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Artillery Row

Public exams are the only fair way to test pupils

Cancelling exams would only widen educational inequality

I was surprised to read this week that some prominent voices in the education world, such as Steve Chalke, Founder of the Oasis Academy Trust and someone whom I admire, have called for the cancellation of public examinations next summer. Their argument is that pupils who are preparing to take GCSEs and A Levels in 2021 have missed so much school that they can never catch up by the start of the examination season. They also take the pessimistic view that schools may have to close again for months. Others, such as Sally Coates, Director of Secondary Academies at United Learning, as well as many prominent headteachers, disagree strongly with what is clearly a flawed argument.

Pupils deserve to be given the opportunity to prove themselves on paper

The first claim, that all pupils have missed too much school to take exams, is a spurious one. While some schools did not deliver their full curriculum to pupils during the lockdown, others did. My school moved its entire curriculum online and we taught Years 10 and 12 all of their lessons. I am sure that other many other schools did the same. It was challenging to do this, mainly because some pupils did not have access to the devices they needed. Thirty-six per cent of the pupils at my school are disadvantaged, so many of our families needed technological support, which we were glad to offer. In addition, the doyenne of assessment in this country, Daisy Christodoulou, has convincingly argued that it may not take pupils as long to catch up as some believe.

Next, if GCSEs and A Levels are to be cancelled, what are we going to tell the thousands of children who worked hard throughout the last academic year? That some schools did not manage to deliver any online teaching at all – or some children just didn’t bother to do any work – so they have to suffer? That their exams are cancelled and the people who were in charge of this summer’s examinations debacle will be allocating their grades too? I have spoken to my Year 11 and Year 13 pupils and they all want to sit their examinations. They told me that they are their exams and they want ultimate responsibility for them.

I also worry that some pupils will take their foot off the gas pedal if they know they aren’t going to be examined at the end of this academic year. What will attendance be like if they know ahead of time that they’ll be given grades willy-nilly, and probably quite good grades judging from this year’s debacle?

Another point is that GCSEs and A Levels have not been designed to be assessed in the same way as modular qualifications such as BTECs or HNDs, which are based on long term project-type assignments or work experience placement tasks. So how will teachers assess their GCSE and A Level pupils if they are not preparing students for written papers taken in examination conditions?

No, let’s keep teaching them and preparing them for their examinations. This is what they want. Pupils deserve to be given the opportunity to prove themselves on paper. Public examinations are the only fair and equitable way to test pupils’ knowledge, understanding, aptitude and hard work.

Pupils are happy to be in school and have a sense of purpose again – let’s not take that away

Any other method, especially pupil coursework, written at home, is open to manipulation. Pupils from advantaged backgrounds are far more likely to get help from parents with their coursework. Teacher assessments are also not ideal if the aim is to measure each pupil against their peers on a national level. Schools such as mine have been working for years to ensure that their pupils are given the same challenging curriculums and high aspirations that exist in the top private and grammar schools in this country. All of that work will go to waste if our pupils aren’t allowed to show what they can do at exams next summer.

Yes, there may be further local and national lockdowns, and schools may have to close again, although I fervently hope not. But they may not. If we tell thousands of children, who have already been at home for months on end, that this academic year will not result in a robust set of examination results for each of them, what are we actually saying to them? That they do not matter? That, really, they don’t need to come into school, as we can give them some homework tasks and put together some grades that look about right, but actually nobody is going to take seriously? I, for one, do not want to have to say that to my pupils. They are all so happy to be in school and to have a sense of purpose again. Let’s not take that away from them.

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