Debbie Hayton

Why aren’t exams going ahead?

With students heading back to school, there is little sense in relying on teacher assessment

Why aren't exams going ahead?
(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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When Boris Johnson talked about trusting teachers, I suspected that the government must be desperate. Trust is not a word I have head much in my 25-year teaching career. I am no longer trusted to go into a GCSE exam hall to look at the paper that my class is sitting in case I somehow manage to undermine the integrity of the exam.

But that was 2019. This morning Gavin Williamson confirmed that this year, it will come down to me and my colleagues in school. There will be no exam papers, no external markers, and certainly no algorithms. Before the pandemic we weren’t even trusted to mark coursework for fear that we gave too much help, now we have been left in charge of the whole process. The system seems designed to shift the problem from ministerial red boxes and onto the desks of overstretched teachers.

In the week of 9 August, hundreds of thousands of GCSE and A-Level students will receive grades that they know have been magicked into existence by their own schools. After last year’s fiasco where the infamous algorithms were dumped at the last minute, it will come down to us — teachers and headteachers. If the government learnt one thing from 2020, it was not to take the blame a second time.

The tragedy is that this need never have happened. This summer’s exams could have gone ahead. Within a couple of weeks, Year 11 and Year 13 will be back in schools and teachers like me could have got on with the job of preparing them to sit exams. Every child would have had their opportunity to show what they could do.

But that will not happen. Instead it will be down to their teachers to guess at what their students could have done. The pressures on teachers to inflate grades will be immense and it will come from all directions: school leaders, parents, not to mention our own pupils. Knowing that every other teacher will be in the same position is of little comfort. If we are realistic in our assessments, where will that leave our pupils when compared to those marked by more optimistic teachers?

I am a professional and I know my pupils’ capabilities. But predicting what grade each one would have got — taking into account the disruption of the last 12 months — is not a straightforward exercise. Even in a normal year, some pupils exceed my expectations while others mess up the exam paper. Certainly I will be predicting that nobody messes up.

While ministers might talk about using pupils’ work to support teachers’ predictions — and of course I will do that — which work do I choose? The test they failed or the one they excelled on? Perhaps because they happened to have already seen the questions? Who is to know?

Or perhaps — despite the impact on workload — we keep generating data until we get the results that our pupils, their parents and school leaders want to see. How can we do any differently?

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, the teachers’ union, said that ‘by rejecting the union's calls for awarding body-set assessments to be made mandatory in the majority of cases and marked externally, a golden opportunity has been missed to secure a consistent, reliable and manageable approach to awarding.’

The Times reports government sources suggesting that the system would be ‘generous’. I suggest that outrageously inflated might be a better description. The question going through many school leaders’ minds will be how high can my school go without being among the most egregious cases that will trigger a post-hoc external investigation.

With no prospect of moderation in advance of grades being issued, this year’s GCSE and A-level cohorts may be left with worthless pieces of paper. Emerging, as many will, into an appalling jobs market with a pointless certificate, these students will be left wondering how Gavin Williamson flunked this most important test.