In Ireland at some point in the 1970s there was such a queue of people waiting to take their driving tests that the government of the day said, what the hell, there’s only one way to get rid of the backlog, and gave everyone with a provisional licence a full driving licence. The result was, as you might have expected: insurance companies registered that a shower of duds would be let loose on the roads that year and, for years to come, factored that into their equations when it came to assessing premiums.
I worry, just a bit, that the same might be true of this year’s cohort of examination candidates now that the government, courtesy of Ofqual, the exam watchdog, has decided that, you know what – we can’t possibly let children sit actual GCSEs and A-levels what with the pandemic, so let’s just let the teachers decide what they would have got if they had sat them. The Government had suggested previously that it might just be possible to hold the exams a bit later – early September was suggested – but yesterday’s decision by Ofqual makes clear that it’ll be up to teachers to determine the results of their own pupils as opposed to a disinterested and objective examiner.
There are a couple of reasons why this strikes me as unfair and stupid. One is that I have a dog in this fight, a 16-year-old son, who sailed into his mock GCSEs a few months ago under the airy impression that this was a trial run rather than the real event and didn’t get worked up about them, as was evident from the results. If he’d thought that – April Fool! – these weren’t mocks; they’d be used to decide his results, he would have approached them in a rather different spirit. Yet these mock results (marked by teachers) will be one of the factors on which his grades will be based.
The other reason I think this stinks is that my younger self was, when it came to exams, a last minute sprinter rather than a sturdy plodder. So, I galvanised myself in the fortnight before exams rather than going steadily round the course in the approved female fashion. I’d have been stuffed by this move.
A third reason is that it’s the system for at least some Italian students, whose grades are marked by their teachers. One boy there I know had a toxic relationship with a teacher. It’s a bit unfair on a candidate if one teacher cuts him a lot of slack; another marks him down. In fact teachers don’t have a particularly good record of estimating candidates’ actual results.
The real reason I don’t like it is that it’s unjust. You can’t retrospectively change the rules of play this late in the game. You can’t decide after the event that mock exams actually matter; that your academic work throughout the year, not at the end, is what counts. If those are the rules of play, they should be made clear at the start.
It matters only a bit for my son: the question of whether he’s allowed to sit a fourth A-level depends on him reaching particular grades. But for pupils whose A-level results will decide what universities or apprenticeships they get into, it’s iniquitous.
What the Government should do is give candidates the option of taking actual, proper exams either in June or September. At least that would give pupils the chance to prove themselves in an objective test of knowledge and ability.
Yesterday Ofqual’s sunny chief executive, Sally Collier, declared: ‘Our overriding aim in this is to be fair to students this summer and to make sure you are not disadvantaged.’ Yeah? And how exactly is this dog’s dinner of a solution fair? If this is the best Collier can do, her own performance will be judged as very inadequate indeed.