Exams 2021: Whistling in the dark, once again

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As Ofqual consults over how this summer’s examinations are to be graded, Dr Mary Bousted is saddened yet not surprised that teachers will once again be left to pick up the pieces from a lack of government planning


“A lesson learned” is something that Gavin Williamson appears to be incapable of doing – which is ironic given his position as secretary of state for education.

Last summer’s abject failure to manage the awarding process for GCSE, A level and vocational courses caused outrage among pupils, parents and the public. It was as much of a cut-through story as Dominic Cummings’ eye-sight test in Barnard Castle. You would have thought that ministers would do anything to avoid further humiliation. But no, apparently not.

And so, this January teachers once again find themselves in the same position. The exams cannot go ahead – despite Gavin Williamson’s repeated assurances throughout the autumn term that they would not be cancelled – and something must be done.

But what must be done? There are no good answers to that question. Had Gavin Williamson followed the advice given to him in September by all the unions he would have a plan B ready to hand – in the form of clear, well-worked proposals to replace exams.

But he did not listen to our advice and, as a result, there is no plan B. It does not help that ministers have repeated ad nauseum the mantra that exams are the only way, because teachers are left in an impossible position when they can’t take place.

There are no good options to replace exams this late in the day. Gavin Williamson has pledged that this year there will be no mutant algorithm. Teacher judgement, he said in the House of Commons, will be the basis on which grades are awarded. But just what are teachers judging? That is the question.

This year’s cohort of GCSE and A level pupils, and those taking vocational qualifications, have had a hugely disrupted period of schooling. The majority missed in-person schooling from March to July. The autumn term was repeatedly disrupted for many as they were required to isolate either because of Covid infection or because they were a close contact. Disadvantaged pupils missed more schooling because Covid levels were often high in the areas where they live. All have missed months of in-person schooling because of the pandemic.

So, the question of what evidence teachers will use to allocate individual grades to pupils is a serious one. Many teachers have told me that they feel this is a huge problem. It is causing them real stress and anxiety – because teachers take very seriously their responsibility to be fair to their pupils. It goes to the very heart of their ethical and professional concerns.

Then there is the question of what is being graded. Are teachers going to be asked to award grades on the current standards achieved by their pupils? Because the disruption to their education means that the majority of them will not have made the progress which could have been expected if their education had not been so disrupted.

If grades are awarded on this basis, then this cohort of pupils will be artificially depressed and will not gain the qualifications needed for further study. So this is an unlikely option.

Are teachers going to be required to grade pupils according to their estimation of their pupils’ potential? This is an option which raises huge ethical and moral issues – because “potential” is a very abstract and difficult concept and open to unconscious cultural and class bias which teachers, like the rest of society, cannot be completely immune from despite their clear desire to be fair to all their pupils.

Until there are clear answers to these fundamental questions, then there has to be huge concern about this year’s grade awarding process. Until the profession knows on what basis they will be required to generate grades for qualifications, then they are whistling in the dark.

Gavin Williamson should be ashamed that he has, for a second year, left teachers to pick up the pieces of his incompetence.

  • 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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