The half a million children who answered our Big Ask survey this year were very clear no matter where in England they lived and what background they came from. They were resilient, valued supportive family life, glad to be back in school, happy in the main, but were honest and authentic about specific issues that concerned them. One thing they did think about the pandemic and lockdowns was that it too often felt they were excluded from the decisions and yet massively effected by them. They wanted things explained better, and sooner.
That call hasn’t really gone away, even if the risks and restrictions of Covid have started to. Many of them say they worry about exams but very few said they didn’t want them at all, indeed most set great store by a good education and doing well so they could make their ambitions for a good job a reality. What they really wanted was reassurance and support and knowing in time what the plans for them might be. That’s why I’m pleased the new head of Ofqual Dr. Jo Saxton has taken the earliest opportunity to clarify things for the academic year concerning exams.
Exams are coming back, as the fairest way for students to show what they know and can do, but there will be clear guidance on what they will cover and what they won’t set against the reality of lost learning in the past two years, but there is also a back-up plan should Covid in a new variant, make a deeply unwelcome return. Whilst none of us, children included, want that it’s still sensible to be prepared if it does. So the Government and Ofqual have also published proposals for Teacher Assessed Grades as a contingency measure if exams cannot go ahead.
In the spirit of being upfront and clear with pupils and staff results for exams next year will return to their normal format, with AS and A levels being released on 18 August, and GCSEs on 25 August. Further to that, grade boundaries are to be set by exam boards reflecting a midway point between 2021 and 2019 so that more students get higher grades in 2022 than before the pandemic. This approach will provide a safety net for this year’s students as well as a step back to normality, with results expected to return to the usual grade profile by 2023.
I was also pleased to see they’ll be a choice of topics in some GCSE exams like English Literature and History.
Taking this issue head on, and quickly is a good move from Dr. Jo Saxton. It mirrors the mood of the children most effected by the pandemic: “don’t treat us as lost snowflakes”. They are ready to step up, do well and get on with rebuilding their futures, but are also clear the expectation from adults: “just support us in doing that”. It gives these children the time and confidence to know what they are working towards, how it might be judged and how we get back to an annual system, parents, teachers and pupils can have full confidence in.
I know that some have wanted the pandemic to open up a wider debate about how we judge and measure academic success but I think it’s welcome that exams are a still the central part of how we do that for the future. Not least I think it’s needed after the very great extra burden placed on teachers in the past two years to step in, in the face of so much disruption to classrooms and learning. They did a terrific job, but it’s time to give them the room to teach and others to assess that success, based on early clear guidelines that take into account the peculiarities of the times we’ve all just gone through. Our children deserve no less.