Never waste a crisis.
Coronavirus is the biggest crisis ever experienced by the qualifications system in the UK. Short-term measures have been put in place by Ofqual for 2020 and schools and colleges have submitted their estimated grades and rank orders for GCSE and A-level. But what will happen in 2021 if coronavirus prevents a prompt start to the new academic year or if a second spike in covid-19 infections occurs and young people have to miss school for a second prolonged period? Even if we are spared that further disaster, how can results be produced that fairly and equitably reflect the ability and effort of those who will be in year 6, year 11 and year 13 in 2020-21?
This is a crisis that needs to be used to develop a better system of examinations that does not rely entirely on end-assessment and which uses high-quality moderated teacher judgements in ways that increase both the validity and reliability of the grades achieved by the students.
It is time for the profession to take a lead and not just rely on the government to do what is necessary.
In 2020, coronavirus has forced the system to produce results based on teacher judgements. This has had to be devised by Ofqual in a very short time. Contingency planning needs to be carried out for the 2021 examination series. However, the real gain would be to use the current situation to do some major re-thinking. For 2021 onwards, why can’t we start now to plan for a grading system in which teacher judgements play a much larger part?
Then, at least, the coronavirus pandemic could be said to have had at least one positive outcome. The crisis would not have been wasted.
In 2004, when I was general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) (it was the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) then), leaders were horrified that the second biggest budget item for schools and colleges after staffing was examination costs – fees paid to awarding bodies, salaries of exams officers and associated staff, and the cost of invigilation.
According to a report in 2005 from PricewaterhouseCoopers, commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the total cost of the English examination system at that time was £610 million per year. (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmchilsch/169/169ii.pdf)
There had to be a better way, school and college leaders reasoned.
My experience as a comprehensive school maths teacher was that invariably I was able to predict the grades my students would achieve, based on the evidence in my mark book of their work over the two years of the course. So why do we need such an expensive examinations industry to confirm what we, as professionals, already know?
For the answer to that question, I recalled a meeting in 1993 with the then minister of state for education, Eric Forth, whose opinions were as flamboyant as his ties and pocket handkerchiefs. The members of the SHA delegation that met Forth that day were arguing for greater weight to be placed on teacher assessment, but Forth was dismissive. ‘We know that teachers cheat’, he said and sought to move to the next item on the agenda.
In that moment, I realised that, if examination grades were to rely more on teacher assessment, we had to design a system that built in a high degree of professionalism in order to guarantee the accuracy of the grades. The subsequent SHA policy paper proposed a cohort of chartered education assessors, externally accredited to judge students’ in-course work to external standards. The paper proposed that there should be at least one qualified (chartered) education assessor in each secondary school and, subsequently, one for each group of primary schools.
Dr Ken Boston, the CEO of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), quietly took up the idea and established a working group to create what became the Institute of Educational Assessors. The work was well under the radar in order to avoid frightening the ministerial horses, although Jacqui Smith, schools’ minister at the time, was supportive. The notion of chartered assessors was supported in the Tomlinson Report and 14 to 19 exam reforms which took place around 2004 and the Institute was granted its Royal Charter in 2008, becoming independent from the QCA (by then the QCDA) in 2010 when it lost its central government funding.
The CIEA (www.ciea.org.uk), of which I was chair from 2011 to 2014, is an independent membership body, providing training for all kinds of organisations that use assessment. Its work is mainly with school and college teachers and lecturers, but it also provides training to companies and professional bodies that want to improve the quality of their assessment work.
So, where might the CIEA fit into a reformed assessment and examinations system? And how can the profession take the initiative in forging a new system?
The Norwood Committee in 1943 recommended that exams should be set and marked by teachers. When A-levels and O-levels were introduced in 1951, it was hoped that they would be phased out, as teachers gained greater experience of assessment at these levels. But this never happened and, as so often happens in education policy, the pendulum has swung way too far in the opposite direction.
True, the coursework element of exams grew for a time and external moderation was introduced to maintain standards. But coursework, eventually affected by plagiarism and inadequately moderated, never reached its potential which, in the hands of good teachers, is the perfect adjunct to good teaching.
