Turn your papers over – fresh start required

Turn your papers over – fresh start required

It was inevitable that cancelling examinations would cause conflicts and chaos, whatever alternative system was used to grade students.

I said in March that the decision would lead to terrible problems.

We were aware then that the peak of the virus outbreak was likely to be in April.

While holding GCSEs would have posed difficulties due to the numbers taking them, A’ Levels should have gone ahead.

There are fewer students sitting them and by their very nature the examinations are socially-distanced.

The problems of cancelling all examinations necessarily led to serious issues, which have been solved by political decisions, not educational ones.

Using the method chosen to grade students meant pitting teacher predictions against a standardisation model, the validity of which would always be questioned by those it penalised.

Examinations are imperfect measurements, but they are the best we have. And the debacle this year has proved their importance.

The first exams in schools were taken in 1858 after teachers requested something to independently mark pupils’ attainment.

Schools approached universities and asked them to produce exams that boys could take locally. Previously they had to travel to a university for an interview.

Girls were not officially permitted to enter public examinations until 1867.

It is true to say that a child who has studied at Eton is in a more advantageous position than a child studying in a comprehensive in a socially deprived area of country.

But at least both children are taking the same examination and their papers can be marked by an independent professional.

Standardisation models ignore individual performance and the many anomalies that can occur.

The general trend across Europe has been for children to do important examinations.

Cancelling GCSEs was probably necessary and while they are important, they are not as crucial as A’ Levels.

Ultimately, the exams debacle has led to all the governments across the UK undermining their own qualifications authorities.

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that teacher predicted grades in Scotland would supersede the SQA’s standardised grades was the first out of the traps.

No doubt the Scottish Nationalists had one eye on the Holyrood Elections next May, as well as concern for their many beleaguered students who had had their predicted grades adjusted down.

The other administrations soon followed suit with similar U-turns as they faced severe political fallout.

However, given the situation all the administrations found themselves in they were left with little choice in the end.

The number of appeals would have been overwhelming and could not have been processed.

Accepting the teacher predicted grades is probably the lesser of two evils, even though it undermines the examination system and the authorities that award the grades.

Where does this leave us?

Accepting teacher predicted grades (whilst carefully assessed by teachers) will inflate the results this year by up to 14% based on previous statistical evidence.

This will have a knock-on effect for students who follow them next year and in subsequent years.

There may not be enough university places to house the swollen ranks of students who now have these A’ Level grades.

Students next year may well face a more limited choice of subjects and fewer available places in the universities because this year’s students will have taken them.

Added to this will be the tag that the A’ Level results this year are not to be really trusted.

Students with A’ Level results from 2020 may also find their grades are taken less seriously by employers.

Lessons must be learnt from this debacle and the cancelling of examinations should never occur in the future.

The governments across the UK now need to rebuild trust and make the examination system as robust as possible to ensure it is as fair as it can be.

Examinations are still the best measurement, although they are imperfect.

The widespread potential for cheating in coursework means that this must not be brought back into the system.

High levels of coursework favour children from homes where middle-class parents can assist them or employ tutors.

If there is to be coursework, it should be done under timed conditions in school to ensure there is a level playing field between students.

As teachers knew in the 1850s, examinations are the best way to judge pupils’ attainment.