Time to challenge tradition

by Sir Alasdair Macdonald

September 25, 2020

After the public examinations chaos of 2020, New Visions Group Chair, Sir Alasdair Macdonald, calls for a clear plan for 2021 based on a system of centre assessed grading and given to schools now, in 2020, before the October half term break.

There are many important issues in our assessment system that need addressing but our 2021 exam cohorts are the urgent priority. It is difficult if not impossible to see any way in which exam-based assessment next summer can be fair or equitable. We know that our Pupil Premium pupils and other vulnerable groups have fallen further behind during lockdown and with the inevitable temporary closures and resultant education on-line over the coming months the ‘gap’ can only widen even further. Year 11 and 13 cohorts are already being sent home.

We also know that our teachers will do everything that they can to support their pupils but this could lead to an inordinate amount of catch-up lessons and other strategies on Saturdays, holidays etc. This will almost certainly impact on the well-being of both pupils and staff.

Schools need to know before half-term in October 2020 what they are working towards. This may sound unrealistic given the speed at which the DfE and OFQUAL are working but headteachers and their staff must know as soon as possible what they are preparing their pupils for. In terms of covering the curriculum content the autumn term is crucial and confirmation not arriving until say November or December would put an inordinate degree of pressure on exam cohorts.

If we are to achieve any degree of fairness for vulnerable pupils, many of whom have had very negative experiences over the last 6 months, any exam-based model, be it pushing the exams back by a few weeks or reducing the content will inevitably favour those who are privately educated, those from middle class backgrounds and those with more articulate parents. It seems very wrong that this pandemic should add another layer of disadvantage. Given sufficient time to prepare could we not develop a better system of centre assessed grades ? Last summer centre assessed grades were used at very short notice and although there were issues the world of sixth forms, colleges and universities has not imploded.

Next summer could be much better if we prioritised quickly the need to plan and implement a system of centre assessed grading that involved testing (possibly using externally written materials), ‘mock exams’, coursework and other forms of assessment. There would  be an opportunity to implement moderation of school grades and this could be school to school but led by the exam boards.  A working party could quite quickly create a methodology that would at the very least be as reliable as reverting to the traditional GCSE approach and would certainly be more equitable. The normal Government methods and timescales  will just not work in the current crisis. We need to challenge the traditional modus operandi. For example  a group of examiners, leaders and teachers could be identified. They could be taken off all other work for a period of time, isolated and asked to come up with a model.

As already noted this is urgent and Years 11 and 13 deserve this level of prioritisation. We know that any proposal would have flaws but we desperately need a ‘solution’ that is as fair as we can make it, and we need to avoid a repetition of last summer’s confusion. An improved model based on centre assessed grades would lack the benefit of the trials or pilots that would be required to create a really robust system but we should not, falling back on a cliche, let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good. Such an approach would also challenge and reject the view that our teachers cannot assess their pupils fairly. We need to build the trust in the profession that has been constantly eroded by our punitive model of accountability. The moderation process could play an important part in this.

There are many groups and individuals who are questioning whether high status public exams at 16 are still needed. Is GCSE past its sell-by date? Is studying only  3 A levels from age 16 too narrow a curriculum for the 21st century? As  Laura McInerney recently stated in The Guardian – “The problem is not the pandemic. It is that we have constructed a system where a set of tests, taken over a couple of weeks, are the gateway to many of life’s chances”.  There may well be a strong case for a review of our assessment system including the possibility of a Baccalaureate or Diploma model but right now the main issue is overwhelmingly fairness for our current vulnerable pupils in their exam years.