Jeremy Yallop is a trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association (HEQA)
A second year without exams has reminded the public why they matter. As the consequences of this year’s teacher assessments continue to unfold, public support for abolishing exams has already dissolved.
In March 2020, the Government cancelled exams due to safety concerns: Covid deaths were rising by 1200 per cent a week, and it was unclear that exam halls could be secured. By the summer, these concerns were resolved, and an autumn exam series was held without incident.
The motive for cancelling exams in 2021 was consequently not safety, but fairness to those affected by school closures. While the aim was noble, the results have not vindicated the strategy: instead, gaps have widened between black and white, poor and rich, boys and girls, between year-groups, school types and regions. Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, Simon Lebus, has declared this outcome fair, but it is doubtful whether anyone else thinks so, or whether the public will accept the justification a second time.
Exam cancellation: the broad effects
Exam cancellation has already produced two years of astonishing grade inflation, but cancelling exams again would elevate grades to fresh heights. Without the mechanisms designed to improve reliability – standardisation, external moderation, blind marking – there is little to check the swell.
In 2020, inflation was limited by guidance from the Association of School and College Leaders directing schools to downgrade their own students in advance in order to avoid grade adjustment by the “algorithm”. In 2021, with the algorithm gone, only fear of exam board oversight held back teachers’ largesse. Now that even this fear is known to be unfounded (with less than three per cent of schools subject to scrutiny in 2021), future grading will be less restrained.
Even at 2021 levels, A-level grades have lost much of their utility. In two years, the proportion of students awarded three A* grades has increased more than fourfold, to 6.9 per cent. Since A-levels can no longer identify top students, top universities are increasingly turning to other evidence, such as entrance exams.
A yet more serious concern than inflation is the decoupling of grades from learning. The curriculum may be knowledge-rich, but pick-and-choose teacher assessment waives through students who have encountered only half of it, leaving them ill-prepared for what follows. It is unwise to begin an engineering degree without completing A-level maths, even if you have a certificate that lets you onto the course.
Exam cancellation and home-educated students
The genius of conservative policymaking is circumspection: it is suspicious of revolutionary change, and favours infinite caution when “pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society”. The exam edifice has been refined over decades to accommodate the complex needs of students, teachers, universities and employers. It is difficult to replace such a structure wholesale in a crisis without inadvertently overlooking the needs of one group or another.
In the exam crisis, it was home-educated students who were overlooked. Ironically, their education was perhaps the least disrupted of any group: they were unaffected by school closures, and accustomed to learning independently. In normal years, the exam system accommodates home-educated students alongside everyone else; in the crisis years, with exams replaced by teachers’ judgement, it was inevitable that students without teachers would be disadvantaged.
In 2020, home-educated students were initially forgotten altogether. Ofqual’s exam-replacement system required schools to rank students, but the schools that had accepted exam entries from home-educated students (as “private candidates”) had no reasonable way to assign those students ranks. Thousands were simply withdrawn, and the majority of private candidates received no grades.
In 2021, private candidates were allowed to receive grades via teacher assessment. Unfortunately, since the teachers did not know the students, and since home educators were not allowed to access preparation materials, there was little hope that the grades would be comparable to those awarded to schoolchildren. Many home-educating families chose to defer assessment rather than risk unreliable grading, and private candidate A-level entries remained 50 per cent lower than 2019.
A conservative approach to contingency planning
Restoring the old edifice of standardised assessment will eliminate these injustices. 2022 may bring further crises, but a conservative policy response will contain rather than worsen the damage.
Ministers intend for exams to go ahead, but contingency plans are not yet finalised. Although there will inevitably be temptation to resort to teacher assessment again, it would be difficult to justify. Rather than improving fairness, teacher assessment has introduced a panoply of injustices; rather than helping students progress, it has assigned them to courses for which they are not prepared.
Instead, contingency plans should preserve what is valuable about exams, while improving flexibility. Where students cannot quite cover a full curriculum, there should be options for assessment on reduced content; where they cannot cover an adequate portion, it should be possible to award a lesser qualification. (It is unclear whether authorised absences from school are as damaging as assumed, but the damage could be mitigated if the exam boards were to commission and publish high-quality videos covering the full curriculum.) To prepare for disruption during the exam season itself, the exam boards should also produce papers to support additional sittings, as is already done for international qualifications.
Contingency plans will be needed very soon. In the coming weeks, schools will submit predicted grades to universities, which will start to make offers. With clear commitments about standards, universities will not need to assume the worst; with clear commitments about assessment, students will be able to focus on learning. Above all, returning to objective assessment will provide a basis for rebuilding public confidence.