Lessons learnt from this exam season by Barnaby Lenon

We have had the International Baccalaureate, Scottish, English, Northern Irish and Welsh public exam results in a year when no exams were actually sat. There has been general uproar.  What lessons have been learnt?

1) The exams regulators had an impossible job. Ofqual is a great organisation, one of the best in the world of its type. The staff believe in fairness and accuracy. So to be asked to produce exam results when no exams have actually been sat is a tough ask, especially as teacher-assessed coursework (which could have used) has been cut right back since 2014.

Much of the criticism has been aimed at the regulators but it is important to realise that there was no good answer. That is why none of them want to repeat this experiment next year.

2) Governments and exam regulators have been a little too keen to claim that the exams this year ‘have the same currency’ as every other year. One understands why they make this claim – the results this year need credibility if they are going to give access to universities. But the truth is that they are not the same currency. No exam was sat and the main method by which grades have been awarded has been laying the teachers’ rankings of pupils in each subject on top of the historic grade distribution achieved by each school in the past two to three years. Such a system means that many students have been awarded a grade higher or lower than that they would have achieved had they actually sat the exam.

3) The emphasis has been on ‘getting the results right nationally’ which is not the same thing at all as getting the results right for individual students. Students who go to selective schools with consistently good results will do well out of the system. Those who go to schools whose results are weak or inconsistent will do less well. So while the national distribution of grades will be similar to that of last year, that does not mean that individuals got the right result.

The focus on national-level grades is one reason why, in England, the appeals system is inaccessible to individual pupils (only a school can appeal) and why the criteria under which one can appeal are limited.

4) Teacher predictions are never going to be much use.  Teachers are bound to bat on behalf of their pupils. Many lack sufficient experience to predict grades. Few teachers will be happy predicting a bad grade.  So teacher predictions are inflated. Ofqual’s research showed that the predicted grades of disadvantaged pupils and black students are inflated most.

5) There are a bunch of people who take every opportunity to push for the permanent abolition of exams. Not surprisingly we have had plenty of unions as well as individual schools suggesting that GCSEs are no longer needed for some reason. In fact GCSEs are needed – partly to accredit two to ten years’ work in a variety of subjects that are about to be dropped, partly to sift pupils out as a way of determining access to the next level.  To take an obvious example, it would be wrong to permit a pupil to embark on  A-level maths without a good GCSE maths grade.

What is more, exams are motivating. Without exams teenage boys would not work and would certainly not bother to commit knowledge to memory. Exams drive them to succeed.

Many of those who criticise GCSEs are schools who do not need to ration access to A-levels because all their pupils are able and all stay on in the sixth form. But these schools are far from typical. Most pupils change schools for the sixth form and GCSE grades are the essential sieve which allow allocation to the correct sixth form courses.

Going back to teacher-assessed coursework is no answer either. Ofqual has shown that teacher-assessed coursework was given greatly inflated marks which bore little resemblance to the ability of the pupils. Parents and teachers help pupils with their coursework, which makes it most unfair as a basis for a public exam.

6) Having multiple exam boards is a problem. Michael Gove wanted to scrap the unusual system we have in England of three competing exam boards, but he failed. This means that Ofqual not only has to ration grades nationally but has to parcel out the ration between three different boards that might well have very different cohorts of pupils.

7) There has been a huge fuss about downgrading the results of disadvantaged children relative to their teachers’ predictions. The reason that happened was that in many cases the children had been given very optimistic predictions by their teachers, predictions which fly in the face of the poor results their schools normally get.

It is true that Ofqual and the other regulators could have been generous this year and given everyone better grades than they would normally be expected to get. But that would have been very unfair on last year’s and next year’s exam candidates who in due course could be competing with this this year’s pupils for university/college places and jobs.

8) The biggest weakness of the system in England is the very limited options for appealing results which schools can see are clearly wrong. It is a pity that schools were not given details of the statistical algorithm before results came out. If they had, schools could have worked out what results to expect and started to plan their response.

Why did Ofqual limit the scope for appeals? There are three possible reasons:

  1. With five million exams being sat the volume of appeals could have been unmanageable. After all, it would not just be a matter of checking marks, as in a normal year. It would require a statistical analysis pupil by pupil.
  2. Because all pupils taking any given subject in each school were all graded in the same, statistical, way, if one pupil had a grade changed on appeal then the rest of the group would need to be changed too.
  3. Because we know that pushy schools and pushy parents are most likely to appeal and this is unfair on other children.

9) The option of taking A-levels/GCSEs in October/November looks unattractive. Most students will not be considering this option until they have got their results; many of them will have done little since March. Most of those taking GCSEs transfer to a new school for sixth form so it is hard to see them getting much tuition. A-level students have left school and may find it hard to access tuition as well.

Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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