I woke up on Wednesday morning to the news that “Headteachers in England say GCSEs and A-level will have to be slimmed down for next year’s exams, because of the teaching time lost in the lockdown.” I am not one of those Headteachers! Let me explain.
If you cut something out of a GCSE or A-level exam, you instantly run into the issue of fairness. Students are at least half way through their courses, and schools up and down the country teach things in different orders according to their own curriculum planning. So, let’s say you choose to cut Romeo and Juliet out of the English Literature exam. School A has already taught Romeo and Juliet but those students won’t be able to use that in the exam – they really have lost time. School B hasn’t taught Romeo and Juliet yet, so they cut it out of their future plan and gain additional time. It’s instantly unfair.
What can you cut?
GCSE and A-level specifications aren’t put together on a whim. They represent things that students should know about in order to properly understand the subject they are studying. Having an A-level in Biology means that you have studied a full range of topics within that subject – it’s like a code for “I understand Biology to this level.” It’s not like any part of that A-level course is any more or less relevant than any other – there aren’t bits of A-level Biology that are just “nice to have” or optional extras. They are all fundamental to your broad and deep understanding of the subject.
And, while I’m on my soapbox, “what is on the exam” is not the be all and end all of what we teach in school. If we want students to be scientists, historians, geographers, mathematicians and so on, we teach them as much of those subjects as we can – including (gasp!) some stuff that won’t be on the test! Just because it’s interesting, and important, and because it’s there.
One other problem with cutting back GCSE and A-level courses for 2021 is that you make the qualifications “worth less” than in other years. Students will have to know less in 2021 than other years to get the same grade. This hardly seems fair on the class or 2019 or the class of 2022! And I think it undervalues the work of the class of 2021 if they always know their A grade, or their grade 5, was “easier” to get than in other years. The class of 2020 has been assessed differently, of course – but they had all but completed their courses of study by March 2020. They had already put much of the work in. For employers, further education providers and so on, it’s essential that a GCSE or and A-level has an equivalent value from one year to the next.
Time lost in lockdown?
As I wrote in my recent letter to parents, I feel that this focus on “catch up” and “lost time” fails to do justice to the incredible efforts our students have been going to – supported by their families and by the Academy staff – to keep up with their learning. We can see that the vast majority of our students have been working hard, learning well, and making good progress through the closure period. They have kept up with the curriculum and are well prepared for a return to school in September. Of course, there will be some areas which will need extra focus – there is no substitute for that direct classroom interaction between teacher and student in school – and we will need to fill in some gaps and correct any misconceptions which have arisen. Some individual students have struggled to engage with the remote learning programme, often due to home circumstances, health or other issues. We will, of course, support all our students to address these issues.
However, the academic year 2020-21 will not be solely dedicated to “catching up” the material from 2019-20. We will do what we always do: assess our students carefully to find out exactly where they are with their learning, so that we can see exactly what their next steps need to be. Then, our teachers will guide them on those next steps so that they continue to make progress and flourish, academically and personally.
I don’t call that “catch-up.” I call it education.
The exams regulator, Ofqual, is currently consulting on a number of adjustments which would relieve the pressure on schools and students over the next academic year. These are mostly minor changes to assessment and course requirements at GCSE, although there are also some proposals there about the dates for the summer 2021 exam season. They are not proposing any reduction in A-level content. I agree with this approach. The students I have spoken to in Year 10 and Year 12 feel the same: they want their exams to be as close to “normal” as possible.
This pandemic has confirmed what we have always known: that schools are about more than just exam results. They are about communities, and belonging to something bigger than yourself; they are about care and connection; for us they are about kindness, curiosity and determination. All this talk of cutting back exams, catch up, and “gaps” in learning seems reductive and counter-productive. My experience shows me that, when you put your faith in young people, they come through with flying colours. I can’t wait until our Academy is filled with our students again: I am sure they will surpass all our expectations.