It took just four days of vehement criticism from teachers, lecturers, students and parents to force an 11th-hour government U-turn over a shock set of downgraded A-level results and forthcoming GCSE results. The algorithm used in England by the exams watchdog Ofqual to offset the perceived built-in bias of teacher assessment was faulty, discredited and withdrawn and it was back to relying solely on teachers' centre assessed grades.
Last Thursday, college GCSE students, predominantly resitting English and maths, were mercifully saved some of the intense, brief yet unnecessary trauma and disappointment suffered by A-level students a week earlier. Numbers of post-16 students resitting maths and gaining grade 4 or above rose to 33.3% from 22.3% (2019) and, in English, to 41.1% from 31.9% (2019).
During a brief phone round, colleges underlined the rigorous assessment process they had gone through to produce a fair reflection of every student’s progress and said GCSE results were in line with expectations. The problem was the U-turn decision so late in the day.
“I can't stress enough what a rigorous process our staff went through to come up with the most accurate grades we could submit,” says Judith Quinn, vice-principal, curriculum and achievement, at Sunderland College. “Our teachers used every piece of info they had - mock exam results, assessments, previous GCSE grades …
“There was a great deal of professionalism and integrity used by teaching staff to ensure our centre-assessed grades were scrutinised and challenged at every level, from teaching teams, departments right through to senior leadership before being signed off.”
“It took an awful lot of time near the end of the academic year. But we just picked it up in addition to the remote learning and engagement of our students at the time”
Emma Richer, a GCSE maths teacher from City of Bristol College, hints at the effort put in by staff across England before teacher assessments had to be submitted to Ofqual. She said she literally cried when trying to make heart-breaking decisions in early summer that would help determine a student’s future.
“How can you know if a student is going to pull it out of the bag in the last three months and pass or not? For some students in the past, March has been a turning point. Yes, it seems that centre (teacher) assessed grades appear slightly inflated but we really tried in our college to keep them as much in line as possible with previous success rates.
“Part of the reason why they don’t get higher grades is exam anxiety and actually in class they perform rather well. We think they’ll get grade 4 and yet in exam results they sometimes don’t. So how do we know if they going to achieve a grade 4 or not in the exam? We don’t! So we go on what we see and assess it. It’s been an uncomfortable place to be.
“I had one student who was fantastic at working out problems in class and collaborating with others, but this would have been her fourth resit! In exams she has gone to pieces yet she’s brilliant in class so how do I assess that as a teacher? In fact, I think this would’ve been her year as she’d worked so hard, she was articulate, understood the problems, asked the right questions which is surely what maths is about - not sitting in an exam hall and answering prescriptive questions.”
Given the massive disruption so far, the challenge facing colleges now is getting students on the right course at the right level, according to Weymouth College’s principal/CEO, Nigel Evans.
During the first half of this coming winter term, colleges will be taking remedial support measures to provide for students, particularly those doing A-levels. “Maths is a good subject to start supporting; it lends itself more to online learning than say English. Once you have learnt the material you can apply it. We will be flexible - it now comes down to focusing on individual students’ needs. We won’t compromise on having the right student at the right level - that’s the success of FE.”
Less well-off students, who have lacked proper online equipment and support at home, will need particular help to get back into learning.
According to Kate Wills, vice principal, group curriculum and quality at the Cornwall College Group, many people will be wondering what will happen next year. She says next term could be disrupted and continue into next spring, even summer. “We are looking at our student numbers, our timetables, how we will put all that in place in line with Covid-19 restrictions.
“The bigger picture is looking forward to the exam results of the next student cohort and what we can do to reassure them - they could be thinking” ‘Am I having exams or teacher-calculated grades this year?’ How will that affect their perception, work ethic and mental health?
“While most of our students are 16-18s, some adult learners may think now’s not the time to leave their job and go back into education. People who were looking for a career change might be more cautious about taking that step.”
The last word is from Tom Hamilton-Dick, vice-principal at North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College (NWSL). Like many other colleges, NWSL is anticipating a spike in mental health issues among students so is increasing its mental health link services.
“A 9% increase in students’ pass rate is significant so we have to do a lot more work during the first term, at least, to ensure they are fully equipped and capable of doing the qualifications they’ve enrolled on. And if they are not, we have to ensure we find an appropriate qualification for them, As a result, we’ve strengthened our information advice and guidance team and moved to one day a week at college and 1.5 days a week in an online bubble for the first half of term. We’ve also spent huge sums of money on new online resources and new laptops for young people, as we know digital poverty will be a significant factor in the new educational landscape.
“Many have been out of education since March so we are reengaging with and ‘reindoctrinating’ them into the world of education, focusing a huge amount of time and energy on this.”
The key for NWSL is in the first 42 days of next term, ensuring they retain the large numbers of young people who have been out of education for so long.
The good news is they’ve been taking on new staff throughout the pandemic, switching them all to digital delivery ready for a full-on blended learning approach, and gearing up for what could be one of the busiest FE terms in recent years.