How Gavin Williamson is courting another exams disaster

Gavin Williamson's decision to make minimal changes to next year's exams shows wilful ignorance about the reality in schools right now, says Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted

Woman tied to rail tracks, while steam train approaches in the distance

The government’s response to the Covid pandemic has been marked by delay at every point. Education is, unfortunately, no exception to this very bad rule. 

The announcements on changes to exams by Scotland’s education minister, John Swinney, shows that the Scottish government has learned from the mistakes that were the hallmark of this year’s examination fiasco, accepted responsibility and understood that Covid may well have an impact on next year’s exams. 

Gavin Williamson shows no sign of learning anything at all. 

His announcement yesterday of minimal changes to GCSE and A levels for next summer is testimony to his ignorance of the reality of the current situation in schools and colleges. 

Exams 2021: A tragedy for pupils, teachers and parents

A three-week delay will give a minimal amount of extra teaching time – but it will also create problems, most notably squeezing multiple exams into a shorter examining period and increasing the already huge stress placed upon students. And where the markers are going to be found, in the summer holidays, to do the marking of these papers is a real question.

But Gavin Williamson’s insistence that the full syllabus of every subject is examined beggars belief. Does he not know that students sitting next summer’s exams have missed out on at least five months of in-school teaching? And does he not realise that many students will miss out on further teaching because they have to isolate, either with Covid, or because they are waiting for a test?

Is he not aware that 700,000 young people do not have access to the internet? How they are going to engage in remote learning is a mystery that has yet to be solved. Although we know that the government’s laptop scheme did not do the job, inadequate as it was to the scale of need.

The tragedy, for pupils and their parents, and for teachers and leaders, is that it did not need to be like this. Recently, the NEU, alongside the other teacher and leader unions, sent Gavin Williamson a joint advice paper outlining the preparations that are needed to secure valid and reliable GCSE and A-level grades next summer. We thought through how exams would have to change, and what should happen throughout the year so that schools and colleges could submit robustly moderated centre-assessed grades.

Examined on what they have been taught

We recommended that exams should be altered to include all the main topics in the subject syllabus, with greater topic choice for students, so that they are examined on what they have been taught – not what they have not been taught. We recommended that pupils sit fewer exams, and that those they do sit are scalable, which means they are able to provide evidence of achievement on a wide range of ability.

We outlined in some detail the various ways in which exam boards could standardise and moderate pupil assessments throughout the year, so that common tasks would provide stronger evidence for the moderation of centre-assessed grades.

Virtually none of our suggestions have been taken up by the government, which, as I write, can’t even tell teachers what arrangements they should be making to provide evidence of pupil achievement throughout the year.

A question of fairness

Teachers invest huge amounts of work and care into preparing their students for these exams because the exams are so important for students’ life chances. At present, they are in the dark – and this is causing them huge stress and anxiety.

And their GCSE and A-level pupils are worried and anxious, too. They do not believe that they will be dealt with fairly. 

In the end, this is a question of fairness. 

It is really astonishing that the government does not appear to have learned the lessons of this year when it comes to exams. The danger of history repeating itself next year is all too obvious. Parents, teachers and young people will not forgive the same mistakes twice.

Education professionals are working in the most stressful and anxious of times. They are exhausted, battling to keep schools going without anything like sufficient government support. The least they could have expected was some acknowledgement that this academic year is not business as usual. 

Gavin Williamson must know that he is running a huge risk. Parents and the public wanted his head this summer over the exams fiasco. By carrying on regardless, he is courting disaster next summer. 

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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