We must face up to inequality and unfairness in our exams system

Written by: Dr Patrick Roach | Published:
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary, NASUWT
I agree with all you have shared here Dr Roach. What you have not covered however, is the teachers' ...

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After the u-turn over the awarding of this year’s examination grades, Dr Patrick Roach says there are important longer term questions to ask about entrenched inequality and unfairness in our exams system

It was, perhaps, always going to be the case that the awarding of qualifications in 2020, in the middle of the most serious public health emergency in a century, would result in more than its fair share of commentary and controversy.

However, the scale of the chaos which has unfolded this month has had an enormous impact on young people at what is already a highly anxious time. It has also, arguably, served to undermine public confidence in the examinations system.

If there is anything constructive to emerge from this chaos it is to give greater impetus to the need to consider the qualifications system as a whole and whether it is delivering in providing a robust and fair way of assessing pupils’ knowledge and understanding and setting them on a firm foundation to move to the next phase of their lives, whether that be further study, employment or vocational training.

The decision to cancel this summer’s examinations was, in our view, ultimately the correct one in the circumstances to protect public health. Seeking to run public examinations or systems based on on-site external moderation of candidates’ work would have been entirely unacceptable.

However, this then created an extremely complex set of problems, particularly in England where recent reforms have resulted in much greater emphasis on the use of terminal examinations to assess pupils’ achievements and attainment.

While in the circumstances the ultimate decision to accept centre-assessed grades for 2020 was a necessary move to deal with the immediate risk of students receiving grades which were unfair or unbalanced, it has longer term consequences, particularly the impact on pupils due to sit exams next year. There is now a profoundly complex policy challenge in ensuring that the 2021 cohort are treated no less favourably in comparison with students this year.

In these circumstances this gives rise to questions of how pupils’ progress and understanding is assessed and quantified. Clearly pupils, employers and further and higher education providers need some way of measuring achievement and attainment. However, is a system predicated on terminal, high-stakes examinations the most effective and most reliable way to do this, particularly in a time when there are no certainties about what the short, medium and long-term future is going to look like as a result of coronavirus, or how the extraordinary measures which have had to be taken this year can square with the need to maintain standards and reliability of exam grades over time?

The government’s u-turn on 2020 grades was pressured by a perception that the algorithm used to generate the final results was exacerbating existing inequalities and unfairness, including that pupils who went to schools which were more likely to serve deprived communities were more likely to have their centre-assessed results downgraded.

However, the current qualifications system could be said to similarly exacerbate existing inequalities, focusing as it predominantly does on exams making up the bulk of pupils’ marks. There are important questions which need to be asked about who such a system benefits and works in favour of and who it disadvantages – and whether there is a better balance to be struck in how students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and grasp of areas of study across the curriculum.

These are clearly longer-term issues to consider and students who are already in the midst of preparing for examinations cannot have yet more change and uncertainty thrust upon them. Nevertheless, the fissures in the qualifications system exposed by the pandemic and the resulting grading furore should not be ignored or packed away.

There is the opportunity to secure a positive legacy from the anxiety and anguish of the last few weeks if all parties invested in education commit to working to secure a resilient qualifications and awards system which recognises fairly and celebrates the achievements of all students.

  • Dr Patrick Roach is general secretary of the NASUWT. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/2EkYDdi

I agree with all you have shared here Dr Roach. What you have not covered however, is the teachers' role in raising young people's expectations related to their grades, by over-estimating them.
This year more young people attained higher grades than last and more young people from disadvantaged back ground had been accepted in to HEIs. This in spite of the approx 40% reduction in grades. With the u-turn there are now many young people who have been given an inflated perception of their academic abilities. Will this serve them in their expanded degree courses?
The teaching profession will need to take some responsibility for the impact these inflated grades will have to both this year's cohort and to next year's. The management of young peoples' expectations, and their parents, is initially very much in their hands.

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