Today, New Schools Network submitted its response to Ofqual’s consultation on awarding grades in 2021.
NSN held discussions with many schools, and used a survey, to gain insight on how results may be awarded most fairly and accurately in the absence of formal assessment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countless different suggestions and concerns were raised; we have viewed these collectively to find common themes and provide constructive suggestions to Ofqual and the Department for Education.
It should be noted that the consultation response is NSN’s own and does not represent free schools as a cohort.
From our discussions, we have found four key areas that must be addressed:
Fundamentally, any system used in place of exams much not result in students being penalised due to the pandemic. Differences in provision, digital access, and infection rates must be taken into consideration – at a national, local, and school level. Teachers are best placed to make an informed judgement on disruption, absence, and access. This should also be reflected by awarding no U grades or equivalent this year.
Disadvantaged pupils must not be impacted by bias, or by being compared to peers who may have had a different experience of remote learning since March 2020. There is a specific concern around independent schools awarding higher grades as a result of home learning provision and prior performance compared to state provision.
Exam boards must provide schools with substantial advice and guidance on benchmarking and quality assurance before they are required to submit grades. It should not be a requirement of school leaders to develop a process from scratch, if there is scope for exam boards and/or Ofqual to review the process as part of an appeals system.
Any appeals process should focus on the process schools take to awarding and moderating grades, rather than the grade or other outcome itself. There are grave concerns that schools (and exam boards) will be overwhelmed by appeals requests where there is no reliable, consistent process to judge if these have been effective.
While it is impossible to produce a perfect system, there are additional challenges many free schools may have to contend with. NSN has shared these with Ofqual, including:
- At some free schools, especially those that have no previous public examination data, the burden of creating a fair and accurate system this year will require extensive support from exam boards.
- Some free schools are currently in temporary accommodation, or in buildings that have been converted for use as a school. These schools will be unable to provide in-person assessment while adhering to social distancing measures.
- At smaller, growing free schools, there may not be adequate staff numbers to create subject-specific moderation practices.
There are also broader concerns raised by a second year of cancelled exams, and no nationally standardised system. The lack of national, reliable data on learning loss as a result of the pandemic that will remain uncaptured for another year limits understanding of how lockdown has impacted all students, particularly the most disadvantaged. NSN is concerned that the impact of learning loss will likely lengthen and deepen the process of educational recovery in this country.
The gaps in progress and attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers was a crisis before the pandemic, exacerbated by regional disparities in the quality of education. The task of addressing this has never been more urgent than it is now. We hope the Department for Education, Ofqual, and exam boards will take this into account, in whatever form the final grading system takes.