Ever since the government announced that there would be no exams this year, I’ve been worried.
It did not go well last time, and I was not convinced that any lessons had been learned. We were told that further guidance would be forthcoming, and the anxiety began again.
Unlike last year, there will be officially teacher-assessed grades. There will be no algorithm. What will be needed, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications, is “robust evidence”. This announcement, at a late stage in the process from a teacher’s perspective, did nothing to help anxiety around results this year.
Like many schools, my own school does its mocks in January. Last year, when we were working on the rank order, we had that data available. This year, we do not.
GCSEs 2021: What does 'robust evidence' really mean?
This meant that, as a school, we had to seriously consider what “robust” actually meant. To us, it meant work that we could confirm was definitely the students’ own.
One of the easiest ways to do this is, of course, formal, in-person assessment. This left us with what would normally have been the exams at the end of Year 10 and the end of Year 12. As it happens, these were actually taken in September at our school, and many of the students did not perform at their best for a range of reasons – not least that they hadn’t done any handwritten work during lockdown.
We could, of course, theoretically use that as our central data. It is robust. However, the papers have long since been returned to the students. And would it be fair to students who have learned so much and grown so much since then? No. Not at all.
Some schools have made the decision to count work that has been done over lockdown, which is fair enough. There is nothing to say that you can’t.
However, I support my school’s stance that this data isn’t robust enough to count as evidence of our chosen grades for our subjects. The idea of potentially having to justify giving my students a certain grade is intimidating enough – I want to know that I have some unarguable data to fall back on.
As a result of all of these issues, my school is holding a formal assessment period for both GCSE and A level. The students have been consulted over start dates, and how long the period will be to fit everything in.
Teacher-assessed grades: A very tense balancing act
The result is that it starts very soon. I have very few lessons with my exam classes left. It feels like the whole thing is a very tense balancing act, as we try to weigh the pressures on the students against the need to provide unarguable evidence for what they have achieved.
I feel for the students. But I also feel for my colleagues. My own subject has four separate papers and is a core subject. The marking load that will be coming our way is tough, and feels more pressurised than normal mock marking. The stakes are higher, for one thing. The school has done what it can to provide us with time to mark, but it still feels like it is a bit much.
A lot of time has gone into arranging marking and moderation to make it as fair and robust as possible. We need to think at every stage of what would happen if this grade was challenged or appealed.
But, for some reason, this still feels like it’s not enough. How can these exams be robust when some students will have seen some of the questions before, or may even have gone over them with a tutor? How is it fair when different schools are using different methods to come up with their grades?
To be honest, I feel anxious and overwhelmed about what’s coming. It feels much more personal than last year – partly because that’s how it’s been presented, of course.
I have no doubt that every school will have made the best decision for their students based on the data they already had, and I don’t think it helps anyone to publicly judge other schools' plans.
But who will have the advantage: those who have done formal assessments or those who have not? Only time will tell.
I do know that in the coming months schools like mine will be facing a workload mountain, and that doesn’t seem to be being discussed.
The author is an English teacher in East Anglia