By ZACH ROBERTS
Less than 6 years ago, Michael Gove took a scythe to coursework, controlled assessments and modular courses in a major rewrite of the higher education system. So there’s a certain irony that now exams have been cancelled for a second year in a row, these are exactly the kind of things that would have been extremely useful to determine academic qualifications for GCSE and A Level students. In what Boris Johnson called, ‘a good compromise,’ teachers are now granted complete autonomy and advised to use a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays to determine their students’ grades.
This announcement, while providing some degree of certainty to students and teachers for the way forward, still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its overall clarity. The teaching unions have praised the flexibility of the plan, calling it the ‘least worst option available’, a sentiment shared by the House of Commons Education Committee with the chair, Robert Halfon, agreeing but also raising concerns over a potential "Wild West of grading" that could arise due to inconsistent and inflated marking.
‘Least worst’ seems a fairly accurate way of describing what is a drastic change in approach in comparison to last year’s disastrous attempt to use an algorithm to decide exam results. Scrapping the algorithm should hopefully remove most of the bias that favoured students in high achieving schools and areas, but there is still a huge risk of personal bias from teachers or schools themselves. Teachers are not examiners, and this additional pressure of becoming judge and jury when it comes to their students’ grades is perhaps not what's needed when they are already overwhelmed with plans for the mass testing and reopening of schools on the 8th March.
Schools aside, considerations then have to be made for both universities and the students themselves too. Inflated grades will put an immense demand on university places, while a legacy of disproportionately high grades, may leave a sour taste in the mouths of future employers. Will the last two years of no exams create a hierarchy of prospective employees, and how much weight will these teacher grades have compared to those who actually sat the exams?
You have to wonder, however, how much the cancellation of exams is down to poor planning rather than an actual inability to run exams this year. Students have been in and out of the classroom and subject to online teaching for significant parts of the last 2 academic years and so of course, it would not be fair at all to put them through the normal examination season. But could this have been avoided, to any degree, in the first place? The government always said during each of the three national lockdowns, that schools are the national priority - in fact they stayed open during the second in November, so then why have there been several times where information or resources have been vague or delayed, adding unwarranted stress on staff and students? By leaving schools in charge of their rapid testing systems with very little guidance and denying that teachers should be a priority for the vaccine, can we really say that the government is treating schools, and those who work there, as the priority? Gavin Williamson said himself in just December of last year:
“Exams are the best form of assessment we have, and we are therefore taking steps to ensure that any student preparing to sit them in 2021 has every chance possible to do their very best.”
So then, why was the decision to cancel them made barely a month later? There has never appeared to be a coherent plan for exams despite the pandemic now close to surpassing 12 months of disruption. No country has handled this pandemic perfectly, that is for sure. But if this government chooses to boast about its vaccination rollout, and to be fair to them rightly so, why is the vaccine not being utilized to treat schools as the national priority to fulfil this promise? In Israel, teachers are being offered immunizations before schools are reopened, and exam year students from 16-18 years old are being given the jab too in hopes that their exams can go ahead safely as planned. It does raise questions about how the resources available to us can be more efficiently and successfully utilised to really meet this government promise of prioritising schools, safeguarding teachers and giving students the grades they deserve, with as little anxiety and stress as possible.
In the Prime Minister’s roadmap to get out of lockdown, he proposed a potential complete exit from COVID measures by June, but that does not mean that the effects of the pandemic disappear at the same time. How does the government plan to prevent employer blacklisting or undermining the legitimacy of the last two year’s qualifications? Additionally, the demand on universities cannot be ignored, nor can the pressure on next year’s exam cohorts who are at a severe disadvantage as a result of disruption and home-schooling, yet their exams may continue as planned in 2022. The teacher assessment plan may be the best option we have to solve the issues right now for GCSE and A Level students, but it still leaves far too many questions unanswered, especially when 12 months have passed after this all began. And even then, sometimes you can’t help but wonder whether any of this was avoidable in the first place...
IMAGE - Flickr (Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street)