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More Exam Shambles

By Sarah Harris

Schools are currently closed to all but key worker children, yet the corridors still echo with a loud noise… the sound of another screeching government U-turn.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week that teacher-assessed grades will be used for GCSEs and A-levels for a second year running, after the exams were cancelled due to Covid. He told the Commons on January 6 that he would ‘trust in teachers rather than algorithms’ – a nod to last year’s debacle when thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a computer programme.

He claimed the government had ‘learned lessons’ on exams, a statement, which is quite frankly laughable, following recent blundering U-turns around school closures, Covid testing in secondaries and now this summer’s A-levels and GCSEs.

Shortly before Christmas, Mr Williamson gave an ‘absolutely’ cast-iron guarantee that exams in England would not be cancelled this academic year. Yet by the evening of Monday, January 4, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the axing of exams and closing of all schools across the country.

Millions of pupils had returned to primaries for a single day before being sent home again and headteachers, who had worked flat out over Christmas in a bid to implement the government’s last minute, large-scale testing regime in secondaries, discovered their efforts had been in vain.

It was, perhaps, one of the most dismally chaotic weeks in education to date although there have been quite a few to choose from since last summer.

Typically, there was scant detail available initially about how exactly teachers would be expected to maintain standards of marking and avoid grade inflation this year.

Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents leading private schools including Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Gordonstoun, accused Mr Williamson of ‘looking to pass the buck’ to schools. In a scathing attack on yet another last-minute decision by the government, Dr Hyde added: ‘Students are left in limbo and school leaders will be quietly fuming. If schools were run on this basis, they would be beyond even the most special of special measures.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which represents more than 20,000 headteachers including 480 in the private sector, said it was ‘frustrating’ that the government did not have an ‘off-the-shelf Plan B ready to go’.

Yesterday, (Wednesday, January 13), Mr Williamson finally set out his plan for replacing exams. In a letter to exams regulator, Ofqual, he insisted the grades should be issued ‘as late as possible’ in the academic year to maximise learning,

He also wants Ofqual to explore the ‘possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers, in order that teachers can draw on this resource to support their assessments of students’. This throws up yet more questions and uncertainty for schools.

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, has previously claimed that ‘where the Secretary of State goes chaos and confusion follows’.

It’s hard to disagree. His department has proved to be woefully lacking during this crisis, repeatedly sending out late guidance to schools and infuriating headteachers and parents instead of getting them on side. Universities have fared little better.

Unless Mr Williamson wants his legacy to be about more than the swiftness of his U-turns, he should pull something out of the bag. He could start with making another ‘cast-iron’ pledge that the shambles of last summer will never be repeated.

Sarah Harris is a freelance education journalist who regularly writes for the national press. She a former education correspondent at the Daily Mail.

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