Decisions are needed now on exams and accountability

21 Jun 2020, 5:00

This year’s exam disruption is far from the end of the story. Stephen Tierney suggests reforms to give teachers and students a measure of certainty

The can-do attitude of schools has been exceptional over the past three months. Remaining at the heart of their communities, they have protected the vulnerable, fed the hungry and provided learning materials and online lessons.  Since the February half term, they’ve remained open to the children of key workers and those in need. As a result, too many school leaders now appear done in. Uncertainty about future expectations is draining them further.

The sine qua non of leadership in a crisis is knowing what to stop doing. Once determined, it provides the needed critical clarity, capacity and trust. Yet that most difficult of leadership decisions is too often ignored – by school leaders themselves and by politicians desperate to return to normal and project a sense of control.

In truth, it is decisions about what to abandon that will release capacity and start to rebuild trust. We therefore need a laser-like focus and determinations on two pillars of our system – exams and accountability – and we need them now.

Shelving the national implementation of the cognitively-oriented reception baseline test is a start. It was unlikely to happen in any reliable way: schools need a familiar assessment that is more diagnostic and formative.

Year 10 and 12 students need similar accommodation. As content will have been taught in a different order in different schools, the solution is in the examination system itself. Reducing the number of exams would increase teaching time by allowing the tests to start after the May half term. Likewise, reducing the number of questions students have to answer will allow increased learning of the content that is covered.

Too many school leaders now appear done in

Subject leaders in schools led by the Headteachers’ Roundtable core group have offered many sensible solutions: in English, reducing the overlap between language and literature papers and giving a choice of questions from any three of the five elements of the literature paper; in maths, limiting exams to one calculator and one non-calculator paper; limiting science to paper 1 only; removing orals from modern foreign languages and delaying the start of the exam season to significantly increase teaching time; similarly, in art, removing the externally set assignment from the syllabus; in geography, with field work unlikely, removing paper 3; and in history, papers/questions could become either/or to take account of the variations in content covered.

The deep-rooted problem of excess content needs sorting before years 9 and 11 start their exam courses in September. The simplest solution is for exam boards to determine a small core that must be taught before a wider review completed by October.

There are no solutions without significant implications, but every decision entails invalidating performance tables again next year. Not only do they no longer seem relevant, but we can’t yet rule out another year of teacher assessment. Creating certainty is vital.

Another benefit would be to delay a decision on key stage 2 SATs. Without performance tables, the all-consuming focus on them in year 6 could be ameliorated so that pupils starting in September enjoy a more balanced curriculum – and primary resources be more evenly spread across all year groups.

Finally, I cannot believe there is any acceptable reason for school-based Ofsted inspectors to do anything other than to focus on children and young people. Prolonging the pause on inspections would help their schools, notably those in the most disadvantaged communities who have suffered disproportionately from Covid-19. They do not need the maleficence of an Ofsted visit – even the possibility of one – while they cope with that.

In the resulting absence of enough inspectors, we need HMI to focus on safeguarding, illegal and unregistered schools and support for local authorities.

Crises expose long-term problems, but also solutions that may have appeared unthinkable. Deciding what to stop doing is the first step towards wise leadership; we have never needed it more from Westminster.

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