The head of England’s largest school exams board has used a Tes interview to warn that it will be impossible for next year’s GCSEs and A levels to resolve the unfairness of the pandemic.
The call for realism comes from Colin Hughes, chief executive of AQA, as it works with Ofqual and the other exam boards to draw up a plan that the government can agree by the end of the month.
Mr Hughes has revealed his views on a list of "contingency options available" to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on candidates in next year’s exams, which ministers have insisted will go ahead despite Covid disruption.
But he said: “None of them solve the whole problem. The problem as it goes is not completely solvable.
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“And we mustn’t have that sort of fantasy that we can just sweep away the extraordinary impact this pandemic has had.”
His sobering message comes as education leaders and politicians step up their calls for the measures that they believe can make next GCSEs and A levels work.
Regional grading for GCSEs and A levels?
On Friday Tes revealed that Labour wants a regional grading system to make results fair for students in the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
The idea has also been backed by a leading academy chain. But Mr Hughes has made his reservations clear and is warning that there is a danger that such measures will only introduce new unfairness.
“There are lots of things we can do,” Mr Hughes told Tes. “But one of the things that is often troubling when you’re sitting in my seat is the degree to which people imagine that you can twist exams to solve unfairnesses that happen somewhere else.
“And that is simply not the case, that’s not what exams do – exams measure something, you can’t make somebody taller by changing the ruler."
'Tricks and wheezes' risk new unfairness
He added: “One of the things that we strive very hard to do is to get across to people, ‘Look, yes, we can do these things to mitigate impacts but what you can’t do is reshape exams.'
“Because every time you do that – and people often come up with quite appealing suggestions – you risk creating a new unfairness.
“And it’s very much our duty to make sure that doesn’t happen, come up with tricks and wheezes that make things unfair in a totally new direction, and that’s very easy to do.”
His comments came as the pressure increased for exams to be scrapped altogether; this time from the independent sector.
More calls to scrap exams
The president of the Girls' Schools Association said yesterday that GCSE exams should be replaced by school-based assessments next year.
And Lord Baker, the former Conservative education secretary who introduced GCSEs, has repeated his call for next year's exams to be abandoned.
But Mr Hughes cautioned against the idea that replacing exams with teacher assessment was a solution.
Doubts on teacher assessment option
"At the moment, there is this option for teacher-marked mocks," he said.
"I think that is an option but there are lots of difficulties with it in terms of the time of schools, the pressure on students."
And he has major doubts over the Welsh government's decision to switch to teacher assessment for 2021.
"It's not obvious to me that that’s going to be any better a system," Mr Hughes said.
"I don’t think it’s going to be any less onerous for the students. It’s going to very likely be more onerous for the teachers.
"Is it going to end up with a better set of grades or an equivalent set of grades at the end? I think that’s massively open to question."
He added: "A very high proportion of students say, ‘I just want to do my exams and get the grades I deserve, please.'
Scrapping exams 'could mean grades are questioned'
"If you were to cancel GCSEs then that’s a whole group of students whose qualification is then potentially questioned because it’s not the same as the qualifications of those that went before them or those who come after them.
"So do we go down that road? We should think very very carefully before we start taking measures like that."
Discussing "contingency options", like greater optionality he said, "you’ve got to be really careful about some of these things that look good".
But he described others such as spring mocks and reserve papers as "doable".
"Do I think we’re going to be able to do two or three of these things? he said. "Yes, I do, it’s a certainty, we will do what we can.
"What is going on at the moment is very deep, very detailed consideration of all of these options and then we will have to work out which ones of them we can actually run together, and that we are all agreed on, which is pretty critical.
'We can do something – but it won't answer everything'
"Will we do something to help students and teachers get through? Heavens, yes. Will it answer everything? I don’t believe that’s actually possible – we will do the best we can.
"We have a duty to be fair. This is the big lesson from 2020 – we’ve got to be individually fair.
"What we think might be grand for the system, might not necessarily work for all the individuals in it, and that is, in my view, what we should be focusing on."
An Ofqual spokesperson said: "We are continuing to discuss contingency options for all likely scenarios with school and college leaders, and other stakeholders.
"We will provide advice to the government before it determines and confirms contingency arrangements for 2021 with the sector this month.
"We are also considering ways in which we can make the prospect of exams a little less daunting for students as we recognise they will have missed out on some teaching and learning, and know this varies by individual, school, college and region of the country.
"More about our approach is set out in this letter from acting chief regulator Glenys Stacey to education secretary Gavin Williamson."