You don’t need to be reading this to know how stressful, demanding, tiring, uncertain and draining the current times are. So here is an opportunity, if you wish, to escape from today’s anxieties, and dream about the future. Not too far in the future — say in a year or two’s time — but far enough to hope that the virus is more memory than overwhelming presence.
So take a moment to get a cup of tea or coffee, gaze out of a window, and imagine what your world might look like. Probably not significantly different from the way things were in 2019, but perhaps with a greater role being played by Zoom, webinars and other online resources. But are there some aspects of the world-as-in-2019 that you would prefer not to be replicated into the future?
I can certainly identify some features of 2019 that I can do without, so if you will permit me to ride some of my own personal hobby-horses, perhaps that might prompt your thinking too…
“Please will someone tell me what benefit GCSEs confer on those 16 year-olds who have to take them?”
Item one on my to-the-scrapheap list is GCSE. Please, please, please will someone tell me what benefit GCSEs confer on those 16 year-olds who have to take them — and are forced to devote so much time to that (to my mind) highly restrictive syllabus. Binning GCSE is of course not a new idea. That’s the problem: no one with the appropriate authority has acted upon it.
Item two: Unreliable grades. Remarkably few people know that on average, about one GCSE, AS and A-level grade in four is wrong. If you do, please skip the next paragraph or two; but if not, keep reading:
To explain, very briefly: in 2018, Ofqual published the results of a research project in which entire cohorts of scripts in each of 14 subjects were double-marked: firstly by an “ordinary” examiner and then by a “senior” examiner, whose mark, and hence grade, was designated “definitive”. You might have thought that the grades resulting from the “ordinary” examiner’s mark would be the same as the “definitive” grade in all but a very few cases.
But no. For history, for example, only about 56 per cent of the grades were the same; for geography, about 65 per cent; 88 per cent for physics; 96 per cent for (all varieties) of maths. Looked at the other way around, 44 per cent of history scripts would have the originally-awarded grade changed if a “senior” examiner were to re-mark the script, for example, on appeal (if that were allowed, of which more shortly).
And across the 14 subjects studied by Ofqual, the consequence of that failure is that on average, about one grade in every four is wrong, and has been wrong for years. That’s some 1.5 million wrong grades every year.
“Reflect on what you would like to be different and better in the future.”
Which leads to item three — fair appeals. Since 2016, Ofqual has ruled that appeals on the grounds of “legitimate differences of academic opinion” are inadmissible. So, in the context of the last paragraph, any opportunity to discover whether or not a “senior” examiner would have awarded a higher grade is denied. I find that hugely unfair.
So if I look ahead to a year or two’s time, I no longer wish to see GCSE, and I do wish to see reliable A-level grades, and fair appeals.
Let me pause there, and invite you to reflect on what you would like to be different, and better, in the middle-distance future. Some might be within your own control, things that you can do differently without requiring the permission of others. Maybe some are beyond your immediate control but are local, perhaps within your department or school. And some might be more distant — such as those on my own wish-list.
“What methods of communication are you using to influence a wider community?”
So here’s my key question. If you wish for something different and better, something outside your immediate control, how are you lobbying for that to happen? What arguments are you marshalling? What coalitions are you forging? What methods of communication are you using to influence a wider community?
And if you think that some of those “big picture” ideas — such as the end of GCSE, awarding reliable grades, and having a fair appeals process — are “interesting”, what can be done to pressure Ofqual and the DfE? How can schools collaborate, and not just independent schools? How might other potential powerful lobby groups, such as parents, carers, universities and the students themselves, come on board?
Which takes me back to the realities of today. For if we don’t think about these matters now, if we don’t put in some organisation and energy, then by the time the future comes along, it is likely to look just the same…
My thanks to Helen Pike, Master of Magdalen College School, for some most lively conversations.