After a week at sea like no other, the next big challenge is teacher-assessed grades, writes David Hughes
This week we’ve seen another lockdown, confusion, dismay and anxieties raised – and that’s just in education.
The prime minister’s third lockdown announcement on Monday night incorporated the surprising decision to go ahead with the January series of vocational and technical exams while cancelling the summer exams.
For colleges that meant 135,000 students sitting in exam halls at the peak of the pandemic.
Our immediate public call for those exams to be cancelled was based on a simple assessment that too many students would be nervous about sitting exams – for their health and because of the risk of transmitting the virus to their own families.
That anxiety is not conducive to good performance in any exam and we believed it should have been enough to convince government to cancel. On top of that, the challenge of finding staff to invigilate and steward the exams felt like the clincher.
The response from Department for Education was to make half a U-turn, giving the responsibility to each college and school to decide whether to cancel or not. Many cancelled immediately, others did so after low turnout on the first day of exams, while others still are going ahead.
On Wednesday, education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that Ofqual will consult next week on how teacher-assessed grades can be used to replace exams.
The work to pull together that consultation is burning up the midnight oil of lots of officials this week, to hit tight deadlines.
One of the big challenges now is how to take into account the disruptions in learning that students have already experienced. This differs across different institutions, areas and qualification types – but it is also impacted by digital poverty, with around 100,000 16- to 19-year olds in colleges alone lacking digital devices and broadband. And of course, it differs because some students have been ill, had to self-isolate or shield, while others have not.
This is not easy to assess, but those who already faced the biggest barriers to success will be the most affected. The pandemic has widened and deepened the educational disadvantage gaps. How will the promised moderation account for this?
We are working hard to ensure that the consultation offers a coherent, consistent and fair approach to all qualifications for all ages, types of learning and students. The complexity of vocational and technical qualifications will make this harder than for A-levels and GCSEs which are relatively straightforward.
Half a million 16- to 18-year-old students across 239 colleges are taking vocational and technical qualifications.
Meanwhile, 155,000 16 to 18-year-olds are taking A-levels or programmes that combine vocational qualifications and A-levels.
Then there are 200,000 16-to-18-year-olds taking GCSEs in English and or maths and 130,000 taking Functional Skills.
This is in addition to one million adult learners and 250,000 apprentices.
We owe it to all these students to ensure that they know as soon as possible how their hard work over the past year or two will be recognised. Being “fair” to students requires making judgments about what knowledge and skills they have acquired, as well as their achievements in relation to national benchmarks and other students.
For those on licence to practice courses, there will have to be face-to-face assessments of competency before it is safe for students to go into the workplace. For other qualifications there will be banked assessments already.
So fairness is not about the same approach for everyone, it is a consistent approach designed for the specific circumstances – tricky to get right and even harder to communicate.
The prime minister said that by the middle of February and with “a fair wind in our sails” the progress of the vaccination programme would hopefully mean restrictions could begin to be lifted.
But we need to steady the ship now, with rapid, clear and transparent decisions based on trust in those who know students best.