None of us could have imagined when we welcomed in the New Year just what 2020 had in store. Within a matter of weeks, back in the spring, the way we live our lives was changed beyond recognition. As we prepared the school community for lockdown, we speculated about how long it would last and what would happen to GCSE exams that were due to start within a couple of months.
As the country went into lockdown and the death rate rose it quickly became apparent that GCSE and A Level exams would not be able to take place and that our Year 11 students would not be able to do all of the things that mark the end of their time with us at Ansford.
We quickly organised a leavers day and did all we could to reassure them that everything would be fine because their teachers, who knew them best and knew what they were capable of achieving, would be responsible for indicating the grade they should be awarded in each of their subjects. This was wonderful news for those who had worked diligently throughout the 2 years of their course, perhaps less wonderful for those who were counting on a last gasp push in the final weeks.
As the term progressed we threw ourselves into the serious business of calculating centre-assessed grades for our students. We scrutinised the evidence to support the grades given to every individual, then wrangled over the rank order in each subject, holding each other to account. As Principal I did the final check of every grade for every child in all of their subjects. We did all of this work because we care deeply about our students and wanted them to leave us with grades that were a true reflection of the standards they had achieved in each of their subjects. We didn’t want to inflate their grades to make our headline figures look better because quite frankly that matters very little indeed. We wanted them to know what they had achieved so far on their journey to being a well-educated and fulfilled adult. We have always wanted this to be a line in the sand for them; not a judgement that seems final.
Something is wrong with our society, in my opinion, if we are so hung up on standardisation that we allow this to cloud our sense of fairness and equity. In 1990 I sat an early version of the GCSE examinations and achieved top grades in 7 out of my 9 subjects. Terminal examinations are perfect for people like me who love to read and write and are able to remember facts for fun. Back then, I didn’t realise it but over many years of working with young people I’ve become aware just how stacked in favour of people like me the exam system was. The fact is that exams are not unbiased. They are biased towards a particular type of learner. When the decision was taken that an algorithm would be a fairer way to allocate grades to students than using the professional judgement of their teachers, I can only assume it was done to remove the human bias that could have been at play. I fail to understand how that human bias is any more significant than the systemic bias created in our usual exam system.
When our Year 11 students came to school last Thursday to collect their results they received grades that they had achieved through years of hard work and perseverance. They were grades that described the learning their teachers saw them master over the whole of their course. They were grades that they deserved to be awarded regardless of whether they sat an exam or not. I was unable to watch each of them open their envelope because it is impossible to be in three separate socially distanced collection rooms at once but I saw some of them and I saw the same elation that I see every year. I also saw the same ‘if-only’s’ too. They will always be the year group who didn’t sit exams and for some of them that may cause them to feel a sense of unease at their grades. With all of my being I would urge them not to waste energy on that! Every single one of them leaves us as a wonderful and unique young adult with a future yet to be written. To every one of them I say: claim those grades as yours- you deserved them but don’t let them define you forever. They are purely a marker of where you had got to at the end of May in 2020; the path is still to be walked and you have so much still to learn and experience. Go on with your heads held high as the first group to have had their grades based on their true achievements; rather than through the narrow lens of a particular test one summer day.
And for those of us who remain? What if we could find a way of allowing all of our students to have the chance to be judged in a fairer way? What if 2020 could see the end to our national obsession with exams?
Shonogh Pilgrim, August 2020