Exams 2021: Why we need to quickly accept that not everyone will be happy next summer

By Tom Middlehurst, ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist

Following last week’s announcement that all GCSE and A level exams will be cancelled in Wales next summer, there has been increasing pressure on the government to confirm the arrangements in England. Both the DfE and Ofqual have confirmed that they think exams should go ahead wherever possible and are currently consulting on a range of contingency options and mitigations to make the grades students receive fairer.

ASCL is at the centre of these discussions, and one thing is becoming increasingly obvious, if it wasn’t already: there is no perfect solution. The complexities of the issues, and the wide range of opinions in the sector mean that there is unlikely to be a resolution with which everyone is entirely happy. We now need to accept that, and work towards the best solution in difficult circumstances. 

Should exams go ahead at all?
Given that Wales have cancelled all exams, and Scotland have cancelled N5 exams, some people question whether England should adopt the same approach. The crucial difference is that both the Scottish and Welsh qualifications already have non-exam assessment (NEA) and modular exams built into the design of the qualification, unlike England where most qualifications are largely assessed through linear examinations, following the reforms of the coalition government.

Whatever your personal view on the design of the reformed qualifications in England, the fact is that this is the situation we’re in. It is therefore significantly more difficult to move to a system like Wales.

Moreover, it’s not necessarily what school and college leaders, teachers, students, and parents want.

At the ASCL Teaching and Learning Committee it was evident that Council members were divided in their views, with some feeling exams must go ahead at all costs, and others feeling that it would be inappropriate to run exams as normal. Other leaders’ and teachers’ unions are reporting a similar split in opinion, as are some student representative groups. It’s clear not everyone will be happy.

But it does mean that if the government maintains the current policy of exams going ahead, then they need to quickly address the concerns of those school and college leaders who feel it’s both impractical and unfair to press ahead with a normal exam series in 2021.

Will all students be able to sit exams?
While news about a potential vaccine is very encouraging - and ASCL will be pushing for GCSE and A level candidates to be among those prioritised - there remains a real possibility that some or all students will be unable to take exams next summer. This includes students who might be told to self-isolate or are suffering from Covid, and practical arrangements to ensure exams can take place safely in schools and colleges.
We therefore need ‘Plan B’ contingencies to ensure these students can receive a grade, assuming the exams go ahead for most students.

ASCL, alongside other professional associations and unions, have suggested a range of ways to achieve this which are currently under review by the DfE and Ofqual. These include reserve papers, and a fallback rank order of students or fallback centre-assessed grade, which could be used when students can’t take exams.
These proposals have their limitations, however, we need to assume that most students will be able to sit the exams in the summer but with a backup system in place for any students unable to do so.

Why not use teacher assessment?
Teacher, or centre-assessed grades (CAGs), might seem like an attractive option. Indeed, there are many ASCL members who feel a teacher’s assessment of a students’ ability is more accurate than an exam. This is certainly something we will explore through our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System. However, the current Year 11s and 13s have been preparing for exams, and so, as much as possible, awarding in 2021 should work within that framework.

Furthermore, when the U-turn decision to allow CAGs was made in 2020, it resulted in an unprecedented 11% grade inflation compared to the previous year, even when centres knew their results would be standardised. Because teachers want the best for their students, it would therefore be realistic to expect CAGs to also be as equally generous in 2021, even if they were moderated. There has been persuasive research showing that when more students achieve higher grades, disadvantaged students lose out.

This is partly because universities and employers rely more on ‘soft skills’ than results when confronted with more candidates. 

Members have also voiced concerns about the additional pressure this places on teachers, both in terms of workload, but also the expectations from parents and students to submit a certain grade. The exam system protects teachers from these pressures.

Ensuring fairness
Perhaps a trickier issue, and one at the heart of the debate around whether exams should go ahead, is how to ensure that results are fair next summer. Given the variability of students’ experiences since March, it seems unfair to expect all students to sit the same exam paper and be marked and evaluated in the same way. As one Council member put, “comparable outcomes only work when there has been comparable input, that hasn’t occurred this year”.

Of course, exams do not, in normal times, seek to adjust for teaching quality of the inequities within the education system. But we must make sure that, during the pandemic, the exams do not further exacerbate educational inequality. 

Again, ASCL with other unions and professional associations have made a range of suggestions as to how to mitigate this situation. This includes changes to the design of the exams, such as greater optionality at a centre level and the use of formula sheets and open text exams; changes to marking and awarding; and changes to how these results are presented to colleges, universities and employers.

The changes to the exam timetable already announced do not address the issue of inequity. It is not a case of how much of the course content students have missed, but how variable that has been. 

Greater optionality and formula sheets won’t address this entirely, as the same support would be given to all candidates, but it would mean that learners who find memorising formulae or quotations difficult are able to focus on their disciplinary skills instead.

One idea suggested by Hamid Patel, CEO of Star in his recent article ‘Exams 2021: Inequality grows with every positive test’ in Schools Week, is that to achieve a degree of fairness, students should sit exams which would result in a raw score. At a centre level, if a school community has been disproportionally affected by Covid then their results should be moderated up so that they get the same ratio of grade 9s, grade 7s, and grades 5 as the best year from 2017-2019.

None of these solutions will make next summer entirely fair, but then there is little fair about the way in which this virus has disproportionately affected different communities. We can, however, try to make it as fair as possible.

No solution is perfect
Ultimately, we need to accept that no solution will be entirely satisfactory to everyone, nor reflect the broad range of views in the system. We all agree that the exam series must be fair as possible for all candidates, including those unable to take their exams and those that have missed out on teaching more than others. We must also ensure that the needs of SEND students, and the most disadvantaged learners, are at the centre of these complex policy decisions. But we are never likely to all agree on the best way to achieve this.

However, there is broad agreement that leaders, teachers and students need to know what these decisions are now so we can start planning for any changes in the spring term and to provide reassurance for young people and their families.

Whatever solutions the government decides upon, the sector needs clarification immediately. 

Tom Middlehurst is ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist. 
Posted: 16/11/2020 14:10:14