Why have we cancelled exams? By Barnaby Lenon

Two years in a row the Government has cancelled public exams. But last year schools could have run those exams in June and this year all pupils are now back in school early in March. So, the question is – was it wrong to cancel exams?

Most schools have been able to keep exam-year pupils learning successfully, with both effective online teaching (last summer and the first part of this term) and normal face-to-face lessons (most of last spring term, the end of last summer, all autumn and from March 8).

But a significant minority of schools have not been able to maintain good learning during lockdown.

The pupils who have fallen behind are mainly those who were behind already. They were in low-income homes that lacked easy access to the online lessons delivered by their teachers, or their parents were unable to help much, or they simply lacked motivation. The main problem with GCSE pupils has not been failure to attend online lessons, it has been failure to engage and produce work. That is why the gap in attainment between the academically ambitious and those who struggle at school may have widened.

Exams were cancelled because of a combination of uncertainty about the pandemic and a wish to protect this minority who have fallen behind. That is why teachers are being asked to come up with the grades this year, grades which reflect ‘the standard at which the pupils are performing’ – something which sounds a lot easier than it is.

The standard, in plain English, is ‘the grade this work might normally expect to be worth in a GCSE/A-level’. The problem is that many teachers cannot confidently translate the mark they give to a piece of work into an exam grade. If you are not a trained examiner, or if you have not been teaching exam classes for some years, you would struggle. And most teachers are not trained examiners. There have been no marked exams to think about since June 2019, so we are losing this skill. What is more, the relationship between the mark you give a piece of work and an exam grade is far from straight forward: in a normal exam year Ofqual and the exam boards move the grade boundaries around in order to keep the proportion of pupils gaining each grade steady. Marks are not the same thing as grades.

What is more, for this year teachers are being encouraged to set their own exams (OK, the DfE does not want to use the word ‘exams’), but the questions provided with by exam boards are being put on a public website.  So, all children will be able to learn model answers before they sit the exams.  This, surely, is complete madness.

One reason I believe exams matter is 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 400 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE.  On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 1000+ – all driven by fear of the exam.

Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue. Girls are more likely to want to please the teacher and are therefore more motivated during the course. Boys do not especially want to please teachers – in my experience of teaching boys, 60% are relatively idle during the term but most make a big effort preparing for exams.

Exams are the essential building block of motivation. Ask any teacher who has had to teach an unexamined course to 15-year olds, as many schools used to do with Religious Studies. It was a hapless task, and almost all moved to taking the RS GCSE as a way of improving pupils’ attitude in lessons. Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys.  Exams work because they make pupils work.

The age at which pupils are required to be in education or training has risen to 18 so why do we need assessment at all at age 16? Answer: because in the English system we typically drop down from ten GCSE subjects to three A-levels at that age. On average one of those A-levels is a subject not done at GCSE, so most pupils drop about eight subjects at the age of 16. It is vital that, having studied those eight subjects for up to twelve years, pupils be examined in all of them in order to consolidate what they know and measure their progress.

Exam results are the necessary qualification for moving to the next level. We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile. We do not want students embarking on a medical degree if they cannot get a good grade in Chemistry – they would be too likely to fail.

The alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment. In England 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 those ‘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.

Cambridge Assessment published research last month which showed that those who say ‘we are the only country that examines pupils at age 16’ are just plain wrong. Pupils in many successful countries take exams at the age of 15 or 16. They force children to place the knowledge they have been presented with into the memory. Once in the memory new things start to happen in the brain – like analytical thinking and the creation of links between different bits of knowledge. Educated people know things and the reason they know things is not simply because ‘they have been taught it’. Far too many children are taught things but know nothing. The essential step in the process is commitment to memory.

Exams have been cancelled despite the fact that most pupils could have taken them. Next year, no doubt, large parts of exam syllabuses will be excised because a minority of pupils have, despite the huge sums being spent on catch-up, struggled to cover the work. Keeping exams or cancelling them comes down to a political interpretation of how the public will perceive fairness.

My solution? For 2022, let’s have two grades – a teacher-assessed grade just like this year (and last) and a GCSE/A-level exam grade. The users of these grades (schools, colleges, universities) can use either or both, in any way they feel is fair.

Professor Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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