The so-called ‘serenity prayer’ has always struck me as something that could have been written specifically for headteachers. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Now that the process by which grades are to be awarded this summer has been decided, the immediate temptation is to complain about delay, lack of foresight or the potential for problems. But we must, I think, resist the temptation and focus on looking ahead. We must work with what we can control and influence, if for no other reason than it is what our communities need us to do.
There will be inevitable concern from some colleagues about the challenge of awarding appropriate grades this year. Despite the Secretary of State’s assurance that teachers are best placed to determine students’ grades, colleagues know that grades are relative not absolute. The award of a grade B to a student derives its meaning in relation to another student’s C or A. This is why the setting of a common standard lies at the heart of an assessment system. It is also why, despite our discouragement, the immediate instinct of students is to discover how others have performed.
In 2021, the standard will be left to the judgement of individual schools and teachers supported, as best they can, by examination boards. Whilst we have been reassured that there will be robust Quality Assurance, the overall outcome is difficult to predict. It is outside our control, so I suggest we accept that with as much serenity as we can muster.
Most schools, however, will have probably been planning for assessed grades since September. Despite the overwhelming desire for a return to exams, this is certainly what HMC advised at the start of the academic year.
Teachers should therefore be confident in the processes and systems that are already in place to help determine student outcomes this summer. Teachers are professionals and act with integrity. They understand that it is in no student’s long-term interest to be saddled with a grade far beyond their competence. The prospect of young people proceeding to an apprenticeship or university that they cannot cope with should be disincentive enough against grade inflation. The idea that no one will notice the sudden metamorphosis of a student accustomed to B grades to an A* is fanciful.
In my view, we should discourage those who may seek to undermine this year’s outcomes before they have even been calculated. That is certainly a resolution that lies within our control, as is the ability to do all we can to ensure that our own results are both appropriate and fair. Let us worry less about what others are doing and concentrate more on what we can do.
Finally, there is now perhaps a renewed opportunity to persuade our students that, whilst important, their final grade is not the ne plus ultra of their educational journey. Preparation for what comes next, whether in school, college, university or the world of work, is the actual point. Readiness for sixth form, FE or university courses goes far beyond practice papers and the narrow parameters of what a general qualification can assess. Once freed from the tyranny of the examination, could it be possible for students actually to achieve more?
A blog by HMC General Secretary, Dr Simon Hyde