It was a two week period like no other. In the absence of students actually sitting any examinations, grades were calculated by an algorithm, determined by schools (centres) and after much upheaval young people received the higher of the two grades. Privately entered candidates are still in limbo, vocational qualifications have yet to be confirmed and further and higher education have been left to sort out a complex admissions process. However, there are reasons to be cheerful.
A greater number of young people have now met the threshold levels required to attend university or enter into higher level apprenticeships. Post-16, far more students will be able to access A-level or Level 3 courses than in previous years. The artificial limits that ensure just under a third of students had their opportunities curtailed at sixteen years of age have been removed. There will be an opportunity for talent to flourish rather than opportunities closed down.
For some schools, colleges and teachers there will be a concern that they have the “wrong students” in their class. However, it was always thus. Ofqual’s own analysis shows a frightening lack of reliability in examination marking particularly in subjects like English & History, as opposed to Mathematics or the Sciences. We have always had a few outlier students in every class. With high quality teaching and support they thrived.
Induction processes will never have been more important both academically and socially, than this year. The loss of learning and length out of education is greater for this generation of young people, as they transition to their next phase of education. This will need to be accounted for academically to ensure courses start from where the students are. Socially, all young people will benefit from being back with friends, new and old, and the structure and stability the school day, week and year will bring. Within this there will be a smaller sub-set of students – statistically greater in disadvantaged and BAME communities – who will require more intensive support due to the impact of the last six months.
It would be perverse if we did not give deep consideration to offering the enhanced opportunities offered to young people of the class of 2020 – to continue in education, both academic and vocational – to future year groups. At a system level, the structure and content of the GCSE qualifications needs to be put under the microscope. Possible questions are, “What is the purpose of examinations at 16? Are 9 grades required to fulfil that purpose? Is a system based solely on a terminal examination the most reliable and trustworthy?” The final question has been brought into stark relief as many young people and their parents trusted teachers rather than the algorithm.
However, teacher assessed grades have issues of bias and reliability, so do examinations. In lowering the stakes (allowing more young people to progress) and limiting the cliff edges (reducing unnecessary grading) this lack of reliability becomes less of an issue. There is the potential for us to create a more balanced assessment system based on moderated centre assessed grades which are formed over time (distributed), with an end of course synoptic element (learning has to be accumulated) that will enable all important aspects of a subject to be assessed (the assessment is extensive). The precise nature of assessment would need to vary from subject to subject.
Finally, amidst the melee let us not forget teachers. I would be fascinated to sit in on some performance management discussions this year. High stakes accountability focussed performance management systems are likely to go into meltdown whereas more developmental systems are likely to flourish. The examination orientated target setting and reviewing at an individual teacher level will look increasingly algorithmic. Not overly reliable, as the size of the sample is too small. Now is the time to shift to a high responsibility system of performance management: bottom line accountability with high level professional development. As the overwhelming majority of teachers operate above the bottom line this is about enabling teachers, departments and schools to get better at getting better. It is what the best school leaders have always focused on.
Whilst the dust hasn’t quite settled on the 2020 examination season the above are some potential takeaways. My thoughts are sat within the enactment of a very imperfect national process. The algorithm did not work sufficiently well at an individual student level nor did it cater for the inter-year variation in school performance. The centre assessed grades (CAGs) were not moderated between schools and variable approaches were taken. There is no use talking about grade inflation. Outcomes for 2020 cannot be compared with what went before. It remains to be seen whether this year will be a “blip” or the start of something quite different.