Continuous improvement is a not just the mark of a good school, but something all organisations and, indeed, individuals ought to strive for. To do so, we must be willing to learn from mistakes, continuously evaluate decisions in light of how they have impacted on performance, and adjust our strategies, where necessary, as a result.
For that reason, the sarcastic assertion that “hindsight is a wonderful thing” really gets my goat. Hindsight is indeed the most wonderful thing if we are willing to learn from the past; to look back and recognise that, despite our best intentions, we got it wrong.
And so here we are, in the second half of the first term of the third consecutive academic year to be impacted by Covid. Education, which is so often stated as being the top priority of ministers, remains in a complicated and worrying position.
“The exams come round quicker than you think and policy makers should be reminded of this, urgently.”
Where many are calling for mask mandates, vaccination roll-outs and the re-introduction of measures which should, arguably, never have been repealed, I wish to open up a discussion on exams 2022. As we remind our students every year, the exams come round quicker than you think and policy makers should be reminded of this, urgently.
In 2020, when education moved online and exams were cancelled, the system of assessment that was pieced together led to a chaotic summer. The algorithm was a calamity and questions were raised over consistency. Despite this, it was forgivable (in the main part) as the situation was unprecedented. In 2021, however, it was not. We knew how the virus was behaving, we knew that lockdowns remained possible and we knew that it was highly unlikely that students would be able to sit in an examination hall safely, let alone have covered the necessary material in order to prepare for the challenge.
“An alternative plan must be devised and communicated, to replace exams, if they are unable to go ahead.”
What resulted was a second year of assessment based on the judgement of schools and while it was better than the year before, it was put together too late, applying too much pressure on students and schools. It could have been formulated at a much earlier stage, as a “Plan B” option, enabling schools to gather the required data over time whilst continuing to prepare students for exams. As the spring lockdown of 2021 rolled on, it was abundantly clear that those exams would never take place yet the guidance over how assessment would be handled was not made clear until the early summer.
The worst-case scenario, between now and next summer, would be the emergence of another new variant, the continued rise of infections and the necessary reintroduction of measures which could include a return to online teaching. If we avoid all of that, then at the very least we will approach the summer having battled our way through another chronically disrupted year (staff and student absence across the UK remains worryingly high) and be attempting to support examination year-groups who last enjoyed an undisrupted school year in 2018-19.
We must learn from the past. An alternative plan must be devised and communicated, to replace exams 2022, if they are unable to go ahead. The criteria for the cancellation or reduction of exams must be set early and decisions must be based on what is fairest for those who have experienced the worst impact. If we are to accept a form of “teacher assessment” then the criteria for this must be made clear. The moderation, standardisation and quality-control measures must be explained and the role of exam boards communicated, in order for schools to focus their teaching, learning and assessment strategies. We know enough now, in the autumn of 2021, to do this and to do it well enough to work.
“We have sufficient wonderful hindsight to be able to see what could happen and plan for it.”
The statement that “exams are the best and fairest form of assessment” sits proudly on the Gov.uk website. It is accompanied by no explanation as to why the government believes that to be the case, nor any suggestion as to what form of assessment might be used if the “best and fairest” one cannot proceed.
Across the border, Qualifications Wales did publish in August that “alternative arrangements will be put in place in case there is significant impact on teaching and learning as a consequence of the pandemic” but, two months later, there is still no clarity as to what those alternative arrangements will be or what is meant by “significant impact”.
If it is kind to describe what happened in 2020 as “forgivable” then such a word would not apply to the summer of 2021. Next summer, however, is in a different league. We have sufficient wonderful hindsight to be able to see what could happen and plan for it. Blind optimism; the hope that the problem will just “go away” or, worse still, becoming distracted by silly non-issues will help no one. Students and teachers need to know what plan B looks like and we need to know now.