Exams: a testing time ahead

James Higgins finds out what three school leaders make of the plans for A-level and GCSE exams next year

The job of education secretary is never usually considered the thorniest in government: what is managing classrooms to detention centres, MI6 or the NHS? After Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, few cabinet members have been subject to as much scrutiny as Gavin Williamson. 

Perhaps the issues which the Department for Education contended with in 2020 were avoidable. Rumours abound, mainly in The Times, that Gavin Williamson is currently top of the ministerial naughty list, and could be replaced in the new year, potentially by DfE alumni, Michael Gove.

Perhaps devising a solution to examinations on the hop would have derailed even the most experienced of education ministers. Schools minister Nick Gibb, after all, has served at the department for eight of the last 10 years. 

Furthermore, DfE counterparts in Scotland and Wales have encountered similar problems with centre-assessed grades. Despite these mitigating factors, there has been palpable frustration from school heads at the handling of examinations. Those same school leaders do not want a repeat debacle in 2021. 

The difficulty for policy wonks next year is students hurtling towards their GCSEs, A-levels, Highers, Advanced Highers and BTECs having experienced even greater levels of disruption than their peers in the year above. Unlike this year, the education ministers in the UK have all opted for different routes for 2021. 

In early November, Kirsty Williams in Cardiff preempted her counterparts to announce the cancellation of examinations in favour of externally set and moderated classroom-based assessments. Teachers in Wales may exercise discretion when setting the timetable for completing these assessments, which will form the basis of “centre-based outcomes” in conjunction with “external verification”. How to agree a “national approach to provide consistency across Wales” has yet to be answered. 

In early December, John Swinney in Holyrood announced that Highers and Advanced Highers would go the same way as the already cancelled Scottish Level 5 exams. All three qualifications will be determined by teachers, who will assess student ability based on evidence of performance. Unlike this year, there will be no place for a moderation algorithm.

But the approach across the UK is, once again, divided. Northern Ireland education minister, Peter Wier, has confirmed that students there will sit exams, describing it as the “fairest and most equitable system”. He has, however, (at the time of publication) not yet set out how he will make the system fair, despite mounting pressure from teaching unions and the commissioner for children in Northern Ireland.

Gavin Williamson and his team in London – themselves under mounting pressure from a diverse coalition of teachers from across the state and independent sectors – stated their preference: students in England will sit GCSE and A-level exams. The policy is in step with the departmental approach to students at universities: although far from perfect, students and pupils will lose more if excluded from education and exams under the present circumstances than if not. 

Ahead of the Girls’ Schools Association conference in November, president Jane Prescott spoke to IE and paid tribute to the “generosity and selflessness” of headteachers. She said then that guidance on public examinations “could not come soon enough”. 

Prescott said GCSEs should not go ahead but be replaced by centre-assessed grades decided using a different moderation algorithm. “Long term, GCSEs need revisiting to look at whether it is still appropriate for our society that children stay in school or training until they are 18.”

On A-levels next year, the GSA president said the government needed to make fair decisions because university places depended on the validity of results. “I would suggest that there is a limit to the content, to the number of papers, so that we have a something that is formally recognised, but that is then added to a centre-assessed grade… to end up with an official grade.”

During an interview with IE for its inaugural virtual conference, IE Live, high master of St Paul’s School, Sally-Anne Huang, confessed that her faith in the DfE was damaged by the chaos this summer.

Unanswered questions 

So, as schools close their doors for Christmas, I asked three senior leaders in England what they make of the exam plans for 2021: has the disruption come to an end? 

A little over a month since Huang spoke at IE Live, I asked what her hawk-like eye made of the government plan. She is busy preparing for the final few days of the term, filled with virtual concerts and Christmas events. She tells us term time for staff at St Paul’s will run until 22 December because the government has requested schools continue their contact tracing function for six days after the end of the term. 

“Well,” she takes a deep breath, “I think it’s good to have some guidance on exams before the children go off for the Christmas holiday. I think the mental health and wellbeing of young people facing public exams is a priority, and this will improve it. I would say that heads, certainly within HMC, will welcome exams if done safely.”

She pauses for less than a fraction of a second before continuing: “I think there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered. And it is a shame that even at this stage, those remain unanswered because it takes some planning within schools to change to focus the curriculum. I wish this had happened earlier.”

We are still waiting for clarity: all we can say to people at the moment is that we think we are going to have an exam, but we are not entirely sure what is going to be on them – Sally-Anne Huang, St Paul’s School

Huang says schools require detail to plan what lessons and parts of the curriculum to deliver. “We are still waiting for clarity: all we can say to people at the moment is that we think we are going to have an exam, but we are not entirely sure what is going to be on them.”

She also flags the potential for “inconsistencies” between the approaches to grades in the four nations of the UK, adding: “I would not want to be in a university, because they have got a hard enough job anyway, choosing between some strong candidates around the country. And to have them all on different routes, when they are so used to the gold standard of exam grades that are consistent across the nation.” 

Reflecting on the fortunate position her school finds itself, she says the government approach could still create inequalities for students in pandemic-scarred areas. 

