Exams head us back to normality. Now for league tables

Ofqual is ensuring students get the exams they want in the fairest way possible, writes Gareth Stevens, but schools are still being let off the hook

Ofqual is ensuring students get the exams they want in the fairest way possible, writes Gareth Stevens, but schools are still being let off the hook

26 Feb 2022, 5:00

Ofqual’s decision to publish ‘advance information’ ahead of exams has taken us a welcome step closer to a return to academic normality this summer. Although the decision to use teacher-assessed grades for the past two years was an entirely understandable one, it simply didn’t work in favour of our young people.

It’s fair to say that many had hoped for a little more from this advance information. This is particularly true in some of the sciences, which had different topics removed from higher, foundation, triple and trilogy courses. Teaching a class with multiple qualifications has become quite difficult as a result!

That said, there is also a sense that the timing was absolutely right, allowing institutions to finish off teaching the syllabus before they start their final exam preparations. This is really important – especially for GCSE pupils – because if they intend to continue studying these subjects at A level, they will need this foundational knowledge, and will have to know these concepts, before developing their learning further.

All in all, what we’ve been given is still hugely helpful for pupils to ensure their revision is as targeted as possible. And importantly, it will help compensate for the learning that has been lost over the past two years ahead of their examinations.

And it is only right that they continue to take these exams. Pupils currently in year 13 did not have traditional examinations in year 11. Cancelling them again this year would have seen them go on to university without ever taking a serious examination and would have done them a complete disservice.

Unfortunately, we know that there is just too much variance when it comes to teachers assessing their pupils; not due to unscrupulous individuals, but just because different systems will inevitably come up with different results. This means that even with the best will in the world, we simply cannot compare, or be fair between students in different schools.

Ofqual should be applauded for this year’s arrangements

As well as being grossly unfair to individuals, this also risks wider society losing confidence in our pupils’ grades. Without a fair and standardised examination process, employers and the general public will continue to read stories of rampant grade inflation through alternative assessments and may well look down on these pupils’ achievements.

Meanwhile, pupils themselves deserve to have confidence in their grades. In a survey of our year 11 and 13 pupils across the trust, 60 per cent said they would prefer to have their grades decided by an examination system, with 71 per cent agreeing that exams are the fairest way of gaining qualifications.

The survey also found that pupils were hugely in favour of the advance information, giving them a sense of which topic areas would come up – with 92 per cent agreeing this would reduce their anxiety over the coming exams.

Overall, 61 per cent said they would rather sit a formal examination than have their grades decided by teacher assessment – a clear endorsement – and they also said exams were an important motivator and kept them focused on their work. In fact, our students were even happy to go on national television to argue in favour of bringing exams back. They said they wanted to showcase all the work they’d put in, and looked forward to receiving certificates with grades they could trust.

What helps is making sure they feel the process is fair, and that they feel supported in taking exams. This year’s arrangements help to strike that balance, and allow us to keep their wellbeing at the heart of our preparations for this important milestone for them. Ofqual should be applauded for it.

But it’s only one step on our wider move back towards normality. The next important step needs to be the reintroduction of performance tables to ensure there is transparency about how schools have performed as a whole.

Without them, we are missing a crucial accountability measure. Too many poorly performing schools have been able to escape any meaningful scrutiny, which further lets down our young people.

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