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Home / England’s school assessment system favours the sharp-elbowed and the wealthy

England’s school assessment system favours the sharp-elbowed and the wealthy

Posted on Jun 18, 2021

T heir leavers’ proms are cancelled due to Covid, their summer festival tickets hanging by a thread. And they still can’t celebrate the end of exams by going clubbing. But at least this year’s GCSE and A-level students have now finished school for summer, albeit with more of a whimper than a bang. For teachers, however, the exam stress is just beginning.

Friday 18 June is the deadline in England for schools submitting estimated grades – based on assessment papers children sat this spring, but also performance throughout the course – which will determine the class of 2021’s futures in the absence of normal exams. The good news is there won’t be a repeat of last year’s debacle, when swathes of teacher-predicted grades for exams that children couldn’t sit were abruptly downgraded by an exam board algorithm. The bad news is that we may be heading for a different debacle instead: an emotive high-wire summer of appeals, favouring sharp-elbowed parents who know how to work the system, in a year when deepening inequalities have already been alarmingly baked in by the pandemic.

This week, a Tes survey to which more than 2,800 teachers responded found that one in four had experienced parents pressuring them to raise grades – including threats of legal action if their little darlings didn’t get what they needed, and parents who happened to be solicitors emailing in pointedly from work addresses. Things seemed particularly intense in private schools, where families may have imagined their fees were buying them A*s.

But more heartbreakingly, a third of teachers also reported pressure from pupils, including sobbing children whose dreams depended on those grades. The safe distance that used to exist between children and the faceless, anonymous exam boards determining their futures has disappeared. No matter how fat the dossiers of supporting data teachers have laboured to compile, failure and rejection will feel more personal this year. Only 2% of teachers admitted caving under pressure. But unless the other 98% all have nerves of steel, hearts of stone and senior leadership teams admirably oblivious to how their results compare with the school next door, some are surely kidding themselves.

Grade inflation seems inevitable, sometimes for the best of reasons; in a normal year there are always some children who have a meltdown in the exam hall and miss out on grades that were within their reach, and under this system they’re more likely to triumph. Well, fair enough. Better too generous than too mean when dealing with the life chances of teenagers in a national crisis. But what if that generosity isn’t evenly distributed?

The class of 2020 entered lockdown only a few weeks before their exams, but children sitting assessments this spring have endured over a year of disrupted education in which experiences varied wildly. The lucky ones got online lessons and a laptop to themselves; those who were unlucky struggled with photocopied worksheets and no broadband at home. Even once schools reopened, children in Covid hotspots where constant outbreaks sent them into one spell of self-isolation after another were living in a different world to students who didn’t miss a day. Exams are never entirely fair, and nor are the home circumstances from which children approach them. But this year looks more of a lottery, geographic and social, than ever.

Meanwhile class WhatsApp groups are rife with indignant rumours about the different approaches schools have taken to this spring’s assessments, with some coaching children on exactly what to revise and others aiming for exam-like conditions. Some parents will inevitably be nervous too about unconscious bias creeping into teachers’ judgments, even though an Ofqual review found no evidence of children being disadvantaged on grounds of class, race or sex in last year’s teacher predictions compared to exams.

Exam boards can demand evidence to back up suspicious-looking grades, but it’s unclear exactly how that will work. Kevin Stannard, the director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust (representing independent schools), has already raised fears of a “Mexican standoff in August” if heads simply refuse to change the decisions they’ve made. Universities face a bunfight for places, with some quietly restricting offers to offset the risk of more sixth formers getting A*s than they have places. Meanwhile, an uneasy question mark hovers over younger teens. Will the first intake to sit “normal” GCSEs or A-levels be punished by an abrupt return to earth after two years of pandemic grade inflation, making them look like relatively weaker candidates to future employers?

There are no easy answers to holding exams in a pandemic, and better education secretaries than Gavin Williamson might have struggled with the resulting dilemmas. But the system in Wales – where children will get provisional grades this month, leaving more time for appeals, or for those who haven’t done as well as they hoped to revise their plans before final grades are confirmed in summer – looks kinder than the high-stakes August results day planned for England. And if this year’s results do show a widening gap between rich and poor kids, that will only make the case for a properly funded educational catch-up programme for children of all ages even more pressing, to help level the playing field in years to come. After all they’ve willingly sacrificed through the pandemic, teenagers deserve better than this.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist