HMC statement following Sunday Times coverage

7 February 2022
Posted by HMC Press Office

Examination malpractice is taken extremely seriously by schools and can lead to substantial penalties for those involved. The accusation in yesterday’s Sunday Times that independent schools and their teachers set out to take advantage of the pandemic by ‘gaming’/manipulating A level and GCSE grades in order to take advantage of a unique system designed to respond to the unique challenges in schools across the country, and the world, is unprecedented. It is a direct attack on thousands of hard-working professionals, casts doubt over the integrity of their school leaders and seeks to devalue the achievements of tens of thousands of pupils who, alongside their peers have had to adapt to rapid change and uncertainty and manage their own and others’ fears and anxiety during a global crisis.

When we actually look at the numbers at A Level for example, the claims of ‘gaming’ simply do not stand up. At independent schools, 9,513 more entries were awarded A*/A at A Level in 2021 than in 2020; likewise, in the state sector, 43,981 more entries. Those additional 9,513 independent sector entries represent an increase of 16.9% relative to the number awarded A*/A in 2020, and the additional 43,981 state sector entries represent an increase of 21.4% relative the corresponding state sector entries in 2020.

The circumstances in which assessments took place in 2020 and 2021 were exceptional. Repeatedly, organisations such as HMC (the Heads’ Conference) and ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders) have advised against making comparisons with previous examination years as both the content and the form of assessment has been profoundly different to previous years. Apples and pears have been much referenced.

Ofqual, the exam regulator, endeavoured in both 2020 and 2021 to provide effective oversight of CAGs and TAGs (Centre and Teacher Assessment Grades), although it was apparent that their regulation would always be much more challenging than the familiar and well-rehearsed system of standardised examinations. In this environment and with the backdrop of the pandemic, teachers across the education sector did their best to fulfil the multiple roles of teacher, examiner and moderator. The process was implemented no less robustly and with no less rigour in independent schools than in any other school.

It may be true to say that many students in independent settings were fortunate that their education was subject to less disruption than some in parts of the state sector. Independent school pupils benefited from greater access to digital resources both in school and at home, and most were supported significantly at home. The lower staff-pupil ratios in the schools also facilitated targeted help to students across the ability range.

With examinations cancelled, the focus shifted to coursework and shorter, more focused pieces of assessment. Both elements have long been embedded in independent schools’ teaching methods and were therefore bound to deliver better results. HMC spent much energy on engaging with exam regulators and the Government, explaining that this would be the case.

In ‘normal’ exam years, independent school pupils are concentrated in the higher grades. It should therefore come as little surprise that improvements in outcomes based on what many would see as a ‘less pressured’ (for pupils) process of assessment of what pupils know and can do, by the people (their teachers) who know and understand their true capability, would be likely to be more evident in already high-performing centres.

In a system which relies on end point assessment (terminal examinations), every year pupils who are on-track to secure the top grades fail to do so due to performance on the day – perhaps related to exam nerves, or to external factors such as illness/bereavement/an upset on the day. The system that schools were required to implement in 2020 & 2021 removed this element of ‘roulette’. As a result, many, many pupils across the sector, not just those in independent schools, will have received the best grade possible for them, as exam nerves and those other factors were removed from the assessment process.

None of this was unforeseen and none of it has anything to do with ‘gaming’ the system or, to put it bluntly, cheating. There has been a significant shift in grade profiles across both the state and independent sectors. Given Ofqual’s previous policy of comparable outcomes, this would not have been possible had exams taken place and ‘normal’ rules applied. But they could not take place, much to the disappointment and frustration of many teachers and school leaders. What replaced the exams was certainly imperfect, but it was the best that could be achieved in the circumstances and, in my view, it is baseless to suggest that staff did not act with integrity and professionalism in profoundly challenging circumstances.

With some scientists predicting a further 10 years of disruption due to emerging Covid-variants, in many ways, the assessment challenges experienced in 2020/2021 have provided an opportunity to step back and consider the vulnerability of the national assessment system.

By suggesting that some schools have ‘gamed’ the system, we belittle the hard work, patience and endeavour of teachers, students and parents in all schools, both independent and state. By questioning the validity of these independently verified results, we risk further condemning a generation exposed to mental health issues as a result of the pandemic.

For now, rather than taking away from the achievements of young people and their teachers who, like everyone else, faced up to the challenges and pressures of the pandemic under ever-changing conditions, let us focus on the way ahead and ensuring the system is robust and fair for all.

Dr Simon Hyde, General Secretary, HMC