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24 August 2020

The Monday Briefing: A day in the life (of a Principal)

The Monday Briefing

‘Could I have taken over as Principal at a less opportune time?’

This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately.

Transitioning into a new job, and particularly one this important, is a challenge at the best of times. But in 2020?

Now that’s certainly going to be a big ask.

Maths may not be my subject, but I know beyond a shadow of doubt that a global pandemic + an almighty exams chaos + a whole new set of procedures to reopen in September = a huge mess.

As a relatively new father, I’ve quite well versed at clearing up messes. My 19-month old daughter also makes the clearing up process more difficult by insisting that she does it herself, though the effect of her ‘assistance’ often derails the process entirely, causing much consternation. The exams mess dumped on my doorstep by the government wasn’t just a mess either. It was a wide-ranging ‘omnishambles’ which spread confusion and vexation far and wide. I won’t be the only Principal who has come to the conclusion that A Level results day last Thursday was one of the most difficult days in their teaching career.

I watched students before me, and by extension parents and teachers who I’ve built close working relationships with go through the denial, anger, bargaining and depression at the loss they had just experienced in return for two years of hard work. I know of a few who have not reached acceptance yet. Maybe they never will.

Did it have to be this way?

Having been armed with the details of the backlash following the Scottish exams results, it was surprising that the government knowingly stood by a faulty algorithm they knew would cause malaise and just carried on regardless. A one-size-fits-all system, aimed at dealing with individual cases was bound to throw up issues.

Why not release the results early to schools and ask whether the changes made were at least reasonable, or could be amended?

Our College was hit – not as badly as some others – but we were hit nonetheless. Many of our students were marked down by one grade and some by two, based, as far as I can tell, on results the College produced in years gone by. Because someone attained a U grade two years ago in Biology here, then someone had to this year. This arbitrary manner of defining student performance had nothing to do with the students themselves. It simply wasn’t fair. A poor student at a strongly performing school would be fine – carried through on the tide. An outstanding student at a poorly performing school would now have their dreams shattered.

A screeching U-Turn later and we have reverted to Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs). But not before Gavin Williamson prematurely said something about Mock Grades being a basis for appeals - which would have fired the starting gun on an elephantine process – and many of the university places students were banking on now gone to others. Going to the CAGs, and the students being aware of what they were, now provided new targets where they had not reached their intended universities – the teachers themselves.

“Why did you only predict me a B – I think I could have got an A?”

The students did not seem to understand that we weren’t making predictions – we were awarding grades based on past performance. Past performance which had been reported to them in mock exams and class work.

“I was really close to an A though – couldn’t my grade be rounded up?”

Unfortunately not. We had a data-based system which was fair – we gave students leeway within this, but perhaps they still didn’t quite make it. It was the equivalent of missing a grade in an exam by one or two marks, but not being able to apply for a remark – and we’re still waiting on guidance as to what the appeals process is.

I’m satisfied to say that the system we utilised for defining CAGs is robust enough to stand up to scrutiny. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the students who are stuck in the university abyss at the moment. I’m doing my best to help – and I’m committed to seeing students here through until their next destination is secure. We want to make sure that we are supporting students through the entire journey here – and that when we do bid them farewell, they leave secure in the knowledge that they can always come back to us and ask for advice where they might need it.

GCSE results day, which I’m just at the tail end of as I’m writing this, has been a far more relaxed and joyful experience. Going through the results yesterday, I even discovered that one of our results was moved up from an 8 to a 9. Having gone through the reductions of the previous week, this was the equivalent of a Wonka Golden Ticket! So many smiling students, walking out of the door with purpose and contentment at what they have been working so hard to achieve. This is how it should be – the smile is even returning to my face.

One must spare a thought for those students who worked hard all year – the vast majority of the students here – and would have performed excellently but simply didn’t get the chance to show it. The scepticism which they’re already meeting about their achievements is quite depressing. Journalist and broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer was quick to tweet on Thursday morning that the results were ‘given, not achieved’. She said that the CAGs were ‘at best optimistic, and, at worst downright dishonest.’ So much for the integrity of teachers then – and another voice to add to the unhealthy obsession with exam grades.

There were times during the last week though where I felt a bit punch drunk by it all. The fog has lifted somewhat after the results days, but the outlook is not entirely clear moving forward – and I’m not sure that I entirely like what I have seen. A lot of faith in the system on the part of the youth has been lost – 90% of students in a Student Room survey stated that they ‘had lost trust in key decision makers’ this week - and it will likely have to be staff in schools who have to restore it.

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