On 18th March, the Secretary of State for Education announced that this summer’s GCSE, AS and A level exam series were summarily cancelled in order to combat the spread of Covid-19. Students due to sit the exams will instead be awarded a grade based on an assessment of the grade they would have been most likely to achieve were exams going ahead, based upon evidence of their homework assignments, mock exam results and any other material produced during the school year to date. Who is to make these assessments? Their own schools and colleges – in practice, their own teachers.

Not good news for the student who was hoping to peak late in exam preparation after enjoying a less than harmonious relationship with teaching staff during the year. But difficult, too, for the teacher making the switch, in competition terms, from coach to panel judge – the more so because the institution is required not just to award grade marks in respect of each individual student but to provide a ranking order of all students for each subject.  

Why so? The exam boards want to avoid an overall grading inflation that might result from the natural tendency of teachers to award generous grades to their own pupils. The boards’ method: a system of  ‘standardisation’, under which past years’ attainments at each educational institution will guide this year’s range of results. Thus, if a particular school or college achieved, let’s say, 20% Grade Bs in geography ‘A’ level last year, the board is unlikely to accept 40% this year, and will downgrade those placed lower in the rankings back to a Grade C. 

Collective punishment

Local teachers in Hastings have expressed concern that this system could result in collective punishment of some high-performing classes, for instance where the previous year’s class performed badly under quite different circumstances. They are grappling also with the difficulty of being required, in some popular subjects, to rank students whom they have not themselves taught, indeed may not even have met. In the end, though, short of awarding equal prizes for all, it is difficult to conceive more palatable alternatives.

Results will be released on the days originally planned for: 13th August for ‘A’ levels, 20th August for GCSEs. If students don’t accept their grades as fair, there will be an appeal process. But, perhaps more usefully, they will be able to sit actual exams some time in the autumn, the equivalent of re-takes. 

New normal

That will not suit those hoping to have gone on to university by then, or to have taken other career steps dependent on results. Then again, who’s to say, in current conditions, what kind of further education will have resumed – anywhere?  Last week Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, issued colleges with advice to plan for the following:       

• Online enrolment for the vast majority of students for 2020/21;

• Maintaining and developing online resources to support a ‘managed re-opening’ across the education sector;

• An assumption of ongoing social distancing with only 25-40% of students in attendance at a time;

• Reviewing and ‘agreeing’ which students really need to be in college and who could stay at home;

• Continuing to encourage staff who can work from home to do so or to stagger time in work to reduce numbers.

There’s an undercurrent in these measures that suggests the government sees future online education not just as a temporary expedient during the pandemic but, in the fashionable phrase, ‘the new normal’. 

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