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On cancelled exams and fixing the roof

5 years ago our summer holiday was made more exciting by the sudden appearance of dripping water through the flat roof above our bedroom. The drip became a steady stream and we patched up using some sheeting from my brother in law and arranged for the professionals to do a proper repair. Note - two plans, a temporary and a permanent. In some ways the temporary fix, the back up plan was more important.


I was reminded of our dramas with the roof during Gavin Williamson’s statement cancelling exams in favour of teacher or centre grades. The lack of a back up plan for this summer is extraordinary, Geoff Barton has used the phrase ‘dereliction of duty.’ Given the trajectory of the pandemic, Williamson’s strategy has been the equivalent of us leaving the hole in the roof and saying ‘don’t worry, the builders are coming next month, let’s hope it doesn’t rain.’


Yet the clouds are gathering, it is pouring down or at least about to pour down. The cancellation of exams without any idea of a replacement system in place is the equivalent of taking off the temporary sheeting. Far better to have said nothing about exams this week and got on with sorting an alternative before making the announcement in a few weeks time. The announcement took everyone by surprise. I received an email from a senior manager at one of the exam boards who said that she almost spat out her tea at the news. It literally was news to everyone. I joked that as a senior examiner, it is the second year in a row that I have been sacked on live TV.


My minor irritation as an examiner is not really the story. A slight loss of earnings is compensated by being able to start the summer holiday two weeks earlier than usual. The real losers are the students. Cancellation without an alternative in place has caused enormous stress. Whilst some students nationally are behind and have had studies disrupted, many have coped heroically and - with lower grade boundaries already agreed - were looking forward to their chance to shine. Hopefully whatever system is put in place will ensure that these young people will get the grades they deserve.


Ofqual will announce a rapid consultation. It is clear that CAGs will be part of the system but surely there is time to do something else which draws on the external check on performance that exams provide.


Two issues with exams

We know that exams aren’t perfect. Not all students perform well in this form of assessment but there are two other issues that are worth reflecting on

1. There is an unfairness that is present each year - some students will have been taught by a skilled specialist, others may have had a teacher on long term sick. Some students have 4 hours a week on the subject in small classes, others less time in larger classes. These sorts of issues will have been exacerbated by the pandemic and lockdowns which staff and students will have coped with to differing degrees.

2. The second issue that people raise about exams is the quality of marking. As a senior examiner I spend more time than most looking for issues and trying to solve them before results day. Being a good teacher does not necessarily mean someone is a good examiner; they are different skills. Whilst we can’t completely eliminate examiner errors, we do get the vast majority of them and when teachers see their results I hope they feel they are more or less right.


Solving one but worsening the other

It strikes me that the issue with moving to teacher assessment is an attempt to deal with the first issue that runs the risk of ignoring and exacerbating the second. We have perhaps less reason to trust teacher grades than examiner grades. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Teachers have varying degrees of expertise in terms of assessment of their subject ranging from expert to novice. That much is obvious when scanning online forums to delivering training to teachers.

  2. Sadly there are varying degrees of integrity in teachers and SLTs. If you are a member of staff under pressure from SLT or you are a head in an RI school expecting Ofsted, there may all sorts of factors that make integrity harder. Yes most of us are very honest but not all of us and it is hard to be honest if you feel that someone effectively has a gun to your head.

  3. There is good evidence that teacher assessment is prone to unconscious bias. When we know the students we make assumptions for better or for worse. We are prone to underestimate students from a BAME background, those quieter students from a poorer background and others besides. An examiner simply sees an anonymised script.

  4. It also opens the floodgates for students and their parents to apply emotional blackmail (and in making this decision two months earlier than last year we get two extra months of this, thanks Gavin!) The last thing teachers and leaders need at this time is more unnecessary pressure.

So if it is just teacher grades, it does somewhat feel as though we have been somewhat thrown under the bus.

A possible compromise

Because this year has been what it is, it is sensible to have teacher judgement as part of the process. But it can’t be the whole thing. Because of the difficulties above, there needs to be some role for external assessments. Needless to say, what that would look like might vary from subject to subject.

  • Exam boards have unused papers, they often have spare papers as well. These could be modified or broken into shorter external assessments. These should be on a range of topics and areas so that no student is disadvantaged. More optionality is something I have been arguing for for months now. It is vital that we give all students the opportunity to have a go at part of the course they have been taught.

  • These could be papers that are sat at any point and schools could sign a validation in the same way as they do with coursework. In fact speaking of coursework a decision needs to be made about those subjects where the vast majority of students will be at least part way through completing their coursework. Alternatively it may even be that in May or June that the situation is such that classrooms or exam halls might be able to host students doing short unseen papers

  • These tasks could either be externally marked by examiners or marked by teachers with an examiner moderation in the same way as coursework. The former reduces work for teachers, the latter is easier for exam boards. My strong preference would be for examiner marking due to the issues with teacher assessment highlighted above.

  • If students do several of these tasks eg) there are 10 tasks available, everyone does 3, then a grade could be generated and compared to the teacher grade.

  • The final grade could either be an average of the teacher grade and the external grade or they just get the exam board grade if this is higher. It may be that if there is a wide discrepancy between teacher grade and external grade eg) 2-3 grades then perhaps an automatic review by a senior moderator is triggered.


This is not a detailed plan - it is more or less off the top of my head - but I wonder if something similar to this would work and would not be too difficult to do. Whatever we do this year will not be totally fair but something similar to the above might be less unfair than unchecked teacher grades. There is just about time to do something but things need to move quickly otherwise we will be where we were last year, if not worse, and as Einstein apparently once said insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

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