‘The much-vaunted announcements about the summer exams are patchy and varied’

Neil Walker, headmaster at Westfield School in Newcastle upon Tyne, pens his thoughts about Ofqual and this summer’s exams

Earlier this month it was Chinese New Year and the year of the tiger began. A tiger year is associated with bravery, courage and new beginnings which seems quite appropriate for the country at the moment.

In school, I’ve been having conversations with the committee who are producing our annual magazine and their theme for the publication is ‘Life after screens’. For nearly two years now so much of work, school and socialising has been imprisoned behind the limits of a small glass window. This year, rather like Alice climbing onto the mantelpiece, we are able to go beyond a 2D plane of glass to the vibrant, busy and three-dimensional world beyond.

We no longer have to live through an avatar but can experience the excitement, joy and thrill of real life ourselves. Tastes are sharper, colours are brighter and even some well-worn experiences, like exam season, have lost their jaded edge and are looked forward to.

One quango that has certainly moved firmly through the looking glass in the last two years is Ofqual. With successive announcements seemingly penned by Tweedledee and his brother, schools are in a state of preparing for summer exams which are going ahead and contrariwise having to collect information for grades to replace public exam results.

We have to teach the entire course and, having almost reached the end, are now told which bits of the course won’t be examined. In a limited amount of time, still impacted by both staff and pupil absences, we must prepare all pupils to get top grades in their exams as if they haven’t been differentially impacted.

The final topsy turvy demand is to test exam year groups with three sets of mock examinations covering the full breadth of the course but not using any more time on assessment than we would in a normal year. These assessments cannot just be end of topic tests but must be exams, using questions the pupils are not expecting, under exam conditions.

In this Carrollian world, at the same time as assessing the pupils, their teachers must also finish teaching their courses, catch up on any work missed through isolation and ensure that revision is completed for the ‘real’ exams that are highly likely to take place in the summer.

Now pupils are back in schools, learning should be able to continue but life isn’t back to ‘normal’ yet. In the education system as a whole, too many lives have been affected by an inability to participate which is going to have consequences that echo for decades to come.

Staff absence rates are far higher than you would usually expect as they are forced to isolate and waves of pupil absence interrupt learning and preparation for exams. The much-vaunted announcements on 7 February about the summer exams are patchy and varied. Some subjects have a very clear picture of the adjustments and others are scratching their heads over what has actually changed.

For the sake of our young people’s future, and that of generations to come, there needs to be an urgent overhaul of our system of assessing pupils at age 16 and 18. The curriculum they study needs to be brought out of the 19th century and made fit for purpose to allow agility in the job market.

Ofqual and the government need to have courage and determination to consider different models which are the new beginnings for the nation’s future growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have the nimbleness of tiger feet in the upper echelons of educational policy making where feet seem rather more stuck in the mud.

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