The decision to cancel next summer’s GCSE and A-Level exams in Wales has left teachers and pupils in uncharted waters. After Scotland scrapped its GCSE-equivalent National 5 exams in 2021 – opting for teacher assessments and coursework instead – England is under pressure to follow suit. But education secretary Gavin Williamson must stick to his guns and ensure that next year's exams do go ahead.
Why? Because it's worth remembering that we are not in the same position we were in back in March. The UK-wide decision taken then, to replace school exams with 'centre assessed grades' was made at the tail end of the school year. Whether this was wise or not is debatable, but in the midst of an unprecedented situation, the decision was at least understandable. Not so this time around. While it is likely the disruption caused by Covid-19 could continue well into next year, we must avoid at all costs a repeat of the chaos caused by the way pupils were assessed in 2020.
Teachers like me were required to rank our students with the implication that grades would be allocated in similar numbers to previous years. That, of course, did not happen. The infamous algorithm, while ensuring consistency year-on-year, was unfair to individuals. It became politically untenable. The algorithm was binned and replaced by teacher assessed grades that we sent in along with our rank orders.
Unsurprisingly, we were generous in our markings. In physics, for example, 41.2 per cent of A-Level candidates were awarded an A grade or above compared with just 27.5 per cent the previous year. At GCSE, the proportion of higher grades – 7, 8 or 9 in the new system – rose from 43.8 per cent to 53 per cent. I chose physics because it is my own subject; the government tables show a similar trend across the curriculum.
I was probably not the only teacher to ruminate that, maybe, I could have been a little more generous, had I known that the exam board was just going to take my word for it. But none of us knew that might be the case when we filled in the grade sheets.
Next year will be different. If our predictions cannot be moderated by an algorithm, they will have to be based on evidence. Otherwise grade inflation could run riot. In the short term, for pupils clutching a load of top marks, this looks like good news. But it isn't: instead, hard-working students might be left with certificates of dubious value.
These days GCSE and A-Level results measure schools and teachers just as much as they do the individuals who sat in the exam hall. Schools are ranked by those same figures and the pressure on teachers to improve the data would be overwhelming. Anyone who acted with integrity would be left standing by those who played the system. It would be rather like deciding football matches by the number of goals that each team thought they might score had the game gone ahead.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, has at least recognised this reality. In her statement she explained that, in place of exams, the Welsh government intended to work with schools and colleges to take forward teacher-managed assessments. That includes assessments that will be externally set and marked but delivered within a classroom under teacher supervision. An agreed national approach to provide consistency will be adopted across Wales.
Williams's strategy is wise but she has set herself a difficult task. The Welsh government has six months to implement a brand new scheme of assessment, consistent across all schools in Wales, in the middle of an international public health emergency. She is certainly ambitious. It’s not just the setting and marking of the classroom-based assessments; teachers need to be trained in how to administer them, and children need to be prepared to answer them. The workload of under-pressure teachers will be ramped up further. We are human beings and something else will have to give.
But even if things do go to plan in Wales, there are still likely to be problems. If the same classroom-based assessment is being delivered in different schools on different days, to pupils who then go home to their social media accounts and internet chatrooms, the potential for cheating is obvious. It doesn’t need a teacher to explain that.
As for England, the only decision so far has been to push back the exam season by three weeks. While that may appear to be trivial, things are likely to still be unfair: some pupils may be ill at the time, with Covid or some other malaise; some will have suffered more disruption than others caused by absent teachers; others may have been sent home for weeks at a time to isolate.
But here's the thing: exams have never been fair, and we will never make them fair. What we can do is protect them from manipulation. And I'm worried that Wales's approach could offer a helping hand to those who want to game the system.