After two years of serious disruption, Ofqual announced in its corporate plan for 2021-22 that it would: “Consult on the approach to the assessment of GCSE, AS and A levels in 2022 and put in place appropriate measures to mitigate risks to fairness and validity which may result from disruption to education, taking into account government policy.”
This was point nine in a series of 12 things that Ofqual “plans to do”. It all seems too little, too late.
Another year of teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) in their current form would be intolerable: we all hope that the 2022 exam series will actually take place. But experience shows that it would be foolhardy to bank on it.
Year 10 and 12 cohorts have already lost teaching time. So, even if the exams can go ahead, schools really need more information now in order to plan for September. Delayed advice from exam boards will result in yet more last-minute planning, leaking into teachers’ desperately needed holidays.
Conspicuous by its absence in the corporate report is any acknowledgement of – let alone gratitude for – the role played by teachers in securing this summer’s grades. It seems to have become the norm that the state, the regulator and the exam boards can dump their responsibilities and work at the door of schools whenever it suits them.
Exams 2022: The importance of talking to teachers
The only possible light at the end of this year’s tunnel is that Ofqual is actually intending to carry out a consultation – of all stakeholders. The regulator’s intention is to “explore students’ experiences of learning in Covid-19” and to track “user perception” of the “extraordinary qualification arrangements” via “focus groups and public sentiment surveys”.
From the perspective of schools and their staff, who have been buckling under this year’s unnecessarily onerous bureaucratic process, this is a feeble substitute for the more searching analysis required.
It will be all too easy for the serious side-effects to teachers’ wellbeing and the impact on the quality of teaching and learning for younger year groups to be swept under the carpet. There is a real danger that teachers’ lived experiences and criticisms will be lost: the proposed consultation could easily deliver what the more powerful in the crowd of all stakeholders want to hear.
Of course, the perceptions of students, their parents, employers and government matter. But, uniquely, teachers straddle the many divides in the qualifications industry. They are the customers, who should be expecting a quality product instead of manufacturing it themselves.
They have been conscripted into the assessment force. As key operators in the quality-assurance process, their work has covered every student, paper and set of assessment objectives, so that they have gone one step beyond, into total quality management. They now have the close-up, in-depth knowledge of how the assessment machine works.
Teachers are naturally the advocates of their students, and have always been cast in that role. But this year they have had to become their assessors, too. In every aspect of this year’s process, schools have been forced into dual – or even triple – conflicting roles, with all the vulnerability that such ambiguity causes.
Going into 2022, they know what their Year 10 and 12 students have missed, what impact the disruption has had – and can already contextualise any proposals for next year’s arrangements. What they also know is how inadequate some parts of the advice have been.
TAGs: The workload that this year's GCSEs and A levels have created
That is why Ofqual should liaise very closely with the profession in every type and location of educational establishment and at all levels to gauge what has happened so far and how that is likely to play out next summer.
Too often the responses to questionnaires are predetermined by the questions set by the organiser. Therefore, the proposed online consultations must include space for teachers to enlarge on their responses and add any questions they feel the regulator should ask.
The problem with consultants or Ofqual selecting participants for focus groups is obvious: teachers with strong views who could help with solutions are overlooked. For once, online or remote meetings could be an advantage rather than a burden: technology makes it possible to get through more groups in the time, because travel time and physical space are no longer constraints on what can be achieved.
Ofqual must now ensure that its operations, and those of the exam boards, are not parasites on the wider education system. It should take evidence on the workload that this year’s requirements have created, not just because that is the humane thing to do but because it would be enlightened self-interest to avoid teachers being lost to the system through disillusionment and burnout.
This year’s overly bureaucratic quality-assurance process must be streamlined and made more uniform at system level, so that it is less onerous for individual schools. Ofqual needs limits on what can be reasonably expected from teachers.
Heads and unions must ensure that the mitigation of risk to the reputation and trust of the final qualifications does not become an albatross around the neck of the teaching profession. The burden of the work must fall on those who are paid to do it and the prices charged to schools should be fair.
Value for money should be included in the research. If Ofqual had the clout of regulators such as Ofgen, then it could have ensured that schools were paying fees only for the service they received, not to assist with boards’ fixed costs.
The exam boards are only paying one-seventh of the usual cohort of examiners. Surely the regulator should have required better coverage by the boards of the mountains of evidence supplied by schools? No wonder the QA is so light touch. Lessons could be learned from this.
As we move forward, into more normal years, schools should expect higher-quality marking. Teachers have had to provide very detailed justifications for their “reasonable professional judgement”. Exam markers must be expected to do the same. In the interests of transparency and fairness, there should be frequent annotations on exam scripts, referencing the assessment objectives so that the paying customers – that is, parents, candidates and teachers – can see that the right judgements have been made, and have the necessary evidence on which to base their appeals.
Finally, currently practising teachers – not just union leaders and reps – should be represented alongside Ofqual as observers at the grade awards for this year and in future.
In that way, Ofqual can fulfil its duty to the system, and teachers can be sure that all their hard work results in fair and equitable outcomes for their students.
Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)