Covid has shown us it's vital to push for exam reform

GCSEs and A levels 2021 have shown us how important it is to make the exams system as fair as possible in an unfair world, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Two pencils: one blunt and one sharp

So, after a seeming eternity of government dithering and delay, we finally have an answer about the shape of next year’s GCSE and A-level exams in England. 

That is, in itself, good news, because it brings to an end so much of the uncertainty that has swirled around this issue for far too long, and allows our schools, colleges and students to get on with the job of preparing for next summer with a better idea of the road ahead. 

Hold on to that thought, though, because from here on everything I write is about to become a lot less certain and a lot more debatable. 

Besides there being detail to fill in about how measures such as advance notice of topics and exam aids will actually work in different subjects, there is a much more profound problem. It is this: the government’s plan doesn’t actually address the central issue – the vastly differing extent to which students have been affected by the pandemic.

If student A has not covered a topic in sufficient depth, while student B has done so, advance notice of exam topics may help student A to a certain extent, but it will also help student B. So it won’t level the playing field. It won’t guarantee fairness.

GCSE and A levels 2021: No simple solution

And there’s no simple solution. The government knows this, which is why it has announced a new expert group to look at differential learning experiences to see what more can be done. 

But, in truth, the range of options they have, from where I sit, appears to be limited. Indeed, we have spent the past few months arguing about possibilities in what has sometimes felt like ever-decreasing circles.

Our answer at ASCL was the idea of introducing more optionality into the topics that students could answer in exam papers. That didn’t mean giving students choice over which questions they answered. It was about letting teachers – the people who would best know the level of learning loss in their school – control the final paper placed in front of students. 

It was an idea we discussed with various assessment experts. It would recognise that, in an exceptional year, exceptional measures were needed.

And we were told in no uncertain terms that the concept was flawed. It would be logistically very difficult to design exam papers in a way that could ensure that questions on all those different options carried the same degree of difficulty. It would therefore be impossible to maintain a common standard. 

It would be impossible also to ensure the integrity of the examination process in an education system that places so much store by an examination process.

In other words, in the end, the government and Ofqual made the call that our brand of centre-based optionality was too risky to attempt in the time available. We understand that.

Very little room for manoeuvre

The trouble is that this leaves us – and that expert group – with very little room for manoeuvre. After all, the government has categorically ruled out the only other alternative, which is to use some form of teacher assessment.

The consequence is that we are left in a situation that feels unsatisfactory, but which is probably the only remaining option: that is, the government’s proposals.

In this, the theory goes, the disruption suffered by students is mitigated by more generous grading, advance notice of topics, special considerations, backup papers, and so on. 

While that does not expressly address the problem of differential learning experiences, taken together, it does at least knock some of the harsher edges off the exam process and allows students to focus on what they need to revise. 

In other words, it will make things better, without providing a perfect solution.

Now we need to focus on the remit of this expert group and put all energies in trying to find further ways to address the issue of differential learning experiences, to do all we can to make things as fair as they can be in an unfair world. 

Pushing for exam reform

The announcement that routine Ofsted inspections will not resume in the spring, that performance tables will not be used – both of these will enable teachers and leaders to focus on the only thing that matters. That is: helping every young person from every background to have the best chance possible to demonstrate their potential in their exams next summer.

And then there’s a bigger task.

For the longer term, we have to redouble our efforts to push for reform of the exam system. Because it is a fiction that exams, in normal times, provide a level playing field. They do nothing of the sort. 

Young people from struggling families, without the technology, resources, and private tuition that are available to those from more affluent homes, are always are at a disadvantage. The Covid pandemic has accentuated a problem that is already there. 

What we need is an assessment system that, rather than being predicated on a set of high-stakes terminal exams, has at its heart a more nuanced range of assessment methods, both formal and informal.

And so, instead of instilling a sense of failure, the way we judge our young people should be built upon principles that bestow a sense of achievement, helping these citizens of the future to see that a grade doesn’t define who they are. 

As one 16-year-old who got a GCSE grade 3 in English said to me last year: “I am more than that grade tells you.” 

Quite. 

Next year’s imperfect exam solutions are a stepping stone. Beyond 2021, we need to work towards creating a shared dignity of achievement.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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