‘Exam grades are being decided by pub quiz-style testing’

Using Centre Assessed Grades for GCSE and A-level will fail the most disadvantaged, writes Emma White in her latest article to be published in Independent School Management Plus.

There is something almost comedic about this year’s Centre Assessed Grades. Comedic perhaps, if it were not for that fact that future lives, hopes and dreams of a whole generation of teenagers are dependent on these results.

Since the Covid–induced grade debacle of 2020 we have lurched clumsily from one cack-handed decision to another. We have hopped from delayed exams and redacted content to “don’t worry we will tell you exactly what will be on the paper” to optional mini-mocks.

Then there was a quick volte face to “internally regulated portfolios’” and now new content which has finally revealed itself to be old content plus a luxury free pass to those who would like to have a sneak preview of both question and mark scheme in advance.

One can only deduce that Ofqual has decided to become “all things to all people” which is highly commendable, thank you very much, but in so doing has utterly undermined the gold standard by which all children and their future employers can measure academic merit.

It matters less for the more able; those who will stride on effortlessly through higher education. For them GCSE and A-level results will become a distant memory. The last time I was asked to procure my O-level certificates was by a confused immigration officer on the border between Bolivia and Chile: I was 34 years old and bemused as to exactly why he thought I would be holidaying, fistful of O-level certificates at the ready; but to those for whom GCSEs are the highest academic test they will ever face, this is a disaster.

No doubt some staff rooms are rejoicing in the GCSE-lite option they are faced with. I know this first-hand to be the case. In my day–to-day role at Mark My Papers I work with heads of department whose approaches are wide and varied. Some have marched through lockdown and emerged unscathed with a tribe of Grade 9-hungry candidates who will prove their worth through absolutely pukka exams.

Less ambitious SLTs have presided over material that can only be deemed to be a slightly bigger ask than your average pub quiz. Move over all the demands of the essential skills – how to evaluate, describe, explain and say hello to “content only” led questions. I’ve seen some papers where the most demanding GCSE question awards just three marks. And not surprisingly, the results are excellent.

The sad truth is no one gains. GCSE and A-level results for 2021 will be deemed to be farcical, not by schools, no, but by the end user – the employer. Think of the apprenticeship that passes over a 2021 Year 11 candidate on the basis that results from two years previously may be more reliable.

Schools need to remember that they are simply a means to an end – not the final destination. Judge and jury over everything schools do are employers, careers, job prospects – and this year we have not only given those job prospects a good kicking but trampled them through the mud.

And why? Because schools simply want to get to the other side of exams 2021, log the results and come September, stand with beaming smiles as they welcome cohort 2021/22.

It’s really unfair. However unpalatable a genuine programme of exams would have been in 2021, regardless of the fact that real exams would have been met with gnashing teeth and polemics as to who had been the most disadvantaged; we’ve settled for a conclusion to disadvantage the most disadvantaged. Those borderline Grade 3/4 candidates who will limp into the next stage of their lives with a bogus Grade 5/6 — but without the skills to do them justice.

Real exams, judged under the spotlight of previous reality and compared against previous peer groups would have not only revealed the true extent of the damage done and work needed ahead to heal and rebuild the lost learning, but it would have allowed for genuine results.

Marking all results with a “Covid-19 stamp” would have helped employers ascertain exactly how a future apprentice had genuinely fared rather than hazard a guess as to how far the candidate’s school had been prepared to bend the rules.

A disclosure of extenuating circumstances would have helped support the grade, good or bad and this could have been prepared by each school. But we have created the most un-level of un-level playing fields. Centre Assessed Grades have collapsed into a challenge as to just how far one is prepared to overreach, or for many schools, how fearful they are of parents who threaten lawyers and bully on behalf of their sons and daughters.

The truth is, human nature demands us to want the best for those in our charge. We all do, though long-term we are setting up inadequately prepared youngsters for courses and careers where they might just be out of their depth.

Take any well-known school who has been bold enough to publish 2020’s results and for the most part you will see eye-watering grade improvement. No doubt 2021 is set to be the same. Some will be genuine but many will be faux, school driven “papering over the cracks” results. The irony being that exams were shelved this year due to lost learning – so how can students who have lost almost half their schooling time since they began their GCSE and A-level courses, outperform previous generations? What a miracle!

After Easter the push towards the CAG will begin in earnest. Schools will firm up plans for just how brazen they are prepared to be and parents will align themselves to do to battle over disappointing, life changing results knowing that fellow students in other schools were blessed by a kinder, softer journey through.

How these disputes will be resolved who knows? If it comes to the “first to throw a shoe over the village hall challenge wins an A*” I wouldn’t be surprised. The perfect comedic ending to our self-induced farce.

But it’s tragic really. Education and all its purpose — skills, knowledge and content have all been pushed aside as we lose sight of what really matters. Grades before learning. Results before knowledge.  Come September the ship will sail silently on and forget those souls who we have failed.

Don’t forget the children. Our collective decisions may well write off their hopes and dreams and for them there is no second chance.

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