TAGs, you're it: Why this is a game teachers can't win

With this year's system of teacher-assessed grades, the DfE has shifted all the blame on to teachers, says David James

David James

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Why teachers can't win with TAGs – teacher-assessed grades

Superficially, nothing has changed. From a distance, schools continue as normal: students arrive, have lessons, go home to do homework.

Teachers arrive, do routine paperwork, prepare lessons, teach, drink too much coffee, and return home to do their homework.

And, as in normal times, exam preparation continues: revision lessons, sports halls set out for examinations, invigilators, the five-minute warnings...

GCSEs and A levels 2021: The pressure of teacher-assessed grades

But look again for a sustained period of time at any secondary school – whether that school is maintained or independent, selective or comprehensive, coeducational or single-sex, faith or secular – and you will see how different everything is.

Perhaps most noticeable will be how exhausted teachers are.

I have been a teacher for over 20 years and I’m used to the demands of the summer term, but nothing compares to this – not even last year’s shambolic attempt by the Department for Education to respond to the cancellation of examinations.

This is all because of that singularly draining cause: teacher-assessed grades (TAGs).

They have consumed almost everything teachers are dealing with at the moment, pushing so many other important issues into the margins and, alarmingly, there is the real prospect that things are going to get worse before they will get better.

Even the name – "teacher-assessed grades" – is revealing and tendentious.

By using this label, the DfE has shifted responsibility and blame away from the government, the regulator and the exam boards (that actually award the qualifications) and gone around schools (that run the process) and put teachers in the firing line.

In doing so, the critical distance that teachers had between their students and the grades they achieved is compromised. Now each school is an exam board, and every teacher an examiner. 

And with those changes in status come pressures that teachers should not be dealing with – not least concocting the processes by which awards will be attained: finding questions not previously used, writing our own to a suitable standard, redesigning mark schemes to fit the questions, debating grade boundaries, running standardisation, ongoing moderation.

Then down into the granular detail: photocopying papers so that each image is pin sharp, each word proofed, each graph accurate, each insert in place. Each mark entered and checked.

Then there is the human element: ensuring that every candidate with special considerations is known, that absent candidates are accommodated, unwell students are supported, parents assuaged, alternative evidence sourced if that student cannot complete some papers.

And that is before the marking of hundreds of scripts, which, let’s not forget, would have been done by the awarding bodies and anonymous examiners – who would have been paid for their work).

Anyone who regularly marks GCSE and A-level work knows that it is time-consuming, but that process slows down even more when you know you are the one responsible for that final, potentially life-defining, grade.

You mark a script, see it’s close to a grade boundary, so go back and mark it again – repeat many, many times.

The most unfair game of TAG ever

This is the most unfair game of TAG ever: the secretary of state caught unsuspecting teachers, said, "You’re on it," and quickly ran away.

We had nowhere to run, nobody to TAG in return. Every time we went to the Joint Council for Qualifications, Ofqual or an awarding body, they jumped up on a chair and said they were out of bounds.

We are on our own, desperately trying to make sense of a game whose rules change and are announced, sotto voce, on an Ofqual blog that nobody reads. 

Such conditions benefit nobody and, of course, could have been avoided with proper planning started after last year’s debacle. Yet here we are.

As half-term approaches teachers will, rightly, look forward to some time off, but many will be nervous about the next stage of this ongoing crisis: the calculation of grades, followed by the calls for evidence, the results themselves, appeals, the potential media fallout and more.

All of this will place additional demands on a profession that already feels unprotected by the examination boards, misunderstood by Ofqual and abandoned by the government. Schools will have to step into this void for the sake of the students. 

We must hope then that there is enough energy left to support our students to achieve the outcomes they deserve. But when that’s done: who picks up the teachers?

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London

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