Summer exams: the dismal efforts of ministers and the exams regulator have succeeded only in turning a dog’s dinner into a car crash

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Exams halls will stand empty once more this summer: but the proposed solution to the problem is a "car-crash"

I don’t want to say I told you so: but I told you so. Back in September I predicted that the GCSE and A level exams scheduled for summer 2021 would be cancelled.  “No, no, no!” shrieked the Secretary of State for Education and his minions. But exams were cancelled: eventually, in January. Latest plans (launched only this week) will do little to help replace summer exams: the dismal efforts of ministers and the exams regulator have succeeded only in turning a dog’s dinner into a car crash.

You didn’t have to be a genius or a prophet to predict the cancellation of this summer’s exams as early as last autumn. Scientists were already predicting a second wave of Covid transmissions (the wave from which we’re only now beginning to emerge), and no one was surprised by the PM’s closure of schools after Christmas.

Before then, many pupils had already lost weeks or months of school by being sent home when someone in their “bubble” tested positive for the virus: and all that, of course, after 2020’s summer term had been wiped out. Given the unavoidably patchy nature of online/remote teaching when schools were (largely) closed, it was similarly inevitable that government would be forced to acknowledge that sitting all candidates down to the same exam papers would be unfair.

Some critics argued the opposite, and persuasively, claiming that testing everyone in precisely the same way is the only way to create the wished-for “level playing-field”. Nonetheless, since exam cancellation was predictable back in September (when I made my prediction on Voice of the North), schools were dismayed that ministers had dithered for months before bowing to the inevitable.

There followed a consultation of how candidates should be assessed instead. Based on teachers’ judgement, yes: but the question was how teachers should award grades reliable and consistently.

Another month passed: and still another. At last, here we are in mid-to-late March, with only a couple of weeks until England’s schools break for Easter: and Ofqual has just announced that, after Easter, it will publish “additional assessment materials” to inform teachers’ judgement as to candidates’ final grades.

You might think that, late as it is, such an offering should be helpful, providing a measure of standardisation: besides, schools aren’t obliged to use these tests, being free to choose their own range of evidence on which to base the grades they award.

But the plan is the very opposite of helpful. Former DfE adviser Sam Freedman describes what I’ve repeatedly called a dog’s dinner as “a car crash”. He’s right.

The tests will be available for all to see: Ofqual reckoned that, once published to schools, they’d be leaked anyway. So they’ve announced that anyone can find them online, complete with marking schemes.  But a “wide range of questions” will be available, so candidates won’t know precisely which ones their schools will use. Yeah, right.

Oh, and they’re being published after Easter “to try and avoid students sort of cramming with them over the holidays which we didn’t think was a healthy thing…” (Ofqual’s Rebekah Edgar, reported in Schools Week).

Government and Ofqual have neatly passed the buck. By “trusting” teachers to award grades, and “consulting” on how this too-little-too-late material should be supplied, while highlighting the existence of a right of appeal, they have effectively sidestepped responsibility for the results.

Schools are left with the complex and unenviable task of outlining in detail to candidates and parents how they will gather and select the evidence on which grades will be based. And to deal with the wrangles with more advantaged, “sharp-elbowed” (David Cameron’s word) families who are already identifying what evidence they reckon will work best their children: it may well include these published-to-all tests for which they will indeed be able to “cram”.

Teachers and schools will take the heat, while ministers preen and claim they’ve sorted a difficult situation.

They haven’t. The difficulty stems not from school closures, but from ministerial inaction throughout the autumn.

As ever, teachers will bust a gut to make things work for their pupils: but, cast as the villains for many candidates, they’ll receive small thanks for their efforts. As ever.

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