Earlier this month, my thoughts were on the time pressure facing students and teachers if they wished to take “real” examinations in the autumn. 

How a few days of decisions and indecision can turn upside down any planning that schools had made to cope with this pressure. The recent U-turns over submitted grades, whilst bringing euphoria to some, must cause all manner of uncertainty in so many fields.

Schools which exercised caution may be wondering if they have not done the best for their pupils, in the face of knowledge that some other schools have clearly submitted grades that are generous. Those sceptics who think that the public examination results of 2020 should be viewed through slightly different glasses than those of cohorts going before or after them, may apply the same scepticism to all, not knowing which students will have been given very accurate grading.Yet the statistics do show an unprecedented increase in outcome and so, surely, some scepticism is required.

But as the submitted grades are reinstated, this can bring further controversy.  For the first time students, and their parents, can challenge teachers as to why grades submitted were below what they believe, rightly or wrongly, should have been the case.

"One hopes that schools are well-placed to defend their position."

Schools were aware, owing to subject access requests, that their submissions could be questioned, however much analysis of previous work had taken place, but now these are unmoderated, any shortcoming in results can clearly be seen as “the fault” of the teacher. One hopes that, faced with so many other challenges as term begins, schools are well placed to defend their position, and that leadership teams have scrutinised submissions with due diligence, so that they are well placed to support their teaching staff.

Those accepting that their results are valid but wishing to take actual exams in order to improve their outcome face another challenge. Term starts for many independent schools on 7th September.  There will be little time for discussion, the entry deadline for A-Levels being 4th September. These students will have left school and if “retaking” A-Levels will have little opportunity to find support for their learning. Their teachers will also be in a position of relative weakness having not seen their pupils perform under examination pressure for over six months.

"The pressure to improve is considerable, as there will be greater competition for universities next year."

These teachers will be working under difficult circumstances with some schools operating physical restrictions on teaching areas and returning, in many cases, to the school building for the first time for many months. The pressure to improve is considerable with many believing that there will be far greater competition for higher education places next year, as students defer entry.

The position is slightly better for the GCSE pupils who have until the 18th September for entries to be made. It would seem that Ofqual are aware of the extreme pressure since the deadline for the examinations seen as “more important”, namely English and Mathematics, is not until 4th October. However, this is still a tight turnaround period for a pupil to persuade a teacher that the result they were awarded on 20th August is not indicative of their ability.

In reality there are probably only two weeks in school for most subjects and four weeks for English and Maths for teachers to be convinced that written papers will improve the lot of their pupils. The run up to November retakes may once have included a punishing schedule of pupils attending lunchtime and after school sessions, rapid turnaround of past papers and last-minute cramming. But the different, post-Covid school arrangements may make such intense preparation even more difficult.

The awarding bodies will have put a good deal of time and effort into the production and infrastructure required to run a full series of examinations at a time when usually only English, Mathematics and legacy papers are available. The number of entries was always going to be a big unknown. Now, as moderation has been removed, they must already be feeling huge frustration that so much data collection and manipulation has been deemed almost irrelevant.

Their next issue will be, in the light of the political intervention which has altered the results landscape so significantly, will there be any candidates for the physical examinations?  Only time will tell, and recent days have shown that there are few certainties on which to plan, an essential requirement for good organisation.