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'It is students, not teachers, that are responsible for their exam results'

James Williams, lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, school of education and social work, writes:

As the exam season draws to a close, the anxious wait for results begins. A recent letter from Ofqual, outlining student entry changes to GCSE, AS and A level examinations, concluded that “collectively these changes in the student mix are likely to result in a little more variability than usual, school by school.”

This could be read as a possible dip in the pass rates or simply that we cannot predict what this year’s results will look like. It will undoubtedly add to the anxiety of teachers and students. It may well be a head’s up that league table positions, critical to schools senior leaders, will be shaken up.

Heads will be poring over the results and deciding if they should appeal what may appear to be an "odd" set of results for a subject. Individual teachers, looking for promotion or meeting their performance management targets will also be nervous.

This leads to a fundamental question; who is responsible for examination results?

When I was at school in the 1970s parent evenings were a trial. If my marks and grades were poor, my parents demanded an explanation from me. I could rarely give an effective excuse for poor performance. It was my responsibility alone to achieve the results I needed to get into university. It didn’t cross my parents’ minds that the teachers or the school could be at fault. In 2014, the tables have turned and it’s now schools and teachers who are being held responsible for the results achieved by the students.

Are teachers really responsible for the results their students achieve? In 2010 football pundit Gary Lineker attacked Charterhouse School for failing to ensure that his son, George, got the necessary grades to go to Manchester University.

Yet George had been on holiday the week before the examinations and been seen out at a nightclub in the days leading up to his exams. His results, perhaps, were more a reflection of his pre-exam study regime than any failure of the school or his teachers.

The person who sits the examination is the only one who can fully be held responsible for the result. Schools are accountable - to parents, local authorities, sponsors even the Department for Education - for what is taught, but they cannot be held responsible for things that are not in their control.

If a student decides that an exam doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make any difference how good the teacher is or what they have done to try and show a student that the subject is important. If the student rejects this and has made up his or her mind that the exam doesn’t count, the teacher cannot be held responsible.

If a student turns up to an English literature examination to find they’ve been taught and studied the wrong text, then of course the responsibility lies with the teacher.

If a student decides to take a week’s holiday in Ibiza partying each night before their A level examinations, then perhaps a parent should be held responsible for allowing them to go at such a crucial time, but the end result cannot be the responsibility of the school or the teacher.

There’s a difference between responsibility and accountability, but the distinction is often unclear and can vary according to the context within which the terms are used. In some instances the words are used interchangeably, but it would be helpful for all concerned, for schools, teachers and parents to have a clear understanding of responsibility and accountability when it comes to education.

Responsibility is mainly about the individual. Individuals should take responsibility for what they do. Accountability is how prepared an individual or group of people is to explain and justify their actions and decisions to others (in this case parents, senior leaders etc.).

It may well be that if an individual’s decision is wrong, they may have to take responsibility for any failure, such as studying the wrong text for an examination. But initially it is accountability rather than responsibility that should be the starting point for the analysis of examination results.

Teachers must be accountable for what they teach, the lessons they plan, knowing their subject and delivering what the specifications demand. Whether an individual can be held responsible will depend on whether or not their decisions are justified and the actions of others.

Failing to distinguish between accountability and responsibility is where crude measures, such as league tables, fall down. Real life is messy. Students do not always make the best choices when it comes to the effort made in revising for examinations for example.

If exam results do fall this year we need to be cool-headed when searching for those responsible for any changes. In the perfect world, teachers teach the full specification to the best of their ability. Examination boards set perfect examinations that really test what we want to measure.

Students prepare effectively for the exams and parents fully and successfully support their children to achieve the best that they can on the day. The problem, of course, is that the world, especially the world of education, is not perfect.

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