Examinations: The DfE is increasingly out of touch

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:

Gavin Williamson is completely out of touch if he thinks that exams can continue as normal next year, says Dr Mary Bousted, even with a three-week delay of now vanishing relevance


It was always going to be tough running schools and colleges during a pandemic. No-one had the route map and strategies that would have to be implemented at short notice, requiring a great deal of work and commitment to get it right.

School and college leaders, teachers, support and school staff have all risen to the challenge and worked tirelessly to keep their schools open and safe.

Yet in these critical times, the education profession is faced with an education department intent on making life more difficult for schools and young people. They have fundamentally failed to grasp, or have wilfully ignored, the impact on learning that a hugely disrupted education system is having on just about every front.

The challenge is not going away. The government’s own data shows us that on October 22, 55 per cent of secondary schools had one or more pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus (DfE, 2020). And as I write, the country is facing a second national lockdown.

This should be a wake-up call to Gavin Williamson.

He is completely out of touch if he thinks that exams can continue as normal next year, even with a three-week delay of now vanishing relevance, or that Ofsted inspections should recommence in January.

Pupils taking GCSE and A levels next summer are being left in in a terrible position by Gavin Williamson and the government. They have missed five months of in-school teaching, a loss which impacted most severely on disadvantaged pupils. According to the Office for National Statistics, 700,000 11 to 18-year-olds have no access to the internet, which denies them access to remote learning.

Many pupils are missing further schooling now, as they isolate at home waiting for Covid test results. It is completely unrealistic and unfair to expect these pupils to take exams which make no compensation for disruption to school teaching time.

This disruption will also vary from region to region, with students in high-risk areas having the potential of their education being further disrupted than it already has been. This is clearly no level playing field.

In unprecedented joint advice with the other teacher and leader unions, the National Education Union has advised Gavin Williamson that GCSE and A level exams must be altered to include a greater choice of topics, which would enable pupils to be examined on what they have actually been taught (NEU, 2020).

We continue to believe that greater optionality in exam papers, along with fewer exams, will be essential to support fairness and to decrease the already very high rates of pupil stress which are being suffered this year. Ministers have had months to plan for these contingencies which, as Covid levels rise in communities, become ever more possible.

If we are to avoid the great unfairness that was felt by many students last summer, it is critical that the government reconsiders this position immediately and introduces greater topic optionality into the exams. If government will not reconsider and change its mind quickly, members tell us that exams, even with greater optionality, are no longer tenable. In which case, the only route to fairness would be a complete cancellation of exams and the use of robustly moderated, externally quality-assured teacher judgements.

The unwillingness to recognise the difficulties that schools and colleges face, ensuring all their students can access education remotely, is not only alarming but callous.

Decisions to ration laptops for disadvantaged children, while at the same time putting a legal duty on schools to provide remote learning for those who need to isolate, is shameful.

Gavin Williamson is making no serious effort to fix problems of his creation, nor does he support schools in a way that is fitting at a time of crisis. To have refused to provide free school meals in half term is a further insult.

This is not business as usual. Either this government does not know what it is doing or it does not care.

Schools and colleges need a clear path forward for the problems we can foresee and can control, such as an exam system that accounts for the unprecedented upheaval and loss of learning, support for students who need help with IT access, and free school meals during the holidays for those living in poverty.

The DfE needs to accept the limited knowledge they appear to have of the way schools actually work and start listening to school leaders and the education profession on what needs to be put in place to ensure no child is left behind.


  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union. Read her previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/3i6lzvS


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