GCSE grading: ‘Government should be utterly ashamed’

Exam grades didn’t need to come at the expense of teachers’ wellbeing – that was the government’s choice, says Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

GCSE 2021 grades: Exhausted woman, flopped asleep on sofa

Today, Friday 18 June, is grade-submission deadline day for millions of GCSE, A level, Applied General and other qualifications. 

These grades come after a significant amount of hard work from students and educators, and the National Education Union would like to acknowledge and recognise the incredible efforts the profession has gone to in supporting this year’s grading system.

Now begins the process of exam board-led external quality assurance, which will see every school and college across the country having samples of the evidence they used – and the grades they submitted – checked and approved by exam boards. Only when the boards are satisfied will grades then be awarded to students.

With all these checks and balances in the process, and the ultimate confirmation from the exam boards that they approve the grades they award to students in August, students across the country can be reassured that their grades will fairly reflect what they know.

GCSE 2021: Unacceptable levels of workload for teachers

Unfortunately, though, the efforts necessary to make this happen have caused great stress and many extra hours for already stretched students and educators. Our own research shows that educators, who already work in excess of the working time regulations of 48 hours per week, have averaged an additional 12 hours per week just for marking assessments in lieu of formal exams. 

A total of 94 per cent have seen no mitigation in their usual workload to accommodate this. That is why we have called on Gavin Williamson to offer teachers a one-off payment of £500 for their extra work relating to qualification grading.

This situation was totally avoidable, and occurred because government failed to prepare a contingency plan for grading early enough in the academic year. From last summer, the NEU and other unions were calling for a Plan B for 2021, in case exams could not take place. 

In October, we wrote to the government highlighting options they could take. The profession was ignored and, instead, given an evidently rusty “cast-iron” guarantee that there wouldn’t be a need for a Plan B.

But, even though the grading process was arrived upon far too late in the day, it did not need to mean unacceptable levels of workload for educators. Had adequate resourcing been made available to free up education staff so that they could take on marking and grading work within their directed or contracted time, we could have reached the same outcome today without damaging educators’ wellbeing or further eating into their personal lives. 

Dropped in an ocean of workload and uncertainty

Instead, not only was planning for and information about the final process far too late, but the government has offered no such funding or resources. A whole new process – with additional tasks that need to be completed – and nothing provided to free up educators so that they could actually do it.

This speaks also to the government's failure to heed the advice of Sir Kevan Collins, instead cutting corners on education recovery, with a fraction of the money that was needed. The profession can perceive this narrative all too easily: a government addicted to short-term headlines on education, matched by an inability to appreciate what is required for the long-term to enable every school and college to fully support every student. It smacks of a total lack of vision.

Marking, grading, and internal and external quality assurance are still not the end of it. Appeals – guidance for which was only released last week – is another part of the process that leaders and teachers have been waiting for detail on, and that they will now have to prepare for with very little time left in the academic year. 

Furthermore, the dates and deadlines set for appeals by the government put unacceptable pressure on education staff to work through the summer holidays, outside their contractually agreed term dates.

While the method for grading we have arrived at was the best option available once exams were cancelled, preparation for it should have come far, far sooner. This would have saved the last-minute rush and unacceptable workload faced by students and educators alike. 

Educators have once again been left picking up the pieces after Gavin Williamson and the government created the mess. This doesn’t come without consequences and the profession is weary from it.

The government should be utterly ashamed with the way it has handled grading in 2021. They say that this year’s process places trust in teachers: it has done more than that – it has dropped them into an ocean of workload and uncertainty without a lifejacket, and with the sharks of appeals and blame circling

Educators should be heavily praised, thanked and acknowledged for the work they have done – but it should not have, and did not need to come at the expense of their wellbeing and their personal lives. That outcome was the government’s choice.

Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. He tweets as @cyclingkev

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Kevin Courtney

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