26 April 2021

The Monday Briefing: A hard day's night

The Monday Briefing: A hard days night

Following the chaos of Centre Assessed Grades and the catastrophic effects of ‘the algorithm’ in summer 2020, and with exams being cancelled this year in January, the College was faced with somewhat of a conundrum: how are we going to approach the determination of grades this academic year?

Advice from the Department for Education was sketchy at best. Teachers’ judgements, based on ‘a range of evidence’ was the ambiguous recommendation. This has prompted a number of different approaches from schools and colleges up and down the country. 

How and how much do we assess? 

How much assistance do we give candidates in the assessment process? 

What do we use to form the range?

Having such freedom to decide how we would approach this task, I decided quickly that we would have to be as rigorous as we could, and base our decisions on as much evidence as possible. It was important that we didn’t lose sight of our role: to fairly reward students for their hard work, effort and ability across their subjects; to prepare our GCSE students sufficiently for further study at A Level; to prepare our A Level candidates for their university courses. This meant that we had to ensure that students would be assessed on the entire syllabus, and that we would have to assess this accordingly. The College normally has a Mock Exam session scheduled prior to the Easter break, and, of course, had included within the College calendar the May-June Exam timetable. It made absolute sense to aim for two assessment sessions at these points, providing that all course content teaching was complete by the Easter break. Staff were consulted on this, and agreed to the plan. They knew this would create more work, but they also knew that it would create more opportunities for students to earn the grade in a fair manner.

Without step by step instructions on exactly what to do, it was, to me, important that we tried to replicate the circumstances of the exams as they would have happened, whilst being sympathetic to the challenges which students have faced this year during the pandemic. Before Gavin Williamson made a clear announcement with plans surrounding what was expected, I set out our own potential pathway as described above in late January. We were in an unenviable situation: we had to abide by, at that time, a hard deadline for entries for the exams of February 5; we knew they were cancelled, and yet, we had no instructions for what would take their place. Being clear and offering a settled way forward in the face of such obscurity, was, I thought, incumbent on the College, particularly where we have to cater for Private Candidates - many of which found themselves in the desperate situation last year of not being supported by the centres in which they had applied to take their exams in 2020, with the pandemic rendering the sitting of exams impossible.

In late February, the aforementioned broad and ambiguous guidance was finally given, along with assurances being made around the release of materials to support the assessments. The advice indicated that schools and colleges could, in a sense, assess whatever way they liked to find their Teacher Assessed Grades, using any means they felt best to identify the right award.

This focused my mind on the task at hand: The College would adhere to standards of exams past with full JCQ regulations in place and under sufficient supervision - we owed that to all students who have sat them previously; the College would not be giving out topic lists to students or leaving out chunks of the course - doing so would undermine the integrity of the assessments and the qualifications of the courses sat; the College would compile assessments fairly and with the right level of challenge to determine a fair grade. The hope that the promised materials would offer some assistance turned out to be a false one. Word documents of already available past paper questions offered nothing new, and didn’t lessen the load. The responsibility has, nonetheless, been placed upon us, and throughout I have been guided by the mantra ‘if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well,’ particularly given the fact that the future of young people is at stake.

As stated above, this meant more work for staff: double the normal set of assessments would have to be made for both April and June; assessments for specifications and exam boards outside of our normal teaching syllabi had to be researched and created from scratch; contacts across the Bellevue group and beyond were exhausted to ensure expertise was in place for this task; the marking and invigilation load would obviously expand. All of this was on top of our usual work. 

Why would we do this to ourselves, one might ask? 

There are several answers I can offer:

‘Because it’s the right thing to do.’

‘Because it meets the standards I and the College is comfortable with.’

‘Because it’s fair to all students.’

‘Because we have a duty to the schools, colleges and universities who form the next steps in those students’ lives to ensure transition to them is done transparently.’

With everyone I’ve consulted, I’ve grown more sure that our course of action has been exactly the right process. Staff knew it would stretch them, but acceded because they had the best interests of the students at heart. Students, though infrequently unhappy at the thought of more stress and anxiety, saw that it gave them opportunity - particularly important given the fact that their counterparts last year were bereft of it. Parents have been supportive as they know that it is a necessary step to find a fair award for the sons and daughters.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from a parent of one of our Private Candidates, and I’m sure the piece of mind gained from our process is indispensable for them. They stated that “As the parent of an external candidate it is reassuring to know that this approach has been taken by Ealing College. The circumstances are quite challenging for everyone this year and we are trying to do our utmost to deliver the necessary content to our son who has been out of formal education for two years now, therefore to know that it will be a ‘level playing field’ is good to know.”

I saw a popular tweet recently by another teacher which asked “Anyone else feel it would have just been easier to let year 11 and 13 sit exams?”

Well, quite - that’s what we’re doing. I just hope that the extra strain of time and effort put on teachers, who have taken on the roles of invigilators and exam markers on top of their normal day job, will be rewarded by the authorities in a wider sense.

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