GCSE: 'DfE mustn't forget its pledge to trust teachers'

Government has dumped GCSE and A-level assessment on overburdened teachers – you deserve our thanks, says Alison Peacock

Alison Peacock

GCSEs and A levels 2021: 'The DfE can't forget its pledge to trust teachers,' says Dame Alison Peacock

This year, we have heard a lot from the government about what is supposedly fair and unfair for teachers and students. 

In January, it was decided that it was “not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead as normal”. There was much trumpeting of “trust in teachers”, with a new approach being deemed “the fairest system possible” by education secretary Gavin Williamson. A way to avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco, hopefully. 

However, it is becoming clear that the decision taken by the prime minister risks having devastating consequences. The rhetoric of trusting teachers was welcomed by many colleagues – instinctively, as a profession, this is what we seek. Teachers are the experts: listen to them. 

The reality of the assessment process this year, however, is very different – and is a long way from being fair.

GCSEs and A levels 2021: The burden of responsibility on teachers

Teachers and school leaders are working incredibly hard in our secondary schools, alternative provision, special schools and further education colleges to gather sufficient evidence to bolster teacher-assessed grades. Social media is full of stories of teachers’ in-trays piling ever higher, as they collate this work. 

Meanwhile, parents and wider society look on with varying degrees of dissatisfaction, as they witness relentless in-house tests that are at least as gruelling as external examinations, if not more so.

This is punishing not only for our young people, who are desperate to prove their worth, but also for our teaching profession, burdened with the huge responsibility of judging attainment for cohorts of young people who have experienced variable capacity to study and learn over the past two years.

While the process is far from ideal, it is the breakneck chaotic speed of introduction, coupled with a paucity of guidance from exam boards, Ofqual and the Department for Education that is causing so much anguish. Is this really fair? Is this really the best option? 

I am not usually a cynic. I like to believe in the best of others. I know that we need to be flexible when there is so much that is unpredictable about the pandemic.

That being said, this approach to dumping the qualifications process to centres of assessment at the last minute feels like a deliberate and cynical strategy. A strategy that will enable those involved – both teachers and politicians – to look back on the 2021 exam season and vow to never again hand over the process to teachers. 

Going above what is expected

This is not the fault of our teachers. They are not superhuman. They are family, friends and colleagues working harder than ever to not only assess but also mark and grade the outputs of their students. 

This is not the fault of our school and college leaders. They are doing all they can with impossible timescales, to satisfy the demands of Ofqual trickling out. 

This is the fault of a government that backed away from the fiasco of grades in 2020 and handed all responsibility – with the added baggage of blame – to teachers. 

Teachers want the very best for their students. It is a matter of professional pride when our students achieve highly. Consequently, this year, where evidence is scant, teachers have sought to produce it. This has not only placed pressure on the very young people our government is wringing its hands about, but also risks burnout and disillusionment among our workforce. Is that really the “fairest system possible”?

The profession is strongest when it works together. When this is over, I hope we can share with each other any processes or steps we took that worked, and helped to manage these challenges. Many across our profession are emboldened to seek alternative ways of building a future assessment process that is fairer, more equitable and encourages a broader view of “success”. 

I urge teachers to join this debate. Nobody wants a repeat of the exhausting process currently being undertaken. But, equally, returning to pre-pandemic assessment is far from a perfect solution, either. 

Know that the full weight of the profession is behind you. We will not let the government forget its pledge to trust teachers. Whatever happens, they must not be allowed to duck those comments, and they must stand with the profession. 

You have done what has been asked. You are going above what is expected. You deserve our thanks. 

Dame Alison Peacock is chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching

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