Sixth form student studying physics A Levels UK. (Photo by: Photofusion/Colin Edwards/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is there a future for GCSEs and A levels?

The examination system is far from broken, so stop trying to replace it

Covid-19 continues to sweep everything before it, causing chaos daily and forcing the government into so many contorted policies that some of us are beginning to get nostalgic for the simplicity of an unambiguous U-turn.

How can people so out-of-touch with how schools are run be in such positions of authority?

And yet those sudden government reversals cause lasting damage: nowhere is this truer than in education. A pattern has emerged, of ministers first hesitating, then deciding, then changing their minds, only to collapse either because Twitter is outraged, or because Nicola Sturgeon has already, bravely, surrendered her position. Free school meals, laptops for underprivileged children, opening primary schools, closing secondary schools… the litany of confused announcements goes on, the consequences of which are barely acknowledged in Whitehall, let alone apologised for. But none of these dismal indecisions and revisions had bigger implications than the cancellation of GCSE and A level examinations in the summer.

All of us who work in schools watched, with our fingers over our eyes, as a series of related and catastrophic events resulted from this one, premature, panicked action. The first domino fell and then we saw the inevitable chaos that resulted in barely-controllable grade inflation: schools having to justify to parents and students why they awarded those grades in the first place and, more recently, the chaos of universities, desperate for retaining funding, but bloated on increased student numbers, struggling to deal with packed halls of residence and devalued courses. Undergraduates are being treated like prisoners, but the one who committed the crime was Gavin Williamson.

Whenever there is a multiple pileup in education you always get a crowd of opportunist rubber-neckers, ranging from former SPADs to, Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, saying that this is a great opportunity to build something new and implement untested, reckless changes. It’s happening now with GCSEs and A levels: organisations with big budgets for websites, a talent for slogans and social media, are creeping forward to claim it’s time to “re-think” assessment, referring to examinations as “mutant” or a “terror”, that emotive imagery of physical harm that characterises so much “debate” today.

Others appear more reasoned and informed, with some vice chancellors calling for the summer’s examinations to be postponed. They want to “trust teachers” to grade students’ progress, empower schools to have “robust moderation” in place, and ensure that students have an extended period of learning right up to the end of July. Unbelievably, they call this “a simple solution”.

How can people so clearly out-of-touch with how schools are run be in such positions of authority in education? Every proposal they put forward is not only unworkable, but also guaranteed to bring even greater stress to a system that is already struggling. No teacher wants to repeat the sheer awfulness of summer’s fiasco: we did it because we had to, not because we believe in the process. Regardless of what some may argue, they are not an improvement on sitting GCSE and A level exams: they are deeply flawed and, worse, suddenly make teachers examiners, and thus known to those they assess.

16-year olds do not work on their English purely out of love of Shakespeare

Exams work. They not only measure attainment under secure and timed conditions, but they also remove teachers from the grading process. In doing so, the awarded grades (which can never be 100% accurate) are, crucially, independent and objective, with the examiners remaining anonymous. To remove this buffer, and replace it with continuous assessment throughout the academic year, will make every timed essay, every test, each piece of homework and presentation not only high stakes, but also open to cheating. No school can be expected to ensure each piece of work is the student’s own; nor can we expect teachers to cope with such pressure to make every grade they give a high one. But that will happen.

Examinations also motivate students to work and add momentum to teaching. Without them students will question what they are working towards and why. Strange though it may seem to a vice chancellor, some 16-year olds do not work on their English or Maths purely out of love of Shakespeare and quadratic equations: they do so because they know they need to pass those subjects. I would like to see those who advocate replacing examinations with something squishy, skills-based and portable teach a difficult Year 10 class through a hot July without the exam hall waiting, helping to concentrate their minds.

But the government is already reverting to their familiar, untrustworthy, behaviour: hesitating, leaking, deciding, reviewing, collapsing… the cars continue to crash into summer’s pile-up. Williamson’s commitment to run examinations, come what may, is faltering and it now seems certain that GCSEs and A levels will be pushed back three weeks to help students and teachers catch up on the work they missed during lockdown. Ask yourself this: knowing what you know about the government, do you think this will be the final decision? The chaos inflicted on schools so far may only be a prelude of what is to come.

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