A level and GCSE exams won’t take place as “normal” in 2021: but ministers, in denial, are pig-headedly floundering towards another fiasco.

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As Boris struggles, his education ministers are blithely stumbling towards another exam fiasco

As one in six schools has year-groups sent home due to Covid outbreaks, and pupil progress is affected as a result, education bodies are lining up to demand a change to public exams next year. Meanwhile ministers offer no more comfort than a proposal to push exams a bit later. Former headteacher Bernard Trafford predicts:  A level and GCSE exams won’t take place as “normal” in 2021: but ministers, in denial, are pig-headedly floundering towards another fiasco.

Imagine you’re an education minister. You get two university Vice-Chancellors, the nation’s biggest teaching union and an ennobled former Education Secretary simultaneously calling for next year’s public exams to be cancelled.  What do you do?

You might reckon that they represent a pretty powerful body of educational opinion: for a start, the NEU (formerly the NUT) represents a huge proportion of the nation’s teachers. So you’d probably listen, and try to work something out. At least, in a sane world (or even a sane government) you would. Wouldn’t you?

Not this lot, apparently. According to NEU’s Mary Bousted, ministers are sticking their fingers in their ears. She didn’t actually say that education’s Chuckle Brothers – Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Schools Minister Nick Gibb – were also loudly proclaiming, “Nah, nah, nah! Can’t hear you!” But they might as well have been.

Now, the general public aren’t necessarily going to line up behind the NEU. The union lost support when, for too much of the first wave of the virus and lockdown, it appeared to be blocking attempts to continue pupils’ education, whether in school or remotely, too often seeming to discourage teachers from engaging with proposed strategies or initiatives or working with school leaders working their socks off to keep kids learning.

This led to some understandable tensions with the major school leaders’ union, ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders): but ASCL’s Geoff Barton, who has furnished his members with unflaggingly excellent leadership throughout the Covid crisis, is unlikely to fall out with NEU on this latest topic.

As far as I can see, Geoff has not yet called for the cancellation of next year’s exams, but is actively involved in alliances seeking to reshape them over time, a move given impetus by this year’s problems.

Lord Baker is part of that coalition: as Education Secretary Kenneth Baker he introduced the GCSE in the late 1980s, but now rightly reckons the 30-year-old exam has had its day. This week he too has declared that next year’s exams should be cancelled: as have David Eastwood and Chris Husbands, VCs respectively of Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam Universities, writing in The Times.

Those who criticise the suggestion – such as the high-profile leader of The Inspiration (multi-academy) Trust, Dame Rachel De Souza in BBC Radio 4’s The World at One today – claim that, as schools and their exam candidates navigate the ups and downs, openings and closures of this second wave, the only fair way to award grades is through objective written exams.

The opposing argument declares that the arbitrarily differing experiences of candidates, depending on how their schools and settings are affected by the virus, demand reliance once more on teacher assessment: but without this year’s farce of an algorithm distorting results.

This time round there is time to collect evidence by setting up a programme of regular testing by teachers (let’s call it by its proper technical name, assessment), coupled with a proper system of moderation by exam boards and Ofqual across and between schools and colleges. There will be ample time to iron out vagaries and even prevent the grade-inflation that is anathema to Nick Gibb.

But there will be time only if ministers act now and set Ofqual and the boards to work!

It’s already clear that they won’t do that. Instead, as in the past summer, they’ll carry on insisting that their plan – no change beyond tinkering with the timetable – is the right and only one. When everything goes belly-up, there will be a panic similar to this year’s, knee-jerk responses and, in short, yet another cock-up.

I’m not a betting man: but if you do like a flutter, I’d advise you to put a tenner on my prediction:

A level and GCSE exams won’t take place as “normal” in 2021: but ministers, in denial, are pig-headedly floundering towards another fiasco.

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