GCSE results day is always one of mixed emotions and mixed fortunes, even in what we sometimes call “the normal times”.
Back then, there were the obligatory newspaper pictures of euphoric students jumping for joy, usually with a clutch of stellar grades to their names.
But, behind the scenes, through all my years as a teacher, I would notice the young people at the edges of the rooms, never in the glossy photos: those who had missed out on the grades they hoped to achieve, as well as the students who, despite our best efforts, we knew would struggle in the next stages of their education.
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And for us, as teachers and leaders, it is a similarly topsy-turvy occasion. We are delighted for those students who defied the odds and did better than they ever thought, disappointed for those who inexplicably fell short, and desperately worried when we see results nosedive across a subject – or worse still – across our school.
That’s what it felt like, back in the normal times.
GCSE results: High-octane political drama
So, what are we to make of today’s strange affair, following a week or so of high-octane political drama, plus eleventh-hour frustrations around BTEC grades, as the government first desperately clung to the principle of moderating centre-assessed grades in lieu of exams, and then jettisoned it as the full scale of anomalies in last week’s A-level results became increasingly evident?
Frankly, I’m not sure I have managed to process all the mayhem yet. I suspect that, in the hinterland between results and schools’ reopening, we’ll need some time for the dust to settle before pontificating too heartily.
But here are some initial thoughts about where we find ourselves today, and why.
A terrible deal
This year’s students have had a terrible deal. Whatever way you look at it, this generation has lost out. They lost out on the normal rites of passage of leaving school: the parties, the proms, the goodbyes to teachers and to each other.
They lost out on the chance to show what they could do in a set of exams, however much those exams are associated with stress and anxiety. And they must have been watching the news anxiously, to see if they were going to lose out again because a computer algorithm might downgrade them.
In those circumstances, the only viable option was to ditch the algorithm and to revert to centre-assessed grades. But we have to know why the problems with the algorithm were not foreseen, what steps were taken to test whether it was fit for purpose, and why Ofqual and ministers were not on top of this.
For this reason, my association has called for an immediate independent inquiry to be conducted, to rapidly ascertain what went wrong. We think it is the least our students, their parents and the nation’s taxpayers deserve.
If we’ve learned anything from this sorry saga, it is surely that our education system has become far too obsessed with statistics. In many ways, the debacle over standardisation is the logical conclusion – the idea that the entire grading system could be mirrored by the application of a statistical model. England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland all bought into this idea. We all came a cropper. Message: human beings trump numbers.
Another lesson for the longer term is that we must surely reduce our reliance on a massive national bout of terminal exams each summer. There was nothing to fall back on in this crisis, unprecedented though it was, and the government still doesn’t have a contingency plan in the event of disruption next year.
But it goes beyond that. In the digital age, we treat a system that is rooted in the 1950s as an article of faith. We simply must revolutionise assessment, utilise technology and provide a variety of approaches that value a broader range of attributes and knowledge.
Although it was the right decision to revert to centre-assessed grades, it is notable that many school leaders and teachers are not hanging out the bunting today.
They are pleased for their students, of course. But they are incredibly frustrated that having assiduously followed the Ofqual guidelines on centre-assessed grades – which were effectively a form of internal moderation – the external process of standardisation, which was meant to iron out any inconsistencies between centres and ensure a level playing field, imploded.
The problems don’t stop there. There is no mechanism for students to appeal against centre-assessed grades. This was never part of the process, but there were at least some exceptional circumstances under which appeals would be allowed against standardised grades which were moderated down.
Now, students who are unhappy with their grades will be doubly aggrieved by the fact that there is no avenue by which they can challenge them. In truth, it would be very difficult to provide such an appeal process, because of the logistics involved in reviewing these complex decisions and the difficulty in doing so consistently. But it is another example of the mess which schools have been left to deal with.
There’ll be plenty of headlines today, and in the days to come, about grade inflation as a result of this process. It is something which is embedded in our psyche as a bad thing. To guard against this perceived evil, the exam boards spend a lot of time every year fiddling around with grade boundaries, to ensure that the distribution of grades is roughly similar from one year to the next.
There are some good reasons for consistency of course. It means that cohorts are not advantaged or disadvantaged over time. But it also fixes in aspic the proportions of students who pass with flying colours and those who don’t. This year’s results will be different by accident rather than by design. But, in the longer term, we have to dig ourselves out of this statistical rut.
The benefit of the doubt
And it really isn’t terribly surprising that centre-assessed grades are higher overall than exam grades. There are many students who are on the borderline between grades. On a good day, they are capable of attaining the higher of those grades; on a bad day, perhaps not.
So, faced with that choice, and the fact that they did not have the opportunity to take that exam, what would you do? Give them the benefit of the doubt, or give them the lower grade? Multiply the answer to that question across the country, and you have grade inflation. Standardisation was, of course, meant to iron this out.
It will be interesting to see what now happens in terms of progression to sixth forms and colleges. With more students holding higher grades, it could be that we will see an increase in applications to high-tariff courses.
But there are pitfalls here. There are a wide range of excellent technical, vocational, and academic courses available, and it would be a shame if some students felt they ought to go for a high-tariff academic course when another type of course might interest and engage them more, and better suit their ambitions.
The perception of an academic/vocational divide is another thing that is embedded in our national psyche. It shouldn’t be the deciding factor in students suddenly abandoning the course they had their heart set on.
Bruised, deflated and frustrated
Finally, let’s remind ourselves that this was a situation like no other. I know from speaking to colleagues across schools and colleges and PRUs over the past few months the incredible effort – the angst – that went into making this process work, in education establishments across the country. Many of you feel bruised, deflated and frustrated by how events have unfolded.
But, in truth, you really couldn’t have done any more. I have been deeply impressed by the painstaking care that people have taken over centre-assessed grades: the determination to get it right on behalf of students. Teachers’ angst through the process shows how much teachers care for their students.
The profession rose to the challenge admirably. It was events beyond our control that have left us all on the backfoot.
And today, as I watch and listen to the vast majority of students in the media opening their results, what I see is the joy, relief and optimism of young people, reassuringly familiar from normal times.
And, amid so much turmoil, I sense the simple gratitude they convey in their words and actions – to you, their teachers.