They’re usually the ones setting the questions. But the exam boards and regulators are facing an incredibly tough query of their own right now: how to fairly and accurately assess the knowledge of a cohort of young people who have had three months of disrupted learning unexpectedly thrust upon them in their penultimate year of school.
And, what’s more, how do you mitigate the fact that some will have been learning the entire way through lockdown, while others will not have accessed the curriculum since it began?
In a letter to school leaders earlier this month, Ofqual chief Sally Collier was not forthcoming with answers. Instead, she explained that the regulator was “planning to publish for consultation, before the end of term, our proposals for next year”, adding that it would “confirm our decisions as soon as possible to allow time for you to prepare”.
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Social media is, naturally, awash with opinions on the right (and wrong) approaches to take. A repeat of this year’s teacher assessment has already been ruled out, to the disappointment of some who had hoped to be free from the exams for a year.
Earlier this week, education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs that the Department for Education was consulting with Ofqual to move exams from May to July.
But with only a month left of term, they’re up against the clock.
And so are the nation’s heads of department, who now find themselves trying to get ready for a full return in September, but with no confirmation on what awaits their Year 11 students the following summer.
So, how are they preparing?
Plans for GCSE classes
At Valentines High School in Redbridge, the English team is holding off on making firm plans until the picture becomes clearer, explains deputy head of department, Aqsa Malik.
“Our school has tried to be really honest about the fact that we just don’t know,” she says. “It might seem productive if we were doing lots of planning now, but ultimately we have no idea what the picture will be like when the students come back.
“It’s not necessarily a good use of time to come up with something really detailed, so for now we’re working towards having a skeleton plan in place.”
Shereen Selim, head of department at the school, explains that this will mean a different approach to the start of term in September, where the focus will be on “being as responsive as possible when we know what we’re working with, so we can change and adapt with the new information we get at the time”.
How will GCSE assessment work?
But this raises the question of how schools can begin working out where their students are at after five months away. Those who would have already been at risk of summer learning loss are in greater danger of backsliding than ever, and many will have been struggling with less-than-ideal home situations, not to mention the trauma of the pandemic.
For Genevieve Bent, coordinator of science at Harris Invictus Academy in Croydon, jumping straight into assessment on return is not the way to go.
“I don't think we're going to be formally assessing students when they come back,” she says. “We know there's going to be quite a disparity between our students. We have some who have engaged with lessons from the beginning of the closures and some who haven't done anything, so assessing them right away is not going to be very useful.”
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Instead, she adds, the November mock exams will go ahead as planned, with teachers using formative assessment and end-of-unit tests in the meantime to work out where gaps are and address them.
Down in Guernsey, all year groups have been back in school since early June. The island has been declared Covid-free (the first part of the British Isles to do so) and life is slowly returning to normal.
But at independent school The Ladies' College, head of science Karen Marshall is also steering clear of potentially stressful tests for students as they settle back into school life.
“We’ve abandoned our end-of-year assessments for the sake of wellbeing,” she explains. “We’ve had students who were fine and engaged throughout, while others found lockdown really difficult. We never told anyone off for not accessing the work.”
The department did set online assignments for students over the lockdown period, she continues, but found the results were out of line of expectations.
“The achievement was very high on some of these tests,” she explains. “Because, with the best will in the world, we know they can look up the answers. We had some very high marks, and some that were terrible because those students weren’t coping.
“So we’re going to be wary of the lockdown data and wait to get face-to-face assessment data to confirm what we’ve got. We’ve got data up until March and we will have data from September and we’re happy with that.”
Year 11 lesson content and resources
Malik says her school has found a similarly patchy pattern in terms of engagement from students, which means the department is working from a position of “not taking anything for granted” when planning for next year.
“When we know what the exam will be like, we will make time to go over everything again,” she says. “So any students who could have been disadvantaged by this period – and there are lots of them – are not.”
Naveen Rizvi is a maths curriculum adviser for the United Learning academy chain and is currently working on GCSE resources, which will be used across the chain next year.
“We’re not changing our focus at all,” she explains. “We’ll have the resources ready, either to be used at home or in school. They are designed in a way that a teacher can pick them up and work from them, and a child can pick them up and learn from them.
“We’re just focusing on producing curriculum content, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel for September. The quality of what we make is our focus; we spend a lot of time crafting our resources to stand the test of time, pandemic or no pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Bent is drawing up a new teaching timetable, designed to account for the fact that “students may have done nothing since school closed”.
They will all be starting from the same point, she explains, but she’s anticipating more movement than usual between sets as “those who have engaged will obviously be able to move through the content faster”.
“We don't want them getting frustrated or losing engagement halfway through the year – that would be a nightmare,” she says.
She’s also making plans for those students who may have already been struggling and could now be considerably behind: a programme of small-group and/or one-to-one teaching, plus out-of-class interventions are being scheduled to help them catch up.
She’s also changing the overall shape of the teaching year, moving the consolidation period closer to Easter.
“It does look quite different,” she says. “We would have originally finished the teaching for the combined science students around February, but that's going to be extended to April now.
“It's going to be quite jam-packed, and interventions after school and before school are going to be really, really important.”
The GCSE exam delay debate
For Karen Marshall and her team, it’s a very different picture. Guernsey’s quicker return to school, plus the way that now-cancelled practical lessons were timetabled to take place, means that her department isn’t just up to date on the content, but actually a little ahead of where they had planned to be at this point.
But, she says, this raises the question of fairness and parity across the country.
“We do feel that we would be ready for GCSEs next year,” she says. “There’s the possibility that they will cut down the curriculum, but I’d have mixed feelings about that, because we will have taught the whole course. I don’t see how they could make it fair.
“And whatever happens, the other issue is the view that the general population could have, thinking that these GCSEs might not be worth as much as ones from the year before.”
Clearly, there are no easy answers to the question of how best to serve this group of young people. But, says Selim, ensuring good communication between staff, students and families will be critical, along with trusting teachers as professionals.
“Teachers will find the gaps and need to be able to communicate them, then we can address them as a team, sharing resources and sharing ideas as they come up,” she says.
“We might not have had to deal with a pandemic before, but we’ve had to deal with lots of other things and be responsive all the time, relying on our gut instinct and communication.”
Zofia Niemtus is editorial projects and content manager (maternity leave) at Tes