The bigger picture beyond the exams fiasco

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Might the resignation of the chief regulator, Sally Collier – followed swiftly by the sacking of Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary to the Department for Education – draw a line under the exams debacle of recent weeks? I very much doubt it, nor do I believe they should have been the ones to take the hit.

An appreciation of the full extent of the consequences and what this means for existing and future cohorts of learners, as well as awarding organisations, schools, colleges, universities and the regulator/s, will take some time to emerge. Let’s remember, it was the government that made the decision to cancel examinations, unlike many of our European neighbours. It was the government that directed the regulator to produce a set of exam results, without examinations or any other objective basis on which to base student achievement, while avoiding grade inflation.

Not all the fall-out is necessarily negative nor difficult. The spotlight thrown on entrenched educational disadvantage in our education and high-stakes assessment system is especially welcome; in particular, the means by which data analysis – deployed with the best of intention to maintain standards and avoid grade inflation – often serves to reinforce the status quo.

Assuming a ‘traditional’ set of examinations does take place in November, for both academic and vocational qualifications, there is very little time available to those being tasked by the government to lead the necessary lessons-learned exercise and what the implications mean for ‘normal awarding’; not least, how Ofqual might restore public confidence in its role and its competence. Hopefully, the imminent prospect of children returning to school might just deflect the attention of politicians enough to allow this work to progress without further upheaval.

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At this stage, we can only speculate on what will be grabbing media attention when we get close to the November results days. That said, it is only right to expect that Ofqual, the awarding bodies and other key stakeholders stand behind the validity and reliability of these results. Awarding in the November series will be challenging, not only to execute, but also to explain in ways that carry public confidence.

Summer 2021 assessments hold yet another set of challenges for all parties, with Ofqual and awarding organisations already reviewing and agreeing content and approaches to assessment. 2021 awarding is going to be tough, however, not least given the grade distributions for 2020. How do we address issues of fairness when comparisons are made across the achievements, say, of three cohorts: summer 2020, November 2020, summer 2021?

What is the best-case scenario that might emerge from the debacle? Well, for me, it would be a radical review of why we currently place all our faith in the fairness of high-stakes, end-of-course, written examinations. Why not make the most of the injustices revealed by the debacle to broaden the debate? When did we last engage in a national discussion of the purpose of education and, critically, the best means of measuring its output in terms of learner achievement?

Perhaps we should have that discussion now.

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