Let’s shape the post-pandemic education system together: a call to action to all secondary school students

Let’s use our collective voice to let politicians know we deserve better!

Ollie Green Student & Campaigner

To all students,

We all know that the past three academic years haven’t been plain sailing for anyone. To top it off, we are now onto our fifth Education Secretary over this period and while we’re hoping each new appointment will renew the prospect of fresh ideas, such a crucial function – the exam system – still seems to be failing it’s target audience: us.

As we enter any education system, I pose a question: surely it must be fair and accessible for all?  This is a complex question and not an easy one to solve, and there are multiple issues with our current exam system which need to be addressed.

From the pressures on young people at such a young age, to the lack of appeals system, and a tick-box curriculum without breadth to name a few.

But ultimately, I believe the three biggest issues currently plaguing the system are:

1. the acceptance that a third of grades have to be a ‘fail’ GCSEs

2. the fact that ‘standards’ are set through grade boundaries year-on-year

3. likely the biggest flaw of all – grade unreliability

For me, a current A-Level student, as well as many of my peers, there is no question that a fair assessment system shouldn’t be a privilege but a guarantee. It’s no secret that Britain’s children are some of the most over-tested globally and since so much trust is placed into the system, we should be looking at a system where grades are made more accessible to everyone.

2020 and 2021 provided two years rest from traditional exams but there has been a keen narrative to immediately return to the normal exam diet as soon as possible, simply because it’s the “fairest way of assessing a student’s knowledge”.

However, if the fairest way of assessing is through a flawed method, we simply can’t accept, in a post-pandemic world, that we’ll revert back to our old ways of test, test, test and a lottery of which grade you’ll be awarded.

The Times Education Commission looked into the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (page 36 of this report) and identified Rethinking Assessment’s evidence that one in every four exam grade is wrong. This amounts to 1.5 million grades being unreliable each year.

Last month, a book, published by Dennis Sherwood and titled ‘Missing The Mark: Why So Many School Exam Grades Are Wrong – And How to Get Results We Can Trust’ highlighted the accepted fact that grades are reliable to “one grade either way”, in detail. This book provides a thorough run-down of the issue at-hand, the detrimental impact, and the multiple ways to remedy this unfairness.

In short, the mark of an exam script could be multiple, and therefore it’s a lottery as to who marks your exam script, to determine the grade you are awarded.

Sherwood does mention that this book is relevant to all students, teachers, parents and exam officers and he couldn’t be more right – the book is easy to understand and can really change your perspective on the fundamental wrongs of the system.

Personally, I know just how hugely important grades are to many people – my GCSE results last year (albeit different to a normal year) cost me a potential place at a Sixth Form College, as I was one grade off seven Grade 7’s.

In 2021, teachers were asked to make the impossible possible: assess students and give them grades. How were teachers able to define a Grade B in History, when it equally could’ve been a Grade A or a Grade C in a normal year? This inconsistency severely harms student’s next steps, to the point of being life-altering in some cases (a Grade 3 vs. a Grade 4 in English Language at GCSE, for example) and when it all plays out like a lottery – pure luck on who marks your exam script – it really is outrageous!

When I first heard about the grade unreliability, I was bemused that no one seemed to be taking accountability for it. Whilst it had been acknowledged by the Chief Regulator of Ofqual at the time, Dame Glenys Stacey, there is nowhere near enough publicity towards the damage this is causing. It’s essential that we get this right to ensure no one’s opportunities are blunted.

To fix this, one possibility is to consider recognising ‘fuzziness’. Two equally skilled examiners can give a different grade and so it is by no means an instant fix. Hopefully, as artificial intelligence improves even more, Ofqual will use this to their advantage when marking, to reduce errors. In the short term, it may be worth printing on exam certificates, in capital letters, a warning sign stating Ofqual’s recognition of grades being reliable to “one grade either way”.

Turning specifically to GCSEs, it’s important to consider that there are multiple ways of assessing ability (like this article diligently outlines) and despite the calls to reform GCSEs, governments have long resisted these powerful suggestions.

The norm referencing at surface level maintains 33% of grades as ‘fails’. The impact of ‘failing’ at the young age of sixteen is obscene and can damage aspirations. Why should we accept this mentality when students are perfectly capable of achieving a ‘pass’ but because of the shifting of grades boundaries each year, purely dependent on the cohort you’re taking the exams with, students are labelled as ‘failing’?

In the short term, it is essential grades are made more accessible and reliable. In the longer term, we need to consider a system beyond just grades which play such a high stakes role in determining a young persons future at 16. A system in which fairness is positioned as the most important factor.

As students, it is time for us to do something!

So many of us recognise the crucial flaws within the system and we need to spread the word! Tell your peers, your teachers, contact your local MP. Shout it from the rooftops: it’s not fair. Emailing your local MP informs them that you aren’t happy and registers it. One voice won’t change the system but a collective voice communicating all the flaws should help because this needs to be a top priority within political parties’ agenda in time for the next election.

After the 2022 GCSE results were released, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson accused the Conservatives of not doing enough to tackle the regional inequalities within the cohort’s results. However, this wasn’t addressed at all during the Labour Party Conference last month, despite insisting this is one of their priorities if they win the next election.

Students seem to have been forgotten amongst policies that have been put forward to help them, and the political turmoil that has gripped the nation for the last few years has only made this issue worse.

Staying informed is also key for change. Answering any surveys and lobbying Ofqual: letting them know that many of us are aware of these flaws and those of us it affects, us students, want change. Even writing to your local newspaper, or a national newspaper, can help. Alternatively, there is the option of joining an influential campaign group such as Pupil Power, as strength comes in numbers.

As education slowly recovers from the impact of the pandemic, we should demand a system which is fairer, broader, and free from the rigid idea of ‘failing’ one-third of the GCSE cohort every year. As what does this truly reflect about our education system and society overall?

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