Now we must pick up the pieces of our broken system

21 Aug 2020, 8:19

The results are in but the work of ensuring students rebuild their confidence has only just begun, writes Liz Bromley

This week, teacher assessments plus adjustments by the qualifications regulator have caused GCSE grade inflation by some 20 per cent between grades 6 to 9, with more than 25 per cent more students receiving grades 7 to 9. Students are delighted (or dismayed) as ever, whilst admissions teams are wondering how to deal with the unanticipated rise in the number of students expecting entry to Year 12, how to make entry criteria fair, reasonable and legally robust, and what social distancing looks like in this new context.

For those who are admitted, enrolling them onto the right A levels, particularly for STEM subjects, is critical. Unexpected admissions achieved through inflated grades will be pyrrhic victories; being given a choice of which grade (teachers or Ofqual) to accept damages not only the credibility of the assessment boards but also the sense of achievement in this time of non-examination. The joy of results day has been reduced to confusion and panic as students question the latest changes; the Pearson about-turn on BTECs at the eleventh hour has not helped.

Young people will be unable to use their GCSE grades as anything more than stepping stones

Academic teams are now having to focus on what in-session support will be needed by students who may have grades on paper but lack the learning and confidence needed. It is imperative that we deliver significantly enhanced, embedded learning opportunities within subject curriculum to enable students, already victim to this devastated academic year, to be successful in two years’ time.

Maybe this will improve teaching practice for future years, but the planning comes late in the day and at a time when the A level results aftermath continues with complaints of malpractice, and FOI and SAR requests flooding schools and colleges. The anger that had been directed towards Government has been deflected onto the sector at exactly the time when all our time and energy is needed to get students into the right place and frame of mind for September.

Building greater flexibility into the system to move students onto the right courses if their first choices don’t work out will be key to retaining and rebooting student confidence in their own ability and in the education system. Some students will have a chance to become the person that their grades describe, but educators will be crucial in realising that opportunity with them.

When the pressure of this moment has abated, questions must be asked about the variable practice across schools and colleges in relation to CAGs, and how this has contributed not only to grade inflation, but also to an unfair pattern of results for schools which were cautious and conservative in their calculations. We must accept that this is the year when young people will be unable to use their GCSE grades as anything more than stepping stones – and we must do better.

Why, when it was clear in July that the Ofqual algorithm for A levels was only 75 per cent accurate, did we get to within hours of results day before really engaging with the options open for fair outcomes? Critical discussion with teachers – at the heart of the brewing issues – didn’t happen, and understanding the consequences of getting this wrong came far too late. The opportunity was missed to use this aberrant year for the whole jigsaw of education to be pieced together more creatively for student outcomes. The inevitable educational chaos requires us to start working right now to ensure next year’s year 13 students don’t suffer a similar experience.

We work in learning organisations. We have mission statements about changing lives, empowering learners, releasing potential. We must learn from the unintended consequences of the pandemic to organise ourselves now to respond better this time next year. Let us remember our core purpose and put our energies into ensuring that young people have the support they will need to get maximum benefit from studies now open to them, and never again create this year’s perfect storm.

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