I was talking last week to the head of a large sixth form. At the end of what had evidently been a fraught day, his conversation was strewn with expletives.
The topic: how students’ grades this year could be arrived at in the absence of exams, how they could be quality assured, how they could be made as fair between candidates as possible.
He’s read all the guidance. But he said he was getting criticised on numerous fronts – by teachers, by subject leaders, by students and their parents, all of whom had different expectations about what the summer’s results might bring, and what they were entitled to.
He said he’d finished the working day by clearing his inbox. It contained this email from one of England’s awarding bodies: “The cancellation of exams in summer 2020 means we have a number of unused packs of question papers left in stock which may be of use to you.
“In the interests of both sustainability, as well as saving you time printing your own copies, we’re making these papers available to all centres.”
And then it listed the charges, which started at £40, with a further cost per individual exam paper.
GCSE and A-level grades 2021: It's teachers who are doing the hard yards
This head of sixth form’s language to me was rather fruitier than I can use here. But, in essence, he said this: “So, our teachers are doing the work. Our senior leaders are doing the quality assurance. We’re taking all the flak, both now and no doubt in the summer. And now the exam boards want to charge us for the privilege of using and marking questions they’d already written.”
In summary, I think it’s fair to say that the awarding organisations aren’t winning many friends among school and college leaders right now.
The logic behind this surreal state of affairs is, of course, that the exam boards will incur some costs for activities like providing assessment materials, overseeing a quality-assurance process, and administering appeals. And they have their regular staff to pay. We understand that.
But, frankly, it is difficult to know at this stage how much any of this will cost, with the rationale for fees set as though it was business as usual. Something similar happened last year, resulting in rebates of between 23 per cent and 26 per cent.
But last year was last year, and this year is different. Because, this year, it’s teachers and leaders in schools and colleges who are doing the heavy lifting.
So things don’t feel at all fair to these staff who are engaged in a monumental effort to assess students for GCSEs, A levels and other qualifications, while invoices thud on the doormat from organisations that aren’t doing any of this work.
It was bad enough last year when teachers had to provide grades and rankings, and then feed them into that Ofqual algorithm, which proved to be so fundamentally flawed.
This year’s even weightier expectation is that schools and colleges will be carrying out a whole raft of assessments on which to base teacher-assessed grades. And the reason the timescale is so compressed and the workload so intense is because the government spent much of the past year insisting that exams would take place and not preparing a ready-to-go contingency plan, despite so many polite and constructive alternative suggestions.
Thus the irritation felt in schools and colleges about being charged by exam boards is understandable, to say the least.
A huge tranche of work heading in our direction
And it’s not as if the job is yet done. We still don’t know how the appeals system will work this year. Teachers and leaders certainly fear that there is another huge tranche of work heading in their direction, which will need to be carried out in the summer holidays.
To add insult to injury, the Department for Education has recently confirmed that, while it will pay exam boards for their role in the appeals process, schools and colleges will have to absorb the costs of appeals at their end themselves.
This isn’t trivial. Exam fees are considerable. To see just how considerable, it may be illuminating to read Ofqual’s qualifications price index, which shows how costs have been giddily rising beyond the consumer price index over recent years.
The average GCSE in 2020 cost £42.02 and the average A level was £101.44. How this mounts up across a secondary school with a sixth form will obviously vary according to the number of students. But one leader I spoke to put the total figure at around £160,000 for her school.
And that’s before we get to the DfE’s unwanted announcement that an exam series will take place in the autumn for students who are dissatisfied with their teacher-assessed grades.
There’s no particular logic to this. The summer exams were cancelled because it was felt students will have had such different learning experiences during the pandemic that it would be impossible for there to be a level playing field.
This situation won’t have changed by the autumn. The playing field still won’t be level. Plus schools and colleges will be full with next year’s cohorts, and will therefore have to find the time, resources and – critically – the space to facilitate a full suite of examinations.
There’s also, as far as I can see, no mention of who will pay for these exam fees, and thus another potential cost lurks around the corner.
All of this is very unsatisfactory, and reinforces the feeling that schools and colleges have been well and truly dumped on – handed all the work and all the costs. Once again, to many education leaders and their staff, it feels like they are still picking up the pieces, much as they have done throughout the pandemic.
What would help? Well, the exam boards must get a move on with announcing the rebate, and it must be significant. And the government should step in and explain how it is going to recompense teachers and leaders for all this extra work (rather than its squalid pay freeze).
All of which would go some way towards making schools and colleges feel like they are being supported in a task that nobody has ever been asked to carry out before.
Which, in turn, might just help to ensure that the spring air is slightly less strewn with expletives.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders