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NASUWT General Secretary, Dr Patrick Roach, explores the inevitable and difficult challenges and trade-offs associated with awarding qualifications across the UK, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in the middle of a global pandemic.

  • Author: Dr Patrick Roach

    General Secretary

    Dr Patrick Roach became General Secretary of the NASUWT in 2020, following ten years as Deputy General Secretary and having worked for the Union since 1998.

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It is now customary for the awarding of qualifications each summer to be accompanied by a great deal of debate – some it thoughtful and measured, some of it less so. However, it was, perhaps, always going to be the case that the awarding of qualifications in 2020, in the middle of the most serious public health emergency in a century, would result in more than its fair share of commentary and controversy.

It is worth taking a step back to recall the reasons why awarding in 2020 has been so challenging.  The decisions made back in the spring by governments and administrations to cancel this summer’s examinations were difficult, disruptive but ultimately correct. The priority for policymakers following the COVID-19 outbreak needed to be to protect the safety of students, centre staff and the wider public. Seeking to run public examinations or systems based on on-site external moderation of candidates’ work would have been entirely unacceptable. In the Isle of Man, the use of the IGCSE adds to this complex picture.

However, this necessary step created an extremely complex set of problems across the education systems where teachers work, particularly in relation to qualifications regulated in England where recent reforms resulted in much greater emphasis on the use of terminal examinations. The task facing regulators and governments was to award grades in these circumstances in a way that was reliable, ensured that awards were credible and were manageable for centres and their staff who were working in unprecedented circumstances.

It was also recognised that awarding qualifications in the fairest way possible for learners was also a critical concern. Of course, the systems put in place would need to be fair to those who were not able to take examinations this summer but also to students in previous cohorts and those due to sit examinations in 2021 to ensure that equitable comparisons between their grades and those awarded in 2020 could be made.

All sensible participants in this process recognised at the outset that there were no easy or perfect ways of achieving all these legitimate objectives. Every viable solution would involve hard trade-offs and difficult choices. In those jurisdictions where the process was handled best, regulators and governments were open, honest and modest about the problems they faced and set out possible solutions along with their shortcomings. They invited stakeholders to comment on their proposals and to set out their preferred approaches or describe options that may have been overlooked. They consulted widely and explained the reasons for the decisions they eventually took.

In all UK jurisdictions as well as in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, while there were important differences in the models adopted initially, all were based largely on a system of ‘centre-assessed’ or ‘predicted’ grades, rank ordering of candidates by likely outcome and some form of statistical standardisation. Teachers and school and college leaders have worked diligently, professionally and under significant pressure to provide the information required from centres to support the awarding process. As was made clear at the outset in some parts of the UK at least, this information would be used to inform, not determine, final awards and was submitted by centres on this understanding. Ultimately, the responsibility for awards would sit with awarding bodies operating within the parameters set by regulators and Ministers.

Given the inevitable fallibilities of any system of awarding qualifications, including those that the extraordinary arrangements put in place this summer have replaced, it was essential that a proportionate, manageable and fair approach was put in place to address any anomalies or errors so that candidates who were not satisfied with their results had some effective means of seeking redress. The forms that this right took varied in the plans developed across the UK, from access to compensatory examinations in England to the student-led model of review that was to have been used in Scotland. However, in all cases, the NASUWT has been clear that such provision was an essential element of fit-for-purpose awarding arrangements.

It is evident that the qualifications currently in the process of being awarded are key to young people’s future career, further and higher education prospects. Results day is always a stressful time for students but the turbulence surrounding awarding in 2020 has only served to heighten this pressure.

Politicians from across the political divide were clear from the point at which the COVID-19 pandemic struck that no young person’s future life chances should be compromised as a direct consequence of the impact of the outbreak on qualifications.  It is for this reason that whatever the merits or otherwise of the decisions that have been taken, governments and administrations must continue to call on and, when required, support employers, further and higher education institutions and training providers to show the maximum possible level of flexibility and forbearance in their recruitment and admissions decisions.  When necessary, Ministers should intervene directly to protect the interests of young people where unreasonable barriers to progression into employment, training or continuing education are identified.

It is becoming evident that Ministers will need to grapple with the longer term consequences of the decisions that they take now and factor these decisions into their decision-making. For example, the reasons for the Scottish Government’s decision to allow awards on the basis of predicted grades have attracted a fair share of both positive and negative comment. However, it is clear that in taking this decision, Scottish Ministers are now confronted by a profoundly complex policy challenge in ensuring that those set to take examinations next year are treated no less favourably in comparison with the 2020 cohort. Similarly, this policy challenge and dilemma will almost certainly affect jurisdictions elsewhere.

Centres and their staff will also need to be supported by their employers, governments and administrations. The implications of policy decisions taken to date and those to be taken in future will need to take full account of the considerable pressures that those working with children and young people face. In particular, urgent clarification is required on how plans to use the outcomes of mock examinations in appeals will be implemented in ways that are fair, manageable for centres and their staff and address the obvious issues arising from the use of these outcomes for this originally unintended purpose.

There are hard choices ahead, no doubt. But, at the centre of what is set to be a political storm that will rage for some time to come, are those young people whose future depend on these moment in time awards and Ministerial decisions. A legacy of the Coronavirus pandemic should be to create space for a debate on how to secure a resilient qualifications and awards system for students, the place, purpose and timing of terminal examinations and how we can, once and for all, have a national conversation which recognises and celebrates the achievements of all students.

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