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17th September 2020 Paddy Storrie (1983, Modern History)

From the front line of the exam result ‘train smash’

Paddy Storrie, Exeter alumnus and deputy head at a state school in Hertfordshire, reports on the difficulties faced following the 2020 A-level results.

As a twenty-year state secondary school deputy head, ‘bomb disposal’ of one sort or another is a daily challenge. It has been quite something to have the bomb planted at your feet by central government. You will not be surprised to hear that life has been variously intense, but verging on the deplorable in secondary schools since the exam results days in August.

In the short term, of course, the problem was the adjustment of many teacher grades by algorithm; and if you read the 317-page Ofqual report, it is glaringly obvious that they considered different models, but were under political direction to minimise grade inflation, get maximum year-on-year comparability and get roughly the ‘right’ grade for most students.

From the outset, without careful management, and some form of ‘tolerance check’, neither of which took place centrally, this had the possibility of leading to unfair grades being assigned to tens of thousands; something that was only a cause for regret when those mathematically selected grades turned out to be being awarded to real human beings, who were unsurprisingly not carbon copies of those who had gone before them.

What sort of effects did we see? In Design Technology, where a young bright engineer has transformed student experience, our cohort of examinees was radically different to three or two years ago: but because 2020 centre assessed grades were not of that historic lower calibre, everyone was moved down on results day. In Politics our Year 13 was a ‘golden generation’ with multiple A* and Oxbridge candidates – but again, they were atypical and graded down. Except the four students in the class who we hosted from a nearby school, and who were entered at that site: who, as a small cohort, did not have the algorithm applied – and whose grades thus were left as teachers had assessed, while ‘more able’ students were adjusted below them. In History, we had a weaker than usual cohort; and teacher grades were arbitrarily moved up. In English a child thrown off the course in January, and with a centre assessed grade therefore of E, was moved up on algorithm to D – because historically our English department doesn’t get E’s!

When government U-turned, we then had the delights of student centre assessed grades being awarded; which opened up the Pandora’s box of how we could possibly have ‘chosen to end Giles’ school career with THAT grade’ or how we could have come to this ‘inexplicable decision’. The answer, of course, is by following Ofqual guidance and designating the ‘most likely grade’ a student would have got if examined. Of course, for many students this would be some way short of their UCAS prediction, which is really set at ‘the best we hope you could realistically achieve’. But, of course, students start to ‘believe their own branding.’ I have been trying to explain that slapping a label from a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on a bottle of Blue Nun doesn’t change the fact that the contents of the bottle is still Blue Nun. This morning I passed 120 hours so far of responding to complaints since 13th August. I am the sole Deputy Head at the school; with responsibility for Covid operations. How I have laughed.

The bigger question though is why we ended up here at all. Why high stakes final exams? With an exam process that had coursework largely excised from it years ago? Why spend over a £150,000 sum on exams which services just 400 pupils each year, when the total spend on curriculum delivery for all 1,370 pupils is only £75,000???? The answer, of course, is trust – lack of trust. Successive governments (who think they know best) have reviewed, tweaked, overhauled, added in new qualifications, removed qualifications and in essence set up systems which in many cases educationalists do not agree with, followed by other systems to judge, reward and supposedly hold schools to account. All of this had the consequence of making many of the judgments made by teachers prejudiced by the enforced conditions in which they had to be made.

Starting teaching in 1987, all my experience is of parties in power systematically casting doubt on the competence and integrity of the profession. The MOD does not routinely traduce the officers and other ranks of the forces; send them to battle, but simultaneously question their capability and standards. No-one assumes that a pharmacist’s work will be defined by self-interest, or a desire to take undue credit or to conceal deficiency in their work; because we are not told by politicians or the media to think of them in this way. Yet for thirty three years, the trope of teachers being intrinsically untrustworthy has been deliberately pushed; a stance which then gives politicians the chance to assume a supposed moral high ground of ‘rigor’ and ‘standards’. To the point where in national crisis, they believed their own narrative so strongly that the idea of ceding judgements to those teachers they had spent decades undermining, was initially unthinkable and unsellable.

Simultaneously, we have evolved into a society where everything is seen as arguable and open to challenge; flipping, over 50 years, from a paternalistic society where professional voices were not to be questioned, to a world where Michael Gove would opine in 2016, ‘People in this country have heard quite enough from the experts’. Political leaders challenging the whole value of expert knowledge and experience has had a profound impact on the regard in which society holds our judgements, and the way parents interact with us. It meant when centre assessed grades were awarded, many were not habituated to accept them.

I note the minimal changes in national educational leadership which have occurred over the mismanagement of exams in 2020. But as you can see, the cause of the problem is older, deeper, wider, and we all now have to live with the distrust which politicians have fanned.

Paddy Storrie
Deputy Head, St George’s School Harpenden
Exon 1983, Modern History

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