The different approaches being taken to exams in 2021 by the home nations make the results incomparable, warns Kevin Stannard (article first published in TES)
When historians come to identify the critical conjunctures leading to the break-up of the United Kingdom, they will very likely focus on the disagreement and disunion over next year’s exams.
The failure of the educational authorities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to agree a joint approach doesn’t just threaten the current cohort. It undermines confidence in the entire system, making life unnecessarily difficult for cohorts to come.
The unity and integrity of the higher education system and of the labour market in Britain depends on parity between qualifications, as reflected in the Ucas tariff. There are commonly accepted conversion rates between different qualifications, so that applicants with A levels, Scottish Highers and IB diplomas can be sensibly – and fairly – compared.
Exams 2021: A diversity of approaches
As it happens, some degree of unity was achieved inadvertently last summer, because everyone ended up scrapping exams and all (but the IB) fell back entirely on school-assessed grades.
This time around, even that degree of harmony can’t be guaranteed. Scotland has announced the cancellation of Highers next summer, relying once again on teacher assessments. Students in England and Northern Ireland, however, still face summer exams – the current highly imaginative fallback plan is simply more opportunities to take the exams. Wales has opted for a middle course: grades will be arrived at using assessments taken in school over a prolonged period, but set and marked externally.
Given the diversity of approaches, and the uneven impact of grade inflation, there’s no guarantee that the current read-across between qualifications will survive. And there’s no confidence that students holding different qualifications can be treated comparably in university admissions or job applications.
The Welsh scenario takes us from a pickle to a farce, given that Welsh students will be awarded A levels that will not necessarily mean the same, grade for grade, as the “same” qualifications awarded by English boards.
Last summer’s exams car crash meant that year-on-year comparability in standards has been sacrificed – admittedly the least-bad solution at the time. But the coming year’s multiple pile-up eliminates any real comparability between students in the same UK cohort. That threatens far more serious unfairness.
Although course lengths, fee structures and financial support systems are different in Scotland’s system, there is at least the semblance of a unified UK university admissions system. And UK students are offered a level playing field between institutions in the four nations.
The effect of disunity this summer could be to fragment the higher education sector. It will also shatter universities’ already fragile confidence in school qualifications, and they may simply rely more and more on their own (non-curriculum-related) admissions tests.
But is the summer plan set in stone? If last year is any guide, the Department for Education will wait until very late in the day, and then perform a U-turn. Schools would be left to pick up the pieces, the pressure piling on teachers.
“The concern about the coming year is acute, because A-level exams and their current equivalents are so crucial in sorting young people into channels that may well define much of the rest of their lives.”
Aside from the moral hazard involved in asking teachers once again to grade their own students for high-stakes qualifications without any external moderation, the grades awarded in this manner for a second year will not be strictly comparable (nor, therefore, fair) between schools, nor indeed between parts of the country.
The concern about the coming year is acute, because A-level exams and their current equivalents are so crucial in sorting young people into channels that may well define much of the rest of their lives.
In England, there seems to be a general feeling in favour of sticking with external exams, because it provides some reassurance about overall fairness – although it remains to be seen whether and how the system can accommodate those who are unable to take the exams, or make allowances between students for differential amounts of learning loss over the year.
GCSEs: A battery of unnecessary tests
The situation is very different for GCSEs. The stakes are lower, and there is no overriding need for them to be formally comparable with another country’s qualifications.
Before Covid, there was growing support for doing away with this battery of arguably unnecessary tests, or at least replacing them with a slimmed-down version. There was a great opportunity in the summer for the DfE and Ofqual to announce the end of GCSE, perhaps with a transition period in which only a few core subjects were examined externally for a few years. We may look back and regret the missed opportunity to bury the GCSE with dignity.
That window should surely now be considered closed, at least for this cycle. Yet continued disruption of schooling into the spring might force DfE to re-re-reconsider its position on GCSEs.
Having recently doubled down on the summer exams – for GCSE as well as A level – a U-turn in the new year would be as characteristic as it would be contemptible. If pressures become too great, though, wouldn’t it be better to cancel not just the exams but the awards themselves, leaving schools to report in their own way on a student’s progress? The outcomes would not be comparable between schools, but comparability has already been thrown out of the window.
In our disunited kingdom, the educational authorities have abdicated responsibility. Teachers are being asked to make, deliver and judge the quality of someone else’s shoddily designed product.
But even more serious is the effect of all this on our students’ mental health. Schools are currently seeing the results of this toxic brew, blending as it does high-stakes uncertainty with constant reverses of direction.