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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

At the height of this year’s examination crisis, I posted three articles arguing that Ofqual was worse than useless and should be shut down. Gavin Williamson, having resisted invitations to endorse it, has done the next best thing by asking Amanda Spielman and a group of experienced people to supervise next year’s exams. More on this shortly, but first a postscript on last year.

For no good reason, Ofqual ceased publishing any information on its activities, last August, as if it were a branch of the security services. Then last month it released a redacted version of no fewer than 29 Board meetings, held in secret, with much fuller information than its previous minutes, which had been no more than a reprint of the agenda, telling us nothing at all about any decisions. The redactions included 44 insertions of the phrase:

“This section has been redacted, as its publication would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.”

That seriously limits the value of the documents, leaving aside the irony of using this expression to refer to affairs that could scarcely have been conducted less effectively. The goal was to cast Ofqual as the dutiful public servant, and Gavin Williamson as the villain.

I might have fallen for it had I not seen in another context the relations between the Department for Education and Ofqual, which really does enjoy the independence that has been claimed for it and will not budge from its formulaic approach, whatever the evidence. Its chief officers and chairman have a statistical mindset that shows no understanding of education whatsoever. The root of the problem was the botched mathematical formula that it produced in response to a perfectly reasonable request from the DfE to devise an approach that would be as fair as possible. At the eleventh hour, Williamson correctly decided that allowing school assessments was the lesser evil, even though there were injustices there too, with some schools simply submitting severely graded mock results and others what their pupils might have hoped for on the best of days.

Which brings us to 2021, and the difficult task facing Spielman and her colleagues. Almost all pupils in state schools have had serious gaps in their teaching. As an example, an A level student with whom I’m working (pro bono, and I have vacancies) had no teaching from his school for four months. He is fortunate in that his set book for Spanish is just 95 pages in large type, while the French equivalent has 450, in smaller type – over five times as much material for the same marks. He has just been hit with a two-week isolation because someone sitting near him had covid, and had been told there would be no teaching during that period. Only half of the class had been isolated, creating further problems. Eventually a laptop was set up to stream the Spanish, with powerpoints only for the other subjects.

So, how to be fair to all pupils when some will not have been taught large areas of their syllabus, and some have missed little or nothing? Not, incidentally, that the gaps are always the schools’ fault. Some parents can’t and others won’t tune in, even when well-designed work is provided. Giving out reduced papers in advance won’t help, as some will be approaching these topics from scratch, while for others it will be revision. We also know from experience that this is likely to lead to corruption. Languages teachers are, incidentally, worried about consistency in grading the spoken component, which is being carried out in widely differing ways in schools.

The only way I can see to tackle this huge variation in preparation is to adopt Churchill’s principle that exams should enable people to show what they can do, rather than find out what they can’t. This would require questions to be set on every topic in each syllabus, with schools allowed, at the start of each paper, to direct pupils to the parts of the paper they had covered. Answers would be marked with a view to quality, and grades considered qualitatively, rather than statistically, in relation to other evidence the school might offer, including its results in 2019. This evidence would also be considered on its merits rather than from a formula.

The operation would require highly-skilled markers, and moderation procedures based on professional knowledge and understanding, leavened by common sense. Candidates would need to be given the benefit of any doubt – real doubt, not number-crunching – and we would have to accept that these results, like this year’s, are less reliable than they will be in a year without disruption. The practical difficulties are great, and the full range of professional skills, including those of inspectors, would have to be brought to bear on it. Against this lies the possibility of proving once and for all what most of us in education know in our hearts – that Churchill was right.

19 comments for: John Bald: Churchill was right. Exams should enable people to show what they can do. Not find out what they can’t.

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