The government’s latest announcements in response to the coronavirus crisis have brought some much-needed clarity on the one hand but have raised important questions on the other. It all feels turbulent at the moment, because there are still plenty of details to work out. We know what we are going to do, but not quite how to do it.
There is broad approval for the government’s decision to cancel this season’s exams; it is much better to have the certainty that we now have and there is an opportunity for policy-makers and practitioners to work together to secure the best alternative in the circumstances.
The government’s focus has been, unsurprisingly, on GCSE, AS and A level. Many providers will be thinking of the other important qualifications, notably the applied generals, taken by hundreds of thousands of young people who have completed modules and coursework already.
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Of course, whether general or applied general, there will be no formal assessment this summer, and the fact that students doing BTECs will have done some assessment pieces already is not so different from the fact that other students have prepared and built up to their GCSEs and A levels in other ways. Coursework and modules may be useful evidence of a student’s ability and a useful indicator of potential, but it is not yet certain that either of those will form part of the awarding process this year.
Teacher assessment is an obvious consideration, but how can we establish standardisation? How can we be sure that a teacher in Sunderland is scoring one piece of work in the same way that a teacher in Southampton is scoring a different piece of work? Moderation and sampling by exam boards are possibilities, but what are they sampling and how can they be confident that samples are representative?
Has sampled work been done at home, with all the variations in domestic arrangements and family support coming into play? It may be that we end up with a hybrid form of comparative judgement (Daisy Christodoulou and No More Marking being a good example) and comparable outcomes. Whatever it is, it is likely to be the same for all programmes that involve assessment this summer.
It is not just the absence of exams and the uncertainty about how fair and accurate awards can be made for the current generations of 16- and 18-year-olds that is pre-occupying schools and colleges now. Teachers are thinking about how best to teach Year 11 and Year 13 students, who have, in effect, left and who will feel, with no exams ahead, that they have completed their programmes. The challenges of how to staff this in the face of extensive illness, and how to deliver it in the face of student demotivation, will have to be addressed, but to stop teaching Year 13 now could perhaps be interpreted as having been applying a principle of "teaching to the test".
Teachers and support staff across the country have done a remarkable job, maintaining their focus in a world of uncertainty, and working with young people and their families who are anxious about the outbreak, but also about the high-stakes tests and exams coming their way: Can you get into sixth form? Can you get into the university of your choice? Can you get the apprenticeship that will launch your career? Can you succeed in the job interview?
But teaching is also about engendering a love of learning – learning for learning’s sake. It is not just about offering a return on investment to the Treasury, or meeting performance indicators for regulatory authorities. So, providers will go on teaching final-year students, as long as there are teachers well enough, online platforms robust enough and students engaged enough.
The focus is obviously on this summer, but we also need to be mindful of the longer-term implications: with the loss of teaching time this summer for those who are due to complete their courses next summer, will the examinations need to be tailored to accommodate the learning for students who have had less teaching time?
And what of those students who complete their programmes this summer and are awarded grades based on teacher assessment, comparative judgements, prior attainment, a combination of these or something else altogether? It is not impossible that the number of learners who want to take resits next year will rocket. Can we accommodate them all?
The government has taken the right and only possible decision: cancelling exams. Our shared priority must now be to quickly and carefully work through the implications of this decision to ensure that every student is set on the right path to further study or employment.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association