Down the Rabbit Hole

A version of this blog appeared in The Times Letters to Editors (there may be a paywall) on 26 February 2021.

I am not sure what rabbit hole I fell down overnight. I have woken up to the news about the non-exam, exams which are replacing GCSEs and A Levels in the UK, and there is no doubt we are in Wonderland. But a wonky Wonderland, governed by the mock turtle it seems. (Except, of course, we had to cancel mocks…) The Queen of Hearts enjoined Alice that if you practice you can believe: “as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Well, I clearly need more practice at that – and fortunately, the Department of Education, seem to be providing that for us at the moment.

So, the long-awaited solution to cancelled GCSEs and A Level examinations, is that teachers set grades, without any kind of external standardisation, without nationally agreed grade boundaries and with open season on appeals throughout August. You don’t need to be an education professional, to spot the deliberate error here. Assessment without standardisation is not examining – it is simply an expression of teacher and pupil hopes. Schools have been invited to use “voluntary”, mini-tests, selecting the best questions for their pupils, from a question bank. That’s not an exam. That’s a lesson!

Last year, Government itself pointed out that not applying standardisation to the school-produced grades, would lead to 12% grade inflation at A Level. This year, it will be 12% and some, because without some degree of comparability and national relativity, it’s very hard to see how schools can possibly pitch their grading accurately.

Of course, Government might point to historical grade definitions – the explanations of what criteria need to be met to achieve each particular grade. But what will those criteria mean, in a context where there are no examinations? Where there is so much discrepancy between what schools have covered with their pupils? The criteria have become largely irrelevant and that means establishing what might add up to a grade 6 at GCSE or an A grade at A Level is going to be seriously problematic for all schools in this country.

And without any kind of post-grade standardisation, there will be no “norm relating” – so no way of ensuring parity and equity across the country.  The Government point to “rigorous checking” post grade-setting, but what will they be checking against? If grade criteria is no longer relevant and there are no national norms being set?

And, as a final “impossible thought”, candidates are going to be invited to appeal, without cost, throughout August. Unless they get one of the top grades, I can’t see why students wouldn’t appeal. They might as well, they can do so without jeopardy. Which will be an August full of bureaucracy, ill-will and stress for all concerned.

Everyone understands that there are no easy wins in our current circumstances. The challenges of governing during this unprecedented crisis can’t be overstated. But oh my goodness, if ongoing teacher assessment is going to be the solution to replacing exams (which is, of course, more than possible, indeed, a sensible approach), then it must, must, must be combined with the kind of fair, widely understood coursework moderation, checking and standardisation that exam boards and the DoE have applied for decades.

This feels like the model we need right now to ensure that qualifications have the credibility all our pupils deserve and that we don't all end up in Wonderland this year. No Cheshire cat grins here…