A level results: A fiasco destined to be repeated?

13 Aug 2020, 16:59

For all the apologies, Mary Bousted says there is little sign government is willing or able to learn the lessons of how it got into this mess, with likely repercussions for next year’s final-year students

Today should have been a day of celebration for students as they received their A level grades. It doesn’t feel like that. Social media is brimming with the fury of outraged young people who feel that their life chances have been damaged by the downgrading of teacher assessments through a process which feels obscure and unfair. The charge that their grades are more a reflection of the school they have gone to, rather than their efforts and abilities, is toxic to the trust that they, and their parents, employers and society at large, have in our qualifications system.

Gavin Williamson has, this morning, toured the TV and radio studios looking battered and bewildered by the rain of fury coming down on his head. He is sorry for how things have turned out. But he insists that he will make things better – hence his triple lock.

He convinces no one.  Students are being denied university places, now, as courses fill up.  To them the promise of an appeal based on mock exams is no consolation.  For school leaders and teachers, this option only adds uncertainty to their current distress because no one will know, until Ofqual has dreamed it up, what a ‘valid’ mock exam is. And to have a definition thrust upon the profession months after those exams have been taken, only adds insult to injury.

If you put all your eggs in one basket, there is a terrible mess when you drop it

Mock exams have never been able to take the weight of a final award. Generally held between November and January they are treated differently between different subject teachers even in the same school. Some teachers use mocks to encourage their students, others to knock them out of their complacency. The results are not moderated between schools. Teacher grades are not standardised. Why does Gavin Williamson think that this is a possible runner?

Perhaps he has no choice.  He lurks in the shadow of Michael Gove who ‘reformed’ GCSE and A levels, abolishing course work and decoupling AS from A levels. His successor is finding, today, and to his cost, that if you put all your eggs in one basket, there is a terrible mess when you drop it.

Never mind, says Gavin. If schools cannot prove that their mock exams are ‘valid’, students can retake their exams in the Autumn term. I have a few questions about this proposal.  Who is going to teach these students when schools return with all pupils in September and teachers already have full timetables? If no extra teaching is going to be possible, how fair will these exams be? Because private tuition is affordable only to those students with parents who can pay for it.  Many cannot.

Answers to these, and other, questions are needed urgently. If there is one lesson to be learned from today it is this: it should never happen again. But, astoundingly, it appears that lessons are not being learned.

As students enter their final GCSE and A level years in September no one can know that their schooling will not face further disruption.  Even though schools should be prioritised to remain open during any further lockdown measures, prudent planning would take into account the measures that might have to be taken if there is a second spike, or if there are local lockdowns. What will happen if students or their teachers need to isolate? In all these scenarios, students’ education will be disrupted.

So it is no good Gavin pretending that it will be alright on the night. It probably won’t. He needs to acknowledge this and to work with Ofqual and the exam boards to redesign GCSE and A level exams with slimmed down content and greater choice of questions. Teacher assessment systems, supported by robust moderation processes need to be put in place so that there is an evidence base for disrupted learning.

And in the longer term, a commission should be established to look at what we can learn from the best education systems internationally. How do they assess students for secondary leaving qualifications? What range of methods do they use? And do they avoid putting all their eggs in the exams basket?

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