Passing the buck

The Secretary of State for Education has repeatedly told us that exams are the fairest form of assessment. He has repeatedly told us that the government’s intention is for exams to go ahead and for schools to remain open. Now with equal vehemence and without a word of apology, he tells us that A level, AS and GCSE exams will be cancelled and schools in England will remain closed until half term.

Examinations are to be replaced by Teacher Assessed Grades and Mr Williamson asserts that he has every confidence in the professional judgement of teachers, which would be encouraging had we not heard this last year whilst his department and Ofqual were inventing an algorithm to supplant Centre Assessment Grades.

We are now in January and the teachers concerned have been given no idea of what they are assessing, when they are assessing it or how it is being assessed. Students are left in limbo and school leaders will be quietly fuming. If schools were run on this basis, they would be beyond even the most special of special measures.

All of this was sadly foreseeable. Action in September to significantly reduce syllabus content would have provided students and teachers with certainty on which they could build. Developing confidence is an essential part of any good teacher’s job, but it does not appear to be a requirement for a Secretary of State.

We are left with more questions than answers. This is bad enough, but they are the same questions we have had since September: how do we account for lost learning, which threatens further to disadvantage the disadvantaged? How do we ensure that any alternative to examinations (a Plan B) is both robust and maintains standards? How do we ensure a level playing field and fairness when students’ experiences have been so varied and crucially how do we validate and acknowledge the hard work of so many students and teachers?

We are told that teachers will be provided with the training and support necessary to ensure robust and fair grades this summer. They will legitimately ask: when will this be provided, who will provide it and how will time be made available? There will be concern for private candidates (those not currently attending a school or college), as well as students in international schools which use English qualifications, but who are in the more fortunate position of not having had their education interrupted.

Schools and teachers will be doing all they can to keep students focused and engaged whether or not they are taking an examination, but they are also being given another massive responsibility normally exercised by examination boards. At present, we are rightly asking much of our teachers and school leaders, but it feels suspiciously to me as though the Secretary of State is looking to pass the buck.

Blog by HMC General Secretary, Dr Simon Hyde