2021 A levels: How to ensure fairness for everyone

2021 A levels: How to ensure fairness for everyone
Date1st Feb 2021AuthorBill WatkinCategoriesPolicy and News

In common with thousands of other organisations and individuals, SFCA has been busy over the last fortnight drafting a response to Ofqual’s consultation on awarding grades this summer. It’s easy to get bogged down in the precise timings, logistics, and arrangements, and all of the many questions about what’s practical or possible – and our response, which you can read here, does address those things. But it’s also important not to lose sight of the basics: what’s fair to students, and how as a system we should be conceptualising grades. This post addresses those issues from the perspective of SFCA chief executive Bill Watkin.

One of the most difficult and, at times, unpleasant aspects of the Summer 2020 experience was the pressure put on teachers as they were drawing up their teacher grades, and the challenge to teachers’ integrity and professional expertise after those grades were eventually awarded directly to students after a government U-turn. It is not hard to understand why some students and parents were driven to exert influence, and then to call into question the judgements that were made. Exam grades are high stakes – with a lifetime of progression, job prospects, career advancement, even pay, at stake. But it was dreadful for colleges which, in August and September, were frantically gearing up for welcoming students back, including a whole new year group of 16-year-olds with a patchy and unequal set of Year 11 experiences, and the top priority of protecting everybody in the middle of a pandemic. We have to do better this year, and ensure that the profession is better protected, and not left so vulnerable and exposed. The way to do this is to be crystal clear from the outset on how the process will work. What grades can a teacher submit (the standard demonstrated by a student at the point of assessment? A best guess for a student factoring in potential? Or a grade tied to previous performance?)? What peer or external moderation is viable, and can teachers be told to change their minds if a moderation exercise identifies a disagreement? What does a centre moderation process look like? Last year, some centres readily accepted, without question, teacher grades and submitted them to the exam board; others instructed teachers to revise their submissions and only submitted CAGs to the exam boards once they had been robustly challenged and brought in line with previous patterns. This inconsistency was at the heart of a sense of unfairness and drove aggrieved students and their families to go so far as to pursue litigation. We have to get the rules right and publish them in advance, so that everyone is playing the same game by the same rules. SFCA has proposed its own ‘rules’; whether these are adopted or not, Ofqual and the DfE need to let the profession know what we’re expected to do as soon as possible.

Of course, that will not help with the most intractable and complex issue of all: the variability in lost learning. We can get all the rules of the game perfectly clear and widely known, but we can never resolve the difficulty of one student having missed lots of lessons through ill-health, lack of connectivity, or a dysfunctional family home, while another has barely missed a day and has a bells-and-whistles laptop, a quiet place to work, and books on the shelves at home. Some time ago, the government announced it was setting up a lost learning commission to explore the issues and try to propose solutions. This group is due to report in February, but, to my knowledge, has not yet been set up. Time is running out and we need to move fast.

It is this difference in lost learning that different young people have experienced, and will continue to do so, that causes particular concern in planning for the externally-set assessments – papers set by the exam boards, to be taken during May and June – proposed in the consultation. But colleges are no less exercised by the logistical difficulties of arranging these tests for huge numbers of young people, of recruiting more invigilators than ever (because presumably exams will be spread out in more rooms, to ensure students are safe), and of finding time for teachers to mark the papers. This is why SFCA has proposed that external papers, if used as part of the process, should be externally marked. Let’s make the most of the experienced and expert subject examiners out there (many of them are also teachers, of course, but in their examiner-role they bring that objectivity and distance that teachers so badly need). But this would lead to a real time crunch for both exam boards and colleges; is it realistic for tests to be held in time for boards to mark them and return the grades to teachers, and then for teachers to consider the grades as part of their overall portfolio of evidence for each student, and then for colleges to conduct internal quality assurance and submit their final grades to the boards – all before July at the latest? If it is possible, then no matter how Herculean the effort required, it’s worth it; in an unprecedented national crisis, both teachers and exam boards need to do their bit. If, however, the timescale makes marking the exams externally impossible, teachers deserve recognition of the work and preparation they will need to do to act as professional examiners on top of their day jobs – perhaps via a meaningful one-off financial bonus?

The teacher grades will be submitted in the Summer, according to Ofqual’s proposals. But, of course, teachers have been making predictions since September. 70% of 16-year-olds change institution, and as part of that exercise, students will have been given predicted grades to support their applications to colleges, school sixth forms, or apprenticeships. UCAS delayed the deadline for submitting university applications, but now 18-year-old students will already have received and sent off their predicted grades. So how will these early predictions, essentially teacher grades, stack up against the teacher grades submitted in 5 months’ time? It is not hard to imagine the conversation this summer between a teacher and a student who was predicted to get an A in December but whose teacher assessment grade in May is a C. Which is right? The prediction, we know, is historically, and for obvious reasons, frequently inflated; but it is communicated to the student as a predicted grade – not a fantasy. And if a student continues a steady trajectory until May, but does not get that A (perhaps because no-one in their college has ever got an A before, if historical attainment is used as an iron law to moderate grades), it will be easy to understand that sense of injustice and disappointment, which was so evident last year. 

Our guiding principle throughout should be truly to do what Ofqual recommended almost a year ago, and what the Secretary of State proposed recently in the House of Commons: rely on teachers’ professional judgement, be confident that the system will regulate itself to some extent, and accept some grade inflation – it won’t be a disaster. At the same time, employers and admissions tutors need to be confident they understand what a grade tells us about a student’s knowledge and understanding at a snapshot in time, so some external standardisation and moderation will be needed. It is vital that the right messages are communicated in the right language, and in good time, to square this circle and to address all of the other challenges that we have to navigate before reaching a successful conclusion to this most difficult situation, one for which there is no single right answer, and no possibility of totally eliminating unfairness.

Finally, there are two imperatives that we must hold onto: firstly, the exam results must be published on the scheduled dates in August, not earlier; colleges and universities have employment law, contractual arrangements and logistical demands that cannot be unpicked in the short time remaining. Secondly, students wish to appeal their grades, they should make their appeal to the Awarding Organisation and no-one else.

Bill Watkin is the Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which hosts Blog 6.

Read another take on 2021's exam replacement problem from Stephen Tierney here.

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