The continuing government emphasis on ensuring that schools remain open has not been accompanied by any parallel thought as to how the education and assessment of young people is going to be managed in the present period. The reluctance, in particular, to consider what will happen to school examinations in the age of the virus has created a potential disaster which the Department for Education is resolutely steering us towards with ideological blinkers firmly affixed.
Schools were closed for over 2 terms because of the pandemic depriving many young people with an access to learning. They reopened in September after a failed government attempt to force their reopening in the summer. What we know now however is that the pandemic is not going to suddenly and abruptly end and the impact at varying rates of severity will continue for a considerable time. We know that a significant proportion of young people are not at school and we know that the future will involve school, or class shutdowns and more lost school time. If we ignore all this and pretend that our external examination system will cope as if nothing has happened then we will disadvantage, permanently, successive cohorts of pupils. Without regular and continuous school based learning only a minority of more privileged parents will be able to secure provision for learning leading a sizable gap in learning for the majority and reduced chances of success in public examinations.
It is not surprising therefore that the present crisis has prompted a number of schools to explore the possibilities of alternative forms of assessment. These have included teacher assessment and alternatives to GCSEs such as extended project-based qualifications and competency based micro qualifications. The crisis has encouraged schools to connect to the well established strand of educational thought which has rejected our obsession with external examinations and focused on supported teacher assessment. The humanities subjects have long been associated through, for example Integrated Humanities courses, with this line of thought and developed considerable experience in its use. Against this has been a growing government insistence under Education Secretaries such as Michael Gove with narrow external knowledge-based examinations and a suspicion of the judgement of teachers.
The secretary of State’s simple and dogmatic assertion that public examinations will return in 2021 will do nothing to avert a looming disaster. As concern increases a growing body of independent as well as state schools and ex Tory education secretaries as well as teachers are looking for alternatives through organisations such as Rethinking Assessment. The government can no longer pretend it is in a debate over assessment with a mythological 1970s progressive education and must take action now before it sleepwalks into another assessment disaster to join the list of disasters it has created throughout this crisis.