The best teacher I ever worked with, Len Rowe, used 100 per cent coursework for English GCSE for many years, maintaining that the students’ folders contained a wider range of evidence of their ability across a range of skills in English than could be exhibited in any written examination. When political trust in coursework disappeared and 100 per cent coursework GCSEs were abolished in the early 1990s, Len retired at the age of 56, wanting to be no part of the new system and writing a searing letter to Lord Griffiths, then the head of the exams quango, SEAC – a sad loss to the profession.
After the Secretary of State announced that the 2020 exam series in England would be cancelled, Ofqual worked fast to consult on, and announce, a process that attempts to recognise as fairly as possible the ability and attainment of students. The Ofqual proposals were broadly welcomed by the profession, with Geoff Barton saying that ASCL supported the grading plans, which ‘make the best out of a difficult situation’.
Schools and colleges were asked to supply awarding bodies with:
– a centre assessment grade for every student in each of their subjects, based on sources of evidence such as classwork, internal assessments, assignments and mock exam results;
– the rank order of students within each grade for each subject;
– a declaration from the Head of Centre.
Awarding bodies will put this information through a statistical standardisation procedure, which will include the prior attainment of the students at cohort level, and the results of the candidate’s school or college in previous years.
The rank order will take priority over the centre’s estimated grades.
This system is a reasonable response to the 2020 crisis, but it is not intended to be – and should not be – a permanent solution. It has, however, demonstrated that teacher assessment can play a central role in determining the grades of candidates.
A considerable weight falls on Heads of Centres to verify the grades and rank orders submitted to awarding bodies. As Mick Walker, an experienced assessment practitioner and now vice-chair of the CIEA, said in a blog in May 2020: (https://www.herts.ac.uk/ciea/articles/new-article): ‘In schools and colleges that have access to a chartered educational assessor, this process will be enhanced by their knowledge and expertise. Indeed, when the government of the day backed the formation of the CIEA, it was the stated goal that every school should have, or at least have access to, a chartered assessor. If this were the case, we would now have in place a national system of quality assuring this year’s assessments.’
The experience of 2020 tells us that it would be wrong on many levels to return to the previous wholly external exam system. Equally, it would be impossible to move at a stroke to a system based entirely on teacher judgement. It should, however, be possible to devise an examinations system that captures the best of both worlds, with internal and external judgements complementing each other to produce more valid and reliable grades than we have had in recent years.
There is a strong argument for different proportions of internal assessment for different subjects and at different levels. For example, art would have more internal assessment than mathematics; GCSE would have more internal assessment than A-level.
Indeed, GCSE could, and should, be downgraded from a huge examination industry to a progress check for 16-year olds. These issues are for a mature public debate on what an ideal examinations system would look like and, crucially, how it would relate to school and college accountability.
In devising a valid, reliable system for 2021 and beyond, which includes both external and internal assessment, quality assurance of assessments – at centre level – should be the goal of the new system. And this is where the profession can take a lead.
It will require a large cohort of trained and accredited chartered assessors, capable of standardising the grading judgements of teachers, evaluating whether the in-course grade reflects students’ work across the full range of the syllabus. They will ensure that grades fairly represent students’ work and, in particular, that the grades of disadvantaged and BAME students are not under-predicted (as can all too easily happen).
To create this cohort of accredited chartered assessors, the CIEA training programme will need to be scaled up, using sub-contracting and a considerably larger team of trainers. That would not be impossible to plan and implement.
With this training in place, the profession can take the lead in the genesis of a new system by raising the quality of assessment to the level where less reliance needs to be placed on external examinations.
The covid crisis has impacted every part of our lives and has brought pain and loss to so many, but it is too good an opportunity for the education system to waste by returning to the status quo on examinations as soon as provision returns to normal. Change will require a calm debate, focusing on the clear aim of a more valid and reliable system and, as far as possible, free from the political dogma that has been at the root of so much education reform over the last 30 years.
Never waste a crisis.