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GCSE arrangements – Are schools ready for ‘business as usual’?

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Are students ready to sit 2023’s GCSE exams without any special arrangements or extra support? Daniel Harvey’s not so sure…

Daniel Harvey
by Daniel Harvey
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Looking back on summer 2019’s biggest news and events can feel like revisiting ancient history.

A state visit was extended to President Trump (baby Trump blimp!). The Notre Dame caught fire. Theresa May resigned. Boris Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership election, thus becoming PM. Liverpool beat Spurs 2-0 in the Champions League Final. And it was the last point at which students sat their GCSE and A Levels ‘normally’.

As I write this, that summer was almost four years ago. A mooted return to ‘business as usual’ for exams season in 2021 was torpedoed by continuing COVID-19 disruption. Only in early 2022 were legal requirements around self-isolation finally. ended. I myself underwent a period of self-isolation in January this year, which meant my exam classes went without their specialist subject teacher for a week.

Some of those classes are now taking public exams this summer for the very first time. There’s no doubt that these are cohorts whose education has been profoundly disrupted by COVID-19. The foundation of work they should have completed in KS3 simply isn’t as secure as the taught curriculum.

We also need to factor in that it was often this summer’s Y11s and Y13s who would have been the first year groups sent home when teacher numbers ran low, due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Last year’s Y11s and Y13s sat exams too, of course – but they were given support in the form of advance information (or ‘disinformation’, as some teachers called it), equation sheets for science and maths papers, and softer grading that resulted in overall grades that were down from 2021, (but still higher than in 2019.

Harsh reality

The ‘centre-assessed grading’ debacle of summer 2020 marked a real low point in the national education leadership of Sir Gavin. What that and it’s slightly better received ‘teacher-assessed grading’ sequel the following year highlighted were the readily apparent flaws of teacher assessment.

These arrangements were introduced within a short timeframe which meant that known issues relating to bias and flawed judgment couldn’t be mitigated for. Lo and behold, exam grades in 2021 broke all known records and produced significant grade inflation.

Worse, it’s since emerged through various research papers that schools and teachers have been subject to significant lobbying from parents in an effort to secure the highest possible grades for their children.

Some educationalists remain staunch proponents of school-based assessment, and have continued to argue loudly for school-based assessment to become permanently entrenched. Yet the harsh reality of CAGs and TAGs is clear to see – perhaps most notably in the way that the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers has increased since 2019.

There’s also clear evidence from the Sutton Trust and elsewhere of a sustained decline in school attendance compared to 2019 levels. Nor do you have to look far for evidence of child mental health services being overwhelmed by hugely increased demand, and the significant challenges that schools face in sourcing adequate support for their students.

Complete clarity

‘Re-normalising’ public exams will at least give schools, teachers and students complete clarity as to what will be happening this summer, enabling everyone to plan and work accordingly. There will (hopefully) be no more surprises. Grades won’t be subject to biased teacher judgments or the vagaries of exam board fudging, but just the quality of teaching and solid student preparation.

Even so, while I want to see a return to normal exams, I’m also fearful that the usual league table school comparisons, emphasis on progress data and reluctance to appreciate COVID-19’s lasting impact on school communities will make school scrutiny even more intense than it is now.

As a secondary school senior leader, it’s this level of intensity – which ironically ramped up just as schools were switching to remote provision early on in the pandemic – which is now causing so many dedicated teachers and school leaders to leave the profession altogether.

Daniel Harvey is a GCSE and A Level science teacher and lead on behaviour, pastoral and school culture at an inner city academy

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