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Now is the time to think of exams for the class of 2021, says Cambridgeshire Secondary Heads co-chair

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Exam halls were empty this year
Exam halls were empty this year

There can be no delay in deciding what examinations will look like for the class of 2021 if a repeat of this year’s exam upheaval is to be avoided, according to the co-chair of the Cambridgeshire Secondary Heads group.

Students received their A-level grades last week based on a three-part process that featured centre-assessed grades, rank order and a standardisation formula.

But it led to uproar as up to 40 per cent of results were downgraded and, on Monday, the education secretary Gavin Williamson did a U-turn so students received the grades their teachers awarded.

With GCSE results to be announced tomorrow (Thursday), also based on teacher assessment, Peter Law has suggested that there is a pressing need to analyse what system will be put in place for the next academic year.

“I think the longer-term question is what do we think examinations in 2021 are going to look like? I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t know what the next six months of schooling is going to look like,” said Mr Law, who is principal of Comberton Village College and co-chair of CSH.

“We are where we are at the moment and working hard to make it as good as we can for everyone.

“I think a big question is what is the examination and what is the assessment model? And are we going to have a similar situation next year? Or are we going to be back to actually students will take exams?

“If you’re in Year 11 or Year 13 next year, you have missed six month’s worth of school throughout your GCSEs or A-levels.

“I think there is a big debate to be had which begs lots of questions, all of which in all the years I’ve been doing this, have been there in the background.

“My simplistic view of the pandemic is that it’s an amplifier of situations – the poor in our world are unfortunately going to get poorer, the anxious will be more anxious; this question about the purpose of examinations and assessment models is raised large.”

Peter Law, principal of Comberton Village College
Peter Law, principal of Comberton Village College

Mr Law believes that the answers to what happens next year needs to come in a timely fashion and with thorough communication and consideration with all interested parties – students, parents, education professionals, examination boards, Ofqual and trade unions.

“There are lots of people who have significant investment in this who will offer helpful insights so it needs to be a balance of having full consultation, discussion and debate whilst also doing it in a timely fashion so those children currently in Years 10 and 12, so next year’s Year 11 and 13, will be able to know what they’re aiming for, what the process is, what the structure is and how it’s being managed,” he said.

“That’s the difficult tension – to try to get the answers out quickly and timely whilst having a decent full consultation so I can understand the difficulties people face with that.”

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how children are assessed in education as this year they were not able to be examined in the way that had been planned.

And Mr Law admits that the results of the three-part process for A-levels did come as a bit of an eye-opener.

“It has surprised me because, in principle, I thought that the system with centre-assessed grades that were externally moderated was an appropriate system,” he said.

“It had some of the similarities of the exam system with exams sat locally and externally moderated, and it seemed in the compromised world in which we exist to be as fair as was possible.

“What surprised me was how unfair it turned out to be, and how the complexities and nuances of an examination system with thousands of individuals across many, many different centres hasn’t been able to be replicated through mathematical algorithms.

“I suppose, in retrospect, that is not a great surprise, but certainly I was surprised when I saw how many difficulties students and colleges were facing.”

It has been a difficult period for staff at schools and colleges as they have had to offer advice and guidance to sixth formers who have suffered disappointment in missing out on their higher education establishments or suffered lower than expected grades.

Students got their predicted grades this year
Students got their predicted grades this year

But, ultimately, the only outcome in the end was to opt for students’ centre-assessed grades.

“A huge amount of work has gone into making those absolutely robust and valid,” said Mr Law.

“It’s been a very significant piece of work, and is something that will also be questioned, looked at and thought about when parents see those grades and ask how we came to those judgments.

“I think yes [it was the right outcome] in as much as teachers are hard-working professionals who, with their hand on their heart, have after lots of intelligent thought, discussion and moderation within the school, have said this is what I firmly believe would be the most likely outcome for that child in this situation.

“It is very hard in this situation to say, ‘What would be a better answer than that?’.”

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