GCSEs 2021: Pretending it's all OK won't help anyone

It feels like we are hurtling towards another A level and GCSE disaster, says William Stewart. But in 2021 the stakes are even higher

William Stewart

GCSEs 2021: Hiding the horrible truth won't help anyone

“The problem as it goes is not completely solvable. And we mustn’t have that sort of fantasy that we can just sweep away the extraordinary impact this pandemic has had.”

That may have been a grim admission of what is ahead for England’s exams system and everyone with a stake in them.

But the comments made by Colin Hughes in his Tes interview this week were also hugely refreshing. The chief executive of AQA, the largest GCSE and A-level exam board, did not bother trying to sugar-coat the intractable problem that he and his colleagues are facing.

Instead he laid out “the issue”: “Can we deliver the exams in a way that works for schools, works for students? And is there anything we can do to ameliorate the impact on obviously a sizeable proportion of students whose learning and teaching have been disrupted? That’s the question.”

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Then he went through the possible options for dealing with it, one by one, spelling out their pros and cons. And crucially, Mr Hughes also admitted that none of them solve the whole problem”.

A mess that can't be fixed 

In other words, this is a mess that can’t be fixed. I am sure the AQA chief would be anxious to point out that he is not is saying there is a problem with GCSEs and A levels themselves – this is not a Ratners moment.

But he is saying that the exams system won’t be able to resolve all the disruption and unfairness created by the differing amounts of learning time lost to the coronavirus.

And in the public’s mind, those two points have come to mean the same thing. People think that exams, or whatever is put in their place, ought to be able to provide a just solution for the class of 2021.

And that is why Colin Hughes’ comments are so welcome. Because when he points that when GCSEs and A levels won’t and can’t solve everything next year, he is highlighting a truth that, thus far, no one in the exams sector has been publicly prepared to admit.

His open and on-the-record warning comes in contrast to the anonymous briefings, near silence from the Department for Education and unconvincing optimism from Ofqual that have otherwise filled the void while we wait for more details about next summer’s exams.

On 12 October, Ofqual’s interim chief regulator welcomed the government’s announcement that GCSEs and A levels would go ahead in 2021, but three weeks later than usual. Dame Glenys Stacey said it had provided teachers and students with “some welcome certainty in these uncertain times”.

Delay to GCSEs and A levels won't be enough

But in truth, there is still no real certainty because everyone knows that that those extra three weeks will be nowhere near enough. Heads and teachers know it, students know it, MPs know it and Ofqual knows it. That’s why the regulator is still working with exam boards, the DfE and “the sector” to draw up contingency plans “taking into account the risk of disruption at an individual, local and regional level”.

But that disruption is not really a “risk” – it is nailed on. It happened last term and it’s happening right now. Latest figures show nearly two-thirds of secondaries have students off because of Covid, and in England’s coronavirus hotspot city more than a quarter of pupils are absent.

And so the need for the contingency plans grows ever more urgent. On 13 October, Dame Glenys said there was not much longer to wait”. That was more than a month ago. The longer this is left, the longer the official near-radio silence continues, the worse it is going to get.

It was a lack of communication and openness that created so many of the problems with this year’s A levels and GCSEs. The train crash that was the summer’s grading fiasco could be seem speeding towards disaster miles down the track. But all the time, Ofqual said nothing.

Ofqual 'buried its head in the sand'

As MPs have said, the "unfairnesses" of the fiasco could have been avoided had the exams watchdog "not buried its head in the sand".

"Ofqual conclude that what they had been asked to do was in fact an impossible task,” noted Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee. “Yet when the chief regulator came before us in June, she did not use the opportunity to raise any alarm bells with us, choosing not to do so publicly at all."

Now it looks uncomfortably like a repeat performance. There may be a new chief regulator, but it feels like we are hurtling towards another disaster and Ofqual is still keeping its counsel. Beyond a suggestion that more generous grades might be needed, there has been nothing since mid-October.

Why does this matter? Because whatever is eventually decided on will need to have buy-in from everyone concerned if it is going to work. Ofqual took a deliberate decision not to consult the public on this year’s grading algorithm – and the results were disastrous.

As Mr Halfon has said: “Ofqual were clearly aware that there would be problems for high-achieving students in historically low-attaining schools but believed the number would be statistically small and could be addressed through an appeals process.

"It was revealing to us that they recognised this problem but simply accepted that they could not find a solution to it and chose to carry on.”

Ignoring problems won't make them go away

The issue is that ignoring inherent problems with whatever you have come up with will not make them go away. They will instead emerge roaring into the sunlight at the worst possible moment, as final results are published.

The penny will then drop with teachers, students and the general public and outrage and chaos will ensue, at the exact time that candidates need certainty.

For 2021, the stakes are even higher. The Covid disruption has been longer, more unequal, and the system has already been distorted by this year’s unmoderated school-assessed grades.

Some are already suggesting solutions such as regional grading. But as Mr Hughes has pointed out, while this may seem "attractive on the surface", it could be very difficult to implement in practice.

You can't 'twist exams to solve unfairness'

And the fact that it is being suggested at all is indicative of a wider problem: “People imagine that you can twist exams to solve unfairnesses that happen somewhere else and that is simply not the case,” Mr Hughes warns. “That’s not what exams do – exams measure something, you can’t make somebody taller by changing the ruler.”

As he says, whatever contingency plans finally emerge for 2021, they cannot “solve the whole problem”. So, it is no good just presenting them as a fait accompli and expecting everyone to get on with it.

They need to be aired in public so that alternatives can be debated, people know what is coming and accept that whatever is finally decided on may not be perfect but is the best possible option. There needs to be as much buy-in as possible.

Schools need certainty now

Anyone who thinks there is still plenty of time left to achieve that is wrong. Summer exams may seem a long way off – but in terms of this cohort’s already slashed A-level and GCSE teaching time, they’re really not. Schools need certainty now.

And the horrible truth is that it may not be great news. How can exams possibly be fair when candidates have had such different levels of Covid disruption?

But regional grading may only lead to more unfairness. More “optionality” could just disadvantage less able students, and would anyone dare turn to teacher-assessed grades or an algorithm again after this year’s mess?

There are no easy options and there may be no happy, just, ending. But the sooner that Ofqual, the exam boards and the government get that out into the open, the better for all concerned.

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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