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Politicians, not heads, should be losing sleep over results this year

School leaders will be looking over their shoulder on results day, thanks to the upheaval caused by massive changes to the exam system

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School leaders will be looking over their shoulder on results day, thanks to the upheaval caused by massive changes to the exam system

It’s called getting your excuses in early. And very suspicious it is, too. The school system and its political overlords should not have too much truck with this year’s GCSEs because of the unpredictability resulting from Michael Gove’s reforms, Ofqual hinted last year.

“There will be volatility [in grades] school by school; it always happens when you change a qualification. Those changes will happen at a time when accountability measures are changing as well, so there’s a lot for schools to cope with,” Dame Glenys Stacey, then Ofqual’s chief regulator, said.

It would be funny if it weren’t so potentially tragic for our schools.

Put another way, Ofqual’s comments could sound a bit like this: we’ve helped introduce a series of reforms to an exam system that is central to a cliff-edge accountability regime, and now – just as the entire secondary sector tumbles over the new, even more vertiginous, cliff edge – we’ve put up a discreet “Danger” sign.

Let us be clear. There are some very fine school leaders out there for whom Ofqual’s weasel words will hold no comfort: they expect to be fired the moment the results are published. One celebrated head recently told me that he had booked two holidays this summer because he expected them to be the last he would be able to afford. These feelings of deep insecurity are rippling across the country as GCSE results day gets closer.

And this all comes at a time when England can ill afford to lose good, hard-working heads – by some estimates, England’s schools will be short 19,000 heads by 2022. This is especially galling when it has nothing to do with any shortcomings on their part but rather is due to short-termist political reforms that have been needlessly rushed.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, and Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, are right to take Ofqual’s comment and add some punch. Be in no doubt that, under Barton’s leadership, the ASCL is unlikely to take the widespread axing of school leaders lying down. Years of cuts and being kicked around mean many secondary leaders could well be up for a fight.

Of course, none of this may happen. There is a chance that when the results come out there will be fewer bumps in the data than we expected, everyone will treat them with kid gloves and we’ll all be able to move on to the next story.

But educational history tells us this is unlikely. If you want to see what happens when the government makes a major intervention in the exam system and then pushes through its reforms without any stress-testing, look no further than New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 changes to A levels. For younger or more forgetful readers, these were the reforms that ramped up the modular system and made the AS central to students’ final A-level scores.

The unforeseen consequence was a grading scandal that saw tens of thousands of papers regraded upwards as national newspapers tore into the exam system. In the post-mortem, it was widely agreed that Tony Blair’s changes had been rushed and, specifically, that the new-look regime had not been piloted. The parallels with summer 2017 and the possible fall-out from Gove’s shock-and-awe approach to exam reform do not need to be spelled out.

The A-level scandal did cost one person her job. It played a large part in Estelle Morris’ shock resignation as education secretary in 2002. She did the right thing, even though the controversy really wasn’t of her making.

If anyone finds themselves in the dole queue because the 2017 GCSE reforms have been rushed through, it should be the politicians, not the headteachers.


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