not believe it is too late and that with a concerted effort from stakeholders, such as education organisations, trade unions and pressure groups, a renewed vision for summer 2021 qualification outcomes as described above can be introduced to ensure that fairness, as far as can be prescribed, prevails.

I’m sure not everyone might agree with my thoughts, however I think we can all agree that better outcomes and opportunities for our Year 11s and 13s next summer needs to be on offer as an alternative to the current DfE mud being slung at the wall to see what sticks. The build up to the festive season needs to be a space where this is addressed.