Elena Wilson, Policy Manager – The Edge Foundation

There have long been calls to reform our broken examination system, with little action in response. Nobody, therefore, could have foreseen how suddenly change would be thrust upon us.

However, while 2020 was inevitably chaotic, it provided a long-needed reckoning for our assessment system. As we enter our second exam-free summer, the arguments for a return to the old ways are weakening.

This isn’t to say the road ahead is without obstacles.

Researchers from UCL and LSE recently found that teachers face an “almost impossible task” in fairly grading students.

Their study highlighted that students from highly educated backgrounds benefited from more generously assessed grades in 2020.

Crucially, this was not the government’s ‘mutant’ algorithm but the result of teacher-awarded grades.

To be crystal clear, teachers are not to blame here.

Working with limited planning time, guidance and support, they have been valiantly holding a straining system together. 

Under these circumstances, awarding fair grades consistently, nationwide, is a huge task.

It requires robust frameworks and clear guidance.

Instead, we witnessed a system hastily constructed from the centre, with teachers left to “pick up the pieces” on the ground.[1]

This year, we must balance expectations with an awareness of the challenges teachers face. 

Understanding these tensions is the first step towards solving them.

1. Firstly, there’s the issue of equity. 

While the UCL/LSE research found no difference in assessed grades between pupils on free school meals and others, this may not be true in every context. High-performing independent and grammar schools are at greater risk of submitting overly generous grades that escape scrutiny. The research suggests this may be compounded by positive unconscious bias, where teachers automatically award higher grades to pupils from academically high-achieving backgrounds.

2. Schools are also using a range of different assessment techniques.

No doubt, those wishing to return to a one-size-fits-all system will use this to argue that exams are the only way to compare grades fairly. While variations in teacher-based assessment make like-for-like comparisons more difficult, they also take into account individual learner needs. This problem isn’t insurmountable, so long as we have clear rubrics and grading frameworks in place.

3. Finally, we have the issue of grade inflation.

A longstanding problem regardless of the system. School leaders and education experts have already said that this summer’s GCSE and A-level results will see higher grade inflation. As we find a middle way, we must learn from the past mistakes to minimise future risks.

Unfortunately, these problems currently fall on teachers to solve.

Despite little role in shaping policy, it’s they who will be blamed if things go wrong. And the inevitable grade appeals process will place them under further pressure, long after the initial assessment period is over. It’s hardly surprising that teachers are burning out – according to the National Education Union 35% expect to leave the profession within five years.

Teachers are already better prepared in 2021. They have a range of evidence to draw from, including mock exams, coursework and essays. But if problems occur we must not chide them. Teachers are doing their best in a system rapidly constructed as an emergency measure. It was not carefully designed to work in this way. Any bumps in the road simply prove that a new system must be properly developed and teachers well supported.

Key movements like Rethinking Assessment and the Independent Assessment Commission are doing exactly that. These broad coalitions of educational professionals, business leaders and policymakers are devising tangible alternatives to exam-only assessment. We are witnessing the birth of a balanced, multi-modal assessment system that offers a growing portfolio of assessment options. We must reject calls – which are already being made – for a flight back to exams as the only measure of success.

In January, Gavin Williamson promised that “this year we are going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms.”

But the government must do more than put their trust in teachers. They must also provide them with the guidance and support they need and redesign the system to enshrine this. Teachers have been holding the system together with incredible tenacity.

The government should use the long-overdue comprehensive spending review to uplift and recognise the tireless work that teachers have been undertaking throughout the pandemic.

What we have in place for 2021 is an emergency system rushed in from the centre.

It won’t deliver a perfect result. Nor will it prove the potential of a better assessment system that trusts teachers and values the knowledge and skills young people need.

But it does show that after two years without centralised exams, it’s time for a paradigm shift.

For the sake of teachers, schools, employers and young people everywhere, let’s come together and fight for better change.

Elena Wilson, Policy Manager – The Edge Foundation

On 06 July, Edge is hosting a discussion event entitled ‘Assessment – time for a rethink?’ with Kate Green MP.

This follows their event in January with Robert Halfon MP.

[1] Geoff Barton general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Schools should be transparent with pupils over grading decisions to cut appeals

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