GCSEs: Warning 'fairer' exams will widen attainment gap

WATCH: Warning that measures to compensate learning loss 'will benefit advantaged GCSE students more'
18th December 2020, 5:00am


GCSEs: Warning 'fairer' exams will widen attainment gap

Covid Gap

Help for next year's exam candidates to compensate for learning loss during the Covid-19 pandemic risks widening the disadvantage gap, heads have warned.

Government measures to help GCSE and A-level candidates include giving them advance notice of topics and allowing them to take formula sheets and vocabulary lists into exam halls.

The changes were announced by the Department for Education and Ofqual in a bid to "boost fairness" in recognition of the "unprecedented disruption" to students' learning.

But in-depth interviews with headteachers have revealed a deep fear that the measures will end up pushing the most disadvantaged students even further behind their peers.

One head said the plans would "advantage the advantaged students more" by not taking into account the uneven spread of Covid disruption. The head said it was "unacceptable" that exam regulator Ofqual had ruled out allowing greater choice on exams papers (optionality), despite a lot of schools saying that would be "a major way" of helping disadvantaged pupils.

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Another head told Tes the measures would not close any disadvantage gaps and "possibly may even widen some", while another repeated calls for exams to be cancelled next year.

The three heads, each from a different region in the country, spoke to Tes for this, the latest in a series of articles about the widening of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates during the Covid-19 pandemic - increasingly recognised as one of the most pressing issues facing the education system.

'We put man on the moon but can't change exams'

Headteacher and national leader in education, Steve Wilson, from Whitely Bay High School, who wrote to exam regulator Ofqual earlier this month calling for exams to be cancelled "unless significant adaptations were made to ensure a level playing field", said he was still "worried" about the measures announced.

He said: "I think the measures so far are very generic so they are advantaging all students - so they have the likelihood to advantage the advantaged students more than the disadvantaged students. And I think that's disadvantage in terms of your normal deprivation but also disadvantage in terms of the disparity between regions in terms of Covid cases.

"It seems from some data I was looking at recently that disadvantaged areas are hit disproportionately more by Covid so they're probably missing more school anyway, so I do worry that the changes so far announced, although they are a step in the right direction, won't address the issue of disparity between regions and won't address the disadvantage gap."

He added: "I still think more choice on the same paper [optionality] would benefit all kids, including disadvantaged kids. I do think that would be a real help, but the excuse of not doing that is [because] it's too difficult a task for the exam boards. And I find it remarkable that we can put people on the moon but we can't change an exam paper to have a bit more choice on it.

"To use that as an excuse - that it would be too difficult to produce the papers - when a lot of headteachers and a lot of schools are saying that would be a major way to improve the chances of all kids including disadvantaged [pupils]…I can't accept that."

Exams 2021 will 'exacerbate' the disadvantage gap

Exams regulator Ofqual has said another measure to help candidates is that teachers could be asked to quantify the amount of learning loss their students have faced, which could be displayed alongside their qualification by way of a traffic light system.

However, headteacher Alan Grey from Sandringham School, St Albans, said exams needed to scrapped again for another year as has happened in Wales and Scotland.

He said: "The gap has definitely widened so the question is, how do we accommodate that in our assessment of pupils next year? Any testing alone is not going to solve the problem. It will exacerbate it.

"So probably the most sensible solution is the one that Wales and Scotland have adopted, which is to use teacher judgement for another year running…I think there is still an opportunity to have a limited set of tests next summer but, in addition, I think it needs to be layered with teacher-assessed grades as well - those combined would give a better outcome."

He added: "The people who know these children best are the teachers. We've said that all along. So really I think the argument is to have part teacher assessment, part exam, and you put the two together. This will give you a better hybrid result than if you do one on its own."

Pupils need teachers to make sense of knowledge

Another headteacher, from the Midlands, who wished to remain anonymous, said disadvantaged pupils would be worse off when it comes to next year's exams.

She said: "Education is not just [about saying] here's some knowledge, hold on to it and learn it and regurgitate it - [because] you actually need a teacher to help you make sense of it and you actually need to be taught it in a proper meaningful way by a grown-up. And therefore if you're not in school, it doesn't matter how good you are with all your online packages - it's just not the same as being in a classroom with a teacher.

"And then you have to consider that some families don't have devices for each child, or any device at all, and they have very intermittent [mobile] data.

"And then some children are primary carers for younger siblings who are off school or self-isolating, or they're carers for parents. Or maybe they come from a home where their parents aren't on their back about doing work all the time - and the gap starts to widen really quickly."

She added: "These measures [for next year's exams] are going to help Year 11s generally, but they're not going to close any disadvantage gaps and it possibly may even widen some."

A spokesperson for Ofqual said the question of providing optionality had been "considered carefully", adding: "Our recent research report on optionality shows that it is extremely challenging for exam boards to develop optional questions that are equivalent in terms of difficulty. And optionality makes it difficult for exam boards to set grade boundaries that are fair to all students. What is more, our research also found that students often make sub-optimal or poor choices, with the less well-prepared students more likely to do this than the better-prepared students. The difference in outcome can then be stark. So, apart from the very real technical difficulties, we see that introducing or increasing optionality might well further disadvantage the groups that it would be intended to help, and introduce new unfairness.

"Our alternative approach is to be generous in summer 2021 awarding and also to allow for advance notice of examination topics and for the provision of materials to support the student in the exam, and other adaptations. Yes, all students stand to benefit from this, in this exceptional year, but we argue those most disadvantaged because of the pandemic are likely to benefit more, overall, than those already well-prepared.

"We are currently consulting on the principles for the adaptations we are proposing and are actively seeking views on the potential impact on students with particular protected characteristics and wider equalities concerns. We will consider all responses to our consultation on reaching final decisions."

He said that differential learning loss was "deeply troubling" and that there was "no easy way to account for it in qualifications and examinations".

The DfE has been contacted for comment. 

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