Assessment: We had a whiff of freedom – and blew it

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The cancelled examinations were an opportunity for the profession to reclaim the Holy Grail of teaching and learning. Sadly, says Joel Wirth, this opportunity has been missed and we will now slowly slide back into the cage of high-stakes, data-driven accountability

If you were fortunate enough to get away this summer, you will have experienced a moment of profound revelation. It was to be found in those first seconds after you opened your own front door and briefly you detected the unique aroma of your own house as other people smell it.

I’ve always found this a deeply telling moment. Within a matter of minutes, the smell has disappeared, or rather, of course, you’ve become re-habituated to it.

But it must still be there, happily (or disloyally) telling the story of your family’s every foible to any visiting stranger: a penchant for fried food; a splash of fug and dust; eau de teenage boy; a damp miasma of never-quite-dry towel…

The smell of your house tells a truth about you which you might not even know yourself. As a profession, we have much to learn from this.

The A level and GCSE outcomes of 2021 surely tell us the same inescapable, intimate truth about our profession and our professionalism as we momently detect when we throw open the front door for the first time in weeks. “This,” these results seem to say, “is what we’re really like…”

Summer 2021 outcomes come unencumbered by the vagaries of examination. There can be none of those concerns about marking, none of the hand-wringing about prejudices in the exam papers or stories about leaks and compromised integrity.

At an individual level, students have not been prey to the savageries of a cliff-edge assessment regime which every year sees university places lost because of an incongruous D grade. In short, there can be no moaning. These outcomes are purely “ours”.

And what story do they tell?

Dear reader, I am afraid that this is a story of missed opportunities. This, I very much fear, is a sad, destitute saga of a profession that has suffered a decades long imprisonment in a cell of high-stakes accountability which has so malformed our sense of moral purpose that, when offered a glimpse of freedom, we have crawled straight back into that cell and asked the gaoler to turn the key.

It is a sad, demoralising tale of what we have allowed ourselves to become.

What might have been

Throughout the pandemic, we have shared our excitement and anticipation about the changes that would have to come as a result of everything we’d been through and what we’d achieved. We had rightly lauded our transition to blended learning.

Through the glitches in human interactions across Teams or Google Classroom, we’d rediscovered the joys of face-to-face teaching, but the best of us also saw that, if content could be delivered quite efficiently this way, then we needed to look again at what we were doing with all that time in the classroom. We were on the brink of a moment of genuine and profound opportunity.

The opportunity, of course, was the death of data. Everyone knew it. The pandemic had obliterated the accountability framework. Covid was the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. A panacea.

Suddenly, there was an answer to every question about progress, about attainment, about underperformance: “Well, this is the year group whose GCSE grades were…”, “Of course year 9 aren’t where they’re supposed to be, they’ve had…”, “Yes, Ofsted Inspector, but that was the year group whose grades…”

And what would take the place of the data? If all the numbers that quicken the collective pulses of senior leaders and the inspectorate were rendered meaningless for years to come, then what would they find to get over-excited by?

Teaching and learning of course. There it suddenly stood, finally dressed in its full regalia, no longer saddled with the endless “Yes, but the data…” Cinderella had found the prince.

All we needed to do to get this right was to prove that we could assess reliably. Do that and suddenly it becomes harder to make the case for the twin Ugly Sisters of a one-size-fits-all, all-or-nothing assessment system and a high-stakes, data-driven inspection process.

Do that and it becomes possible to believe that schools can be trusted. Maybe then it becomes possible to consider the kind of school-led accountability procedures that the Association of School and College Leaders and other professional organisations have so long trumpeted.

Maybe then we might have transformed our classrooms, liberated students from the often crushing convergence of the modern education system (stand up, GCSE English language, I’m talking to you and your friends) and freed them to think differently; think of the benefits to mental health.

We might have started actually learning from other systems around the world rather than looking at them with misplaced envy (Singapore) or equally misplaced suspicion (all those cursed Scandinavians with their ever-so-slightly-cuddly successes). We might have had it all.

What will (almost certainly) be

We have been defended publicly by those who are probably seething behind closed doors. Watching a Conservative education secretary refuse to condemn the grades has been novel, but it was very promptly followed by Nick Gibb trumpeting the evident importance of exams. The subtext here is barely sub. It’s full on, periscopes up, crew on deck, torpedoes pointing at the ammunition hold of the profession: “Schools cannot be trusted to do the right thing. External accountability is the only way.”

And so, we’ll go back. Back to the cage of a high-stakes external accountability framework where anything we might say about ourselves will be now viewed through the prism of the last two years.

Back to senior leaders seeing grades as the only viable currency.

Back to gaming the system.

Back to schools which are blighted by the refusal to contextualise data being on constant warning of imminent Armageddon.

Back to students being crushed through the mill of a system which lionises convergent conformity (what else can account for the dramatic dominance of STEM subjects?) at the expense of anything that might look like creative divergence.

We should probably be screaming. We should certainly be ashamed. The door was opened. We had a whiff of freedom.

What’s to do?

It is time to be courageous. None of us came into the job for this. The three years of shamefully corrupted data which lie ahead will allow us some time to work on what’s really there. We need to make the classroom the thing that counts. We need to reassert that a school, a college, is really nothing more than the sum of the thousands of interactions that happen on a daily basis between adults and young people.

We need to make that transaction the currency of a new economy of education. We need to look relentlessly at individual teachers and their unique, professional behaviours, and offer them restless, bespoke guidance on how to be their best self.

We need to avoid top-down diktat about “questioning” or watered-down mush about “metacognition” and do the hard miles as leaders and teachers: establishing an honest dialogue around teaching focused on students and their experiences rather than termly kangaroo-courts about the numbers.

If we can do this – across departments, between trusts and schools – we might yet salvage something. If not, I fear that the incipient stench of our own culpability might be all we experience every time we open the door.

  • Joel Wirth is head of college at Thomas Rotherham College. You can read the previous articles for SecEd via


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