Failing system

When it comes to delivering an education system without exams the government has flunked the test, writes A-level teacher and Wandsworth NEU district secretary Andrew Stone.

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

A-level results day is always fraught with nerves and anxiety, but this year these have been mixed with justified anger. In replacing the results of cancelled exams with ‘Centre Assessment Grades’ (CAGs), the exams regulator Ofqual had appeared to act with a degree of pragmatism. However, by then overriding teacher judgements with a statistical algorithm that has lowered 40% of grades, they have sacrificed fairness on the altar of reproducing social hierarchy.

Teachers and department heads, overseen by school managers, spent a lot of time during lockdown compiling CAGs. We used our professional knowledge of our students, including their performance in mock exams, but also in class projects, assessments and, in those subjects where it hasn’t been abolished, coursework. We also factored in the average improvement that students tend to make in their last term of study. And as a check against over-optimism we compared our provisional ‘results’ with previous attainment at our centres.

But internal moderation was not deemed sufficient by Ofqual. Schools and colleges, conditioned by the whip of League Tables and Ofsted, with staff fearful of performance management and pay progression penalties, could not suddenly be trusted in a system built on organised distrust. So a moderation system was put in place that would compare the CAGs to recent results at each school or college, and students’ grades amended accordingly. This would be done without further consultation with teachers, using only a ‘rank order’ that we had to submit within each grade. For large cohorts, particularly in sixth form and FE colleges, this could mean ranking scores of students within a single grade, but with no guarantee that any of them would end up being assigned to it.

A similar process was used in Scotland, whose results were released last week, and where there was widespread dissent and protests about the downgrading of 125,000 students. There was a clear class issue here, as the Higher pass rate for pupils from the poorest backgrounds was reduced by 15.2 percentage points, but only by 6.9 percentage points for the wealthiest pupils. Many students felt, quite justifiably, that they were being awarded grades due to their postcode, not their efforts. The reaction led to a welcome U-turn by the Scottish executive, that has now promised to honour the initial teacher gradings.

The same class bias is evident in England and Wales where many Independent (i.e. fee-paying) Schools will not have had their students downgraded at all. Their regular advantage of small classes has been compounded by a system that accepts the CAGs unmoderated for subject cohorts of less than 6, and with only partial amendments for groups of 15 and under. As a result their rate of As and A*s has gone up 4.7% from last year (to 48.6%), compared to just 0.3% for colleges (to 20.8% – see table). To entrench the unfairness further, the more their grades inflated the more the algorithm tried to compensate by pushing down students from the (overwhelmingly state-funded) large cohorts.

Table comparing schools
Ofqual interim report

Rather than accept the profound unfairness of this system and compromise meaningfully like the Scottish executive, the Conservative government offered a last minute sop to allow challenges to grades based on mock exams. But by their nature mock exams are not standardised – they might be taken at different times, based on part or all of a specification, a teacher might mark leniently to encourage or harshly to deter complacency. Some schools were set to have their mocks when lockdown occurred. In typical form, the government didn’t think to negotiate with Ofqual or universities, let alone schools, on how an appeal would be timely and legitimate with university applications on the line.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb’s assessment that his performance would be ‘somewhere in the vicinity’ of an A minus grade is not one that would be widely shared among teachers and students. Indeed, there are already protests planned for Friday calling on his inept boss, Gavin Williamson, to resign. But even if the process had been managed better, the format of the education system is still intrinsically unjust. It’s based on sorting the population into different segments of the labour market, and reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next through differential access, opportunities and cultural capital.

The replacement of the Tripartite System (of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools) with Comprehensives was an unfinished revolution. Students might largely take the same qualifications (although BTEC and the International Baccalaureate are important exceptions), but the central aim is not, as in a driving test, to have set standards (or criteria) to be passed. It is to judge students in relation to one another: there are only ‘successes’ because there are ‘failures’. It may seem slightly less blatant than the old 11 plus, but it seeks to socially engineer nonetheless. Smaller class sizes, tutors, and greater resources generally help the wealthy to pass on their advantages.

Exams use ‘norm-referencing’ to prevent the bogey of ‘grade inflation’, and to ensure a relatively stable proportion achieving particular grades from year to year. Grade inflation is often presented as the result of ‘dumbing down’ and exams ‘getting easier’. There is a commercial pressure for competing exam boards to gain more customers, and making their particular exams ‘easier’ is an attractive marketing strategy, but one which standardisation is used to blunt. More importantly though, teachers become increasingly familiar with content and techniques, which they pass on to their students. If you put me in a maze for the first time, I would be a pretty poor guide. By the fourth or fifth attempt, I would expect to be escaping with increasing speed.

However, in this scenario neither I nor my students would be learning anything of wide applicability, and exams are an equally reductive method of assessment, creating a reductive form of education. Teachers are often disparaged for ‘teaching to the test’, but the whole edifice of the system conditions us to do so. Challenging this year’s exam fiasco could be a first step in imagining a more liberatory alternative.


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