GCSEs 2021: Are we ready for another grading crisis?

Our exam chiefs face a daunting conundrum. But they have been here before, notes William Stewart who asks if lessons have been learned from the past

William Stewart

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Are we ready for another grading crisis?

Some things always seem to come along once a decade or so. It used to be the way with revolutions in youth culture – the 1967 summer of love, punk in 1976 and acid house in 1988. And today it appears to be the same with exam grading crises.   

Every 10 years or so something unaccounted for – the fallout from a big change to the exams system, or maybe an external event – will throw up a set of GCSE or A-level grades that no one was expecting, that many people feel are completely unjust and that suddenly become very big news.

Only education policy nerds will recall full details of these eruptions a few years down the line. Nevertheless, their impact is huge. It is not just their capacity to trigger uncertainty, anxiety and anger among entire cohorts of young people. They also have the power to take down some very significant figures in education – and wider politics – with them.

An exams grading crisis every decade

In 2002, an A-level grading scandal triggered the sacking of the chair of England’s exams regulator, contributed to the resignation of the then education secretary Estelle Morris, and led to thousands of exam regrades.

A decade later came the 2012 GCSE grading controversy. It shared a list of remarkably similar causes and features with its A-level forebear. Both followed the introduction of a new modular set of qualifications with initial grades that collided with a desire to keep final results in line with previous years. The regulator intervened and grade boundaries were adjusted with explosive consequences.

Then, this summer, the latest iteration of the grading crisis came crashing through thanks to Covid, completely steamrollering all precedent as panic set in. It cost England’s chief exam regulator her job and will be seen as a key reason for Gavin Williamson’s demise as education secretary if he is moved on from Sanctuary Buildings in the next cabinet reshuffle as many have predicted.

But now, as our exams chiefs survey the wreckage of the carefully calibrated system that had kept results consistent for years, could things be about to get even worse? Are we about to get a double helping, with England facing its second grading crisis in as many years?

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The signs are not good. The coronavirus disruption that triggered the cancellation of this year’s exams has only increased since then. Worse still has been the completely uneven distribution of this disruption. Mr Williamson is insisting that 2021 GCSE and A level exams go ahead. But how can they possibly be fair in the current circumstances?

There are no good options in this conundrum. And as the time left to work out a solution dwindles, so does schools’ ability to prepare, as does the opportunity to bring people on side so that the eventual “solution” will stick when final results are released.

Perfect conditions for another exams crisis

Instead, perfect conditions are developing for the kind of uproar among teachers, students and school leaders about unjust and unexpected results that triggered the last three great grading storms.

It will be chiefly down to England’s exams regulator to ensure we don’t get a repeat. It may be Mr Williamson who decided exams must take place and who will have had the final say on the long-awaited contingency measures. But it will be Ofqual’s leaders who have to make them work.

The good news is that these leaders have experience of this kind of crisis – they have been here before. Most obviously there is Ofqual’s chair Roger Taylor, who managed to survive the tempestuous summer of 2020 and has been candid about where he thinks things went wrong then.

But the watchdog is also led by two veterans of the 2012 controversy. Eight years ago, Dame Glenys Stacey and Amanda Spielman were Ofqual’s chief regulator and chair respectively, as the watchdog faced what was then its biggest test.

Old hands back at Ofqual

Today, Dame Glenys is back in the same position, having stepped in as Ofqual’s interim chief following the resignation of her successor – Sally Collier – over this summer’s mess. And Ms Spielman, moonlighting from her day job as Ofsted chief inspector, is now also chair of Ofqual’s powerful “recovery committee” put in place to “oversee” the work of the regulator until the end of the year.

So what can we learn from previous crises and what do we know about the record of these two figures from Ofqual’s past that might suggest how they would handle another exam grading controversy in 2021?

The first thing to note is that the pair came through the eruption of 2012 unscathed. This was no mean feat, and the lack of high profile casualties is what sets that year’s grading crisis apart from 2002 and 2020.

Ofqual’s two great survivors would doubtless argue that this was because, as Dame Glenys told Tes afterwards, they had done “the right thing” in 2012.  After all, they were vindicated by the High Court, which rejected a claim from students and schools that a dramatic change to that year’s GCSE English grade boundaries by Ofqual and two exam boards was a "statistical fix" that amounted to an "abuse of power".

Doing 'the right thing' not always enough 

But doing the right thing (and some would still dispute whether that was what happened in 2012) is not always enough, as this year’s events suggest. After all, Ms Collier and Mr Taylor could argue the same point about Ofqual’s actions in the run-up to the summer’s doomed results – there were no good options and they simply implemented the one that the education secretary had asked for.

But it wasn’t just what Ofqual did in 2012 that helped it weather the storm, it was the way it defended its actions. Dame Glenys’ steely and public determination to fight Ofqual’s corner played a huge role in her survival.

In these crises, it is the period after grades are published, when teachers, heads and students start saying that they have been unfairly treated, that tends to determine the fates of the main players. That’s when it becomes a big media story and things can quickly spin out of control.

The technical rights and wrongs can almost cease to matter as the outrage gathers such a momentum that the politics swiftly reaches the “something must be done” stage and the blame game starts. By then of course it may already be too late for any student on the wrong end of the grading.

'Regulators never expect to be popular'

Ms Collier felt conspicuous by her absence from the media as this year’s crisis unfolded. But Dame Glenys seemed to spend the aftermath of the 2012 GCSE results in an almost constant tour of the TV news studios, despite being under huge pressure.

