Today’s A level results are unprecedented, but not unexpected. On Friday, Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham said, ‘The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades.’ He went on to suggest that this might be, ‘justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered’.
The impact of Covid-19 on the education of children cannot be dismissed as mere disruption. While adults might now be returning to the office after 18 months working from home, children struggled through two terms of lockdown learning and two more cocooned in bubbles. Grades will be high but they have been earned. Teachers held it all together too. We developed online teaching programmes from a standing start and from our own homes.
We were there last summer when the government’s exam algorithm failed spectacularly. Nobody sat any A level exams last year, but school leavers were sent off to university with grades based on our professional judgement. It worked, though when we made those predictions we did not expect the government to just take our word for it. Governments inspect us, they monitor us and scrutinise us, but believe us? In normal years the rules prohibit us from invigilating exams in our own subjects, even when other invigilators are present.
So this year when Gavin Williamson told MPs that the government would put their trust in teachers rather than algorithms, I worried that the real motivation was to pin the blame on teachers. But teachers rose again to the challenge, and we filed hundreds of thousands of Teacher Assessed Grades (and added TAGs to the list of acronyms in education) and millions more GCSE TAGs will be reported on Thursday.
As Smithers suspected, the A level TAGs are certainly a ‘bumper’ crop. Reports last night suggested that about 49 per cent of entries will be graded A or A*, exceeding even last years’ record breaking 38.6 per cent. These statistics would have been unimaginable before the pandemic. In 2019, only 25.5 per cent of entries scored these grades. I say ‘only’ but even those figures triggered concerns about grade inflation.
But perhaps these grades do compensate for the disruption that these young people have suffered? Yes and no. This cohort will certainly have been awarded higher grades than ever before – and some students will have been awarded grades beyond their expectations – but what about the students who would have achieved straight A*s in any case? For better or for worse, exams are used to discriminate between students. There is already talk that leading universities will need to set their own entrance exams to do the job that A levels have failed to do. That won’t happen this year, though, so my colleagues in higher education will be expected to manage.
It’s not just the current 18 year-olds who have been let down. I sat A levels so long ago that my results are now a historical curiosity; I’m no longer judged against them. But those in the early stages of their careers will now be relying on grades that suddenly don’t look so impressive when compared to this year’s bumper results. Meanwhile those still at school may be faced with even more assessments if university entrance exams become a reality.
This is a mess, but it was not a mess of our making. Williamson might have talked about trusting us but we were required to produce evidence to back up our TAGs. And we produced it. Across the country teachers created KATs – Key Assessment Tasks, another new creation – mini-exams that identified objectively what our students could do. We measured and we graded, and then we opened up our procedures to external moderation and scrutiny. The government might say they trust us, but they reserved the right to check up on us all the same. We did everything that was asked of us.
What we did not do – of course – was predict which students might have had a bad day in the exam room. After a quarter of a century at the chalk face I can predict grades accurately, when averaged across a teaching group. But at the individual level it’s harder. Inevitably, some students exceed my expectations – perhaps their focused revision strategy paid off? – while others underperform. Sometimes this happens because they turn over two pages at once in the heat of an exam. It’s distressing for them and for me, but it happens, and it lowers the average.
Like hundreds of thousands of other teachers, I did my job. But that did not involve predicting which students would have messed up.
We can expect a post-mortem and wringing of hands – let’s face it, we have one every year – but I want to look forwards and not back. Exams were cancelled in two consecutive years, but a quirk of the British education system is the doubling-up of school leaving exams. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland we have GCSEs at 16 followed by A levels at 18. So far, no student leaving for university has been hit twice; every cohort has sat at least one set of exams.
But if we have a third year of chaos, the present lower sixth will have suffered at both GCSE and A level. That must not be allowed to happen. Last night Gavin Williamson told us he wants to get back to normality, but he said similar last year. This time he must mean it; exams must go ahead next year, whatever else happens.