Over recent decades England has seen the gradual erosion of trust in teachers and in teaching as a profession. This suspicion and casual condemnation happens across many public spheres and is most prominent during August each year when the results of the GCSEs and A levels are picked over and hotly debated.
Of course 2020 will be very different as there will be no final exams. Instead the results days (13 August for A level and 20 August for GCSE) will see the release of grades that comprise a range of evidence provided by teachers and schools.
A casual view of any social media or news reports relating to education at present reveals a continual stream of concerns, questions and more than a healthy dose of rumour suggesting that these very high stakes assessments might disadvantage students both now and in the 2021 cycle.
Ofqual has been quick to respond to this and their consultation documents include a review of evidence from literature relating to teacher bias. Their review finds that most research, albeit some quite old, demonstrates that teachers are generally very accurate in how they predict the performance of their students; what tends to negatively impact their predictions are accountability burdens such a school league tables and funding pressures. Teachers are unfairly constrained by a straightjacket of accountability that means if their students don’t get the required grades in SATs, GCSEs and A levels, then they have somehow failed as professionals.
I was cautiously optimistic that in 2020 we would have an opportunity to challenge the degradation of the role of teachers because students’ achievements will be founded on the professional knowledge of those who know their students best of all.
However, the most recent Ofqual Guidance to teachers, students, parents and carers suggests that students don’t have to place their entire trust in teachers. The section focused on Results and progression explains that grades can be challenged in the usual ways based on, for example, technical errors in standardisation, or omissions in the evidence used by schools to calculate predictions.
But then there is a further offer:
Students who feel that their grades from the summer do not reflect their ability will have the opportunity to take their exams in the autumn series or in summer 2021. If they choose to do this, students will be able to use the higher of the two grades for future progression. (p 9)
Interestingly, they use the word ‘feel’ as a reason to request the chance to sit a ‘real’ assessment – one which is set externally.
There are substantive issues here: firstly, will all students really have the opportunity to take an exam? I’m not convinced it would be feasible and I fear that only certain students will have genuinely equitable access. Second, students who do get to take an exam will be able to cherry pick their best result. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’m concerned about the efficacy of planning exams and awarding during teaching terms. There remain many issues of which the public are unaware, for example, how will schools continue to teach their scheduled curriculums and accommodate exam cycles, or who will mark the exams (given that this is done by lots of teachers), or how will the exam boards cope with this significant shift in their annual practice?
I’m sure that more information will be released in due course but making the exam boards offer exams in addition to the awarding of grades from schools’ evidence seems like a clumsy attempt at placating those who believe that examinations are the best way to assess our young people in everything.
In 2020, teacher judgements will lead decision-making for our high stakes examinations nationally, but they are not the only predictor of student success; a range of expertise will come into play.
I’ve never met a teacher who claimed they chose the profession in order to train young people to take examinations. I’d like to suggest that we face this change to the normal service positively: be assured, teachers don’t want students to fail, they don’t want students to underachieve; so how about trusting them?