Unfair & fragile: The growing case for exam reform

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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The return of examinations this summer reminds us of the unfairness and fragility of a system focused almost entirely on terminal exams and reinforces the case for reform, says Geoff Barton

The looming prospect of the first set of summer exams in three years will have already felt fraught for students and their teachers. Now they have the added concern of a new wave of Covid infections causing disruption in many schools and colleges.

The students who will shortly take part in the resumption of one of the annual rituals of British life have experienced arguably more educational upheaval than any group of young people to sit in an exam hall since the Second World War.

They have spent the whole of the past two years learning in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, including the closure of schools and colleges to most pupils for the majority of last year’s spring term, as well as periods of isolation and illness among both themselves and their teachers caused by waves of infections at other times.

Furthermore, the impact will have been highly variable. Infection rates and associated disruption have been higher in different areas at different times, and remote education is likely to have been more difficult for students without a stable internet connection, laptop, space in which to work, or for those who need additional support.

The government, exams regulator Ofqual, and the exam boards, have responded to this situation with adaptations designed to recognise the disruption and provide as much fairness as possible. These include giving advance information about the focus of exams (Ofqual, 2022).

They also include setting grading standards at a “midway point” between pre-pandemic 2019 and last year – when grades were higher under the teacher assessment system used following the cancellation of exams. More of that later.

Some people will feel that no amount of adaptation can make exams fair because the differences in learning experiences are so great.

However, a recent ASCL survey of more than 1,400 state-sector school and college leaders in England, found that two-thirds felt adapted exams were the fairest way to assess GCSEs and A levels this summer.

Some made the point that there was no perfect solution, but the chosen approach represents the fairest in the circumstances – which seems a reasonable summary of a complicated situation.

That, of course, does not mean that all is well with the current exam system. Far from it. Reform, however, is a slightly longer-term project.

The past two years have certainly reinforced the need do things differently. They have shown the fragilities of a system that is focused almost entirely on terminal exams, and which is still reliant upon pen-and-paper assessment. A system which made greater use of technology, and a mixture of assessment methods, would have fared a great deal better.

But more importantly it would work better for all students rather than only those who are good at exams.

Greater use of technology and on-going assessment would facilitate a “stage not age” approach in subjects such as English and maths, giving students the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do when they are ready. Rather than the morale-sapping cliff-edge of GCSEs, it would support progression and build the confidence of learners.

And the fact is that we do need to do better for these young people. GCSE English and maths are, of course, gateway subjects to many careers and courses – a ticket to the good life.

But it is a ticket which is out of the reach of far too many young people. To be more precise, in pre-pandemic times, about one-third of students finished secondary education without achieving at least a Grade 4 “standard pass” in both of these subjects because of our system of comparable outcomes.

To be even more precise, in 2019, when exams were last held, the proportion of students in state-funded schools who made up this “forgotten third” was actually 35.4% – which equates to 192,000 young people.

The decision to set this year’s grading standards at a higher point than in 2019 will mean that fewer will suffer that fate this year. But it will be back to around one-third again in 2023 when grading standards return to pre-pandemic years and the normal distribution of grades.

The question that has to be asked is whether it is really acceptable to default to “normal” when we know it has such devastating consequences for so many young people. For the students who each year make up the forgotten third, every exam season is and always will be fraught. Surely, it must be possible to devise a system that better supports these young people to become successful learners rather than one which treats them so harshly.

Further information

  • ASCL: Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3hx1Wyy
  • ASCL: Schools are being “thrown to the wolves” by league table decision, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3JvLgn1
  • Ofqual: Guidance: Subject-by-subject support for GCSE, AS and A level students in 2022, February 7, 2022: https://bit.ly/3LkTbFa
  • Ofqual: Collection: GCSE, AS and A level qualifications in 2022, last updated February 2022: https://bit.ly/3uCSlO6
  • Saxton: Ofqual’s approach to grading exams and assessments in summer 2022 and autumn 2021, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3386PKB


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