Exams

Exams: is there an alternative to ‘back to normal’?

Schools may be relieved to recover a sense of normality, write Mick Waters and Tim Brighouse, but there are alternatives to returning to a ‘shot’ accountability system

Schools may be relieved to recover a sense of normality, write Mick Waters and Tim Brighouse, but there are alternatives to returning to a ‘shot’ accountability system

11 Mar 2022, 5:00



In their contributions to our latest book, David Blunkett called our exams and testing arrangements ‘completely shot’; Kenneth Baker thought them ‘antiquated’. And when two of the most influential education ministers from opposing parties agree that something needs fixing, it’s surely time to take notice.

There’s much wrong with GCSEs in particular, including a ten per cent error rate in marking (especially crucial at grade borders); the regular use of algorithms now hidden (like their marked exam scripts) in the bowels of Ofqual and the exam boards; and the reliance on normative-referencing which predetermines the ‘pass’ rate. Worse still, Ofqual has occasionally and outrageously post-adjusted pass rates according to the peer group’s performance at age 11, thereby discounting teachers’ and pupils’ efforts between 11 and 16.

Norm-referencing affects schools and pupils alike. The bell curve of Progress 8 means as many schools fall below zero as rise above it, and the recent decision to disallow ‘early entries’ reveals just how using exams and tests for school accountability stands in the way of what’s right for pupils. In the noughties, we encouraged early entry either to allow pupils who were chafing at the bit to move on, or to show unconfident candidates how close they were to passing. Both decisions were right for the pupil.

A decade later, all that has been sacrificed on the altar of what is a deeply flawed school accountability system, which former head of Ofsted Christine Gilbert described as “holding too many schools back. It needs to change so schools and children can really thrive.” But of course, it’s one thing to analyse what’s wrong with the system, but quite another to suggest a viable and rigorous alternative.

We propose that examination success would be just one section of a pupil’s baccalaureate when leaving school or college at 18. The others would be validated evidence of ‘personal dispositions in action’ reflecting the agreed aims and purposes of education, which need to be agreed nationally in England (although Scotland and Wales have some already). Such evidence would record what the pupil has gained from their experiences and the challenges they’ve undertaken.

When opposing parties agree, it’s time to take notice

Level 2 (GCSE) results would be awarded on the basis of accumulating no more than eight qualifications, taken when readybetween ages 11 and 16 at different times of the year. Along with level 3 qualifications, they would be criterion-referenced, rather than norm-referenced, exams – nationally set, locally marked and regionally moderated. Validation would involve registering teachers as ‘lead assessors’ with the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA). They would hold a college, school or partnership (MAT) assessment licence, which could be ‘suspended’ if the moderation process consistently revealed assessment errors.

Our proposed accountability reforms involve an annually published balanced score-card of school performance. It would contain evidence of pupils’ attainment, achievement, commitment, exclusions and destinations, staff turnover, sickness and professional development, and the school’s service to its community.

Our proposals for institutional accountability pre-suppose partnerships of 20 to 30 schools (based on MATs or local authority groups) which would be regulated and inspected by Ofsted on their school improvement record. The partnership and Ofsted would each nominate a school, and Ofsted would see how well the partnership’s rating matched their own. Ofsted would abandon rankings, but would still call out school/partnership failures. Locally, partnerships would report to the local authority or mayoral scrutiny committee regarding their community contribution.

Finally, around £1 billion could be recycled into school budgets by not having three exam boards and by merging Ofqual and Ofsted. The latter proposal is supported by the Hampton Report’s recommendations for regulators and lends further weight to the abolition of rankings.

And when it comes to exam boards, focusing their attention on the sole task of setting, not marking, exams can only improve matters. After all, given their costs, they should already be getting it right rather than relying on pupils’ performance on the day as a moderation tool.

One thing’s for sure: going back to normal might feel good, but that doesn’t make it right.



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  1. Mike Ferguson

    Such informed but also humane and uplifting good sense. Is it remotely possible that those who make the ‘rules’ could possibly understand or would be prepared to dismantle the emperor’s clothes of traditional systems?