Ministers are floundering into exam chaos: but it’s candidates who’ll suffer

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School exam halls are due to be full next summer: or will they stand empty again? The longer ministers founder, the more likely cancellation becomes.

On 30th September I published a piece on Voice of the North about next year’s (summer 2021) public exams. I predicted that, notwithstanding their fine words, empty promises and sheer dithering, ministers will end up by cancelling them.It was a challenge. Surely, I hoped, they wouldn’t keep forever prevaricating about how to do them, so that, despite my mischievous suggestion of putting a bet on their cancellation, it wouldn’t happen.

Two days after my piece (unconnected), the unions representing teachers and school leaders published a proposal for the conduct of next year’s exams designed to ensure fairness and maintenance of standards.

Looking busy doing nothing

Six weeks later, nothing’s been decided or acted on – in England and Northern Ireland. Wales has now cancelled next summer’s papers, placing its faith in regular teacher assessments between now and then. Scotland’s hanging on to Highers (which parallel A level) but has pulled the plug on its National 5 (GCSE equivalent).

I don’t know if these are right decisions: but at least they are decisions, which schools and candidates can work on. Meanwhile, our Department for Education (DfE) and its ministers insist pigheadedly (a description given to me by people who work and negotiate with them) that England is different. They plan to run a full set of summer exams times just three weeks later than usual:  a derisory gesture intended to “compensate” for teaching missed during 2020’s lockdown.

No level playing-field

So why is it going to be difficult to run exams next summer? We might have a viable vaccine. Schools could be back to normal.

Maybe, but 2021’s candidates will have missed more teaching than 2020’s. There was the spring-to-summer lockdown: and now, even though schools are open, isolation requirements have obliged many to send home student  “bubbles” and whole year-groups.

Moreover, some schools in harder-hit areas have suffered higher infection rates, and therefore lost more teaching, than others: a big north-south divide is emerging.

Then there’s poverty. More affluent schools and/or better-off parents have been able to guarantee access to online teaching for most or all pupils. Others can’t: when a primary head in a deprived area tells BBC News that the 35 tablets government promised her school will now be just eight (they haven’t arrived yet), you know that some kids, the poorest, are losing out badly.

Thus there’s no “level playing-field” for exam candidates: some will have received immeasurably more preparation for exams than others.

Standards v content: quality v quantity

Unions are urging government to reduce the scale of next year’s exams. A levels, and even the new(-ish) GCSEs, are content-heavy: syllabuses are frequently enormous, hard enough for teachers and students to cover in two years. With so much teaching time lost since September 2019, many teachers say they can’t do it.

The combined unions suggest papers should be reduced, or include some optional elements, so that candidates could just answer questions on what they had actually covered.

This throws up particular problems. With quantity reduced, can quality (of learning and understanding) be guaranteed? And is it fair to expect candidates who have covered the whole syllabus to answer all the questions, while others can pick and choose those that suit them?

Ministers keep mum

Meanwhile, what of the suggestion from many quarters that, like Wales, England should set up a mechanism for regular testing? (We called it continuous assessment in the old days, and it worked). Then, if exams don’t happen, teachers could have reliable, even properly moderated progress scores for candidates. Again, silence from ministers, and months wasted.

None of this is easy. No one approach will solve all the difficulties. But at least Wales (and, to some extent, Scotland) is prepared to act. Here, ministers dither and prevaricate. As I said this morning to LBC Radio’s Nick Ferrari (Banksy’s old sparring partner and always ready to credit Voice of the North), they’re floundering into chaos.

That chaos might dent their political careers (though it seldom seems to).  But it’s next year’s exam candidates, the least advantaged above all, who will suffer.

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