9 August 2021
Controversy over decisions made by the Department for Education should not be allowed to undermine pupils’ GCSE and A level achievements.
Last year saw a huge grade inflation of around 10-12 per cent in the wake of the pandemic and it is likely – in fact, inevitable - that this year many pupils will once again attain better grades than they would have received had they sat the traditional round of exams.
This isn’t because anyone is trying to game the system, it’s the system itself. Schools and teachers should not be criticised for wanting the best for, and seeing the best in, their pupils. Criticism should instead be directed towards those at the DfE who came up with the rules.
The reality is that teachers have found themselves in an impossible situation – slaves to defective procedures for assessing, marking and moderating their students’ results. ‘The whole point of the system is it should be the same in Hartlepool as it is in Penzance. That’s not going to be the case and schools will be hung out to dry,’ said Alan Brookes, the chair of the Kent Association of Head Teachers, recently.
One example of this far from level playing field is that pupils at some schools have taken mocks or exams, while others have not. The result is apples and pears - you just can’t make meaningful, or fair comparisons.
As Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, has observed, strong schools in well-run groups or academy trusts are much more likely to have robust assessment systems in place with in-house moderation. Compare this to a school on special measures with inexperienced heads of department and/or a culture of struggling.
Then there’s the argument that some independent and grammar schools – especially those where top grades are the norm - could be more likely to escape scrutiny than other schools which may be more cautious in the grades they give.
The only consistency, in fact, is the endless, complex, documentation and form filling that Ofqual has visited upon teachers and school leaders. Many experts claim that this huge burden of bureaucracy will do nothing to make the system more valid or reliable, but instead compound confusion and risk more failures.
Furthermore, it’s not as if the pandemic has broken an otherwise perfectly fair system. Every round of GCSE and A level results seems to generate controversy of one kind or another, souring what should be a time of achievement and optimism for young people. A BBC article from back in 2012 explores teachers’ anger over a generous marking claim – at that time around GCSE coursework. And a simple Google search serves as a reminder of just how much grade inflation has been debated over not just years but decades.
So we say let’s hear it for schools and teachers who are working so hard to achieve fairness in their decisions within a flawed framework and at a uniquely challenging time. Let’s applaud them for the remarkable efforts they’ve made to keep pupils learning and preparing them for the future during a global pandemic. Good Schools Guide writers have witnessed this at first hand while doing virtual updates of reviews during lockdowns and in-person school visits since schools have been fully (or nearly) open. Parents we speak to have been in awe of how quickly their children’s schools have adapted to the huge challenges of the last 18 months.
And most of all, let’s make this a time of celebration for young people who have worked their socks off despite significant increases in stress and anxiety during Covid. Against the odds, not only have many of these youngsters managed to continue learning their packed curriculum, but they have also adapted to new ways of working, developing greater discipline, self-sufficiency and resilience along the way.
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