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Reflections on the summer exams fiasco

Dr Timothy Hands, Headmaster of  Winchester College, reflects on the summer exams fiasco and why he believes it could have been handled differently

Oh dear, what can the matter be?

Exams.  We most of us don’t like them. True – there are exceptions. Michael Gove told the BBC that exam success makes children happy (well, the successful ones perhaps); and the novelist AS Byatt once described them as intensely pleasurable experiences.

At bottom exams are drivers of selection, and, as Darwin discovered, selection is one of the necessary facts of life. We couldn’t survive without selection – and hence without exams (perhaps, most literally, the driving test).

But oh dear oh dear, this year’s exams.  They were a mess which had been a long time coming. In 2002, the last year of major problems, one exam regulator (QCA) got replaced with another (Ofqual), and Estelle Morris resigned as education secretary.  In 2014, as HMC Chairman, I warned the Times in a Thunderer column that Ofqual was no longer fit for purpose. This year, although Gavin Williamson, unlike Estelle Morris, remained (however uncertainly) in post, there were again significant heads rolling in Whitehall,  — and many a head held in a disappointed candidates’ hands, with a consoling if angry parental arm around the shoulder.

Public exams are a mid Victorian concept, and they started being run by universities, who had a vested interest in getting them right.  But in the late 20th century as universities became more busy, and exams more widespread and more complex, exams became business, and the domain of commercial organisations.

From the start, governments have had an interest in interfering in exams, and schools like my one, which believed fiercely in independence, always resisted. But bit by bit, exams moved away from schools, which had some idea of the candidates, and universities, which had some interest in their admission, and moved to be the concern of politicians, who, although often not without an interest in education, are chiefly motivated by the retention of power.

This summer exams couldn’t be sat. Teachers were asked to produce Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs).  CAGs would then be adjusted, by direction of the Secretary of State, in accordance with an algorithm devised by Ofqual, to ensure parity with previous years. But CAGs were too generous; the algorithm was too crude; the Secretary of State said pupils could use mocks if they had them, and disorientated universities had too many candidates to satisfy.

Exams should be organised around children, parents, teachers, universities and employers. Exams could be devised in universities; schools could be held to account if they make poor predictions; and structures should reflect what employers need, a sense of how you work not only under pressure but also over time (which means the retention of formal exams but also the return to some form of continuous assessment).

Oh dear what can the matter be?  Year on year we have the same problem.  We badly need reform.  It’s time to keep the interfering politicians and the self serving regulators out.

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