So we lost the GCSE English legal challenge, as we discovered in a long delayed judgement last week. This was a bitter disappointment for the alliance that campaigned for justice, but an even greater blow for the thousands of students denied access to work, further or higher education as a result of the shift in grade boundaries: students who did the same work to the same quality but got a lower grade than those who sat the exams earlier.
There are few crumbs of comfort in the judge’s ruling. Apparently it was indeed unfair on the students, but the regulator acted reasonably in apportioning the unfairness to cause the least harm. In taking this view, the judge seems to have attached as much value to the principle of comparable outcomes as to the welfare of the individuals involved. I’m not sure comparable outcomes deserves such respect, but that’s not really for the courts to decide.
This suggests it was the system that was to blame, rather than the individuals involved, and the system wasn’t on trial. But who is responsible for the system? Why do we operate in a world where a flawed exam can be implemented, where the pressures on teachers are such that immense weight is placed on the C/D borderline and where the regulator cannot know that there is something wrong with the marks until after they have been awarded?
There seems little that can be done now for the students who became the collateral damage in an emergency fix to a failed system, but how can we prevent this same thing happening again?
To me, the risks lie not so much in the design of assessments as in the distortions inflicted on assessment by our accountability system. In this vein, the consultation on key stage 4 accountability released by the government this month is critical and deserves careful analysis and response from the profession.
There are some promising ideas in it. It is hard to argue against the proposition that students need to get a basic threshold in maths and English in order to participate fully in work and life – although this may add to the pressure at the threshold. The shift to an average point score in the “best eight” GCSEs (which can include up to three “non-EBacc” subjects) does lift the weight from the C/D border and begin to value the achievement of every student.
It may reduce the incentives to sit too many GCSEs and it may prevent some of the narrowing of the curriculum that horrified so many people about the original EBC proposals. Questions remain about our ability to fit deep vocational study into this framework.
No small group of performance measures will ever be free from risk or distortion, especially when the stakes attached to success or failure are so high. We need to loosen the connection between judgements of school performance and exam statistics.
Clearly students’ performance in exams is a central measure of school performance, but it needs to be assessed qualitatively within a wider set of judgements about breadth, welfare, inclusion, context and the risks taken to achieve the headline results.
Before the High Court verdict, it was hospitals that dominated the headlines – particularly the tragic events at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust. It appears that care suffered as terrible risks were taken in pursuit of top-down targets. When you measure one result and ignore the costs of achieving it, and when you neglect to look behind the data into the way results are achieved, these things can happen.
They are happening in education too. People don’t die, but lives are blighted slowly and imperceptibly – options narrowed, special needs resource units reduced, shallow teaching to the test, a love of learning eroded by lack of motivation, stressed and demoralised teachers. Let’s fix the exam system by fixing the accountability framework first.
- Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk
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