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Prof Alison Shaw

'You've ruined my life': How our sector may help ride A-level storm

Published on: 19 August 2020

Alison Shaw, Professor of Practice for Student Success and Progression and ex-Secondary Headteacher, says how the sector may help students and the system ride the qualifications storm

We have not been short of commentary over recent days on what has happened. As I write (or rather re-write) this piece, the situation for students and HEIs is changing rapidly: gone the now-demonised algorithm and re-enter centre-assessed grades.  

As youngsters await their GCSE results on Thursday, they will feel reassured to a degree, but the situation we are left with is far from reassuring in itself. Exhausted educators across the phases are left surveying the carnage, clearing up and preparing for the new term – a lot can happen in 24 hours.

Professor Alison Shaw

The System vs The Student

We should remember that this time of year routinely sees examination cohorts subject to national standardisation of the high-stakes qualifications used to judge their worth. This year has shown the process for what it really is - the initial trade-off between the integrity of ‘the system’ and the interests and futures of young learners was a disaster for everyone.

Young people and their families remain variously confused, distressed and angry, employers look on in astonishment, while universities are reeling after days of trying to be flexible and supportive for students but still hemmed in by very real safety considerations for the return to campuses and in some cases at serious risk of instability from the rush for perceived elite quality.

The ‘Cancellation’ of Exams

On March 18th Gavin Williamson’s cancellation for 2020 of performance tables was clearly the only course of action but ‘cancelling’ exams was the first fail in a mounting series of poor decisions. It underestimated not only what young people and their teachers invest in preparation for examinations but what the exams mean for students.

Examinations are the definitive opportunity, for the want of anything better, for a student to show their worth. For many, the struggle to reach the stage they had achieved by March had been monumental and even if examinations were going to be a further ordeal, their removal still meant these students were stranded with no points of reference against which to navigate their next steps. At its simplest, the announcement had a shattering impact on young people’s reasons to go on learning. As a result, most of them have done little work since March and many none at all. This has serious implications for their transition to whatever they are going on to do next, not least if they are progressing to Higher Education.

Access to University

Being one of the advisers on the Clearing phone-lines over recent days, and now again today, has been a harrowing experience – although much less for me and other advisers than for many of our young interlocuters.  The process itself, however, notwithstanding the compassion and flexibility shown by universities, has not been dissimilar to previous years in many ways. As long as grades in one-off examinations predominate in league tables and provide the normative ranking given to a young person and the license for us to describe them as ‘quality’ (or not), our students’ real capabilities will be underestimated and overlooked.

Reliance on teacher predictions in a pre-qualification application system has been known for a very long time to be a weak basis for offer-making, not because teachers are unreliable, but because there is already mystification in the examination system – grade boundaries move, standardisation happens each year and young people do not make linear progress through their learning. UCL published only this month a working paper reminding us of how difficult it is– for humans and for machines - to predict grades but also of the particular detriment that predictions have for higher achieving students in comprehensive schools compared to their counterparts in selective schools.

Continuation and Success

It is difficult to know how the year ahead is going to unfold for our 2020 intake. What we do know, however, is that our new students are going to need more help than usual in settling into their learning again. Universities know this and have been working flat-out to prepare for it but it takes resource to do it equitably and to ensure the needs can be met of students confronting a range of barriers.

We can expect, too, that what we already know about the impact on students’ confidence of receiving confusing or negative messages early in their academic career may be exaggerated this year. They are going to go on needing our support and understanding until we have helped them ‘fledge’ and they can truly take flight again as learners.

Using Disruption to Innovate for the Future

If we agree that youngsters have had a raw deal over recent months, culminating in a storm of public outrage over the fate of those in year groups subject to high-stakes qualifications, we might rightly consider what can be learnt for the future.

It is absolutely to be celebrated that the proportion of so-called ‘underrepresented’ students being accepted for a place in Higher Education has risen this year but there is still far more to be done to achieve the kind of fair and transparent system we need if we are to open up the right opportunities for all . A review is in hand to examine admissions and this will be an opportunity to for us to bring insights from this year to insist on real improvement. We might envisage a renewed system in which the learner’s interests are placed at the centre and partnerships collaborating to support attainment and transition across the phases are freed of competitive rivalries and league table distortions. Post-qualification offer-making need not preclude pre-qualification application of a rich and positive nature in which criterion- rather than norm-referenced baselines help universities and young people understand whether sufficient levels of mastery have been achieved to enable successful transition to the next phase.

That assessment of and for learning requires to be developed is now beyond question - again across the phases. We have both the expertise and the knowledge already to make powerful, positive change if we can cease to confuse assessment with qualifications and consider the range of purposes and therefore of methodologies for assessing learning. Traditional high-stakes exams are out of date; they distort the purpose of learning and the focus of teaching. It is educational continuity and learning which matter – not the normative sorting of learners into rank order for which the education system was set up such a very long time ago. We need to and can create continuity, smooth transitions and sightlines into the future.

Investing everything in one-off assessment events has been shown this year to be risky as well as inadequate.  If one good thing were to emerge from the distressing chaos in which we find ourselves enmired today it would be a renewed focus on the learner and on learning, as opposed to testing, and on how we assess the extent to which what we set out to teach has, indeed, been learnt.

(Article appeared in WonkHE

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