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Let’s not put exams on the ‘too hard’ pile this year

A hybrid system where students are awarded a predicted grade and a real-life grade could be a solution to exams this year, writes Emma White

It is less than five months until GCSEs and A-levels take place. An Easter holiday and two half terms stuffed into the mix means time will soon be running out for us to come up with a Public Exams Plan B.  I don’t need to mention why.

We all know and fear that Covid will twist and turn to create mayhem amongst even the best laid plans. It brought drama to 2020 and 2021 and in spite of wreaking havoc and destroying hours of learning it saw many schools brazenly declare a “best results ever” celebration. Others quietly acknowledged that last year was a shadow of the last comparable measure on official exam record – then regretted that maybe they should have been bolder in their predictions for the sake of their students.

There was little or no yard stick with which we could measure universal progress…so it was left up to the teachers, with a smattering of “grade descriptor” advice to guide them.

“It is visit-to-the-hairdresser chit chat where geography GCSE amounts to little more than recollections of a holiday in Ibiza.”

I would be fibbing if I said that the results we have seen at Mark My Papers prove that the storm of the past two years has not caused devastation. We have seen exam results across 42 subjects at GCSE and A-level and we have seen a rise in students answering papers in ordinary layman’s terms;  no recourse to scientific knowledge and no attempt to remember any key words. For some, it is “visit to the hairdresser” conversational chit chat where geography GCSE amounts to little more than recollections of a holiday in Ibiza.

It has meant a swathe of low grades as our team work hard to help schools not to lose sight of what good really should look like. It hurts because for some they are determined to stand by their self inflicted 20 per cent grade increase, which has no doubt added to their stress levels.

Now with exams on the horizon and Omicron gathering pace and causing vast absences across schools, teachers are puzzled by the prospect of what exactly will lie ahead. There is the comfort of redacted content and the bonus of knowing paper topics before the actual exam takes place, as we gingerly move forward in the hope that almost normal GCSEs and A levels will come under starter’s orders in 2022.

“There is the comfort of redacted content and the bonus of knowing paper topics before the actual exam takes place.”

I really hope they do. I am a true believer that schools are a supplier of material to our future workforce, and papering over poor performance in homage to chaotic learning only serves to create an unprepared and inadequately employable society for our collective future.

Due largely to private candidates and their tutors playing the system, I know we actually have medics in training who would barely have scored 20 per cent in a real chemistry A-level. Their way to a place at university was to submit a vastly adapted paper which challenged only the bits they knew.  And I saw it over and over again…and despaired. The CAG system, as a standalone perspective, saw grade inflation that simply can’t be acceptable.

The proportion of A* and A grades rose 44.3 per cent. That’s up on the 38.1 per cent in last year’s teacher-assessed grades and a huge rise on the 25.2 per cent of grades in 2019, the last year of exams .

“A hybrid system would at least allow universities and potential employers to draw their own conclusions and select from truth rather than idyllic fiction.”

I think there is a safety net solution for 2022 but as with all solutions that involve change or extra work, it will have its detractors. Exams should go ahead. We are happy to shop, to eat out and to socialise so exams should not be axed for health reasons.

Students should sit public exams as normal and be given their grade by the exam board in August but their school should also give them a “best case scenario” grade. This sould be accompanied by a report that recognizes the impact Covid has had on them as an individual – teachers absences, school closure, impact on family, lost learning hours etc.

This should also be submitted to the exam board to sit along the actual exam grade.  So the exam grade views their performance in comparison with the entire national cohort whilst their school grade has a more detailed explanation of their personal circumstances and suggests a more rosy outlook if Covid had not intervened.

I am sure one fear would be how far these two grades may be polarised, but it would at least allow universities and potential employers to draw their own conclusions and select from truth rather than idyllic fiction. Indeed, it would involve extra work but it would aid those who don’t perform well under exam pressure and who have suffered truly impacted learning, whilst giving a chance to shine for those who have relentlessly powered through lockdowns and want to showcase their best endeavours.

As a bystander on social media I have witnessed the increasing calls for lockdown on TSR, even at Oxbridge level.  The inherent and lamentable, easy way out option is enticing for some students who would simply rather not bother.

“Exams are crucial to the future of our students.”

Conversation recognises that CAG grades may be looked at with a certain air of cynicism and one well known Cambridge College on TSR has actually confessed that the university’s own assessments are becoming an increasingly used barometer for determining who is most worthy of a place. Schools should be very concerned about this because it is actually a full frontal admission that “if you can’t test them sufficiently then we will”.

The next few weeks are crucial.  As staff absences increase and Omicron races unchallenged amongst us in gay abandon, let us not collapse in a heap and put exams on the “too hard pile”.  They are crucial to the future of our students and to our role as schools in providing the work force of the future.

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