De-risking the 2021 exams: finding a credible Plan B

Other than the occupational hazard of the ubiquitous school raffle ticket, I’ve never been much of a gambler. This lifelong lesson was learned at a young age amongst the slot machines of Blackpool. An indulgent granny had allowed a return to the arcade following a profitable morning accumulating a sack of 1d coins, only for me to lose the lot.

When it comes to children’s futures, I am even less likely to take a punt. And this is precisely what we are being asked to do with the class of 2021.

I accept absolutely that after the debacle of A level and GCSE grading this summer a return to the relative sanity of examinations is attractive. There is much to do to make sure the current system yields grades which are reliable enough, but let’s put that aside for now. 

My concern remains how deliverable exams in 2021 will be. Each morning we hear more medical opinion that the pandemic is endemic and that our chances of eliminating it are slim. Clever people are working on antiviral treatments, but even the most optimistic will not guarantee success, still less a timetable.

It is easy to kick a problem into the long grass or assume that the world will have returned to normal next June. I say this very much as a optimist. You can’t run a school without a positive attitude, but you also need to be a realist.

So, if ‘normal’ examinations next year are our favoured option, the issue then becomes how can we de-risk them.

It seems to me that there is a role for government, for the exam boards and for schools.

The government must investigate and prepare a credible Plan B. They must share and engage. That means communicating the best available advice about the likely circumstances schools and pupils will face in June, and working collaboratively with stakeholders and experts on detailed scenario planning. They must do this quickly and honestly, motivated by what is best for pupils rather than political spin.

Exam boards will also need to consider the likely trajectory of the pandemic over the next six to nine months. We already know that the class of 2021 has suffered longer and greater disruption to their core education than their immediate forebears. Some are lucky enough to have benefited from excellent remote learning, but many have been severely impacted, including those children with educational needs that have left them ill-equipped to deal with the changes the pandemic has caused.

We also need to consider the likelihood of future disruption, remote learning and even temporary closure on students’ educational journeys. I am uncertain how much wiggle room the Government thinks it has planned when determining the content of exams in 2021. Surely we have to examine what is reasonable in June, not set students up to fail.

Schools and students can often seem the helpless victims of a system over which they have little influence. But schools certainly can help de-risk our dependence on end-of-year examinations. Making sure our schools’ tracking and monitoring systems are robust is a helpful starting point. Schools are now data rich and we need to apply some of this information to support our best professional judgements about students’ progress and prospects.

When it comes to assessing progress, perhaps we should be considering more standard cross-set tests, unofficial coursework pieces and end-of-unit assessments? Could we extend our use of technology to carry out more online assessment and compile a robust data set demonstrating attainment and progress? Should we consider more exam conditions assessment as part of our course? These could be quite brief and will need to be integrated into the programme of study.

The exam boards could help here by preparing and standardising exemplar or actual assessments that schools could use. Schools might then collaborate to ensure that some peer standardisation could take place. Nothing is perfect, but it would be a common-sense approach and prevent handwringing at the end of the year when the regulator says there are no robust and comparable means by which to use teacher assessment. It would also give our students something concrete to focus upon and prevent disengagement and despair should the pandemic worsen.

We need to recognise, of course, that whatever direction we take, there will be a continuing additional burden on our schools and our teachers. Planning for uncertainty is always more challenging than planning for the expected. But I am confident that our colleagues will rise to the challenge. The professionalism and integrity shown by those working in education has been quite remarkable.

So, whilst I continue to hope for a return to ‘normal’ in June. I don’t want to bet all my pennies on it. In 1973, it cost me a model Leopard tank I had my eye on. In 2021, it could cost our pupils much more.

Written by Dr Simon Hyde, HMC General Secretary