A sudden desire to trust teachers hints at a poisoned chalice

22 Jan 2021, 5:00

After months of dithering and conflicting messages, the government’s latest noises on trust in teacher grading look likely to put them in the firing line, writes Alison Peacock

When the secretary of state announced exams would be cancelled this year, he said he wanted to place his trust in teachers. In September 2020, The Chartered College, with Sir John Dunford and the CIEA, argued for a year of teacher assessment supported by trained “lead assessors”. The proposal offered a fighting chance to ensure the grading process would be reliably informed by teachers, working in close harness with exam boards to create centre-based outcomes. The offer was ignored.

Now, having insisted throughout the autumn that exams would not be affected by the pandemic, politicians faced with exam cancellation can see the spectre of last summer’s debacle appearing again. Their solution? Soundbites of “trust teachers, not algorithms” and a sudden keenness to hand the process over to the profession. But is this ‘trust’ anything more than a smokescreen?

Teachers want to be ‘trusted’, and the government rhetoric sounds persuasive. The difficulty comes when trying to bridge the gap between the reality of how well students are doing now and Ofqual’s suggestion that teachers should not “decide the grade a student might have achieved had the pandemic not occurred”. This is hugely problematic.

While at first glance the consultation appears to be handing trust to teachers, what emerges is a preference for test materials over teacher assessment. And while the consultation proposes that final assessments take place as late as possible to mitigate learning loss and ensure as much curriculum coverage as possible, the final assessment, grade allocation and appeals processes are work-heavy and time-poor.

Government cannot duck responsibility for what happens in August

Worse, the risk is that our hardworking teaching profession is fed to the lions over this very contentious issue. Our political masters, with one eye on the calendar, know there is a real risk of a qualifications solution that pleases no one. The answer? A keenness to ‘trust teachers’, pushing the profession on to the front line to defend a best-fit grading system frustrated parents will seek to overturn.

Details matter. The offer from Ofqual to provide training and a suite of assessment papers written by examination boards is helpful. However, how can we ensure that allegations of cheating do not follow, removing all credibility in this hastily-assembled contingency plan? While there may be advantages to using these papers as tools within an indicative process alongside a review of other work, this allows for a multitude of interpretations and a lack of national consistency.

The administration of these so-called “non-exam assessments” needs to be rigorous. Do we have any choice other than to elevate them to the status of examinations, administered, marked and moderated uniformly? Individual teacher assessments will still have to be norm-referenced and fit with standardisation. Wouldn’t greater direction and control from exam boards reduce the likelihood of parental complaint and a subsequent deluge of appeals to teachers?

Ofqual’s consultation is about ensuring students and their families feel justly proud of their qualifications this summer, knowing everything possible has been done to ensure they accurately reflect each student’s true ability. It is important that our profession engages with it and helps reduce the margin of error.

Regardless, whatever is decided will not be perfect, and may in fact be far from it. How can it be otherwise when we are already into the spring term? A key issue at stake is therefore ensuring not only that this year’s terminal assessment is fair but that everyone – colleagues, students, parents and politicians – understands it to be transparent and clear.

The issue of allocating grades to cohorts of students who have had a hugely variable experience of schooling over the past two years is regrettable and challenging. But months of dithering and conflicting messages have only made things worse. Government cannot duck responsibility for what happens in August by pointing the finger at our profession.

If we are truly in this together, we must offer teachers the protection of a nationally robust process.

Trust our teachers yes, but also support and stand by them.

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