Melanie McDonagh

Why Gavin Williamson needs to save school exams

Why Gavin Williamson needs to save school exams
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The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is worried that children will go feral if they don’t get back to school sooner rather than later. Actually, that’s not quite how he put it. He’s let it be known that he’s worried about the lack of pupil-teacher interaction while schools are closed and that it’ll affect progress if they don’t reopen until after the Whitsun half term.

Dead right, Mr W. My own children are 13 and 16 and frankly, I can’t see much difference between holiday and term time since the lockdown. One child was on Google classroom, which I thought – silly me – would be a kind of virtual version of an actual teaching session. In fact, it was nothing of the sort; the teachers set work and leave the children to it. I heard quite a lot of giggly noise as they interacted with each other; nil in the way of actual engagement with a teacher. The other child, who was meant to be doing GCSEs, got homework, but no teaching.

As ever, how teachers responded to the situation – marking stuff, offering comments – depended on whether they were any good or not. The good ones did; the others set homework and got on with their other lives.

But it’s the cohort who are meant to be exam candidates who are really affected by all this. As I’ve already observed, Ofqual has come up with an utter mess of a solution. A Levels and GCSE’s for all have been cancelled in favour of a teacher’s best guess at the grade the pupil would have got, based on past performance – that’ll be mock exams and homework mostly. Oh and they will have to rank pupils within each grade. Plus there’s the school’s own past performance to take into account.

And – get this – Ofqual has let it be known that schools are not obliged to take into account work done since the lockdown. I ask you: what chance is there of keeping an exam pupil motivated to do any schoolwork if you tell them that nothing they do from now on has any bearing on their results?

Ofqual, moreover, won’t actually be holding schools to account for the grades they award – they won’t have to submit evidence to back them up – so inevitably, good schools will be scrupulous; bad ones less so.

But what Mr W did say when he announced he’d be cancelling A levels and GCSEs is that pupils who wanted a proper exam – and even a pared down one would be better than nothing – should have one as soon as reasonably possible.

That should mean June rather than September. That way it’s just about possible for pupils to revise, for examiners to be assembled and universities primed to take the results into account. But these things need plenty of notice. If Mr Williamson is to redeem the chaos of exams for a million young people, and his own reputation, he needs to act fast.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a contributor to The Spectator.

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