The enormity of the impact of the virus on our lives has focussed attention on some of our more deeply embedded assumptions and practices. In education the closure of schools has meant the disruption of the examination system and this and the chaos surrounding the government’s attempt to manage an education system without external assessment have highlighted some of the contradictions and limitations inherent within the system.
The government’s response to the cancellation of public examinations was led by its predictable distrust of teacher assessment. Few of us could have foreseen, however, the extent of its incompetence in approving such a dysfunctional replacement system and the mismanagement of its attempted introduction. Teacher assessments, and more importantly their rank order, as the only information on student’s performance, would be used but would be moderated through a standardisation algorithm. This drew on the year’s prior attainment, the attainment of previous years in the centre and the national grade distribution for the subject given the prior attainment of the national entry. The rank order of students in the school based on teacher assessment was then overlaid on to the predicted grade distribution and individual students, grades adjusted accordingly. Because the process by which grades are adjusted makes use of historic data and data at whole institution level it penalised students from historically lower attaining institutions and students who are performing at a level above that of their peers. It was obvious that this would have a negative impact on more disadvantaged groups of students while pupils in more privileged schools would be less likely to have their grades put down. Despite the government’s stated priority of improving the performance and life chances of disadvantaged groups their insistence on the algorithm being designed to prevent grade inflation maximised lower results for disadvantaged pupils and highlighted the inequality of the system. This was the model for standardisation which was being vigorously supported by the Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister hours before, in the face of universal criticism and mounting student protest, it was suddenly abandoned. The government then attempted to portray the whole disastrous event as an accident blaming first the civil service and then bizarrely the algorithm itself as some sort of ‘mutant’ entity.
The decision to back and defend a model of examination assessment which would have led to downgrading of 40% of A level results of mainly more disadvantaged pupils raises concerns which go beyond ministerial ineptness and questions the purpose and function of external examinations. The English education system’s approach to assessment is characterised by firstly its addiction to testing with the OECD warning in 2011 that there was too much emphasis on test results in England and that this risked negative consequences. Secondly there is a deep and profound distrust of teachers’ professional judgement when it comes to the assessment of students’ attainment so that teacher assessment is seen as compromising the ‘integrity’ of the system. Successive governments have both ignored reports which called for reform of the examination system and continued to limit the scope for teacher assessment in public examinations. These characteristics underpin what has become the key function of the examination system which is the monitoring and control of schools. Examination success is a key way in which the effectiveness of schools can be assessed and graded to inform parental choice and to make judgements about the quality of education provided. This is the function of examinations which is threatened by increasing the role of teacher assessment and why tolerating the manifestly unfair system put together to manage the present crisis seemed, to the government, preferable to accepting a system which trusts the teachers who best know the progress students have made.
The manifest unfairness of the governments model has revealed both the way examinations help to maintain inequality and the implicit function of public examinations. The fact that we will have had a year in which students were accessed purely by teachers should provide for a new direction for assessment. When the chaos created by the Secretary of State finally clears we can start a debate about how we can create a system which supports and trusts the professional judgement of teachers.