Teacher Assessed Grades – where next for public examinations?

I have just this week received notification that our paperwork for the Teacher Assessed Grades (TAG) process has been accepted by the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications). For the teachers and administrators in school whose waking hours in the last few months have seemingly been dominated by the tangle of new arrangements, this is an important step, if not a champagne moment. I will be writing soon to the students, parents and guardians of Year 11 and Year 13 to give more information about what this entails for them, in the lead up to the results days on 10 and 12 August.

That we should carry out diligently the myriad procedures involved in the TAG process is clearly an important part of ensuring we get the grading right for our students. We need to do this not simply because they deserve to achieve the best possible outcomes as evidenced by their achievements over the last two years, but also because they have been impacted personally and from an educational perspective in ways that cannot be understated. Our priority is to ensure the path ahead is as smooth as it can be under the circumstances for every student in this situation. We also need to plan further ahead to consider how to protect and support students in the current Year 10 (Lower Fifth) and Year 12 (6.1) cohorts.

Indeed, this is becoming a theme for wider discussion nationally, and is precipitating a debate on the viability of certain exam types, most notably GCSE. AQA head Colin Hughes has said this week: “There is no leap back to normality in 2022 or, for that matter, arguably in 2023 […] I think we have to recognise the continuing impact of the pandemic on the entire generation, and what can we do.” A board member of Ofqual, Ian Bauckham, has gone further and noted that students taking A Levels in 2022 will be the first not to have taken formal exams at age 16. This, in his view, is an opportunity to think about the abolition of formal assessments at this point, as “nobody will be relatively disadvantaged compared with others by not having taken GCSEs before”.

The debate about the relative value of maintaining formal assessments at age 16 is not new, nor is it specifically related to the pandemic. The arguments in favour of scrapping GCSEs are compelling, to the extent that there are few developed countries that split the education experience of 14-19 year olds in the way we do in the UK. In a recent study, the independent think tank EDSK (which stands for ‘Education and Skills’) reported that making students sit as many as 30 hours of high-stakes tests when they had a further 2 years of compulsory schooling ahead was “disproportionate and unnecessary”. In addition, the approach wastes significant amounts of time in the summer of the GCSE year. Students effectively take an extended summer break before starting completely new courses in the autumn. 

GDST schools are excellently resourced to support learners over this enforced break. We run Limitless Learning courses and bridging modules to help students to keep learning and experimenting with new ideas before joining Sixth Form. Sadly though, not all schools can provide such a service and many students lose focus and momentum at this vital stage. Naturally, the best approach would be to maintain a seamless process of learning across the secondary age range. This would give the teachers who know their students best the time and opportunities to adapt programmes of study dynamically, and to support individuals to gain deeper understanding, skills and knowledge in the areas that most inspire them. 

Meanwhile, at Northampton High and in the wider GDST network, exams officers and academic staff will remain awake to any necessary technical processes over the coming months, while continuing to develop the excellent range of teaching and learning opportunities available. Thanks to this network of dedicated staff, I have no doubt that our students will be able to hold their heads high on the results days in August, and move on to the next stage of education knowing their efforts have been properly recognised.