Tired staff face a school year fraught with uncertainties, but we can remain hopeful, writes Sean Fenton
What a summer. It felt as if we were running around lost, changing direction for no reason, driven witless by multiple voices in the fog. It reminded me of those childhood walks in the Lake District where every time I reached the peak of a hill, a new, higher, harder-to-reach peak suddenly came into view.
Where do we go from her? Well, the short answer is that nobody – including ministers, Ofqual and UCAS – really knows. The only certainty is that a review is going to take place. And after what we have seen this year, when it comes to developments in education, fact is stranger than fiction – because fiction needs to make sense.
So, what do I believe will happen?
The new Year 11 and Year 13 students will be awarded grades that revert back to previous trends rather than a continuation of the inflation we have seen via CAG predictions this year. Some worry about whether parents will be disappointed, but I think the biggest worry is the impact on this year’s cohort of the award of CAG-generated grades. Will future employers regard the grades of 2020 as untrustworthy as they were unmoderated and didn’t include any examinations?
And will universities looking at 2022 admissions have to ignore GCSE grades and add in a plethora of entrance exams and new aptitude tests? Will universities see that CAGS resulted in such a rise in awarded grades and extrapolate from that to decide to pay much less regard to teacher-generated predicted grades for UCAS applications? CAGS and UCAS predictions are very different things, of course, but there is a link.
As for university admissions in 2021, it seems inevitable that it will now be more competitive to get into selective universities which have, in different ways, over-recruited this year. CAGS have improved over 30,0000 A-level grades since offers day when all sorts of “near miss” applicants were getting places and when Clearing was very busy.
“Will there be students starting on A-Level courses that fit their aspirations more than their aptitude?”
Universities have also had to defer many students until next year. So 2021 university recruitment will be into institutions that are already overfull as a result of over-recruitment this year, and where many 2021 places are already taken by students deferring from 2020. It is not good.
As a consequence of the lost learning time in lockdown, Ofqual has announced some helpful changes to the specifications next year that will make a small difference as teachers prepare students for GCSE and A-level. We have yet to see what unintended consequences there will be. Some have warned, for example, that the changes to English Literature GCSE will result in a generation denied their chance to appreciate poetry. We shall see.
I wonder whether there are now many students starting on A-Level courses that fit their aspirations more than their aptitude? The crucible of the GCSE summer term helps students understand more about themselves and their academic strengths. I worry that this largely evaporated as a result of school closures.
A-Levels are a big challenge, and students completing A-Levels can usually call on the experience of a summer of GCSE exams where they developed revision strategy, exam technique, learned from mistakes and more. In two years’ time, A-Levels will be sat by a national cohort who are doing public exams for their first time. That will require a more extensive preparation and practice programme than ever before. That will almost inevitably be inconsistent across schools and so students will gain or lose, subjected yet again to a lottery of opportunity through no fault of their own.
“It has left many of us feeling that we are running on empty, just when we need our new year optimism.”
Across the country, people have had to work hard and differently in the face of Covid. I am genuinely worried about the teaching profession and our support staff. I can’t be alone in feeling more tired out at the end of August than ever before. Rather than my batteries being fully recharged, six months of relentless new challenges topped off with the summer exam debacle has left so many of us feeling that we are running on empty, just when we need our “new-year” optimism.
Fortunately, at Reigate Grammar School the online learning went well. We maintained a raft of pastoral and extra-curricular activities to maintain one-to-one communication between pupils and staff. We have held summer schools over July and August, to which students from local schools were invited, and pre-season sport is up and running. We think we are well placed for September, with record numbers on roll following a boost in interest from families looking for the reassurance of quality that we can offer.
So let’s raise a (non-alcoholic?) glass to a better year ahead. In the worst of times, we see the best of people. In recent months we have seen what a community is, how people can care for each other, what compassion and selflessness feel like. I couldn’t be prouder of our staff, students and families. At RGS, we always say that qualities of character are more important than a fist-full of certificates, and this year it has been truer than ever.
A second national lockdown in autumn or winter? Don’t even go there.