Let's not make a mockery of education

It's time for an urgent rethink on next summer's exams

Debbie Bogard Teacher, City and Islington College

I think it’s safe to say that GCSEs and A-levels have not had a great pandemic. So I’m sure I’m not the only teacher to react with concern coupled with déjà vu to the recent advice from Ofqual that students will be expected to sit repeated mock exams throughout the rest of this academic year, in case exams are cancelled for the third year running. To my mind, this is real head-in-the-sand stuff, completely tone-deaf to students’ needs and ultimately exposing a bewildering lack of imagination. 

The word ‘mock’ does feel apt here; I fear our students will feel like they’re being mocked (and worse, punished and undermined) when both a lack of knowledge and exam preparation skills will be revealed. Many teachers will feel mocked too, having to repeatedly create and mark anxiety-provoking mocks to prepare for exams that might (or most likely might not) take place in May 2022. 

But significantly, it makes a mockery of the whole system. This is the cohort that have had a severely disrupted educational experience over the last almost two years. They need to know that they are in safe hands and that they can trust their teachers to treat them with compassion and understanding.

As educators, we need to demonstrate to students that we have their best interests at heart.  This means reflecting carefully on the mistakes of the last two years. In particular, it means learning the lessons of the TAGs process, and considering a range of ways to assess student progress rather than single, high-stake exams.  

Whilst exams play to some student strengths, what’s needed is a model that allows all students to present themselves in their best light.  This might mean a combination of a written exam and a student portfolio, whereby each student collates work they take the most pride in over the two year course, giving students a greater sense of agency and ownership, something that has been sadly lacking over this whole process.

I teach History A-level and at my sixth form college, we developed a hybrid approach for last summer’s TAGs, whereby students were invited to redraft and resubmit up to 6 essays from across the 2 year course. This formed the majority of their overall grade, with coursework and two one hour, relatively low-stakes exams making up the rest. The student response was overwhelmingly positive. 

Here’s an example from one of our former year 13s:

Ever since our class was told about the new assessments in place, I’ve been talking to other history students and as a collective we’re super grateful for everything you and the department has done for us! It’s nice to know that there is support for us in college…and the announcement for history really put me and other students at ease. It really feels like we have a chance to do well considering the awful circumstances of this past year :) 

Similarly, from a teacher’s perspective, it was gratifying to have greater control over the process. It meant those of us with experience of examining could step up and guide moderation, ensuring quality control through standardisation. It also meant as teachers we had the opportunity to work collaboratively, and, just like the students, we were able to use the assessment process to feed forward.  For example, collating resource banks of example student answers from across the ability range, which have now been incorporated into lessons.  Similarly, updating schemes of work and assessment schedules with a greater emphasis on redrafting and resubmitting pieces of work, leading to students taking greater pride and ownership over their work and actively engaging with feedback in order to improve. 

This announcement from Ofqual fills me with dread that we are sleepwalking our way into yet another summer of disruption and disappointment through lack of foresight and clear thinking. We’re at a crucial point in the year and we need to demonstrate that another way is possible. We can and must do better – for our students, for teaching and learning, and for the profession as a whole.

To subvert an old joke…

Q – What did the inflatable students say to their inflatable teachers who brought a drawing pin along with a recommendation to sit continuous mocks into the inflatable school? 

A – You’ve let us down, you’ve let the school down, but most of all, you’ve let yourselves down.

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