The Government’s proposed approach to 2021 exams, announced yesterday, is better than last year’s, but that’s not saying much. We should be wary of easy clichés about “trusting teachers” and recognise this “solution” for what it is: a bodged job that will create more problems than it fixes.
Last year’s repeated U-turns over exams led to anger and despair in equal measure. So far this year communications have been a little bit clearer. In a hard-to-disagree-with statement, Simon Lebus, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said “qualifications must reflect what you know, understand and can do and must be widely understood and respected”. Yet awarding final grades based on teacher assessment won’t provide this.
This is because of the nature of teacher assessment. Last summer, Ofqual’s now-infamous algorithm received significant criticism, in part because it lacked transparency. But teacher assessment isn’t transparent either. Intuitive, yes, but not objective or consistent. Like the rest of us, teachers have their own preferences and biases, and these affect their judgments.
Consequently we’re seeing the replacement of one opaque system with another. Historically, the exams and gradings systems have generally possessed benign opacity. Exams have therefore had something in common with sausage meat, in that we were generally happy not knowing the detail so long as the end product was okay.
However, trust in public exams has been shaken. Building this trust will require a transparency that teacher assessment won’t provide. Everyone likes the idea of trusting professionals like teachers until they disagree with them. The exams plan therefore places teachers in a lose-lose bind. They will be criticised for grading too leniently, too harshly or, more likely, both. This year’s appeals process (whatever it involves) will pit families against schools. Meanwhile politicians will watch from the side-lines grateful that the fingers aren’t being pointed at them.
Teacher assessment on its own cannot guarantee consistency between teachers, let alone between schools. Yet what should teachers do? Grade pupils as accurately as they can knowing that learning has been curtailed, or take into account the possibility that other schools might grade more optimistically and follow suit? Most worryingly, teacher assessment means that pupils from poorer families face a double whammy. They are more likely to attend low-performing schools, and evidence suggests teacher assessment discriminates against poorer pupils. It is likely that the pupils who have already suffered the most during the pandemic will lose out most when it comes to grading this summer.
Pupils have told me and my colleagues at the Centre for Education and Youth that the cancellation of exams is bittersweet. Many lament the learning they’ve lost to school closures. They also saw the distress last summer’s fiasco caused to friends and siblings and feel they’ve dodged a bullet. Likewise, teachers describe mixed emotions. Some look ahead to results day with trepidation, knowing that the Government has left them with nowhere to hide if pupils are disappointed.
We’ve spoken to parents about how they are maintaining their children’s motivation in the face of exams being cancelled. Setting concrete goals for post-16 and post-18 education, training or employment can help, as that allows children to make links between where they are now and where they’d like to be in the future.
Parents can help their children break the journey into smaller, achievable steps (for example, gaining a pass in maths, and therefore completing this homework) and showing how these steps relate to longer term goals.
When speaking to children about the future, help them distinguish between aspirations and their expectations. Over time, bringing these into line and where necessary encouraging children to ‘think big’, can increase children’s belief in what is possible.
Parents can also remind their children that teachers are the ones conducting the assessments this year, and so producing good work still matters. Parents say the occasional reward (OK, bribe) doesn’t go amiss either. But families need to be easy on themselves. Everyone’s flagging, but something that more closely resembles ‘normal’ is hopefully around the corner.
Will Millard is head of engagement at the Centre for Education and Youth