Exam delays are only the start of a solution. Where’s the rest?

17 Oct 2020, 5:00

Progress is too slow in letting schools know what to expect. This is what happens when system capacity is systematically eroded, writes Simon Sharp

When I signed a joint letter to the secretary of state along with the Chartered College of Teaching CEO, Alison Peacock, and Sir John Dunford, I was clear that delaying examinations in 2021 and modifications to syllabus content would be an insufficient response to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

I fully understand that while such an approach may be desirable for ministers and many others, it completely overlooks the impact of further disruption to learning which we all know is highly likely. No delay can adequately compensate for the underlying problems of variable teaching time and variable access to remote learning technology. And while I accept the sentiment is to address such problems, it will perversely add advantage to groups less impacted by the pandemic. In other words, it will only exacerbate underlying inequalities.

Like many others, the Chartered Institute of Education Assessors (CIEA) is fully aware that the experience of 2020 has damaged trust in the credibility of the examination system. We cannot afford a re-run. Our conclusion is that grades in 2021 should be calculated on the basis of performance in a combination of external examinations and externally moderated centre-based assessments.

As I understand the situation, ministers are considering further back-up plans to cover all scenarios, but this requires more urgency. If the syllabi are going to change, albeit for a reduction of content, teachers need time to adapt. And if schools are to be called upon again to provide centre-assessed grades (CAGs) in the event of students missing examinations, we need to be better prepared than we were last year.

Ministers are considering further back-up plans, but this requires more urgency

I do not think anyone doubts that teacher assessments are subject to issues of validity and reliability, as are written tests. So it is imperative to minimise adverse effects as far as possible in the time we have available. The CIEA believes this should be a national approach supported by government and Ofqual, which we believe can strengthen internal assessment. Clearly, in the longer term, we should make far greater efforts to improve the level of assessment expertise in our schools, not only to regain public confidence but as a means of improving the teaching and learning process regardless of the demands made by qualifications.

Schools and colleges need to establish internal arrangements to generate their assessments drawing on a range of candidates’ work. Further, the work needs to be supervised and acceptable standards of performance agreed before moderation across the school – and ideally with other schools – can take place. This is why we advocate for the creation of the role of “lead assessors” in every school and college who, with appropriate support, can manage and quality-assure this process.

We are also aware that such an approach requires a level of skill and understanding that is under-developed, which is why the CIEA was established in the first place following problems with A-level awards in 2002. Over the past decade, the CIEA has not received sustained backing from successive governments and the role of teachers in the assessment process has been systematically eroded rather than enhanced. This has been to the detriment of the status of the teaching profession and has limited the approaches to assessment deemed politically acceptable.

Even accepting government’s intention to keep schools open in all but the most severe circumstances, we must recognise that they will be subjected to a range of situations affecting individuals as well as groups of students. And while schools are making astonishing efforts to support remote working, inequalities abound around access to face-to-face teaching and technology-based support.

Our aim is to remain above politics and to support the system to ensure it is as fair as possible. The reason we wrote to ministers was to offer our help, and that offer remains open. To date, we have not even received an acknowledgement of our proposal – and time is getting very short indeed.

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