Public examinations 2021 – a fair outcome for those students caught up in the pandemic!

A level results are in for the 2021 Cohort, and they will in the main be delighted by the outcomes they’ve achieved at the close of their Sixth Form studies. For the Claires Court cohort, 43% gained A* or A, 76% A* to B, with 88% making their first choice University destination. As this picture looks very similar to 2020, the first year where teacher assessed grades replaced exam grades, it’s comforting to know the teachers have been able to sustain high standards of participation and engagement, despite all the difficulties of the In-Out school we have been required to run for the last 18 months.

It’s clear though that these results are higher than if they had been determined by public examination, marked and determined by independent examiners, so does this ‘grade inflation’ then bring the whole process into disrepute or worse? It’s useful to have the University entrance data to refer to, because with so many applicants winning their first choice place, that’s indicative that higher education isn’t being sniffy at all, and actually are ready to welcome our successes with open arms. And well done them, because the graduates of 2021 are demonstrably a resilient bunch, who’ve missed a host of ‘rights of passage’ events because of the closure of UK entertainment PLC, and yet have found new ways of carrying on their lives with family and friends regardless.

There is a historical precedent to what we have currently experienced. that being the choice by England, Wales and Northern Ireland to move from O levels to GCSEs in the 1980s. This exercise was conducted to ensure that the whole cohort of students passing through secondary school could enjoy a common experience of curriculum, coursework and examination, replacing the apartheid that O level (top 20%), CSE (mid 40%) and non-exam (bottom 40%) had brought to schools prior to their introduction in 1986. Inevitably far more students ‘passed’ GCSEs than ever passed O levels, and ever since researchers have been trying to prove that standards have slipped. In reality, the expansion of general education to all at GCSE has led to the massive expansion of higher education as a consequence; pre GCSE only 5% of the population attended University, where now it is 10 times the size, and the country’s economy benefits massively as a consequence.

Reach further back, and you can find a brilliant spoof report written by Harold Benjamin, back in 1939, a satirical commentary on the nature of schooling and school reform, “The Saber Tooth Curriculum”. Using an alias of J. Abner Peddiwell, Benjamin wrote on the topic of stone-age education. Readers learn that in the Paleolithic curriculum, children were taught how to grab fish, club woolly horses, and scare saber tooth tigers. They needed these skills to sustain themselves – to get food and protect themselves from danger. In time, however, colder climatic conditions prevailed. The local waters grew muddier, making it impossible to see, let alone grab the fish, and the horses and tigers eventually died away. Yet the schools continued to teach fish grabbing, horse clubbing, and tiger scaring techniques, believing them to be fundamentals with inherent character-building and mind-training value. Progressive stone-age educators would argue that new skills needed to be taught, including fishnet making and ways to deal with a new menace, the glacier bear. Through “The Saber Tooth Curriculum” Benjamin shows how schools often conduct themselves in ways that are unresponsive to the emerging needs of the life experience.

If I may draw us back to 2020 & 2021, it would have been entirely inappropriate for us to have regressed students grades from what they were capable of achieving at the time, and what actually they would have achieved given the lottery of the exam room and the requirements of the exam boards to keep grades awarded down to % of the cohort. Using rationing to keep grades down is the current choice of the UK government, the most often quoted statistic being that only 3% are permitted to gain a level 9 at GCSE.

Rationing, whether deliberate or accidental is no way to manage a testing system. Just consider the appalling state the country has got itself into through not running HGV testing – with no drivers able to take the test, we now have a chronic shortage of HGV drivers and we now have the army on standby to provide 2000 drivers to keep our supermarket shelves stocked, though that would probably not help given we have 100,000 drivers missing! I am delighted that the government is reaching in to expand the availability of undergraduate medical places; this is an area of acute rationing the government has managed for years, preferring to recruit the bulk of its missing doctors from other countries around the world. Frankly, that’s its own scandal now, and we need to leave other countries’ leading medics to build their own countries and permit many more of our own nationals to qualify instead.

If next year is to normalise, and see the reintroduction of examinations, then so be it. It’s fair to say we will be as ready for that in 2022 as any, because our teachers always seek to bring the best out of our pupils, whatever the circumstances prevailing at the time. But schools and colleges will give exam boards and government fair warning too; you left us very much to our own devices for 2 years, informing us consistently at the last minute of new matters we had to implement and all at our cost not yours. We are now as aware as we ever have been of the capabilities and capacities of our children as learners, and we’d like to see a reintroduction of a fairer rationing system for the awarding of grades aligned with our efforts this year, namely using grade related criteria rather than % rationing. That’s a whole other technical paper, but for the moment I’ll return to the driving test as best example. When someone passes a driving test, it’s because they have met the criteria for safe and effective driving. None of us would agree to a system that demanded only 55% of those sitting the test on any given day were permitted to pass – if the driver is good enough, they should be graded accordingly!

And finally, it is worth just remarking that our students of 2021 have made an incredible job of winning their pandemic year; shorn of their celebrations, sporting and social opportunities, they have really got stuck in to all those elements that were available, including their school work. More generally, we’ve seen reading flourish, and a welcome growth of interest in craft and domestic skills for life, and more than that a willingness and openness to rise to the challenge! And as that’s why I came into education in the first place, and why I am still committed to the teaching profession, willing myself to treat every day as a school day, one serving up a new lesson to learn from.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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