Unions comment on education select committee exams findings

The Association of School and College Leaders and the National Education Union have responded to the letter setting out the Education Select Committee’s findings over what went wrong with the awarding of GCSE and A-level grades this summer

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The Education Select Committee’s fire is directed chiefly at Ofqual, but it appears to have struggled to pin down the role of the Department for Education in the grading debacle that took place this summer.

“It is completely unacceptable that the government has apparently thus far failed to supply relevant papers and the minutes of meetings requested by the committee.

“We seem to be no nearer understanding what steps ministers took to ask the right questions at the right times to assure themselves on behalf of the public that the system for awarding grades would work and wouldn’t fall apart in the way that it did.

“We called for the government to commission an independent review of the grading fiasco immediately after it had happened to establish exactly what went wrong and to learn the lessons for next year’s exams.

“However, the government has refused to take this action despite the clear and overwhelming public interest in doing so.

“This is a completely unsatisfactory situation for students, parents, schools, and colleges. They all deserve proper answers.

“They also urgently require clarity over exactly what the government and Ofqual’s plans are for next summer’s exams.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The National Education Union agrees with the Education Select Committee’s conclusion that exams for 2021 must take account of the differential impacts of access to education across the country. Many students are having to access their learning remotely due to the pandemic and do not have the adequate equipment or resources necessary at home to do so. As such, it would make for grossly unfair grades next summer if exams were to take place on the full course content. 

“For this reason, on October 2nd the NEU, along with other trade unions and governor organisations, laid out proposals for introducing optionality into exams. The suggestions made would help account for some of the lost learning opportunities experienced across the country and the different order that schools and colleges would be teaching the various topics. 

“Under these proposals students would answer questions on the topics they have covered and not the ones they haven’t. There would also be a system in place, as in other nations in the UK, of grades based on moderated, evidence based judgements made by schools and colleges, to ensure that whatever the state of the virus next summer, all students can receive a grade which reflects their own achievements. 

“Whilst Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all announced measures to account for this unequal access to learning, the UK government is still dithering over what to do in England. Time is quickly running out for any meaningful changes that could give students a fair chance at their exams next summer. 

“It is also absolutely critical that Ofqual remain independent of DfE. Whilst we agree with the Education Select Committee that Ofqual should not have to follow ministerial steers when there would be clear negative consequences, as was the case for grading in summer 2020, we don’t agree that the conclusion is that there are arguments for and against Ofqual’s independence. 

“If anything, what the summer’s debacle shows is that Ofqual should have far greater freedom to reject or push back on unhelpful ministerial steers, particularly when they contradict Ofqual’s fundamental duties, set out in legislation, about protecting the fairness, reliability and public confidence in grades. 

“To lay the blame mainly at Ofqual’s door when they have laid out the many warnings they gave to Gavin Williamson and DfE, is wrong. Whilst Ofqual perhaps could and should have pushed back more on the Secretary of State’s steers, it is this Government’s obsession with rationing grades nationally over fairness for individuals, and the ponderous inaction of Gavin Williamson, that was the main cause of last summer’s chaos. 

“The dither shown currently over what to do for next year is demonstrating that Ministers have learnt very few lessons. The same mistakes must not be made again and in order to restore public confidence, changes to make exams in 2021 fairer are critical.” 

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