Results Days. They come around every year and feel as much of a rite of passage as proms and t-shirt signings. But the white envelopes hold huge significance for the future of every pupil.
However, over the last two years, the pandemic has caused wide-scale disruptions, not only to these important days but to pupils’ education as a whole. National lockdowns, self-isolation and bubble systems have meant pupils have missed out on large periods of classroom learning with TES reporting that 1.3 million pupils in England were out of school for Covid-19 related reasons on a single day in July alone.
While many schools employed high-tech and effective solutions to home learning, there is no doubt that pupils’ education has been impacted. This lead to the Government deciding that rather than the much-maligned algorithm approach last year, young people’s grades would be determined by teachers, using their professional judgement and based on work pupils had produced throughout their course. These grades were then moderated and assessed by external exam boards that awarded the final grades. It was also decided that both GCE (A Levels) and GCSE grades would be released in the same week.
As pupils across the country opened their Level 2, 3 GCSE, and A Level results this week, the press has been reporting on the impact of this new approach to grading. Headlines have included accounts of major grade inflation with 44.3% of grades awarded in England at A-Level at A or above and nearly 30% of grades at GCSE were awarded at 7, A or above. However, as former senior advisor to the Department for Education, Sam Freedman explained, ‘inflation’ is the wrong term: “It’s not like the pound inflating. It’s like we suddenly decided to switch to the yen. You simply cannot compare this year to previous ones in any meaningful way.”
Also dominating the headlines were reported inequalities across the country, such as disparities between those who studied at independent schools and state schools. Some media coverage relates to independent schools seeing a larger jump in results than state schools. As Teacher Tapp’s Laura McInerney tweeted, “if you’re in a school where previously no one got a C, then you’re not going to have many kids going up to a B (and instead will have them going up to As)”. Schools Week reported on this disparity but quoted Ofqual that claimed the results reflect “longstanding differences in the distribution of grades for different centre types” and independent schools were also able to move to fully resourced online learning more rapidly.
However, in a juxtaposition, papers also reported many pupil successes, displaying a plethora of smiling faces and record numbers of pupils applying for, and heading off to university, including record numbers of disadvantaged pupils with an East London state school achieving more places for pupils at Oxbridge than Eton. Hundreds of thousands of pleased pupils also achieved their Level 2 and 3 qualifications and are set to enter the world of work and apprenticeships.
So, was this approach to grading a success or a flop? And what is the future of our grading system?
The truth is that it is not clear cut. There are many elements to consider. The traditional exam-based grading system has stood in place for many years, providing employers with reliable and comparable results in which to select candidates. The process of sitting exams also develops important life skills for pupils, including retaining and memorising information, revision techniques, writing skills and the ability to perform under pressure.
However, while it is largely agreed that the 2020 and 2021 approaches were designed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and are not long-term solutions, it has raised questions on the grading process as a whole. Is it time to update the system? Could more be done to even the playing field?
Already, there are suggestions of reintroducing the modular system across more courses, placing coursework as a more central part of grades or even giving learners greater autonomy to choose how their courses are structured, allowing them to play to their strengths and maximise their potential.
Some of these options look like they could be incorporated into grading as early as next year as pupils continue to be impacted by the pandemic. The Department for Education and Ofqual launched a consultation about necessary adaptions to 2022 grading with proposed adaptions including the provision of information in advance on the content of exams in the majority of subjects at GCSE, AS and A level, the provision of supporting materials in GCSE mathematics, physics and combined science exams and the choice of topics in GCSE English literature, history and ancient history, to name a few. However, on 12th August, on BBC Radio 4, Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, has said they have ruled out using teacher assessments for GCSEs in the long term.
While the discussions about the long-term changes to the future of exams could and will go on for some time, it is important to remember the most important aspect – our young people. Whatever changes may or may not be made to grading, it has got to be right for our future generations and must equip them with the skills and qualifications they need to progress and take their next steps in the twenty-first century. To justify overhauling a whole system, it must serve to provide a fair and equal playing field for those of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds and help pupils to reach their full potential.