The challenges facing 2021 exam grades are very different to 2020

19 Jan 2021, 11:35

Ofqual and the Department for Education didn’t want to make this decision around exam grades, and now face a daunting task, writes Tom Bewick

Hard core Star Trek fans will know that it wasn’t Mr Spock that said to Captain Kirk, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.”   

Instead, these famous lines first appeared in the 1987 song Star Trekkin’, sung by the Firm.   

So you may well find yourself, like me, interpreting lots of the joint consultation from Ofqual, written with the Department for Education, as something like: “It’s exams, Jim, but not as we know it.”   
On Friday Ofqual signalled that practical exam assessments should go ahead as normal, subject to guidelines on Covid-secure settings. If these exams can’t be delivered in situ or remotely then they can be delayed, said the regulator. 

This means it is likely that the examination element of T-Levels will now take place next year, which is fine – for licence-to-practice qualifications or non-exam assessments, there has never been a one-size-fits all way to award vocational and technical qualifications.  

Meanwhile planned tweaks to the Extended Extraordinary Regulatory Framework (EERF) will allow awarding organisations to adapt vocational and technical qualifications to ensure that the vast majority of learners can still progress.  

Indeed, the feedback from our members about the operation of the EERF to date has been broadly positive. And no issues appear to have been raised by Ofqual about this temporary arrangement. 
But you can tell the government and the regulator never really wanted to be in the position of cancelling the summer examinations for a second time.   
One of the painful conclusions from the “fiasco” of August 2020 was that, for all the contentious debates surrounding the merits of assessment regimes, objective national tests moderated and performed under invigilated conditions are still the fairest way of finding out what a learner knows and understands.   
Moreover, we know that ethnic minorities and bright working-class kids tend to lose out under teacher-assessed grades. Human psychology traits like racial discrimination and unconscious bias are big inhibitors to social progress.   
Indeed many private schools, which offer international GCSEs, are planning to go ahead with physical exams this summer. They know the societal prestige attached to a set of reliable, externally validated results.  
So one of the biggest dilemmas now facing Ofqual and exams is ensuring both consistency and fairness in awarding qualifications.   
This is a daunting task. 

Last year, students had by and large completed the required scope of learning by the time lockdown restrictions happened in late March. But in the past 12 months, young people in England have endured three national lockdowns. They have experienced a massive overall loss in teaching and learning.   
The north of England has also generally reported more college days lost due to coronavirus than the south.   
At the same time, many year 11 and 13 pupils are already sitting “mini-exams” which the government are saying can be used as valid “mock exams”.   

This is potentially a bureaucratic nightmare

  Meanwhile, teachers have been told to hold back on assessing students until all these different forms of assessment, including valid mock exams, have been taken into account.  
After that, mock exam results could form the basis of any appeals.  

What’s tricky here is students this year will be assessed on what they know, not what they could have known if the pandemic had never occurred. This is a departure from last summer’s arrangements, when teachers were asked to make judgements on what they thought students would have got if exams had gone ahead. 

Appeals will be open to all students this year. This is potentially a bureaucratic nightmare.  

The one saving grace is that the required “evidence” for an appeal (like mock exam results and/or assessed coursework) will give awarding organisations something to work with. 

No wonder, then, that Ofqual and the Department for Education have decided to work so closely together. It would appear that trapped on their Starship Enterprise, the regulator and Gavin Williamson are resigned to entwining their fates.
To quote the 1987 song again: don’t be surprised if the whole enterprise continues “boldly going forward”. But this won’t be plain sailing.  


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