An examination system fit for purpose in the Covid-19 era? Time for real system leadership in education.

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By Colin Diamond CBE, Professor of Education Leadership
School of Education, University of Birmingham

“There is no guarantee that those students about to enter the final year of A level and GCSE studies will have a smooth ride. Partial school closures appear likely and reliance on a 100% final examination is as fanciful as imagining ‘it will all be over by Christmas’.”

The use of a flimsy algorithm to determine the examination results of the 2020 A level and GCSE results was dangerous. A simplistic creation, it was always going to produce wild card results because of its crude formula. Four variables could never do justice to the complexities and such models belong in the GCSE maths classroom.

To persist with the algorithm having been warned of its impact which would skew results upwards for students in small classes in independent schools and downwards for students in state schools with historically poor performance was immoral and unethical.

But as long as the dreaded ‘grade inflation’ was kept under control in a similar way to which the Bank of England uses interest rates to control inflation, the system was working well. The cohort of students already stressed by Covid-19 uncertainties was about to be sacrificed on the altar of education policies rooted in not trusting teachers’ assessment skills and objectivity. Fortunately, political force majeure prevailed and Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) replaced the algorithm’s National Lottery results (with those winning bonus balls for the independent sector).

How did the situation get to this?

How did we get here and what needs to be done to prevent a re-run of this messy and damaging episode? There is no guarantee that those students about to enter the final year of A level and GCSE studies will have a smooth ride. Partial school closures appear likely and reliance on a 100% final examination is as fanciful as imagining ‘it will all be over by Christmas’.

Successive governments in England have backed the current system of major exams at 16 plus and 18 plus. Schools have gained more power and autonomy with New Labour pushing the ‘self-managing’ and ‘self-improving’ model. The coalition government turbocharged the direction of travel by via the Academies Act 2010 which fragmented the English education system creating thousands of academies with some of the highest levels of delegated budgets and powers in the developed world. But not when it comes to teachers and assessment.

The cognitive science model beloved of the Gove-Gibb dynasty is based on a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum that is reinforced by regular retrieval tasks. Knowledge is king. So the logical culmination of two years’ study of a subject is a traditional, sit down, final examination. And better still, the outcomes are moderated every year to cap improvements, regardless of the actual quality of the results.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2004, The Tomlinson Report  sought to reform 14 – 19 qualifications replacing GCSEs and A levels with 14- 19 diplomas. Whilst diplomas were piloted but never really took off, the GCSE and A levels survived and as a result England remains an outlier in Europe with its emphasis on GCSE at sixteen plus. The significance here is that the model of assessment for the new diplomas was a sophisticated blend of teacher input, chartered assessors to lead good practice, national sampling and a balance between in-course and external exam evaluation.

Strong educational leadership

Tomlinson drew on the canon of practice that had been developed carefully over many years in schools and colleges. It continues with the largely vocational BTec courses but has been discredited for academic subjects, ironically often by secondary teachers themselves who are undermining their own professional credentials.

The best leaders look around corners, anticipate events and keep a weather eye on risk management. They listen authentically, acknowledging expertise that may be greater than their own. They pull together informed consensus and make decisions accordingly. And, to quote the Harry S. Truman maxim, the buck stops with them.

Decision making at the highest policy level is required quickly. There is little time to develop an approach for 2020/21 that includes school/college level course assessment blended with final examinations. Another year of non-standardised CAGs and possible use of mock results as sole or joint determinants of final outcomes would be unacceptable at every level.

Will we see the kind of system leadership required to mobilise school leaders, the professional associations, Ofqual and DfE? Will there be more than token consultations that tick boxes rather than throwing up complex professional issues to resolve? Above all, is there a willingness to consider broadening education policy to include complementary perspectives? This is not about rejectionist thinking, it is more about adaptive, situation leadership that can produce a model which will work best in schools. It needs to be focused on translating the brilliant teaching and learning in our classrooms into valid results in summer 2021. There’s no time to lose.

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