Awarding Grades Summer 2021

We will soon know Ofqual final decisions about awarding grades for GCSE and A Level students this summer. Their consultation closed just over a week ago and has received a record number of responses, not only from educators but also from the young people whose grades are at stake.

In our profession we are all used to preparing our students for these very high-stake exams and without them we feel a bit lost. This summer it will be us, the teachers, who will decide on the final grade for our students; the novelty and responsibility of it can boggle the mind. But it does not need to.

It is natural to feel uneasy about such a novel process. It raises important issues around workload and fairness. There are still many questions hanging in the air, the answers to some we will hear by the end of this month, but then it will remain the exam boards’ mammoth task to flesh it all out and work out an effective system of support for schools and teachers. I know they are working very hard considering all the specificities of each subject.

MFL – a special case

Perhaps everybody feels their subject is the one with the biggest number of peculiarities, but ours with its four distinct skills to assess (plus translation) and the tiered system at GCSE does raise plenty of issues. Will we have to provide evidence for each skill at the given grade to be able to award it? Or would it be more a “best fit approach” as per the Speaking Endorsement, which seems to have been kept for this summer. What about students sitting GCSEs in their Home Language for which there might not be a fluent speaker in the school? And what exactly is going to happen with A Level students’ IRPs? Just to name a few.

Awarding grades based on evidence

The consultation with its mention of “externally-set papers which could be provided by exam boards” and the further consideration of whether these should be made compulsory or not has prompted many to talk about “mini-exams”, but these are not mini-exams. (See here for Ofqual blog with some clarifications about their thinking behind the proposals).

We find ourselves in this situation because of the pandemic that, though it has affected all of our children, has not affected them equally. Allowing teachers to determine a student’s grade basing their judgement on a selection of evidence is good news for our pupils and for the status of our professional judgement. Teachers could use performance on a paper as just one source of evidence to determine a student’s grade.  Other sources of evidence could include mock exam results, internal assessments or work already completed. It allows us greater flexibility and freedom. With freedom always comes responsibility, but we are not new at taking responsibility, as teachers we help shape our students’ future lives.

In the proposal there is also clear mention that teachers should have some choice of the topics on which their students could answer questions. “Teachers could choose from a set of short papers, or select questions or sections based on particular topics, so that they could take account of what has or hasn’t been fully taught due to the disruption.” This, again, is good news for our students who will not be penalised if they had missed a particular topic. And, who better to know what has been missed than their teacher? And, who would be in a better position to assess their level? Don’t forget that as part of our role, we are constantly assessing our students.

For this to be the good news I am advocating, there needs to be measures in place to ensure consistency and fairness across centres and subjects; the consultation places a lot of pressure on Exam boards to deliver these and appropriate training to schools.

I remain convinced that a national exam system is the fairest, most transparent way of awarding grades, but extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures and I for one am glad that our professional judgement will be given the weight it deserves.

Mariu Hurriaga is United Learning’s MFL Subject Advisor with responsibility for raising standards in more than 50 Secondary MFL departments, in both Academies and Independent Schools. Previously, she taught Modern Languages (Spanish, German, French) and Latin at a variety of schools and was Head of Department for 15 years. She is also an examiner for GCSE and A-level.

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