2021 public exams: what should we do? By Barnaby Lenon

Pupils due to take GCSEs and A-levels in 2021 have so far missed two weeks of live teaching in the  Spring term and five weeks of live teaching in the summer term so far.  For the two year groups concerned, Years 10 and 12, most have had online teaching instead.   They have not yet fallen badly behind with the exceptions of those do not have access to a computer and internet at home, those who are simply too lazy to engage with the online teaching provided, and those taking subjects which are hard to manage online such as art and design technology.

From June 15, both these groups may be able to return to school, albeit in a very limited way.  For most, online lessons will continue to the end of term.

The situation will worsen next academic year. It seems certain that social distancing rules will still apply in schools.  This means that only half the normal number of pupils can be taught at once.  So there must be a combination of online lessons and in-school lessons with small classes.

What can be done?

1 Move away from exams to teacher assessment

This is what those who don’t like exams will call for.  They claim exams cause too much stress and anyway we don’t need knowledge now we have Google.

But before 2015 we experimented with teacher assessment and it was disastrous.  Many teachers hated it because they came under huge pressure to get good marks for all pupils (where do you think grade inflation came from?) and because ‘controlled assessments’ were intensely dull.  Instead of getting on and teaching a course as they would wish, the academic year became dominated by dreary teacher-assessed coursework.

With teacher assessment there is a great danger that pupils go through the motions but learn nothing.  The people who advocate scrapping exams ignore the tremendous value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory.   For most children, carrying what they have learnt in school into adult life depends in large measure on them being forced to memorise it.  A typical average ability 16-year old boy can reel off 60 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE.  On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 400+ – all driven by fear of the exam.

Of course exams cause anxiety but those who think children should never be challenged in this way are the enemies of good education.  Teenagers, and especially boys, have to be driven to succeed.  Exams are that driver.

2 Cut syllabuses

The shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey has called for GCSE and A-level content to be reduced for next year’s candidates, arguing that Year 10 and 12 pupils will have missed too much education to be able to catch up.

This is a bad idea.  Different schools have already covered different parts of each syllabus.  Any decision to cut out a part of a syllabus would affect different schools differently.

Cutting syllabuses is dumbing down.  It means these children will know less, and those taking GCSEs will therefore be less prepared to embark on A-levels and those taking A-levels less prepared to start degree courses. There will be a knock-on effect which could last a lifetime.

So cutting bits out of syllabuses is a bad idea.

3 Increase question choice

What could be done is adjusting question choice in exam papers, giving more flexibility, so if a topic has not been covered by a pupil they are not badly affected.  This is dumbing down because it implies that the whole syllabus does not have to be covered, but at least pupils can cover the whole syllabus if they are able to.

4 Help pupils catch up if they have fallen behind

If pupils have not been accessing lessons in the normal term time, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that they should be required to attend catch-up lessons at weekends and it the holidays.

Is the gap between the children of lower and higher income families widening?  Yes of course it is, partly because of differences in resources at home, partly because of the behaviour of parents.  An absolute priority is for all pupils without internet access or a computer to have one, free of charge if from a low income family.

But it is easy to exaggerate the impact of family income on exam results.  Using the normal  definition of “disadvantaged pupils” (eligible for free school meals at least once in the last 6 years) and defining “doing badly” as not achieving grade 9-4 in both English and Maths at GCSE, last year disadvantaged pupils made up only 39% of the group who “did badly”.  61% of the pupils who did not achieve 9-4 in both English and Maths were not disadvantaged.  So the measures we will need to help pupils catch up work missed may need to extend well beyond recipients of free school meals.

5 Make the exams a bit later

If teaching has been disrupted we can compensate by increasing the time before exams begin (normally May).  Unless exam boards can move faster (unlikely) this might mean asking universities and school sixth form courses to start in October 2021 rather than September.

6 Be generous in the grading

In recent years Ofqual has operated a system of grading called ‘comparable outcomes’ which simply means that the same proportion of students get each grade as last year.  So, for example, if last year 50% of pupils taking Greek A-level got a grade A or A* then this year 50% will, even if the quality of their work is less good.  This system was designed to protect the interests of those taking reformed GCSE and A-level syllabuses because research tells us that performance dips when a new or reformed qualification starts.

Comparable outcomes ensures that nationally pupils get results which are similar to previous cohorts even if their marks are lower (as they will be in 2021).

The Department for Education will be constructing different models.  If exams cannot happen in 2021 they will need to rely on teacher assessment and comparable outcomes.  This year the system was cobbled together in a short period. Next year we can do better.

But we must hope that exams can be sat in 2021.  Adjustments should be made to make them as fair as possible – but without dumbing down too much.

Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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