Opinion

How to solve next summer’s exam problems before they arise

Hamid Patel
August 24, 2020

Solutions already exist to prevent putting teachers and students in this situation next year, writes Hamid Patel

‘Why did his teachers not believe in him?’

I spoke to a mother this weekend who could not accept that her son’s grades, predicted by his teachers, were fair.  She did not argue that her son had performed much better in mock exams or that some procedural mistake must have been made. Rather, with heartfelt emotion, she argued that those professionals who had taught him for several years should have shown greater belief in her son’s potential, particularly when they knew the grades he needed to achieve his dream of reading medicine.

It was a conversation repeated up and down the country.  Disappointment with teachers and schools was inevitable once the algorithm devised to issue GCSE and A Level results unravelled and Ofqual, the examinations regulator, took the decision to award grades submitted by schools.

Teachers faced accusations that they were biased, neglectful or too harsh. Most importantly, their  belief in the young people in their classes was called into question.

We must ensure this never happens again.

Teachers never want to pick winners and losers.  They want to teach.  They are passionate champions of each of their students and such a choice is anathema to their professional values.

As we look forward to the school year ahead, and with a real risk of local lockdowns affecting next summer’s examination season, we must develop a better system for recognising the achievements of our young people and we must  have the foresight and fortitude to deliver it effectively.

Teachers never want to pick winners and losers

Our exam boards must urgently agree contingency plans for next summer’s exams series.  Arrangements already exist for the award of grades if a student has completed at least half of the exam papers for a qualification.   However, if a student misses all the exams in a subject because they are isolating or in local lockdown, they should be issued a grade based not on the predictions of their teachers, but on rigorous, objective assessments completed throughout the year.

Exam boards already issue specimen papers that reflect the rigour and breadth of the specification.  Such papers, often available in a secure manner, are used throughout the year by teachers to check on students’ progress and address gaps in their learning.   Such  assessments could be used to  offer evidence of achievement if there is disruption to the summer exams.

All schools would need to ensure such assessments are completed in exam conditions, without notes or peer support. These tests should also be completed during specific windows throughout the final year of the course.  Exam boards would issue a specimen paper for all subjects during each of the three terms, with schools making use of at least one during the year.  A school wouldn’t need to ask its students to complete all specimen assessments provided by the exam board.  Instead, teachers would select the right paper at the right time for their classes.

Assessments would be marked by teachers using mark schemes issued by the exam board. The marks would  be submitted to the exam board in real time, well before summer exams.

In the summer, if a student is able to complete at least half of the exams for a subject, then they should be issued a grade just as now.   However, if they are unable to complete all the exams for a subject because they are isolating or their school is closed, the exam board would issue a grade based on the marks from the contingency papers submitted by their teacher during the year.   The exam board grade would be a projection based on the assessment marks from earlier in the year, taking into account when the test was completed and comparing the performance with that of young people across the country.

This arrangement would not require daunting additional bureaucracy.

For most subjects, secure specimen tests and mark schemes already exist – using them for a contingency makes sense, and exam boards have already piloted such initiatives. For some subjects such as art, it may not be possible to sit specimen mock assessments in this way.  A portfolio of work completed without support would be collated during the year and used to enable exam boards to issue a grade instead. In subjects where assessment is more subjective, such as English, schools could be advised to retain a sample for moderation to ensure national consistency.

Finally, we need a robust appeals process in which students are able to quickly challenge the grade issued by the exam board, providing all assessments they have completed throughout the year as evidence.

With so much disruption and missed learning having occurred during 2020, young people and their teachers will need to work exceptionally hard in the coming year to ensure the best chance of examination success to secure places at college or university.

This challenge will be tough enough without also asking teachers to award grades that may determine their students’ futures.