Criticism of exam boards fails to take in all their work behind the scenes, says Philip Wright. So here’s a little of what they’re doing to earn their fees

With no exams happening this summer for the second year running, and with teachers working flat out to deliver grades for their students, it’s not surprising that some people have been asking what exam boards are doing to earn their fees.

It might be tempting to assume that, while teachers are facing the enormous task of assessing and grading their own students, exam boards have much less to do. But this is far from the truth.

The reality is that everyone involved in the exam system is having to work harder than normal this summer. We know many schools are still in the thick of assessing and marking. But exam boards are working harder too.

Like any other year, for this summer’s students to be able to move on with their lives, they need to receive formal qualifications, certified by exam boards. But, with those qualifications being awarded in a very different way, exam boards have had to rip up their playbooks and devise a completely new way of working.

As Ofqual has acknowledged, designing and implementing a new assessment system would normally take years, and exam boards have had to do this in a few months. A lot of this work isn’t immediately visible, which is why it’s understandable there are myths about exam boards not doing enough to justify their fees. However, exam boards are required to cover their costs. Many of our members are registered as charities or not-for-profit organisations.

Exam boards have had to rip up their playbooks

Some of the work is already complete – such as everything that’s gone into creating this new assessment system in such a short space of time. But much still lies ahead. Exam boards still need to collect grades, support schools and colleges, and implement a quality assurance process required by the DfE and Ofqual.

When that’s complete, the most important phase of a brand new and extremely complex quality assurance process kicks in. This will involve a large number of examiners working with exam board staff to check evidence and verify grades.

This external quality assurance process will ensure that this summer’s grades are recognised and valued by the rest of the education sector and employers – and give students and parents the confidence that the process has involved an independent pair of eyes.

And then there’s the culmination of everyone’s work this summer: the issuing of results to schools and colleges. This is the same mammoth administrative task this year as it is in any other, which will see exam board staff working around the clock.

In many cases, new activities have meant the need to develop new systems in a very short space of time. We know that the assessment resources provided by exam boards haven’t been able to be all things to all people. But this is due to the very tight window they’ve had to produce, not lack of effort.

And as well as these major and essential operational processes, the amount of support exam boards are giving schools and colleges this year is unprecedented. To guide teachers, exams officers and other school and college staff through another very different summer, exam boards are providing extra customer service support, extra online training and other guidance.

At a time when many businesses have furloughed staff, exam boards have needed to retain all the specialist expertise required to support teachers this summer – and also ensure the sustainability of the system when we need to run exams again in 2022.

At any given time, exam boards need to look much further ahead than the current exam series. They’re currently working on plans for exams in the autumn, next summer and even further afield – work which has to happen now in order for future exams to go ahead.

No one benefits from this summer’s unique situation being wrongly portrayed as ‘teachers versus exam boards’. We recognise the enormous responsibility placed on schools and colleges and its implications for teacher workload.

Because far from twiddling our thumbs, we feel it too. And just like teachers, our goal is to help students get the qualifications they need.