Have lessons been learned from the exams fiasco? Well?

Will England follow in Scotland's wake and cancel the 2021 GCSEs? Or will it just dither some more, asks Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Man in suit, sitting in the corner, wearing a dunce's cap

Our Corporal Jones of a government always seems to be one step behind. 

As we approach the end of another anxiety-filled week, next year’s GCSEs and A levels are now fewer than 130 school days away. And still the Westminster government has not clarified its plans for them, nor for key stage 2 tests, nor for next year’s performance tables. 

Scotland, which always seems to be a few steps ahead, has this week announced that its National 5 exams – roughly equivalent to GCSEs – will be replaced with teacher assessments and coursework. They did this having undertaken a rapid and decisive review of the summer’s results fiasco, and used this evidence to make a decision.

But from the Westminster government, still nothing of any substance – other, that is, than the usual weary rhetoric about expecting exams to take place next year as normal, because exams are the best and fairest way of judging the performance of students.

Meanwhile, several media reports indicate that ministers are preparing to delay the exams in England by three weeks, to give more teaching time. An announcement, we are told, is imminent. 

The problem of the 2021 GCSE cohort

The government has certainly taken an eternity to reach that point, given that Ofqual first started consulting on this question back in July. And, in truth, the question of what happens to the 2021 cohort was always one that needed to be resolved – because, unlike the students of 2020, who had largely finished their courses, this year’s young people really don’t need lots of exams. They need lots of teaching

So, let’s hope that the government is not setting too much store by the thought that a three-week adjustment will enhance young people’s life chances. The benefit of shifting exams a few weeks later is marginal, given the lost learning time of the national lockdown and the ongoing disruption in schools. 

And, anyway, it doesn’t address either of the really big issues. 

The first of these is how we deal with the fact that students will have been disrupted by the pandemic to varying extents, and those who have suffered more disruption are at risk of being at a serious disadvantage when they come to sit their exams

The second is the need for a robust contingency plan in the event that some students are unable to sit exams, or have been particularly badly disrupted in their preparation.

Filling the void left by the government

Earlier this week, in an effort to fill the void left by the government, my association, ASCL, together with colleagues in the NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, and NGA, put forward a set of proposals designed to provide solutions to these questions. You can read them here.

It was a decisive moment, when those of us representing teachers, leaders and governors said, “Enough is enough”. In the absence of leadership from the centre, we set out robust, specific solutions to the question of what happens in next year’s exam season. We set out, on behalf of the nation’s young people, a set of ambitions with a sense of urgency that’s far greater than has been shown so far by a dithering government.

In essence, there are two essential steps: introducing greater optionality in these exams, so that students are able to choose questions on topics they have learned to sufficient depth; and providing staged assessments in the autumn or spring terms, upon which grades can be based if a student is unable to sit an exam or their preparation is very significantly disrupted.

These staged assessments would provide a back-up option, which could be scaled up if we reach a stage at which exams have to be abandoned altogether. It would allow the government to pursue its preferred Plan A of a full set of exams next summer, with the security of a Plan B if that doesn’t work.

The waiting game continues

You would think that would be an attractive option for a government whose record on education policy has been shaky – to say the least – during the Covid crisis. But, other than a vague assurance that there will be contingency arrangements, the waiting game continues. 

Perhaps what might convince ministers of the need for a greater sense of urgency is the results of a poll by Parentkind. It found that more than nine out of 10 (93 per cent) of secondary-school parents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their child's preparedness for exams. Of these, more than two-thirds (69 per cent) are very concerned. 

Furthermore, it found that “the lack of clarity on the arrangements for exams is manifesting a mental health crisis, with 84 per cent of parents saying that it is having a negative impact on their child's psychological wellbeing”.

And it notes: “The poll also found that only 3 per cent of parents favoured ‘exams based on the full curriculum’ as their preferred option for how exam grades should be awarded next year. This shows that the vast majority of parents are expecting the 2021 arrangements to make adjustments to take missed learning due to school closures and periods of teacher or pupil self-isolation into account.”

What this suggests is that parents need this matter to be resolved, and that simply shifting exams a few weeks later and tinkering around the edges is really not going to wash. 

Young people and their parents deserve to know that lessons have been learned from this summer’s fiasco. They also deserve the reassurance that plans have been put in place for next year. 

After all, parents aren’t just parents. They are also voters. And so too, one day soon, will be all those students.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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