GCSEs: 'Teachers left driving an out-of-control car'

Teachers are expected to do the job of exam boards and the regulator - it's a ticking time bomb, says Kevin Stannard

Kevin Stannard

GCSEs and A levels 2021: In delivering teacher-assessed grades, teachers have been left at the wheel of an out-of-control-car, says Kevin Stannard

Teachers return to school for the summer term facing an acute moral hazard. For the second year running, they are expected to go beyond their brief and deliver summary judgement on their students, this time through teacher-assessed grades. 

Except that, last year, grades were submitted in the belief that they would be subject to national standardisation, and that the final decision would be made by the exam boards. This year, the judgements will be left to teachers and schools. There will be no national standardisation, and the system will rest on trust – in the professional behaviour of teachers.

The education secretary says that teachers can be trusted. Yes, yes – but trusted to do what? Trusted to withstand undue pressure? Trusted to invent from scratch a new method of determining grades in the absence of exams? Trusted to arrive at a grade distribution that is comparable with other schools’, the decisions of which they have no way of controlling? 

Trusted, in effect, to do the jobs of the exam boards and the regulator. Is that trust or travesty?

GCSE 2021: Teachers left in an impossible position

Teachers will try to be objective and fair. And, on the margins, they may understandably be generous in their assessments. But the lines they draw won’t be acceptable to everyone, and they may be subject to direct or indirect pressure. 

They will be anticipating that their decisions may draw them into appeals and complaints. Each school will be aware that their decisions will be used to compare them with neighbouring schools. This amounts to a moral hazard.

The Department for Education, Ofqual, the Joint Council for Qualifications and the exam boards have stepped smartly away from what looks increasingly like a time bomb. Schools are expected not only to administer the grading process, but to have to write their own quality-assurance policies, and then document exactly how they implemented them. 

There will be no external standardisation of grades – but rest assured that the school and its staff will bear the brunt of a messy appeals process extending well into the summer holidays.

One sliver of light was afforded by the possibility of setting rigorous assessments using exam-board materials in controlled conditions in the summer, given that most students would be likely to be back in school. There were grounds for hoping that this would at least guarantee some standardisation and fairness. 

Exam boards were tasked with providing additional assessment materials for use in this way. The decision to make them publicly available was rightly seen as a car crash, and hastily revised. But now that the materials have been released to schools, we find that they consist almost entirely of past papers. 

No external checks – and no protection

Teachers and schools are in the driving seat of what looks like a runaway car. There is still no agreement on the desired destination. What is the standard that we are being asked to use for students in summer 2021? 

The JCQ says that grades should be comparable to those observed in previous years when exams were held under normal conditions – so 2017-19. Yet the secretary of state assured us numerous times that this year’s students would not be disadvantaged compared with last summer’s cohort – and grades were inflated overall last year. Indeed, before Christmas, in a letter to DfE, Ofqual recommended that the standard should be that of 2020, adjusted to remove unevenness between subjects and schools.

The latest U-turn is no doubt a result of worries about "Weimar Republic" levels of grade inflation this year. The hope is that teachers will look to pre-Covid results and try to stick to these, but, understandably, will make more lenient judgements on the margins.

Simon Lebus, Ofqual's chief regulator, has said out loud that this would be a perfectly reasonable outcome of the exercise of teachers’ professional judgement, and not something that can be questioned by exam boards.

The end result may well turn out OK, and roughly in line with the more generous grading of last year. But this would be at system level. The risk remains that there will be significant unevenness between schools, and thus considerable unfairness at individual level. 

How is this a better outcome than one that gave a bigger role to exam boards, and made use of algorithms? Both solutions aim at system-level, aggregate outcomes that look like other years. In other words, roughly the right number of students get a particular grade. But neither solution can guarantee equitable individual outcomes – or promise that the right students will get those grades.

With exams cancelled, with the exam boards’ additional assessment material so old it might as well all be in Latin, and with no provision for external standardisation, there is simply no adequate external check – or protection for teachers. 

The authorities are being honest and realistic in admitting some degree of inflation this year. They have been less up-front about admitting to their failure to insure against unfairness.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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