The Autumn Series: Disruptive, costly or necessary…?

Do you think students deserve a chance to sit exams in the autumn to improve their grade? Or do you think believe they are a distraction when students’ focus should be on the next stage of their education? Tom Middlehurst, SSAT’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, asks whether this presents an opportunity for a new narrative in which we talk about the integrity and accuracy of teacher assessment.

On Monday 8 June, the Ofqual consultation on the autumn series closes; hopefully they will receive many responses from school leaders including SSAT members. So, what is our feeling as a network about the idea of an autumn series. Over the last month, many of you have been in touch to tell me your thoughts, and the general feeling has been against having one. Here’s some of the reasons why.

What’s actually been proposed?
Back in March, when school closures were announced, the government also confirmed that exams wouldn’t go ahead this summer, but would be replaced by a calculated grade based on teacher assessment and rank. At the same time, they said that students unhappy with their grades would be able to sit exams at the earliest opportunity this autumn. This statement set an expectation, and the current Ofqual consultation doesn’t even question the wisdom of an autumn series at all – but perhaps we should be questioning it.

The proposal is that exam boards will be mandated to prepare a full autumn series for all qualifications they offer, without knowing what the take-up will be. Conversely, schools and colleges will (rightly) not be obliged to put them on.

Only students already entered for the summer 2020 series will be eligible. So the likely groups of students who will enter an autumn series are limited to students who feel their calculated grade is unjust, and think they do better in an exam; and private candidates, particularly home-schooled children who have no long-term relationship with a school or college. The proposal is that, if students sit autumn exams, they will get the best grade between the two.

Focus on progression
At the core of both the government’s and schools’ approach to exams this summer is progression onto further education or training. No school performance tables will be published for 2020, so we’re only talking about the qualifications that individual students receive.

Colleges, sixth forms, and universities have all made it clear that they understand the current situation and will respond accordingly. Although universities haven’t said it explicitly, we have one of the smallest cohorts of school leavers in 2020, coupled with a global pandemic that is seeing international entries drop significantly – universities will want as many students as possible.

For both reasons, it’s likely that a majority of GCSE and A-level students will go on to further study at their chosen institution; and schools should reassure students of this.

A small handful of students may not get their entry grades and will feel aggrieved by this, given they didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate their ability in an exam. But, as is the case every year, the damage is already done. Students wanting to resit in autumn will need to get a gap year regardless; as results will not be issued until late December for A-levels and February for GCSEs – waiting until summer 2021 will not affect these students’ progression in any way.

Disruption to further education
So, if we’re focused on progression rather than individual qualifications or school performance, the question must be asked: what’s the point?

Is it useful, for example, for a student who, unhappy at getting a grade 6 rather than a grade 8 in GCSE geography, to revise and study for exams midway into their first term in sixth form?

Surely, we all know this would be a massive disruption to the curriculum and to their own education for little gain, for pure vanity or personal glory – especially if they’ve been able to progress onto their next stage of learning?

The government’s move away from modular exams and multiple entries was made on this argument – rather than an endless cycle of external testing and revision that didn’t aid learning or teaching. These current students have already missed out on so much of their education – why risk damaging it further?

There remains questions as to who would pay for the exam entries – schools? Parents? The government? Schools are already on their knees and their budgets stretched – not helped by the additional investment needed during the Covid crisis. Putting on an additional exam series, even for a small cohort of students, could be burdensome for some schools.

If the funding of the entries themselves can be sorted, a trickier problem may be for the exam boards themselves. Under the current consultation they would be required to prepare an autumn series for the entire suite of qualifications they offered this summer – without knowing in advance what take-up is likely to be. The boards are currently working out how much money, if any, can be returned to schools and colleges as exams aren’t going ahead this summer. If they are obligated to put together a whole series, schools are unlikely to see any refund at all.

Widening injustice
We know already that this crisis will deepen existing educational disadvantages for a number of reasons. An autumn series might only make this worse.

Under the plans, schools do not have to put on the autumn exams, or can choose which subjects to do them in. If left to a school’s own choice then we may find private schools or schools with better funding are more able to offer a full autumn series to students who want it. There may well be pressure on fee-paying schools from parents to do this. As such, in some parts of the country, students who want to sit the autumn exams might find themselves unable to do so.

A change in the narrative
As Bill Watkin, chief executive of SFCA, has pointed out, we need a change in the narrative. The secretary of state’s language from the start of this process suggests that public exams are the Proper Way to Assess, and that teacher assessment is a workable, and poorer, substitute. This has had three effects.

First, it undermines teacher professionalism and the integrity of teacher assessment. I have been privileged to work very closely with many SSAT schools during this process and know how rigorous these processes have been. Ironically, far from inflating grades this summer, many schools have got a bit twitchy if they’re submitting even marginally higher grades. We should be making the case as a system that teacher assessment is rigorous; an autumn series only undermines that.

Second, it has set up an expectation among students and parents that an autumn series will go ahead. Even if this remains Ofqual’s and the government’s intention, there’s no guarantee that it could be practically done in the autumn. Furthermore, as above, schools don’t have to put on the exams at all – which they might decide not to do for any number of these reasons. That could lead to a tricky conversation between the school or college and the student, who may see it as their ‘right’, promised by the secretary of state, to sit exams in the autumn. That’s not helpful for anyone.

Third, going forward, summer 2020 could be used as an argument to move away from external assessment, particularly at GCSE when students are not at the end of their education or training any more, and be replaced with more nuanced, holistic teacher assessment. If an autumn series goes ahead, then external exams will continue to be seen as the Holy Grail of assessment.

So what we need is a new, shared narrative – where we talk about the integrity and accuracy of teacher assessment; and none of us should suggest that this summer’s assessments (although extraordinary) are inferior to other forms of assessment – in fact, they may be better.

So what could happen, and what do you think?
To me, it seems the arguments against an autumn series outweigh the arguments for. The core principle for the government, and for schools and colleges, is progression of students onto their next stage of study. A majority of students will do this.

Some won’t be able to, as is the case every year (although they may feel they’ve had less control over that decision this year). That’s unfortunate, but this won’t change that. These students will be able to resit in the summer of 2021 as normal, allowing them to get on with their lives and education in the meantime.

Because the focus is on progression, it makes sense for English and maths GCSE resits to continue as normal in November, as part of post-16 funding requirements. In just these core subjects, the option could be given to any student who received a calculated grade this summer to sit the autumn series.

So, the consultation closes tomorrow (Monday 8 June). Will you be responding, and how? Do you think students deserve a chance to sit exams in the autumn? Or do you think, like me, they’re a distraction and we should focus instead on the next stage of their education?

  • Tom is available to deliver online policy briefings for small groups of your school or trust’s SLT, HODs or governors. These sessions can be tailored to your specific requirements and will cover the latest issues and policy updates. You will also have the opportunity to ask questions and take part in open discussions with your teams. Get in touch with our dedicated team or call 020 7802 0955 for further information.

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