The Ofqual chief was public enemy number one for many heads and teachers in the summer of 2012. And her every media appearance only seemed to fuel their anger. "Regulators never expect to be popular," she told Tes, reflecting on the experience in 2013.

But as we noted at the time, this was more than mere unpopularity. Teachers called for her resignation, described her as "offensive" and said they had lost confidence in Ofqual.

She also got a good going-over in the media, too. One national newspaper accused Ms Stacey of "babbling" "unfathomable jargon" in a "whining, scraping monotone”. She was described as "insensitive" and "stupid" and compared unfavourably to Pontius Pilate.

But Dame Glenys, as her chair at Ofqual would approvingly note, was tough.

Spielman: Polite, sometimes diffident, but determined

And what of that chair – one Amanda Spielman? With recent events in Number 10 still reverberating it is hard not to be reminded of the fact that her entry into national education leadership came in the era when Michael Gove and his adviser, Dominic Cummings, were overseeing the revolution taking place in our schools system.

In many ways, Ms Spielman is nothing like Mr Cummings – or at least the popular image of the man that came to be seen as the current prime minister’s Svengali. The Ofsted chief is polite, approachable and pleasant, sometimes slightly diffident. A bit like Michael Gove in fact, only without the bullishness. But all three do appear to share an approach in their determination to make changes that they believe to be ideologically correct, and in their willingness to drive them through in the face of huge opposition.

Ms Spielman has taken that determination, a stubbornness even, to her role as Ofsted chief inspector. The most obvious example is the introduction of her controversial new curriculum-focused school inspection framework. It is clearly a case of doing what Ms Spielman sees as the right thing – her attempt to bring inspection “back to the substance of young people’s learning”. And she has stuck to her guns with it, facing down fierce resistance from the biggest heads’ union and several influential academy chains

There has been a similarly dogged approach to this term’s Ofsted “visits” from Ms Spielman – with a willingness to send her teams back into schools even after a primary had to close following a visit from an inspector who tested positive for Covid.

So, both Dame Glenys and Ms Spielman have more than demonstrated their capacity to decide on a course of action, defend it and then stick to it when the flak starts flying. That was what got them through 2012 and allowed Ofqual and ministers to preserve their approach to controlling grade inflation.

What about the students?

But whether it helped the students concerned is another issue. The High Court did, after all, find that English GCSE grades in 2012 had been unfair. But because that “unfairness” was judged to have been caused by a pre-determined structure to the qualification rather than Ofqual’s actions that year, the regulator won the day. Its decision to maintain standards across the system, at the expense of some individual students' results, was vindicated.

But Ofqual has been roundly condemned for making exactly the same trade-off this summer. That was what was at the heart of its controversial GCSE and A-level grading algorithm – the need to moderate school-assessed grades so that overall results stayed in line with previous years. And, like in 2012, in some cases, it meant prioritising the big picture over individual students.

But although Ofqual’s decisions might have been similar across the two years, the consequences were very different. While Dame Glenys and Ms Spielman came away victorious in 2012 and went on to take on further positions as high profile public regulators, Sally Collier lost her job.   

So why such contrasting outcomes? One big difference is down to the education secretary of the time. In 2012, Michael Gove managed to somehow to stay above the fray and leave it to Ofqual to stick to and defend its decisions. Westminster politics did not really intervene in what was a battle between the regulator and exam boards on one side and students, schools and local authorities on the other.

Williamson up to his neck in the exams mess

However, this time around, Gavin Williamson is already up to his neck in the exams mess. It was, according to Ofqual, the education secretary who decided that this year’s exams should be cancelled and of course it is Mr Williamson who has now insisted that they must go ahead in 2021.  

As Ofqual works out what can be done to make sure GCSEs and A levels are as fair as possible, Mr Williamson brings a whole new unpredictable dimension to the situation that just wasn’t there in 2012. It was, don’t forget, the education secretary’s last-minute call to allow mock grades to be used this summer that was said by Ofqual to have finally spun events “out of control”, leading directly to the eventual grading U-turn.  

So this time round Ms Spielman and Dame Glenys are unlikely to be left with the room to fight their own battle, and to pursue an unpopular course of action because they believe it is the right thing to do. And as far as having a consistent approach to grading is concerned, there is nothing left to defend. All that was lost in this summer’s U-turn.

The need to win teachers round

But would doggedly riding out any storm really be the best approach today anyway? An uncompromising, determined stance has a flipside that makes one wonder whether it would be appropriate in the current circumstances. Ofqual may have won at the High Court in 2012 but the whole affair was unhelpful as far as relations with teachers were concerned. For some, it left a nasty taste in the mouth, thanks in part to leaked letters that to exam boards that contradicted Ofqual’s original explanation of what happened.  

Now, more than ever, Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE) need teachers with them if whatever is decided for next year’s grades is to survive. Otherwise, the solution will fall apart as soon as the final results are published – just as it did this summer.

Ofqual’s two grading crisis veterans have shown huge strength in sticking to their guns, no matter how unpopular their course of action seems at the time. But thus far, neither have shown a huge ability in education to take people with them and build consensus.

We will find out by summer 2021 if the pair have been able to adapt their approach. But one thing seems to clear already – we cannot afford another fight over next year’s grades. Ofqual needs to bring heads, teachers, students – the whole country – on side, and to start talking to them now. 

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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