Ensuring already disadvantaged students sitting public examinations are not further disadvantaged this year


I felt uncomfortable reading the Ofqual consultation about school public examinations this week, and I wanted to explore this discomfort a bit further here.

Specifically, what made me uneasy was the proposal that no appeals will be allowed for exam grades this year: “appeals should only be allowed on the grounds that the centre made a data error when submitting its information; or similarly, that the exam board made a mistake when calculating, assigning or communicating a grade”. Now, to be clear, I can’t offer a specific alternative to this, and it is of course a recognisable positive that teachers’ professional judgement is being valued. Moreover, if (a slightly big ‘if’ …) the algorithms to be used in the calculations were to take account of the current cohort of students and their individual characteristics, rather than just using historical data and trends, then this would alleviate a little of my discomfort, because we do need to remember that each student is indeed an individual, and not simply a predictable point on a typical bell curve.

It does still worry me, however, how this inability to appeal will impact already disadvantaged students – students who are disadvantaged through chronic illness, for example, or who are differently abled, or who have multiple socio-economic hurdles to overcome. These are students who may not be thriving in the system, who may not have accumulated a mass of evidence over the year, who may have frustrated their teachers …  but who could – just could – perform better in the exams themselves were they given the opportune circumstances in which to do so – an option which they now no longer have. Note that the option to take examinations in the autumn is not a desirable one for many of these students – particularly for those who have had time out of school through illness, and must guard their health carefully, these examinations will be part of a carefully scheduled journey that, if upset, risks potentially severe repercussions and setbacks. Autumn examinations will also cause significant disruptions in school to next year’s learning programme –no matter how you package them, exams can’t help but disrupt learning.

Ofqual is sensitive to the issue of equality, of course – and it has conducted an equality impact review, which is published alongside the consultation. This review does however rely on research which is patchy and inconclusive, and Ofqual accepts that there will de facto be unconscious bias in the awarding of grades, which is uncomfortable to read. Another uncomfortable element to appreciate is that many school students do not receive the quality of teaching which they deserve. The detailed analysis of papers undertaken by Mark My Papers, an organisation whose Advisory Board I chair, and which helps schools, home educators, mature students and tutor groups access professional marking by official examiners, reveals that all too often, specialist subjects are being taught in schools by non-specialists, which leads to whole elements of the curriculum being under-taught. (This analysis is always shared with the specific schools, by the way, to help them refocus their teaching.) Again – a disadvantage imposed on young people because of the failings, weaknesses and gaps in the system. And – hypothetically – if this were the first year that a school had accessed a deep analysis of their teaching, and made amendments, with the anticipation that this would translate into higher grades overall in these summer exams, would this be reflected in the Ofqual algorithms? And if not, where is the justice if the affected students cannot appeal? If these students could take an exam invigilated online and have it sent to professional, independent markers, maybe – maybe – this would help break down at least some of the disadvantage they would otherwise be facing.

Again, to be fair, I do not have an immediate solution (well, apart from a major revolution in school funding that recognised the fundamental central role of schools and other education bodies in our global economic and social future …), but neither do I think that we should brush this discomfort under our respective tables. How are we tackling this? How could we tackle this more effectively? What is the best way to help young people overcome the hurdles in their paths, and to enable them a fair playing field?

In raising this question, I am not advocating a sticking plaster approach, which automatically slaps a premium of, say, 10% on to grades of young people who have suffered evident disadvantage. To do so would make a mockery of all that is good about exam courses – the rigour, the challenge, the depth of learning, and the skill of being able to recall and evaluate outcomes of this learning by communicating it to an external, standardised body. None of this praise for exams, incidentally, detracts from my more general and long standing concern about the often limited nature of testing methods, and my question as to whether they allow all types of learners to demonstrate their learning effectively – this is an equally important question, and in fact ties together with the question of tackling disadvantage.  I just want us to think about how we can really, really tackle disadvantage and close the attainment gap upwards, by raising ambitions and developing capacity in young people to make the most of their potential.

I have recently taken on the role of Chair of LightUpLearning, a charity based in Edinburgh but with plans to move out across Scotland and beyond, which seeks to tackle disadvantage. It does so by providing regular, scheduled time for secondary school students with an experienced, trained, empathetic mentor – a relationship which stands outside the teacher-student dynamic in school, and which places the learner at the centre of every LUL session. This focus on liberating the student to follow their passion, has already been demonstrated to ignite a much more confident engagement with enriching learning, which will of course underpin their current and future success in life and work – including their examination courses. This kind of intervention can make an enormous difference in a short space of time … but how many of our young people are currently able to access this? How many have missed out, who could otherwise have shone in their exams?

So … sitting with this discomfort … I would love us to think collectively about how we can move forward. It may be that there is nothing else we can do regarding these exams, although I am always intensely reluctant to let go of my conviction that there is always a solution, if only we put our mind to it. At the very least, however, we cannot afford to let this just slip by without keeping the door at least a little ajar for genuine cases, seen on their individual merits. Let us not fail our young people, now more than ever. And as we seek an exit strategy, remember that we have shown that we can, nationally, make radical, major decisions – like putting all teaching online – based on an idea of what can and should work, a commitment to justice and fairness, and a determination to review, adjust and change nimbly until the end result does what we want it to do. In unprecedented situations, you cannot wait for the research to tell you what to do – you have to fuel the research by just doing it. Maybe this is the time to be bolder about tackling disadvantage in our schools.

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