Why insisting on holding IB exams is unfair to students

Students due to sit IB and IGCSE exams have been left in limbo by poor exam board leadership, says David James
19th January 2021, 1:35pm
David James


Why insisting on holding IB exams is unfair to students

Coronavirus: Students Due To Sit International Baccalaureate & Igcse Exams This Year Have Been Left In Limbo, Writes David James

Among the many misconceptions that continue to exist around schools and the Covid-19 pandemic, two of the most persistent are that all schools are shut (they're not), and that all examinations have been cancelled (they haven't). 

Schools continue to cater on site for the children of a widening group of students, including children at risk, and children of key workers. And, although GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled, there are thousands of students across the country who are studying for examinations in international qualifications that, at the time of writing, are scheduled to take place this summer. These include IGCSEs (run by Pearson and Cambridge Assessment) and the International Baccalaureate diploma.

This group of children are often overlooked, and sometimes for purely political reasons. Some on the left characterise them as being (mostly) privileged. For them, this apparent inconsistency - of being allowed to take final examinations - is another example of how the school system further advantages those who have already avoided much of the "learning gap" that their counterparts in the maintained sector have suffered.

Such a view is tendentious: irrespective of their backgrounds (and there are plenty of students taking the IB diploma in state schools in the UK), these students deserve to be treated no differently from their peers. 

International Baccalaureate: A strange sort of privilege

Many would probably say that it is a strange sort of privilege to be kept in an educational limbo, not knowing whether you should revise for examinations that may - or may not - run in the summer. Not knowing, too, whether the qualifications you gain will be seen as equal to the teacher-assessed grades that will be awarded to the overwhelming majority of students

Schools remain closed to most of these students, and some (but not all) will be getting online lessons. Even the most ardent supporters of edtech would probably concede that being taught remotely over a sustained period of time is not ideal preparation for high-stakes examinations. Some subjects, such as art and design, and even certain aspects of science (such as practicals), are severely compromised when taken out of the classroom. 

If the awarding bodies in question were taking a principled stand, stating a commitment to the innate value of examinations over grades awarded by teachers, then their position would be understandable - even admirable. 

But one senses that they are resisting calls from schools for other reasons. There is a lot of money to be gained from examinations (the IB charges £70 per paper), and cancelling them, especially in the highly lucrative markets in Asia and the Americas, could be financially damaging. 

Cambridge Assessment practically admits to this when, on its website, it reminds us that it works "with schools in 160 countries and most of our schools are telling us they want to run exams in June 2021 and expect to be able to do so, in line with guidance from their national and regional authorities". In other words: China's sorted things out, so tough luck, Brits.

Again, to some extent, this is understandable: awarding bodies are, after all, businesses. But their current position is divided: they are clearly aware of their bigger markets, but have only shown fudge and indecision when it comes to the UK. 

Pearson, for example, states that: "At this time, our intention is to run the May/June 2021 series for International GCSE as planned...schools should run exams in line with public health guidance." 

This last get-out clause puts schools in an impossible position: should they run them, and risk contravening public health guidance? Or cancel them, and have to explain to parents why their children could not take papers that were offered elsewhere? 

Exams 2021: A failure of leadership

The IB's position is, in many ways, even more evasive. Its decision about its examinations (which begin in May) is...to delay making a decision. Instead, it wants further consultation with schools to aid its "careful planning" of what to do next. It's almost as if it is somehow lacking enough information about the biggest - and most researched - educational disaster of a lifetime. 

Such hesitation is a failure of leadership, and ignores the organisation's moral responsibility to its students - many of whom are, right now, taking mock examinations and getting offers from universities based on results that, again, may or may not be derived mostly from examinations. 

This is both surprising and avoidable because the IB, unlike most A levels, has a significant amount of coursework in each of its six subjects. This completed work, coupled with teacher-assessed grades, could be used as reliable measures of attainment and expected progress. What the IB cannot afford to do this year is to repeat the mess it made of grading students last year. But, with each misstep, confidence in the IB's ability to serve its schools ebbs away. 

None of these awarding bodies can answer key questions, which schools and students need to see addressed now: what happens if a school, by allowing these examinations to take place, acts as a superspreader for the virus? What happens to the students who have to self-isolate during the examination season? What if schools can't guarantee that they will be able to invigilate these examinations? How can these examinations be taken by students who do not have a reliable internet connection, or who have not accessed remote teaching? 

On and on the questions go, but with no answers, and only prevarication and consultation, driven by financial expediency, appearing on websites and social media. 

It seems inevitable that, once we begin to emerge from this crisis, many schools that have adopted IGCSEs and the IB for sound pedagogical reasons will move away from them, preferring instead to be fully under the Ofqual umbrella should the storms come again. Many will have disliked the inconsistencies that are being forced on them. 

But a denuded, narrowed set of curriculum choices benefits no one. These awarding bodies need to tell schools how they can run these examinations in these conditions: how can they ensure that every student is treated fairly? If they can't answer such a basic question, perhaps they shouldn't be in charge of setting examination papers at all. 

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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