Over recent weeks, a great deal has been written by education leaders, teachers and headline grabbing journalists. I am particularly grateful to Geoff Barton, Tom Sherrington and Mr Lock for giving me food for thought on the question of exams in 2021.
In the summer of 2020, I saw something that I have not seen in over 20 years of teaching. An A Level candidate receiving the very best results possible and left feeling deflated. Something was missing, they hadn’t had the chance to show what they could do in the same way as those they had looked up to in the years above.
In the summer of 2020, our teachers, departments and leaders were asked to place pupils in a rank against the others in their class, based on what they thought they might achieve if they were taking exams in two months. Should the teacher put pupil A ahead of pupil B, not based on the work that they had done in the previous 18 months, but on the sense that they’d just started to prioritise their work and if they kept going they’d probably do better?
At Dean Close we often have three grades in our heads at any one time. We have the grade that we believe pupils can achieve if they follow all the advice, do a bit extra and get a good paper on the day. This guides our UCAS predictions. It’s reasonable, but optimistic. Then we have the grade that pupils are currently working at. As the course progresses, we expect these grades to steadily improve as they build skills and knowledge. It would be very surprising for a pupil in the first week of an A Level course to sit a full A Level paper and achieve an A*. The third grade is a combination of what we think they can achieve, what they are currently producing and how much of the course remains. This is our expected grade. It still errs on the side of optimism but it has the opportunity to be informed by the situation at the time. It allows for illness, bursts of endeavour and the ebbs and flows of teenage love lives.
If we simply use teacher assessed grades in the summer of 2021, we will see a significant grade inflation because teachers want to believe that their pupils can do better. A nationwide data set of optimistic grades are unlikely to tell anyone what we need the assessments to tell us. What does this cohort know?
In the summer of 2021, what should our pupils face? In October, the Scottish government decided to cancel their GCSE equivalent of National 5s and has stated that a decision on Highers, the equivalent of A Level, would be made in February. Earlier this month, the Welsh government decided to cancel GCSEs and A Levels in a favour of teacher assessments, externally moderated. In England, we are still planning for GCSE and A Level exams in the summer of 2021.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge the significant advantages that pupils at Dean Close enjoy over many others sitting the same exams each summer. Our pupils come from well resourced families who prioritise health, nutrition, culture, exercise and meal times. They have been brought up in aspirational environments where education is prioritised and what is possible is evident each and every day. They attend a school that has incredible resources, high standards of behaviour, personal academic and pastoral support and a motivated peer group. In short the odds, every year, are in their favour. When the school closed last term, we had moved to an online timetable within 24 hours. No one is pretending that it was as good as being at school, but it maintained academic momentum and many pupils flourished during this time. Even with the acknowledgement of the
educational inequality that exists, I don’t think it makes sense to try to use the assessment system as a balancing mechanism.
By way of an illustration, in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Japan lost to New Zealand 17 – 145. In the 2019, they were beaten by a superb performance by the eventual winners, South Africa, in the Quarter Final by 23 points. In a generation, the Brave Blossoms had been transformed from massive underdogs to serious contenders. It was not achieved by awarding Japan more points for a try or penalty than their better resourced opposition. The vast improvement in scores between 1995 and 2019 was not as a result of reducing the qualities of the other teams. No, the transformation came as a result of developing a culture and style of play that made the most of their strengths. It was through investing in top coaches with an attention to detail and raising expectations. If we want to remove the inequalities of our education system we need to look at increased funding, access to accelerated programmes where needed, free school meals, effective and genuine partnerships with private schools, good access to digital resources etc. Tinkering with the measuring tool will not improve the quality of education that each person receives. The purpose of the exams is to measure what each person knows and understands at that point in time. The system is not fair, but it never has been.
Even in the midst of the COVID-19 spike in June 2020, we could have run a safe exams season. It would not have been easy, but it would have been possible. I am confident that we can do that this year, even if there needs to be more choice built into the papers so that they allow each pupil to show the level they have reached. I sincerely hope that the Government hold firm to their commitment to run an exams season this year. It is far from perfect but it is the best option we have.