Will students pay for the lack of a Plan B?

Test and trace is unravelling, a winter of chaos beckons – and it is the students who will suffer, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus schools reopening: The elephant in the room is that students are likely to have their education disrupted to different extents ahead of next year's GCSEs and A levels, says Geoff Barton

This feels like a week of eggs, baskets, elephants and rooms.

The definition of putting all your eggs in one basket, according to the Collins online dictionary, is this: “If someone puts all their eggs in one basket, they put all their effort or resources into doing one thing so that, if it fails, they have no alternatives left.”

For good measure, it adds an unexpected bit of advice: “The key word here is ‘diversify’; don't put all your eggs in one basket.”

It’s a well-known idiom, of course – at least in the real world. But apparently less so in the corridors of Whitehall, when it comes to education policy.

The government’s plan for the full reopening of schools in September was laudable, but the absence of a Plan B in case things went wrong felt reckless. 

Coronavirus: Why was there no Plan B for reopening schools?

It took until the Friday night of a bank holiday weekend just before most schools reopened for the government to issue guidance on different options in the event of local lockdowns: a tiered approach of restrictions depending on the severity of a Covid outbreak

The lateness of this guidance, as school and colleges prepared for the most challenging new term in living memory, caused understandable uproar. 

This lateness should never have happened. Robust contingencies are an essential element of good planning. They should not appear as though they are an afterthought, reluctantly dragged out of a government that regards any hint of a Plan B as an act of heresy.

Already, within the first few weeks of term, we have witnessed the unravelling of the test and trace system, and a level of disruption that may result in so many pupils and teachers self-isolating at any one time that it effectively becomes a form of blended school-home learning by chaotic default

We are not in that situation yet, but we may be as the winter approaches. And suddenly the fallback of reverting to an orderly deployment of blended learning begins to look less like heresy and more like common sense.

Fiddling at the margins of GCSEs and A levels

And now it appears that, in terms of next summer’s GCSEs and A levels, the eggs are being put firmly in the basket of a full series of exams taking place. Ofqual consulted on how exams might be adapted to account for lost learning time, and came up with some changes that it accepts are “quite modest, but we have considered their cumulative impact”.

We said it felt like fiddling at the margins.

Ofqual recognised that there could be further disruption next year, and added that it would continue to “develop contingency measures, exploring different options”. But nothing has yet come to pass.

The nearest we have got was Ofqual chair Roger Taylor telling the Commons Education Select Committee that a contingency option could be “online tests” or additional papers. Then the education secretary made some comments on the topic this week to the same committee.

The secretary of state said that he was conscious of the idea of a reserve set of papers for students who are unable to take an exam at the scheduled time. He suggested the department was planning for possibly having to create extra capacity in schools, and using public buildings for exam centres, if social distancing is needed. 

He said that the government was “actively considering” pushing forward exams to a later date, and that a back-up plan was being considered if it were not possible to run exams in a local area. 

“But I’d like to reassure you that there aren’t any algorithm plans,” he added, reassuringly.

The Covid-positive elephant in the room

These ideas are, I suppose, all well and good in terms of exams. But it brings us to our next timely idiom – namely, the elephant in the room. 

Because here’s a scenario that doesn’t strike me as fanciful. Let’s accept that, between now and the start of exams, whenever that may be, various groups of students will have to self-isolate at different points of time. Some will have their learning heavily disrupted, others less so. Some will contract Covid and be ill. Others will be in homes where they struggle with online access and where conditions are less favourable to remote education. 

And next summer, depending on who is and is not self-isolating, it’s likely that some students will be able to sit all their papers, some sit a few, some sit none.

None of this seems unlikely in the prevailing circumstances. What this means, of course, is that exams will not provide a level playing field for all students, because many of those students will have been disrupted to different extents. 

Now, you may argue that exams represent the fairest possible solution, in the circumstances, but don’t we at least owe it to those young people to look at how we might provide an alternative if they are at a significant disadvantage to their peers?

I have previously suggested that this could be achieved by carrying out assessments in the autumn and spring terms, which could be used as a basis for an awarded grade – a safety net of staged assessments using questions set by awarding organisations. 

This would build some public confidence that lessons have been learned from this summer’s results fiasco.

There would need to be clear criteria, of course, about the circumstances in which this fallback might be used. But it could potentially provide an avenue to prevent very significant injustices to students who have suffered extensive disruption through no fault of their own.

The trouble is that we are running out of time to implement this sort of plan, or any sort of plan. And the mood music is not good. 

If there is any thought about going down this road, then it has certainly not featured in any public utterance from the Department for Education or from Ofqual. It seems the lesson they have taken from this summer’s debacle is that a full summer season of exams, perhaps pushed forward so they take place a few weeks later, is the only answer.

If that is the case, let’s hope they are right. 

Because it won’t be ministers or officials who pay the price for putting all their eggs in one basket. It will be the students whose wretched experience of the Covid crisis will be capped with a set of grades that reflect circumstances entirely outside their control.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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