As students, parents and teachers anticipate some hard-won grades this year, there is a general expectation that we will have much to celebrate.
The causes of improved results are not a closely guarded secret. Hard work, focus, good teaching, a supportive environment combines with careful preparation for and understanding of the task at hand, be it in the classroom, examination hall or later in life. Confidence, resilience and determination play a fundamental role and this is why I believe that the class of 2021 will break records in August.
It may seem counterintuitive, but by being tested more by the pandemic than generations of young people perhaps since 1945, this year’s cohort of GCSE, A level, IB and BTec students will produce the best results. Of course, the disparagers of ‘grade inflation’ will rapidly attribute our young people’s success to ‘soft’ grading by teachers, complicity by examination boards and governmental incompetence. What they will overlook is the fact that standards may have actually risen and that our battle-scarred students may have emerged from the pandemic as better learners supported by better teachers.
Teachers are investors in young people in a way that examiners are not. They understand the need to set their pupils up for success, which means building confidence alongside the required knowledge and skills. By assigning responsibility for this year’s results to schools and teachers, the Secretary of State for Education has not just placed the Government’s faith in their judgement, but fundamentally laid the foundations for higher standards.
It is a characteristic of our species that we tend to appreciate more those things we have less of. The pandemic has helped many, some perhaps for the first time, not to take school, education and work for granted. As students have needed to cope with uncertainty, they have been required to adapt, to learn in different ways, in different locations and using different tools. For years, teachers have been trumpeting the importance of self-directed study, the opportunities provided by the internet to go beyond school resources and curricula as well as the fact that learning does not stop at the school gate. Of necessity, the classes of 2021 have had to respond.
Whilst the pandemic has wrought untold harm on individuals and families, it has also made us more resilient, more open to new ideas and more versatile. Consider the sharp learning curve confronted and surmounted by the teaching profession. I have lost count of the number of heads who have commented in awe on the adaptability and commitment of their staff. The increased need for collaborative working, the willingness of often newer teachers to share technological expertise and enthusiasm with more established colleagues and the determination to cope has been remarkable. Is it too much of a leap of faith to believe all this effort will not mean better outcomes? As always when it comes to teaching and learning, it’s wise to feel the quality as well as to measure the width.
The decision to abandon exams has not only created the opportunity for teachers to innovate and to focus on standards rather than formulae, but it has also removed the high-stakes pressures of the examination hall. The ‘bad day’, the mental block and the careless error have been removed as a more holistic assessment of students’ learning takes place, carefully balancing the need to test and verify with the importance of reassurance and support. Freed from the tyranny of comparable outcomes, perhaps the results of 2021 will point to what our students are capable of rather than what the authorities or algorithms determine they can achieve.
Whilst my chosen profession inevitably necessitates an optimistic outlook on life, my historian’s training ensures a healthy respect for the opposing side of any argument. No system of assessment is perfect and there will always be losers as well as winners. The experiences of disadvantaged students are rightly a concern, and they may well not have had the opportunity to benefit equally from what I hope will be a more general picture of better teaching and learning. Some students’ mental health has undoubtedly suffered, as they have coped with the pressures of uncertainty and a sense that they are under constant scrutiny. That said, what we have learned from the pandemic can also be leveraged in time to support all students more effectively.
The benefits of hard work, focus, good teaching and a supportive environment should not be lost to any student. As we consider the lessons of the recent past, we should be able to chart a better future. Churchill reminded us in 1948 that those who fail to learn lessons from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. As we celebrate the successes of the Class of 2021 on results’ days in August, I hope we remember how hard fought for those successes have been and properly understand the reasons behind better grades.
Dr Simon Hyde is the General Secretary of HMC.