Yes, but… no, but… Stop dithering – we need detail on the summer assessments

30 Nov 2020, 5:00

The Department for Education can’t delay any longer – contingencies and adaptations for next summer’s exams must be published immediately, writes Bill Watkin

We are getting uncomfortably accustomed to a diet of divided opinion, it seems. Brexit, Trump, even wearing masks and lockdown, have all split views and raised the temperature in homes across the country.

And, of course, there are next summer’s examinations. There are passionate advocates of exams and hardened opponents, both sides now battle-scarred by their experiences last summer.

So, should exams take place, or shouldn’t they?

It’s not a straightforward question, and for many, the conversation ends up taking the form of a yes, but… no, but… discussion.

On the one hand, exams are widely acknowledged to be the simplest, apparently most objective, and certainly the most accepted method of terminal assessment.

Yes, but (I argue with myself) exams are unreliable at the best of times! There is evidence to suggest that the grade you were awarded could easily have been one higher or one lower if the wind had been blowing in a different direction.

Even if exams can take place – and they almost certainly will – they would be inherently unfair. Young people won’t have the same learning opportunities this year.

No, but the alternative to exams last summer was something of a disaster. Some centres are still embroiled in legal challenges from disappointed students, there was grade inflation, some students reached aspirational destinations with potentially inadequate preparation.

Yes, but we have learned the lessons: right from the start, Ofqual said we should rely on teachers’ professional judgement. We know now that we mustn’t worry excessively about grade inflation.

No, but employers, universities and colleges need to be clear about what a young person knows and can do! Only an exam can provide that objective benchmark that allows us to feel confident about that.

Yes, but sixth-form colleges and universities can put on foundation years to get young people up to standard. Except that the third year of sixth-form funding is 17.5 per cent lower than an already low rate. And university students will balk at paying £3,000 more in tuition fees.

Yes, but we can still deliver a grading system without exams – we just need to agree some contingencies and adaptations. We can’t afford to rush to a decision.

No, but we are already well into the school year. We could reduce the content to be tested and say in advance which topics might be in the exams. And we could compensate students for lost learning by allowing aids in the exam, such as set texts and formula sheets.

Yes, but this can be counter-productive – the more material there is, the greater the danger of cognitive overload. It won’t help those who need it most.

No, but Ofqual could also use comparable outcomes to ensure that this year’s students would be treated as “generously” as candidates in 2020.

Yes, but that applies to all students and does nothing to level the playing field and compensate those who have had a tougher time of it this year. And some students will be ill or self-isolating in the summer and won’t be able to take all of the exams.

As we can see, the Holy Grail that is “fairness” is proving elusive

No, but if the timetable allows for a time gap between the different papers in each subject, and if there is an extra chance to take the exam later, it is very unlikely that a student would be unavailable for every window.

Yes, but even one young person missing an exam means we need a back-up plan. We can’t just rely on exams.

No, but we can bring back ranking. Not all students, just those who have not done any papers.

Phew. As we can see, the Holy Grail that is “fairness” is proving elusive, and the opinion divide is not surprising.

But now is the time for the Department for Education to decide once and for all what contingencies and adaptations will be introduced this summer.

Teachers and students need to know what they are preparing for and how to prepare for it. We are almost at the end of term one and every lesson counts.

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One comment

  1. ‘It’s not a straightforward question’. Maybe.
    But there is a straightforward answer.
    A form of teacher based assessment needs to be put in place before Xmas, communicated to students, parents, teachers, Colleges/Uni, employers.
    This won’t be that simple but gives clarity re the next 8 months on what is happening.
    The possibility that there may be further disruption to learning between now and July 2021 surely makes the setting/marking of exams a farce, and most of the damage has already occurred over the last 9 months.
    Some of the proposals re choice of questions, limiting coverage of the syllabus, taking books/notes into the exams are laughable at such short notice.
    The world of education, especially FE, the sector I spent my whole working life in, is having its heart ripped out.
    Thankfully I retired some years ago.
    Too many interfering/tinkering politicians get involved short-term, and disappear before the true consequences unfold. From Lord Baker through to Michael Gove and today’s incumbent Gavin Williamson, all want to create a legacy.
    ‘Creating a World Class Education System’ is the current mantra, ‘levelling up’ is trotted out at every opportunity, the naive assumption being the more we hear it the more we’ll believe it. What an insult!
    Gavin W needs to perform another U-turn, something we’ve become familiar with in this Govt over the last year during these challenging times, and agree/align with our devolved neighbours to scrap the formal exams for 2021.
    Give the students and teachers half a chance, with 8 months notice, to produce some reliable/consistent outcomes.
    Obfuscation, dithering, bickering, gets us nowhere – just get on with it!!