The return to pre-Covid grading exposes deeper flaws within our examination and assessment system

Until we address the divisive and inappropriate examination system we will continue to have high numbers of disaffected young people who will walk with their feet away from education.

On 8th April I wrote on behalf of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to Dr Jo Saxton, the CEO of Ofqual, asking her to reconsider the decision to move back to 2019 academic standards for national examinations.

We were concerned that the impact of COVID was still clear to see in our schools and within our communities. The lockdowns had impacted most adversely those children and young people from poorer areas, and were being felt in the rapid decline in school attendance figures for the older year groups. Some schools in had been particularly affected by the ongoing teacher strikes, not to mention problems with recruiting and retaining suitably qualified staff to teach.

The negative impact of this combination of factors on the results from this years national examinations is obvious.

Too many poorer students are unlikely to attain the grades they need to progress in the way they want to. This will affect those who miss the grades they need to go to their preferred university, as well as those who are not going to achieve a Grade 4 in English and mathematics at GCSE, and will either have to resit the following year and/or not be able to undertake the course or employment route they want.

On 6th August, The Sunday Times ran a piece that brought together the issues that the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has been raising for some time. See Pupils (and parents) brace for 100,000 fewer top A-level grades.

I spoke about our work on Times Radio Breakfast with Chloe Tilley, and edited highlights from our conversation are below.

Chloe Tilley: On the morning of Thursday 17th of August the wait will be over for hundreds of thousands of students as they get their A level results. But for thousands of those pupils it could be tougher than ever as Ofqual cracks down on high grades, in a bid to return to normal after the disruption of the pandemic. The Sunday Times reveals teenagers who took their A levels this summer face the biggest ever year on year fall in top grades.

Sian Griffiths: We're talking about 75,000 fewer A and A* stars, and we've got another analysis that shows about 60,000 teenagers at the top end who would be expected to get two As and a B – so they're heading for the top universities, maybe even medical schools – that are not going to get those grades this year. So it's absolutely massive, and it's not just at A level. The GCSE analysis is predicting 240,000 fewer 7s, 8s and 9s. Again, that's nearly a quarter of a million teenagers affected.

Chloe Tilley: We can speak now to Frank Norris, he's a former headteacher who works with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership on education. Is it fair to return this year to pre COVID grading?

Frank Norris: It’s the pace of the return that is the problem. I think everybody would say we need to get back to a normal position over time, but the government and Ofqual have decided that it's going to be this year. There's a lot of evidence from a variety of sources to suggest that probably this move, this year, is too early. Should it be a sudden move, or should it be more gradual? The Northern Powerhouse Partnership is very clear that it should be tailed off for a longer period of time. We've got evidence that GCSE grading is going to be even more problematic because we're going to end up with a lot of children who are not going to get the grades required for them to move on successfully to the next stage of their learning. In addition, we have attendance levels in schools at the moment at very very low levels. I've never in my career seen attendance this low, and the decision to move towards 2019 standards this year is going to hit quite badly those children in our poorest communities already affected badly by COVID. Which is also still around and having an impact

Chloe Tilley: You talked about GCSE grades also being affected. Sian Griffiths told us earlier there's expected to be around 240,000 fewer 7, 8 and 9 grades at GCSE, nearly a quarter million! There are a lot of grades that are being impacted here. You talk about the COVID hangover and the effect it's having on students this year. Give us some real examples of how some children are still being affected by COVID?

Frank Norris: You just have to look at the attendance figures and in the number of EHE, which is children educated at home. Attendance has fallen, and it's fallen dramatically, especially for children in Years 10 and Years 11. These are the two year groups that lead up to GCSE and those figures are very, very worrying. For some of the lower attaining children, they are basically saying, ‘well I knew I wasn’t going to do that well, I've had all this disruption from COVID. From the time we've had off,  you know, what's the point?’

I've spoken to a number of children around the north in the last month and I'm really struck by one example of a 15 year old boy, who's school has been trying to get him back into education since the beginning of COVID and they'd been reaching out to him regularly. He was saying ‘well, when I come to school I’m being taught stuff I don't really want to learn’, and he had a great love, joy and skill in joinery work, which he had learned from his grandfather in his shed. So the school reached out to him and offered him more of that and this dramatically improved his attendance and his enjoyment and his re-engagement in learning.

Many schools are trying to offer this sort of personalised approach but the number of children that are not attending is so high that to provide this one-on-one support in some communities where attendance is low is very, very difficult. There is simply not the resources to do that.

Chloe Tilley: It's interesting that you raise this because many people have spoken to us since the start of the pandemic about the effect of schools closing, and told us that for some children now, they see going to school as a choice. It's an option whereas before COVID it wasn't, you just went to school.

Frank Norris: I think that there are some positives here in terms of the national tutoring program but when we look at some of the most challenged children and how we get them back, it needs to be much more about re-engagement and that's more around mentoring and about engagement with the family. Some people think it's just a case of lazy parenting. I’ve spoken to many, many parents who are desperately trying to get their children back to school and I've spoken to many head teachers, this is their top agenda item. But the scale of the challenge is so great that they simply haven't got the resources in schools to do it in the way that they want to. And parents are sometimes not skilled enough or able to encourage their children to get out of bed and to get down to school. It's a much more complex picture.

Chloe Tilley: We heard from Sian who explained the worry for those high achievers wanting to get top grades that there's going to be 75,000 fewer of those this year. That's a concern. But what Frank is also talking about are those who are slipping through the net, those who aren't going to school and who aren't engaged in learning. Those who think ‘I'm not going to do very well, so I'm not even going to bother to turn up for my exams at all’. There's a real worry about the implications of the grading this year for these young people and their life chances as well.

Reflection from Frank

Over the next two weeks we will discover whether the alarm bells that the Northern Powerhouse Partnership have been sounding will sadly ring true.

It’s too late to resurrect Sir Kevan Collins’ recovery plan and we must begin to focus on the genuine issues that are driving down attendance figures and increasing the number of children choosing to be taught at home. Asking Headteachers to get in their cars and pick students up is a bit of an insult and ignores the underlying problem.

The government has created an education system that works for the most academic, and ignores the needs of all pupils. Until we address the divisive and inappropriate examination system that sadly drives too many education decisions we will continue to have high numbers of disaffected young people who will walk with their feet away from education.

Further blogs

Learning is not confined to schools – assessment shouldn’t be either

Why the needs of learners both inside and outside of the mainstream school system need to be considered for assessment to work fairly for all

It’s never been easier to tailor learning to the interests and needs of an individual student. We need an accessible assessment system that supports those individual approaches and isn’t locked in to a one-size-fits-all …

It’s Time

Putting human leadership at the heart of the education system

The way we’re preparing young people for life beyond school is not working. We have an unprecedented opportunity to work together to turn ‘the forgotten generation’ into the most well-equipped generation of all time…

Let’s not return to flawed exams. We have better ways to assess our children

The pandemic has given us a perfect opportunity to reset the education system

After a week of GCSE and A-level results, we are in danger of missing the big point – our assessment system is not fit for purpose….