These are NOT exams by the back door…!

…at least that is the argument used by the DfE, OfQual, JCQ, all of the exam boards and everyone else who has an interest in assessment of secondary pupils in the UK. There are animated discussions going on in schools across the country about the best way in which to arrive at a grade for every member of Year 11 and Year 13 in every subject – how to give them the opportunity to show what they can really do without tripping up and falling over. It does feel a bit like we are being asked to do the exam boards job for them – set the tests, do the marking, accumulate and store the evidence, moderate the samples, standardize the results and decide the grade boundaries – and then have external quality assurance to mark some (but only some) of the evidence submitted to the boards. It’s all a massive bureaucratic exercise and all a bit of a leap into the dark in yet another unprecedented year.

There are a number of technical issues that need to be confronted and the challenges overcome. Thankfully there is a lot of flexibility built in to the arrangements, The school policy is in the process of being approved by the exam boards and JCQ; though this is an overarching document that will not have a direct bearing on what happens in each individual case, it will be important that the academic departments ensure that what they do complies with the general procedures that are spelt out in the whole school approach. Then there is a decision to be made by every subject department as to the best way in which to balance the assessments so that (a) the syllabus content is examined with enough breadth and depth and (b) the weighting of the different means of assessment is appropriate for the course. Year 11 sat mocks (in November 2020). Year 13 did not as theirs were cancelled due to the third period of school closure in January. I suspect that most departments will be using assessment evidence that is generated in the first half of the summer term, as most subjects will now have covered the content of the courses, and the boys will therefore have the knowledge, understanding and maturity to perform at their best. As a small case study in Geology A level we will be staging 4 smaller assessments using past paper materials between now and the end of May, complemented by a larger scale assessment (more like an A level paper) examining mainly Year 12 material during the scheduled Assessment Week for Year 13. Together this should give us a good, robust and fairly wide-ranging evidence base on which to make a grade judgement for each candidate. All of the grades will need to be submitted to the exam boards by 18 June.

My personal opinion is that though this does have the flavour (once again) that we are making it up as we go along, the position is better than last year. The course has been set, most arrangements have been thought through and there is no algorithmic ambush lying in wait. The message that I have given my Year 13 boys is that in some ways they are in a good place, despite the fact that they have had a rubbish time over the past few months. They have covered the course, hopefully enjoyed learning and are back together for the summer. Instead of having to revise the whole syllabus content for lengthy, high stakes exams they will be sitting smaller, much more tightly constrained tests and there should be a more holistic judgement of their performance as a consequence. I would very much hope that the grades that we arrive at will be a fair and recognisable depiction of where they are intellectually. In short, schools are places of pragmatism where committed teachers know their students well. That should make this year’s exercise work – eventually.

So, to quote Monty Python, now for something completely different. No exams by the back door, but the judgements about performance still have to be made. I still anticipate that feeling of excitement and euphoria will follow in August as Year 11 contemplate sixth form life and Year 13 the prospect of university without the handicap of lockdowns…hopefully!