Gavin Williamson has now stated his position clearly and has declared that students in English schools WILL be taking GCSE and A-Level examinations in the summer of 2021. A delay of three weeks has been provided for the six-month loss of formal and in-class learning. There will be no discretion or differentiation for students who have had to self-isolate or have been ill with Covid-19.
We’re all in this together. No concessions.
He’s suggested that the already constricted and highly prescribed curriculum will be narrowed even further to accommodate the loss of schooling hours.
He also announced a reduction – sadly not abolition or cancellation – of tests for primary school pupils but this, unsurprisingly, didn’t make the news headlines.
How is all of this helpful to effective and purposeful learning?
21 additional days will be given for young people to “memorise” the facts needed to take their exams, declared Mr Williamson in parliament yesterday morning (3.12.20).
“To support those most affected by the continuing disruption, at the end of January, students will be given advance notice of some of the topic areas that will be assessed in their GCSEs and A-levels. That means that they will be able to focus on these areas in more depth and target their revision accordingly. Students will also be given exam aids, such as formula sheets, in recognition of the time lost in the classroom and to give them more confidence and reduce the amount of information that they need to memorise in preparation for exams.”
The maths – 21 days to compensate for 80+ days of formal teaching – don’t add up, but this is the least of the problems when considering the whole exam issue.
The reality is that it’s patently absurd to take exams during this time. It’s clear that, as an absolute minimum, there should have been two years when Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) were provided – for a whole variety of reasons.
Firstly, it prevents the 2019/20 cohort being singled out as the only group that didn’t sit formal exams. Secondly, it eliminates the need to reduce the slimmed-down curriculum to an even more blatant teach-to-the test format. Thirdly, CAGs would prevent the one thing that Williamson had no answer for on the media round this morning – the fact that exams are unable to account for the individual and their circumstances. With CAGs, schools would be able to configure grade predictions based on 5 or 7 years of knowing a young person rather than 300 days of cramming for a 380-day curriculum. Also CAGs would reduce the Covid-induced anomaly of using an identical, standardised system for testing children with vastly different levels of engagement in a year when absences have been unavoidable.
(Williamson’s response to the suggestion of CAGs was to quote the “fact” that teacher assessment disadvantages the already disadvantaged – that many students, especially BAME students, are often given predicted grades below what they achieve in exams. However, a consistent, rigorous and professionally moderated assessment process, after additional training, would eradicate this.)
What is also patently clear is that the responsibility for these exams taking place doesn’t rest entirely with the Secretary of State for Education, despite the huge power afforded to the office under Gove. Ofqual, the exam boards, the unions and the schools themselves also have the power to remonstrate against the inequity of exams at this time and the mind-blowingly obvious alternative of CAGs. Many schools and some of the teaching unions already have.
This really ought to be the moment when the exam boards also make it clear that there is no worth in a formalised assessment this year when there’s no level playing field in the number of days of learning afforded to 16-18 year olds nationally. (Obviously, there’s no level playing field within our school system anyway but these strange times intensify the already existing inequity.)
Exams are restrictive – and not representative of the wider non-quantifiable impact of effective teaching and learning – at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. They also create an unnatural and worrying stress level at a time when our young people have enough to endure.
However, one of the saddest outcomes of all this to-ing and fro-ing – apart from the massive uncertainty and indecision for our youngsters – is the huge wasted opportunity in taking this time to fully assess and analyse the entire outdated system of high-stakes tests for our students (and don’t get us started on the pointlessness of 16+ GCSEs in a school system that has had a compulsory leaving age of 18 for the last 6 years).
This should have been a time when we really focus collectively on the real purposes of education – the facilitation of enthusiastic learning, not the fodder-feeding for exams. And we can’t let this time pass without arguing the case for a huge reduction in formal high-stakes assessment procedures – as per some of the better education systems globally, which don’t test children nearly as much as the British system.
Gavin Williamson appears to know little or nothing about education other than his own experience of it.
And now is the time to collectively criticise this ludicrous decision to paint over the cracks and pretend that our already iniquitous system can accommodate the strains of an unequal exam system that patently favours those who’ve actually spent longer in schools working on the narrowest of curriculums in these sorry times.