Whatever the decision, now is the time to have some tough talk about our assessment and qualification system, writes Jo-Anne Baird

In the midst of the ongoing Covid crisis, as we begin to look with increasing hope at some sort of recovery, the National Education Union has launched an Independent Assessment Commission. Chaired by Professor Louise Hayward, the Commission seeks to engage stakeholders and to consider their views on the future of the assessment system.

I have committed to working with the NEU’s Commission because it is important that young people feel they have a stake in post-pandemic society. And the assessment system will have a role to play in this.

The pandemic has overthrown assumptions about many aspects of society, our daily lives and our relations to one another. The notion of universal healthcare provision has been put into question by the stark inequalities in Covid survival rates linked to class and ethnicity. And we are now discovering that long Covid symptoms are more prevalent in women.

Occupations, housing, access to food, electricity and the internet have all had significant impacts upon how individuals, families and local neighbourhoods have experienced the pandemic. For the many children who have missed education and their families, there were childcare issues in addition to lost learning and its effects on young people’s life chances. Digital poverty has played into this.

In England, one in 20 parents surveyed said that their child did not have access to a device for homework. Almost one third of private schools were able to provide four or more lessons online a day during the first lockdown, but only 2 per cent of state schools achieved the same. Only 2 per cent of teachers working in the most deprived schools consider that their pupils have adequate access to learning. Sir Kevan Collins’ report on learning loss concluded that children were set back by 2 to 3 months by the pandemic.

End-of-course exams left the system vulnerable during the pandemic

And to cap it all off, examinations – a stalwart of almost all school education systems internationally – were disrupted for fear they would be a source of contagion. Some countries, among them China, delayed exams. A few moved rapidly to onscreen assessments. In England, teacher assessments are being used for the second year running to produce the results pupils need to progress in education or employment.

These adaptations demonstrate resilience to fundamental overhaul, but the logic underpinning the results changed radically and we saw tensions across the UK regarding the statistical models (aka ‘the algorithm’) that were initially used to validate those results.

Why? Because use of statistics from previous years’ school performance incorporated inequalities in school intakes driven by local social demographics. As a result, the notion that individuals can succeed through merit of their performance in the examination alone is fundamentally undermined.

More positively, we have seen a widespread resurgence of respect for teachers throughout the crisis. Parents recognise that teachers not only educate their children; they have a wider concern for the development of character, social skills and wellbeing. Trust in teachers’ judgments in assessment has been bolstered. Given so much angst in normal years about the reliability of marking across examiners under much tighter conditions, this surge in trust for teacher assessment defies predictions.

England’s examinations were last reformed in 2010 when Michael Gove was education secretary. The move he drove to end-of-course examinations and his focus on raising standards have been implemented.

But concerns have now shifted. Only having end-of-course exams left the system vulnerable during the pandemic. Pupils’, parents’ and teachers’ concerns for equity, transparency and access should be heeded as we look to the future.

Rethinking our assessment system is no small feat. Many will be keen to keep it just as it is as we emerge from the pandemic, and their concerns should be heard too. But we owe it to ourselves and the next generation to do that hard work now, to have a national conversation, and consciously decide what to do next rather than to fall back on old ways by default.

That will require teachers, pupils, and families, policy makers and professors, unions and communities, exam boards and regulators alike to play their part.