Karl Marx once observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. I was reminded of this when I read the Sunday Times’ coverage of the independent sector’s so-called “gaming” of the TAGs rubric.
The decision to cancel exams in January 2021 was disorderly to say the least, though it was taken against the covid pandemic tragedies. One of these is learning loss, which has multiple and complex causes and regional disparities. Here at Magdalen College School we scrambled to get over 100 laptops to our partner primary schools, and kept our community larder running throughout all three lockdowns, but we are the first to recognise that this is not a level playing field – our pupils have not missed a single day of learning.
It is no surprise that one of the pandemic’s many consequences is a focus on the decade-long trend of reversal of social mobility gains. This is serious, and it is unsurprising that people are angry about it. Independent schools are once again a lightning rod for some of that anger, even though a system was imposed on all teachers which meant that there would inevitably be an increase in top grades in both state and independent sectors.
The independent sector earns proportionally more of those grades in a “normal” year. There was bound to be an increase in the number of those grades under a regime that required us to give students opportunities to show what they knew and could do, without algorithms to artificially depress performance. (In an excellent twitter thread, Sam Freedman (@Samfr) called this the “TAGs prisoner’s dilemma”).
“Any change to the way in which we award grades will have unintended consequences.”
This year, exams are set to go ahead, and algorithms will also be applied to all results. Advance information has just been published by the exam boards, and the same information has been issued to all schools. What will this mean, and will it affect all schools equally? Is advance information the next examining rubric which the independent school will be accused of gaming? Time will tell. But if it is, that verdict is unlikely to be based on a nuanced appreciation of the challenging and uncertain context in which all schools are operating.
We have never entered an exam season like this before, so it is hard to say anything with certainty. If there is one thing we have learned since 2020, it is that any change to the way in which we award grades will have unintended consequences.
The first thing to note is that advance information is intended to enable targeted revision. It is not designed to scythe specifications. If it had been, it would have been issued a lot sooner.
Secondly, the effects are inevitably uneven across subjects. On the face of it, in more text- or topic-based humanities subjects, it is possible for candidates to ignore chunks of the specification altogether when it comes to revision. In the sciences, the picture appears less straightforward. Subjects like biology and physics tend to be more “synoptic” in their approach. Rather than cutting out sections of the specification altogether, the advice focuses instead on what to revise for each paper.
“Advance information is intended to enable targeted revision. It is not designed to scythe specifications.”
There are two problems here, and again, they vary across subjects and are difficult to predict.
The first is that students are not just learning to pass exams. They are mastering knowledge, expertise and skills which will be useful to them both at their next stage of study and in later life. I am less worried about the message we are sending them: we have always ended teaching the specification and moved towards preparing for exams. I do fear that students will go to, say, medical school not knowing what they don’t know. UCAS already reported last year that universities are having to run catch up sessions for freshers in many subjects to remedy this.
One of the many reasons why I mourned the scrapping of public exams and replaced them at MCS with internal exams which were as close to the “real thing” as possible is to enable the mastery of knowledge that exams compel students to undertake. The benefits of the synoptic grasp of the subject as a whole which sustained revision (not cramming) entails could also make all the difference on the margins when it comes to awarding the top grades.
At MCS our approach is therefore to take into account what the exam boards are telling us, and also to encourage pupils to look beyond the list and make sure they consolidate their studies. They are in the fortunate position of being able to do this from a solid base of teaching and learning, which is by no means the case across the country.
“Perhaps next year we can return to a system which gives all students the chance to own the exam room.”
The publication of advance information has mixed reviews among MCS Sixth Formers. For some, dropping a discrete topic now feels like good news. That is not everyone’s, view, though. “I feel as though I’m not going to sit proper exams,” said one.
One key challenge is faced by everyone, however: this is the third year group which has faced exam disruption, and the first to go into A-level not having sat GCSE public exams. Many have found the regime of mocks really hard, in addition to the choreography of getting back into school life.
Perhaps next year we can return to a system which gives all students the chance to own the exam room and show all that they know and can do. If advance information is a stepping stone to that, as it is intended to be, then it is another reason to think that 2022 is looking brighter than this time last year.