Our exam system does not support the needs of young people who face the most challenges

Making a young person’s future dependent on a month of exams at 16 is wrong - there are alternatives

Leanne Forde-Nassey Headteacher, The Key Educational Centres, Gosport and Havant

I remember the pupil well and the broken look on his face. A year 11 boy who had joined our school realised at that moment that he did not know what would come next for him. The night before his English GCSE exam he had been arrested and placed in police custody. He had been kept there for 48 hours before being presented at court and then placed on remand. By the time he came to our induction class in our prison school he had missed another five of his GCSEs. It was too late for us to get any papers couriered. The exam dates had been and gone. Not only had he lost his freedom, he had lost everything he had worked for in his secondary education career. He articulated his goals and aspirations to our teaching staff: he had been predicted As and Bs across the board and wanted to be a physicist. 

The work he subsequently produced in class was evidence of this ability. Moving forward 6 months to his court date he was found not guilty. He could not get a college place to retake his GCSEs until the following academic year. Having been in custody and under Youth Offending Team Supervision, he needed a risk assessment, so did not get into the college he wanted. 

After being found not guilty he had still been punished by the very education system that should have been able to celebrate his strengths and support him to be successful. All because he had missed those ‘one chance’ exams dates. My staff would have been able to provide evidence that he was capable of achieving those grades after 6 months of full-time provision. Instead this child was plunged straight into the ‘forgotten third’ category that still happens under our current system. Children are being failed. This needs to stop.  

If only this was an unusual case. Sadly cases like this happen every year during GCSE season. The futures of capable young people are seriously affected by missing a one-off exam date.

We need to assess young people when they are ready

There is a misconception that pupils in prison schools and alternative provision are ‘low ability.’ Some of the smartest, brightest, most respectful and resilient children I have seen have been within these settings. I do not wish to sugar-coat the experience of working with children in prison schools. Many of the challenges in that environment are similar to those in my current schools where unproductive behaviours, low self-concept and an inability to self-regulate can be quite ‘normal.’ After leaving a Headship in the prison to work in a PRU I was confident that I would be able to have more influence over outcomes for children. I thought without the constraints of the prison system and obvious environmental challenges that things would be vastly different.  The truth is that PRUs are also faced with traumatised children who need to be supported to self-regulate and to access learning. This work takes skill, dedication and patience, but can unlock potential in our children that did not happen for them in mainstream schools. But the current assessment system often works against them. If only they could be assessed when they were ready, rather than when it’s convenient for the exam boards. Children in PRUs across the country deserve formal recognition of the distance they have travelled from their starting point and deserve the opportunity to progress to their ‘next step’ alongside their peers with appropriate validation of their achievements.

Robust teacher assessment is one way forward

This year when the examination series was cancelled our staff revelled in the challenge of Centre Assessed Grades. The communication with home schools for our dual-registered pupils became deeper and assessment conversations between professionals were measured and moderated. Our curriculum team came up with a rigorous strategy for grading and were able to ratify their decisions. Although the process was a challenge given the assessment dialogue with 20 partner schools it worked. It felt fairer for our children and the teaching staff were confident that our pupils got what they deserved for all the work they had put in. There is no reason a similar assessment process could not be repeated and in my opinion for our pupils in PRUs and also those in the prison education system it would enable professionals to collect sound assessment evidence.

A first-class education system for our children should surely leave nobody behind. A third of our children should not be forgotten. In order for our society and our education system to protect these children from potential poor outcomes a solution has already presented itself this year. A model close to CAGs can work, and allow every child the opportunity to have the full range of their achievements recognised and valued.

Discuss this post