Russian dolls

All’s well that ends well…until next year!

An article by a Guest Contributor who is one of our most senior examiners with 25 years experience of examining for the public exam boards; a consultant to schools under special measures with the task of improving English Language and Literature performance. The views of Guest Contributors are their own and not necessarily those of MMP but are included in order to offer a further perspective. All MMP examiners remain anonymous at all times.

‘Spinning’ Straw into Gold…

Millions of children will have watched and enjoyed  Disney’s The Lion King as part of their childhood and witnessed the antagonist Scar inform the mouse he captured, ‘Life’s not fair, is it? You see I, I shall never be king. And you shall never see the light of another day.” Although they may have swallowed this salutary truth with their Weetabix the mangled machinations of this year’s A’ level and GCSE grades seem, by eventually relying on teachers’ unregulated predictions, to be giving teenagers everywhere the corona consolation that they can after all be examination A* kings. It does all seem a bit Mickey Mouse and we have to ask if and how this level of attainment will be sustained happily ever after.

Until 2013 an English Language GCSE consisted of 40% examination, 40% controlled assessment and 20% speaking and listening which was internally assessed and moderated by teachers. This was until it became ‘evident’ that in some schools despite mediocre controlled assessments and poor exam performance the entire cohort had oratory skills of Churchillian potential giving their overall results a significant nudge up the grades. By 2014 spoken language no longer contributed to a candidate’s final result. We were then left with a 60% examination and 40% controlled assessment. Coursework which had revealed you really couldn’t trust the parents was replaced by controlled assessment completed in school. It was intended that students would attempt each assessment only once with access only to fairly scant preparatory notes. Some schools adhered strictly to these rules but over the years in others they became so blurred and compromised that it was not uncommon for students to have multiple attempts at the same piece assisted by detailed plans, possible drafts, annotated copies of the texts and significant input from the teachers. By 2017, English Language GCSE was 100% examination. However, in 2020 we were being implored by the hastily felt-tipped cardboard signs of the ‘downgraded’ to trust the teachers.

It is not my intention to suggest that some of my fellow professionals are self-serving individuals, creatively navigating their way across the grade boundaries but we have already established that life is not always fair and in schools in deprived or highly competitive catchment areas it is not unlikely that even the most principled teacher when faced with the ‘mutant’ human algorithm of context, competence and coercion may have been tempted when assessing 2020 grades to plump for a fairy tale ending.

During the Autumn Term, in ‘normal’ times when the post exam results analysis has been completed a teacher usually has to face their annual appraisal; now often linked to pay progression. Targets will have been set in the preceding year and teachers have to account for the extent to which their actual results have met these targets and their own predictions. It is not unprecedented for teachers to predict results. They do it every year and some of them are historically not very good at it; relying on a ‘they’ll pull out all the stops on the day’ quality of quantitative data. Last year, I worked with an Assistant Headteacher whose predictions were 50% out; her ego had assured her she could work miracles with a GCSE RE class she had only picked up in Year 11. This year all her students will receive the grades she assessed them capable of and they should probably offer up a prayer of thanks for this deliverance.

Students’ targets are often based on the data from tests taken at the end of KS2 and the beginning of Year Seven plotted against a smooth ‘flightpath’ of anticipated progress. As we all know, not much can go wrong between the wide eyed age of eleven and the spotty surliness of sixteen! Nevertheless, in explaining their students’ grades teachers are not allowed to use anecdotal real life evidence as an ‘excuse’ and a disappointing set of results, especially in the more mercantile MATs can mean a denial of pay progression, being placed on a ‘support plan’ or even competency procedures being put in place. In this climate it is hardly surprising that this year a greater number of teachers seem to have miraculously improved their aim and hit their targets. However, there must be some lurking shadow of doubt in their minds asking how they will continue to hit the bull’s eye when the real papers return. Accountability for teachers and schools has not gone away; it is merely enjoying a corona convalescence and there will be serious questions to answer in the years to come if the apparent achievements of this year prove to be the academic equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes.

When some parents can afford school fees which exceed the average yearly household income it seems reasonable to suggest that standardised examinations are the least unfair way of assessing pupil attainment. Sitting a paper on a prescribed date, in the same conditions and for the same duration of time is the closest to an equal playing field we can hope for. When this wasn’t possible the Ofqal algorithm based largely on previous performance threw out some much publicised anomalies; the brilliant A’ level student from the deprived background apparently missing out on her place to study medicine at Oxford as her school had no history of such attainment. These cases should have been dealt with as the rarities they were and the bandwagon of class warriors whinging about being ‘downgraded’ should have accepted that the fairy tale predictions of their teachers had only been ‘adjusted’ to meet the harsh glare of reality. In that case, not everybody would have received an apparent ‘free pass’ to their Russell Group university of choice and the usual ‘clearing’ scramble would have matched candidates to available places in a plethora of institutions.

The awarding of Centre Assessed Grades this year seems to have compromised this year’s A’ level and GCSE results. This is a pity for those who really deserve their top grades. Some schools and teachers predicting wearing very rosy spectacles have created a dangerous precedent for themselves. The results in 2021 will inevitably have some corona compromises but when the clock strikes midnight, the masks are off and ‘normality’ returns how will they explain their lost ability to spin straw into gold?

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