This week’s announcement gives welcome certainty but the true test is whether the department can work out how to deliver on it, writes Anna McShane
The firm reiteration today by the Department for Education that “exams are the best and fairest way for young people to show their potential” is a step change for a department that has been firefighting and backtracking throughout this crisis.
For the most part it has given teachers and pupils up and down the country what they were crying out for – certainty. Certainty that GCSEs will go ahead, certainty about what will be assessed, and – to an extent – certainty on how they will be graded.
I don’t envy any of the individuals involved in coming up with this new process. Even more so than last summer, the perils to individuals and the system as a whole of getting it wrong are clear.
In ensuring GCSEs take place, the department has learnt the right lesson from last summer’s horror stories of students unable to progress because of an algorithm based on their school’s history. Ensuring it is students who ultimately have the stake in their own future is the right choice.
It is also right to recognise that across all schools students have suffered disruption. Being able to take in sheets of formulas and know topics in advance will give students more confidence that they will not be faced with a paper that covers things they have never seen or learnt about before, and that they will have a real chance to show what they can do.
Rushing through a new grading system would not play to the DfE’s strengths
The decision to award grades broadly as generously as last year also makes sense, and perhaps also finally shows the department’s growing understanding its own vulnerabilities. It would be ridiculous to pretend awarding grades based on 2019 outcomes could be fair. Equally, it buys them and Ofqual some time to see how the rest of the pandemic plays out, to understand the disruption across all year groups and potentially to radically rethink the assessment landscape. Rushing through a new grading system now would certainly not play to their strengths.
But if I were a teacher hearing today’s news, I know my response would be entirely dependent on my context and how the virus had played out in my school. For some this term, the impact has been relatively minimal – a few students here and there isolating and probably a higher cover load than comfortable. But for others the impact has been devastating this term: whole year groups sent home twice for a fortnight each time; whole-school closures due to too many absent teachers; a teaching body taken to the wire, so that even when a teacher does manage to get in front of a class it is just about coping, never mind teaching or catching up.
We know there have been huge regional imbalances this term in terms of Covid’s impact and consequent learning loss, and although news of a vaccine is exciting, we still have no clear picture of what will happen in spring or at what point schools will get back to normal. But the answer can’t be to adjust grading regionally, and the department has rightly ruled that out, adhering to its new dogma that the individualism of the student outweighs the history of the school or region. In truth, regional grading would do nothing to account for huge differences between schools within regions or indeed individuals within schools.
The expert advisory group the DfE have set up to look at this will have a mammoth task unpicking not just the regional discrepancies but the really gritty differences in the amount of learning that has been lost in schools. Meanwhile, they will also have to guard against underestimating the huge technical challenge of awarding grades based on 2020 outcomes, and ensure once again that their solutions don’t unfairly disadvantage schools and students who have been worst affected.
But whatever the challenges, let’s be clear: Gavin Williamson has offered us certainty like this before. If this education secretary wants to retain any ounce of trust from the sector, today’s assurances must be kept.