Few certainties, but exams are fairest and should go ahead

2 Oct 2020, 5:00

autumn exams

Schools can be confident that Ofqual and exam boards have the tools to make summer 2021 exams fair, writes Dame Glenys Stacey

Teachers and school leaders are working in truly exceptional circumstances with students both in school and at home, and to get them ready for GCSE, AS and A-level exams next summer. I know  just how unrelenting and demanding this has been since the start of the pandemic — and still is.

The uncertainties we face are unprecedented, so I hope it will be helpful if I state some certainties, from the regulator’s perspective.

First, and as we have said publicly, we got it wrong in the summer. Like other regulators across the UK, and with the best of intentions, we worked with school leaders, the government and others to build a substitute for exams in the midst of this pandemic. Together we misjudged things.

It is simply not acceptable for a student to be deprived of the chance to show what they can do, and to be given instead the grades that the system thinks they warrant. We are sorry.

If anything, this summer has shown the importance, the centrality, of exams. We saw that despite every effort and good intention, other forms of assessment are likely to be more inequitable.

We know from research, for example, that non-exam assessment can be subject to bias, with the result that bright disadvantaged students, or students with special educational needs, suffer the most.

Assessment choices cannot in themselves make up for lost teaching

This has been a particular worry this summer and we appreciate that asking teachers to take responsibility for determining results for their students puts them in an invidious position. We are certain that examinations should run next year, and we are working with the government and exam boards on that basis.

Exams are important, not just to allow every student to show knowledge and understanding of the curriculum, but to give a fair representation of the extent of that knowledge and understanding.

The exceptional pressure on students and teachers this year has been alleviated to some extent and in some subjects by changes to the curriculum already announced. We appreciate, nevertheless, that whatever the assessment regime in place next summer, assessment choices cannot make up for lost teaching and learning. That would be akin to holding a thermometer responsible for fluctuations in temperature.

But we can take these truly exceptional circumstances into account at a national level, in the awarding process that is part and parcel of an examination series. We took a similar approach to account for dips in learning in the early years of new GCSEs. We and exam boards have the tools, and the experience.

Contingency arrangements will be required, of course, to cover all eventualities at an individual, local or national level. We are discussing potential options with the Department for Education and exam boards, and I look forward to talking options through with school leaders before decisions are made.

This is an exceptional time. It does not look as though we will be free from the pandemic any time soon. More than anything, we all want to make sure our young people get the best chance they can to show what they know, and what they can do, in the fairest way possible.

Teachers no doubt want certainty so that they can get on with teaching knowing what to expect. Government policy is that GCSE, AS and A levels should be assessed predominantly by examination, as now. The regulator is of the same view.

We are working hard to make sure we take into account the effects of the pandemic, to make the best contingency arrangements we can, and to make sure the results are fair and command public confidence in this exceptional time.

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  1. “Exams are important, not just to allow every student to show knowledge and understanding of the curriculum, but to give a fair representation of the extent of that knowledge and understanding.” [This article]

    “We know from research… [that exam grades] are reliable to one grade either way.” [Response to Question 1058 at the Education Select Committee hearing, 2 September 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/790/pdf/%5D

    Would you please reconcile the concept of “fair” with the statement that “[exam grades] are reliable to one grade either way”?

    Thank you.

  2. Mark Snowdon

    So still not doing anything to help the students screwed over this summer?
    Still no appeal process?

    My daughter was given grades generated not by her actual teachers but extrapolated from her mock results – but she was ill during mocks.
    Her actual physics teacher told her to appeal but has since been ordered not to discuss results with her by the school.

    This year has been a total shambles – I don’t see anything to make me think next year will be any different.

    Spouting platitudes is no substitute for actually getting your act together.

    Exams which test performance at exams on one day are not a meaningful measure of understanding of a subject. They are easy to run though (well, if you’re not totally incompetent…. Oh, wait…)

    And people wonder why the uk has some of the most stressed students in europe.

  3. Janet Downs

    Far from demonstrating the ‘centrality of exams’, this summer’s debacle has highlighted the flaw at the heart of England’s exam system: too much emphasis on high-stakes exams at 16. It’s time, surely, to move to graduation at 18 via multiple routes.

  4. Huy Duong

    “It is simply not acceptable for a student to be deprived of the chance to show what they can do, and to be given instead the grades that the system thinks they warrant. We are sorry.”

    It is worse than that. In many cases, students were given the grades that the system thinks their school warrants based on historical performance, cohort prior attainment and transition matrix. It’s good that Dame Glenys Stacey said “We are sorry”, but perhaps it is also necessary to attempt to right the wrong that has been caused.

    Or perhaps Dame Glenys Stacey thinks that the grades that are based on the school’s historical performance, cohort prior attainment and transition matrix are correct and the students who have them are excluded from her apology.