Could shorter exams be a solution? Would choice over which of the exam questions to answer be fairer? “There is still a potential unfairness in that. If a school can cover the whole syllabus, students at that assessment centre would have more choice in the examination,” she says. “Generally, though, I think this news is welcome, and the outcome appears to be more teacher-led.”

Validity of GCSEs

Lara Péchard, headteacher at St Margaret’s School in Bushey, welcomes the clarity around examinations next year, especially as the announcement offers some certainty ahead of the Christmas break and subsequent mock period.  

She says she is happy about the announcement but has concerns about what these plans mean for the long-term future of GCSEs. Williamson says the DfE will instruct exam boards to lower grade boundaries, thereby ‘levelling’ the playing field with students who collected teacher-assessed grades in 2020. At GCSE, for instance, the proportion of 7, 8 and 9 grades awarded to year 11 pupils in 2020 rose from 21.9% last year to 27.6%. 

Péchard describes it as “a kindness for current examination groups” but has concerns about the knock-on effects. How far can grade inflation stretch to patch the inconsistencies before the entire system loses confidence? 

“In the main, this is excellent news for students,” she says. “It is clear that mental health and continuity of education have been the key driver for the extra measures, and that can only be a positive thing. It does, however, raise further questions around the future and validity of GCSEs, which brings us onto the next ‘uncertainty’.

“How will this impact current Year 10 students who will be taking their exams in 2022? Can they expect the same generous grades and foresight into exam paper topics, given the likelihood that disruption caused by the pandemic will be around for a while yet?”

Péchard began her headship at St Margaret’s at the beginning of 2020 – a few months of run-of-the-mill work gave way to one of the most intense periods any headteacher of her generation has experienced. She remains upbeat: aside from missing out on some of the anticipated end-of-year shows and day-to-day conversations, she says the pandemic has not dented her enjoyment of the job. If anything, she says it has enabled her to get to know more parents, students and teachers on terms she would not have anticipated. 

It does, however, raise further questions around the future and validity of GCSEs, which brings us onto the next ‘uncertainty’ – Lara Péchard, St Margaret’s School

Despite some objections, she says exams are broadly speaking the best way forward. “The truth is the majority of students want to sit exams. Of course, there continues to be anxiety around Covid, around contracting the virus and the impact that will have on schooling but, at least, we have some indication of the avenues available to students,” she adds. The added three weeks will be useful, particularly for content-heavy subjects like biology, but she says it is vital the government confirms the exam content. 

Péchard says her school worked quickly to establish if an educational attainment gap had opened in lockdown, but the findings of their investigation reassured them. The school has been careful to prepare a paper trail, so that, if teacher-assessments are required, each student has a documented case. 

She says exams are important because they help to consolidate their learning and gain experience of exams which, after all, remain a fixture at university. Exams are, in her words, “a rite of passage” through which many want to pass. St Margaret’s has established contingency plans for ‘validated teacher assessments’ if a student is unable to sit tests, and says it eagerly awaits further details from the DfE on the definition of this term. 

Lost Covid generation

But what of students that do not learn in schools? “When the government announced that teachers would predict grades, a lot of home school families were told they would not receive grades,” says Hugh Viney, deputy head of Minerva’s Virtual Academy. 

Viney, originally a private tutor, helped establish Minerva Tutoring, which soon grew into an online platform that supports parents to home school. Students self-guide their learning using Minerva’s online resources but gain a qualified mentor and the opportunity to collaborate with other home-schooled students on projects and lessons organised by the academy.

It is a perfect solution for students who do not flourish in traditional school settings, Viney says, as well as elite young athletes or performers who cannot attend school five days a week. Since lockdown, enrolments have rocketed. Requests to join rose by 400%. 

Viney says: “A new bunch of pupils joined us this year. They went to traditional schools but did not thrive, mainly because of mental health issues or special educational needs. These kids thrived in lockdown, once home schooled. Parents have told us they are not sending them back to school after this is over.”

Viney says the school is pleased with the government announcement: exams are best. He says his pupils did not fall behind during lockdown, because they are used to distance learning. 

“More effort is needed to support children who have been at a disadvantage. There is more to do to help children left behind, the lost Covid generation. The national tutoring programme funding was a good idea.” 

He pauses, before suggesting that more progress is needed. He says the academy is trying to engage the government in a conversation over how their online resources might help the national catch-up effort.

Much remains undecided. If Williamson is still in the job come exam season, the solution he and civil servants have devised will rightly be subject to enormous scrutiny. Huang must get back to the end-of-term celebrations. Before she does, I asked what final message she has for the DfE. 

“I think it is important for the Department for Education and government not to underestimate how tough it has been to be in education in 2020: how much the children have had to overcome and how hard teachers and school leaders are working. We’ve been put right at the frontline of protecting the country’s health. We have protected the country’s future by educating young people and the economy by keeping schools open. I’m not sure that that is understood. 

“I worry for the future of the profession because people are getting burned out and exhausted. Being a teacher or a headteacher does not look as attractive as it should. I think they are due respect for what they have been through and protection, to give everybody a chance to recover. 

“I think that is what I would like.” 


Main illustration: freepik.com

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