Is it time to reboot our entire exams system?

Covid has made many teachers reconsider the fundamental purpose of education. Can it really be measured by Ofsted grades and league tables, asks Stephen Tierney
13th October 2020, 4:14pm
Stephen Tierney


Is it time to reboot our entire exams system?
Finger Pressing Down On Large 'restart' Button

The worldwide pause caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is our generation's Great Pause. 

School leaders, who have worked tirelessly throughout 2020, may be forgiven for not having noticed much of a pause in their lives. 

However, the past six months has been so profoundly discontinuous that many are reconsidering the fundamental purpose behind their school. They are seeking a higher purpose, which cannot and will not ever be measured by performance tables or Ofsted grades.

After a decade of increased fragmentation across the education system, the reforming of local relationships between schools and with their communities has seen schools become key social centres. This has involved safeguarding vulnerable children and young people during lockdown, meeting pupils' learning and emotional needs, as well as providing food parcels and support for struggling families. 

Greater meaning and purpose

For many school leaders and their staff, this has given their professional lives greater meaning and purpose: the relatedness that comes from connecting, interacting and caring for others. It has challenged the immature, competitive, self-serving systems we existed in. 

This calling to be more than we were has started to cement a more cohesive local education system. It may now be possible to use this greater cohesiveness and sense of purpose to seek greater reform across the system.

Without fundamental changes to the accountability system - which was totally paused for six months and not missed - there is a danger the system will regress or other key reforms will not be realised. 

The current high-stakes and cliff-edged inspection process fails to assess important aspects of education. It is too variable. And it has validity issues, with Ofsted grades conflating 'outstanding' with large numbers of affluent pupils, and 'inadequate' with schools serving the poorest and most disadvantaged communities. It can lead to wrong behaviours, with too many school leaders and teachers shunning schools with more disadvantaged intakes and, alongside performance tables, contributing to the off-rolling of our most vulnerable pupils.

The challenge is to reframe our thinking towards the creation of a holistic, improvement-focused system with a journey perspective - with all schools seeking continuously to improve - rather than the destination focus of an Ofsted grade. This requires greater responsibility and bottom-line accountability, which encourages collaboration and ethical behaviours aimed at raising the bar. 

Serving too many masters

Instead of the problematic Year 6 Sats, a large representative sample of pupils across primary schools could sit the equivalent of key stage 2 Sats each year, to allow inferences to be drawn about changes in standards over time, and to allow the impact of various system-wide initiatives to be evaluated. Individual primary schools may choose to use the assessments to monitor changes in standards, or to evaluate their own improvement journey at an institutional level. 

Following the debacle with GCSEs in summer 2020, it is time to question the whole reason for national examinations at 16, now that pupils are required to remain in education or training until the age of 18. 

The fundamental problem is that GCSEs are currently trying to serve too many masters: they act as the gatekeepers to Level 3 post-16 programmes; they are used within the accountability system; they are part of the evidence universities use when deciding who to offer places to; they provide pupils with a graded record of their academic attainment. 

By far and away the most compelling reason to retain an examination system at 16 is the first of these reasons. However, rather than a summative certificate, young people now require a passport and signpost to the most appropriate option, post-16.

Key to our thinking about potential changes is whether, with a renewed focus on passports and signposts, there is any need to retain the current 10 grades (grades 1-9 plus the U grade). Alongside this, there is a need to reduce the content-heavy GCSE syllabuses. This would allow teachers to focus on teaching core factual, conceptual and procedural skills in a carefully constructed, vertically integrated subject curriculum, and for pupils to focus on fully learning it. 

Three levels of assessment

I'd propose moving assessments to one of three levels. 

At a foundation level, the awarding of the certificate could be largely or exclusively based on teacher assessment, with light-touch moderation via an internal chartered assessor or a short synoptic online assessment. This would be a stage, rather than an age-awarded qualification. 

A mastery level would require a focused curriculum and a clear national standardisation process. The absence of the latter was the major flaw in this summer's examination process. This could include a number of externally set and marked controlled-assessment pieces throughout a course or examinations taken at the point of readiness, or a visiting moderator to determine whether the standard has been met or not.

There is a bottom line - a standard to be met - not a ceiling on the numbers who would achieve or aspire to this level. At an excellence level, the examination system may most closely resemble the current system, with synoptic terminal written assessments. 

Pre-Covid, the talk was of an intelligent accountability system. Now, we need to aspire for so much more. We need a system imbued with wisdom, which places all children, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, at the centre of all reforms. School leaders need to commit heart, mind and soul to this end. 

Stephen Tierney is chair of the Headteachers Roundtable, author of Educating with Purpose, and a course tutor on the National College of Education's Leadership Programmes. He is a keynote speaker at Schools North East's Summit 2020, 14-15 October 2020. The theme of Summit 2020 is 'Back to the Future', looking at short-term reform, as well as long-term recovery

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