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‘Ofqual is telling us off’

‘Ofqual is telling us off for following its guidance.’

Ofqual says schools shouldn’t focus too heavily on assessment – but testing gives students a chance, says Vicky Bingham

Teachers are facing the busiest term of their careers. The workload involved in setting, marking, moderating and quality-assuring for teacher-assessed grades is unbelievable.

Our academic deputy shared a telling statistic with me as he left the building on Friday – he has now received 1,000 emails from our exams officer this academic year alone. Candidates are also working very hard, and have demonstrated extraordinary patience throughout this process.

Meanwhile, Ian Bauckham, chair of Ofqual, has ticked off schools for using the six-week period until 18 June to assess students, rather than teach them. The profession rolled its eyes and carried on marking. After all, we had been advised that later assessments were likely to be more reliable.

If the decision-makers had properly war-gamed this summer’s qualifications, they would have realised that the assessment now going on in schools is an inevitable consequence of cancelling examinations.

I do not criticise them for creating that situation – protecting lives was our most important national priority back in January. But what I take issue with is Ofqual telling us off for interpreting its own guidance correctly.

Parents, candidates, the media and now Ofqual have rallied around the cry of “But exams are cancelled!” Sure, terminal exams sat by all candidates nationally at the same time are cancelled, but assessment is not cancelled and neither are the qualifications that our candidates are working hard to achieve.

Schools are only allowed to grade candidates on the evidence they have produced. Quite how much evidence is required to achieve any particular grade is something even the examination boards do not entirely understand, but let us assume that it is more than a fleeting Kahoot! quiz last November.

So let me talk Ian Bauckham through a school leader’s war game, so he understands why schools have been forced into the position for which they are now being criticised.

A Level students have university offers to meet, and GCSE students also need to meet offers for Sixth Form colleges and further education. If you hold an AAA university offer and your evidence is currently at BBB, you would be irate if your school decided to shut up the assessment shop now. In fact, you need your school to generate opportunities for you to show them what you can do.

Your school has a choice about how to provide you with such opportunities. It can either spread the assessments out across a number of weeks and a range of different types of assessment with (what a surprise) some teaching thrown in for good measure.

Or your teachers could teach uninterrupted for as long as possible, and then assess you in what would inevitably be a concentrated period of time.

Apparently, teachers were not meant to pursue either of these routes. Three weeks ago, the media was wringing its hands at the fact that schools had decided to run final concentrated periods of assessment when exams have been cancelled. Now Ian Bauckham is saying that the alternative – assessments spread over a number of weeks – is not what we were meant to do, either.

As well as receiving criticism for the sequencing and concentration of our assessments, we are also being asked why any tests are necessary. Why can it not just all be based on classwork or homework or maybe a Kahoot! quiz? Well, let’s think about that for a moment.

First of all, the Joint Council for Qualifications guidance does express some preference for what it calls “high-integrity assessments” and, in a subject like maths or physics, it is easy to see why. Secondly, lessons have ends to them – it’s called a timetable. So, when we say “classwork”, inevitably the assessment has to have an element of timing – shaved by the bell, as it were.

The JCQ guidance is crystal clear. We are not grading on what a student might have attained, had exams gone ahead. We can only grade on the evidence. But not all students had all the evidence they might have liked when the guidance was eventually released over the Easter holidays.

Why did they not have this evidence? I suspect school closures might have something to do with it.

The glimmer of hope was that 2020 grading generosity might have been applied but this was quietly withdrawn to almost no media comment when the JCQ guidelines were finally released. So now our young people are expected to jump a hurdle every bit as high, but with shorter legs.

Faced with such realities, school leaders decided to do what they thought was in the best interest of their young people: give them every chance to prove themselves this summer, so that they can progress to the next chapter of their lives. And yet we are now being portrayed as assessment-hungry monsters determined to stamp any remaining joy out of education.

Luckily, our students realise that this is not the case. We and they are firmly in the teacher-assessed grades tunnel together – and we are doing our best to smile in the wind.

When the assessment period is over, our students will emerge to focus on the true purpose of education. Luckily, this is a project that is entirely in our own hands to shape as we wish. We cannot wait.

Mrs Bingham’s article featured in TES on Monday 10th May 2021

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