Why teachers should take control of 2021 exams

The GCSE and A-level farce reached new heights of absurdity this week – it's time to bid farewell to the exam boards, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Woman making "time out" sign with her hands

This week, the GCSE and A-level farce has reached a new height of absurdity. As usual, it’s a new offloading of responsibility on to teachers and schools – but even more intrusive and time consuming than ever.

In its published response to the DfE-Ofqual consultation How GCSE, AS and A-level grades should be awarded in summer 2021, exam board OCR has suggested “a process that involves ongoing discussion between a teacher and a student about the potential grade to be awarded”.

There is a danger that someone at Westminster will take this idea seriously. To me, it seems rather like staring into the lion’s mouth and seeing a full set of gnashers. 

Firstly, who has time to conduct ongoing individual “conversations” when there is so much else on the agenda – like, for example, covering the course?

Secondly, teachers been kept in the dark about the relationship between level and band descriptors for years, so cannot be absolutely certain about what constitutes a final grade until moderation of some sort has taken place. 

GCSEs and A levels 2021: enough is enough

And anyone who has worked in a school long enough to teach an examination class for the full two years will know how fraught any communication of performance has become. Tears are not uncommon when the predicted grade is lower than the students expect. In the worst cases, the arguments result in increasingly acrimonious email trails. It isn’t unknown for blame to affix itself to the hapless teacher or school.

Those reading the education press last summer will remember articles warning of the involvement of lawyers. To say that things can get messy is an understatement. The excessive workload and stress this proposal will heap on teachers is unimaginable.

For too long, the teaching profession has been reactive to the exams crisis, waiting for the next move – or media leak – for clues as to how the final assessment will happen. It’s time to say that enough is enough: to rip up the contracts with the awarding bodies, who are expecting to do little more than rubber-stamp schools’ results and grab back the inflated fees. It’s time to do the job ourselves. 

Schools should consider setting up local consortia, rather as they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s for English GCSE 100 per cent coursework, sharing students’ files and spending a week engaged in moderation activities. 

The coursework moderation model is actually very useful, because of its flexibility. The 2021 cohort will have covered different aspects of the specification to varying extents, just as their counterparts did when text choices and titles were left to the judgement of teachers. In effect, we would have folders of work from each student as evidence of achievement – not so very different from coursework compilations.

Classes should be taken by supply and cover teachers to enable this exercise to happen. Clear of distractions, with time to think, the lead teachers could be organised into grading groups and set about the business of standardising the files, taking note of individual circumstances and setting up exemplars for each grade before the real work of moderation begins.

It would certainly be possible then for consortia across the country to compare grading through the exemplar materials, and thus a national standard could be formed.

Such arrangements are nothing new. Many English teachers of my generation remember the Northern Examining Association (NEA) review panels meeting in Manchester.

The 10 advantages of a teacher-run exams system

At least 10 advantages could accrue from such a system:

1. Teachers (unlike exam boards) would know what the work of students who have missed chunks of the curriculum could be expected to look like, because of their own experiences in the pandemic-ridden system of the past year.

2. Schools will not have to pay the inflated costs for a depleted service from the awarding bodies. They could pay all teachers involved in the terminal assessment and afford the cover time needed.

3. The money saved can go towards the things that schools will need to rebuild next academic year.

4. Because the grades will have been arrived at through a collective standardisation and moderation exercise, individual schools will not have to face the disappointment of parents and students alone. They will have a stronger defence against any legal challenge.

5. Appeals would only be based on the usual grounds set out by Ofqual in their reformed appeals process. Since each student’s work would have been seen by teachers inside the school and the consortium, the results would be very difficult to overturn.

6. The results would therefore be more – not less – rigorous than the combination of non-exam assessment and external exams run in normal years, when only a small sample of files and exam papers are scrutinised and thus errors of judgement are easily missed. 

7. The results would be more reliable because of the multiple judgements made. “Rogue examiners” would not exist.

8. Teachers would be likely to challenge each other’s under- or overmarking in the moderation process. They would not be seeking individual advantage, but would be casting an eagle eye over the work of neighbouring and competing schools to guard against any sharp practice.

9. In the longer term, this initiative would give rise to a community of assessment practice, as teachers working alongside others would learn how to assess and moderate better. They would share ideas and discuss the difficulties attached to marking and applying the criteria and would hopefully have creative tasks to offer as well.

10. Schools would not have to be at the mercy of ministerial whim and leaks to the press.

Schools deserve greater stability and certainty. Sadly, these two conditions have not been provided by either government or exam boards. 

And, as it emerges that awarding bodies won’t be providing new papers for the 2021 cohort, it’s definitely time for schools to take charge of their own destinies through forming local consortia. 

For future years, the self-formed consortia could look to constructing their own schemes and exam papers – even their own specifications.

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) 

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