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Why politicians’ mistake was seeking a perfect solution

Paul Whiteman web 200 x 200.jpg
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman

This is not the perfect solution, but with flexibility from employers and universities, and commitment from awarding bodies to put grading mistakes right, this solution can still pass the confidence test, says NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman.

Today we join families and schools across the country in congratulating young people for their success, as they receive their A level results. 

In among all the arguments over the way in which grades were determined this year, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these awards do not simply reflect what might have been, had education and examinations not been so badly disrupted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but they are also the culmination of hard work, determination and success of young people through 14 years in education.

The fact is, there is no perfect way to assess a young person’s achievements. The exam system we use in normal years also provides an unfair measure for some. Teacher assessment is a valid measure, but it is open to variation and inconsistency, which can make comparability problematic. There is no assessment system without flaw.

Because of this, schools and future destinations are already skilled at assisting young people who have not quite achieved the results they strived for.

A level results: seeking the perfect solution

When asked what has gone wrong this year, politicians have fallen into the trap of seeking the perfect solution. Perhaps a little humility to explain that no one has the perfect answer, and a call to arms for all those with influence on the treasured future of young lives to understand the problems and pull together, would have been more appropriate.

The good news is that we have enough information to support students. We are told that the majority of centre-assessed grades have been accepted. We can trust teachers; they are professionals and they know their students. 

Forty per cent of grades changed sounds like a lot, but most are by just one grade, which goes to show the overall accuracy of the grades submitted by schools and colleges this summer.

The statistical model being used is a further check, to standardise grades using data from previous results and the prior attainment of students. And the government has now introduced the use of mock exam results as a basis for appeal.

That’s three statistical pieces of information. Not to mention the young person themselves. They are living, breathing information, able to articulate their skills and prove their abilities in real life.

An asterisk over these grades

Most students will receive the results they need to move to their chosen next destination. That’s the vital thing here. That is, ultimately, the point of these exams – a passport for young people to move on to further education, training or employment.

There will always be a slight asterisk over 2020 grades, as there will be over 2020 as a whole – it’s been an extraordinary time. But our assessment and education systems have given us what we need for its graduating classes to succeed and move on.

I have an appeal to students whose results are good enough but not quite as good as expected. Temper your disappointment with two thoughts: you have not been held back, and you are in good company with students in previous years and no doubt in future years, too. Focus not on this difficult year, but on your bright future.

My appeal to ambitious parents of children who got the grades they need, but not the grades they dreamed of: please don’t spoil the excitement and wonder of what lies ahead for your child. They are still going off to do exactly what they planned.

My appeal to universities, colleges and employers: even more than before, we mustn’t use grades as a blunt “you are in or you are out” measure. Flexibility and open-mindedness are crucial. Use the wide range of information you have, and, above all, talk to candidates – the live information – and make a pragmatic decision against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Passing the confidence test

My appeal to school leaders? Do what you do best. Support the individual to achieve their next step and worry less about the system issues and how the overall grades compare with last year’s.

My appeal to government and the press: don’t judge schools on this year’s results. They simply cannot be compared with any other year. 

And, if all that fails, use the appeal system wisely and apply for the autumn exam series for another chance to prove yourself.

This is not the perfect solution, but with flexibility from employers and universities, and commitment from awarding bodies to put grading mistakes right, this solution can still pass the confidence test.

This year’s students deserve the same congratulations for their hard work and achievements as those of any other year.

Before we get lost in another education shouting match in the name of children, let’s just pause for a moment and take care that in all the hysteria we do not damage the very people we say we care about. That’s our moral duty.

This blog first appeared on the TES website.

First published 14 August 2020