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Back to School! Back to the Old Normal

By the end of the academic year pupils will have missed some four months of school. Some schools have been providing effective online lessons, but these are a small minority: reports suggest only 5 per cent of state and 30 per cent of independent schools have been doing this. Moreover, this year’s public exams, both A levels and GCSEs were cancelled because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Instead teacher assessed grades have replaced externally marked GCSE and A levels. Today schools submit the predicted grades. Teachers generally will have tried hard to do justice to their pupils by making a professional judgment based on trial examinations and other internal assessment as well as external data.

While the system of predicted grades introduced by Ofqual is probably the fairest approach given the circumstances, no-one should pretend that it matches the fairness and objectivity of externally assessed examinations. Leaving aside the possibility that some schools and subject departments may have seized this opportunity to boost their own results, we know from experience that predicting grades is far from being an exact science. There are simply too many contingent variables involved.

What pupils value about examinations is the chance to prove themselves in an objectively measured way. This year that chance was taken away from them. After working for a particular form of assessment at a specified time, the rules of the game were changed halfway through. Many pupils and parents have felt an understandable frustration and disappointment.

Given that pupils will have missed some four months of school, by the end of the academic year. Calls are already being made in some quarters to continue for another year the system of internal assessment adopted as an emergency measure. These calls must be strongly resisted. If not, we will face growing pressure from some sections of the educational establishment to abolish examinations in favour of internal assessment permanently or, at least, to dilute the weighting of external examinations in the final grade.

Our current examination system is certainly not perfect. There is always the danger of the tail wagging the dog and of a school becoming a mere qualifications factory. We tend to forget that a grade is merely an external measure of intrinsic worth. What perfects a human being is inside. True education involves a real change within a person undergoing a growth in character, knowledge, skill and wisdom. Examinations weigh only a part of that.

Nevertheless examinations must be retained. Apart from their role in motivating pupils and focussing their minds, no other form of assessment can ensure the objective and just evaluation of merit. As long as universities and employers need grades for selection of recruits, a standardized measure across schools, meeting objective criteria, is a demand of justice. Internal assessment based on the judgment of teachers will always contain a subjective element which can never provide the confidence that all pupils will get what is due to them.

We now have little more than ten weeks before schools start up in September. Policy, so far, has given no clear steer and we are drifting into a defeatist acceptance of a ‘new normal.’ We must resist the narrative of those who are in the grip of an exaggerated fear. Given the ample scientific evidence of minimal risk to children from COVID-19, we have no reason not to begin the new academic year with full classes and a normal timetable. This cannot be done with continued social distancing. If we do not return to the old normal as soon as possible our Year 10 and 12 pupils will have next year’s examinations taken away from them, not to mention the incalculable damage being done to the educational progress and mental health of all pupils.

The government must now confirm that external examinations will take place next year come what may. It must show a determination to deal effectively with any contingent circumstances that may arise without repeating the disasterous expedient of school closure. If our rulers are slow to act, we must all raise our voices and lead the way in ensuring a return to proper teaching in September.

Dominic Sullivan

Dominic Sullivan has been Head of Classics at the London Oratory School since 1990. For Politeia he as co-authored Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) and Latin for Language Lovers: Ancient Languages, the New Curriculum and GCSE (2013)

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