By Nick Pelling

In January of this year the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that school exams were “cancelled”. And yet “Results Day” is still going to occur in August. The exam boards have not set any exams and will not mark any exams, yet they are still going to be paid for their services. One has the feeling in reading these statements that the Education Secretary may have been secretly replaced by Humpty Dumpty who famously declared that “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”.

But all is not quite as irrational as it sounds. The fundamental problem facing schools is of course Covid and the serious interruptions it has caused to effective learning, which in turn have made traditional exams almost impossible. Last year Williamson got his fingers badly burnt when his algorithm-based attempt to solve the Covid problem led to howls of discontent and the Secretary of State was forced into a merry dance of U-turns.  Consequently, this year schools were effectively told: you do it all. Exams grades are now to give way to TAGS: Teacher Assessed Grades. 

Schools and colleges in and around Hastings have found this brave new world more stressful than liberating as they were thrown into what The Guardian called a ‘”wild west” of improvisation.


Phil Clarke, the local District Secretary of the National Education Union, says that the real problem was that, although the government decided early in the academic year that exams simply could not happen, the announcement was not made until January and guidance not given until mid-March. Hence individual schools were cast adrift in a structure-less world of making it up as they go along. (The “guidance” when it did come from the Joint Council of Qualifications took the form of a 600-page thicket of educational jargon which threw some schools into a panic-struck process of trying to make sure that what they had started complied with the belated bureaucratic diktat.) 

Gavin Williamson
CREDIT: Richard Townshend

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of this vast accidental experiment in learning is that schools had to spin into existence a programme of assessable work that would allow pupils – who had inevitably suffered diverse patterns of Covid absence and missed topics – to ‘show what they could do.’  This meant that teachers had to create a sketchy syllabus which would provide as many assessment tasks as possible. Mr Downes, Head of Rye College, says that “it meant that from Easter until this summer we were relentlessly setting and marking”. And this was no ordinary marking. This would have to be the kind of detailed marking that would allow subsequent assessment of the assessment. (In practice this means ‘internal’ checking and standardisation, followed by sampling and ‘external’ checking of the checkers, and then, potentially, appeals against the whole process). The amount of time involved in spilling such self-justifying rivers of red ink has meant, according to Mr Ed Dickie, Headteacher at Claremont Senior School, that the marking load has “effectively quadrupled.” (It should be noted that this prolonged ratcheting up of the work-load has not involved any extra pay, even though many teachers would normally have been employed by exam boards to carry out this process in the summer break) The Head of Rye College seems to corroborate this sense that the weight of marking had become almost crushing, suggesting that an English teacher might now be expected to “look at 300 pieces of written work per class”.  He also adds that, of course, this vastly expanded volume of marking would have to occur “whilst still having to teach all the other classes”.’ It is perhaps
no wonder that so many teacher tweets speak of “exhaustion”, “lack of sleep” and of feeling “sick with anxiety”. Doubtless, conscientious pupils have felt the same.

Just got on with it

On the other hand, it may be argued that teachers are simply caught in the eye of a Covid storm just like many workers, such as NHS staff, on the so-called front line. Contrary to some public perceptions, teachers have just got on with it and not moaned, indeed headteachers have been full of praise for their common rooms. The Claremont Senior Head, Mr Dickie, says he has found it “humbling” the way his staff rallied to the cause and put in the unpaid extra hours. Indeed, this has been a common theme from senior management in East Sussex schools. 

Although the government decided early in the academic year that exams simply could not happen, the announcement was not made until January and guidance not given until mid-March

What teachers seem to be agreed upon is that this painful period has nevertheless had the positive aspect of challenging all the ‘normal’ aspects of what is considered ‘education.’ Absolutely everything has been challenged, from what is taught to how it is taught. Teachers stuck in their ‘chalk and talk’ ways were forced to give up Easter Holidays to learn to zoom-teach and so forth. Potentially there could be a great pedagogical reward from all of this, particularly for pupils. But one is forced to ask a sad question: is the Department of Education capable of learning?  Phil Clarke states that confidence in the current Secretary of State is “astonishingly low”. Even the ex-Tory leader William Hague commented recently that there is an expectation that Williamson is not long for his post. This may mean that the Department will not learn from its own free-form experiment.  Instead, what we do know, from the recent Hancock affair, is that when one Humpty Dumpty falls another is quickly found. Teachers may find that ‘make it up as you go along’ will be the school motto for the foreseeable future. 

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