Gavin Williamson says A-Level and GCSE grades WILL be down to teachers

Tory MPs savage Gavin Williamson’s ‘Wild West’ A-Level and GCSE plan with ‘baked in’ grade inflation as he claims there WILL be ‘meaningful checks’ on teachers’ decisions – but experts warn it could be WORSE than last year’s hated algorithm

  • Gavin Williamson is planning to make end of year exams voluntary and give teachers control over grades
  • Teachers can rely on previous essays, coursework, mocks or any other classwork, and also set ‘mini-exams’ 
  • Grading decisions will only be altered by exam boards in rare cases where bad standards are exposed
  • Proposals were slammed by experts for risking grade inflation and an outcome ‘much worse than last year’

Gavin Williamson today tried to quell fears over a ‘Wild West’ system for GCSEs and A-Levels as experts warned his plan could be even worse than last year’s hated algorithm.

The Education Secretary confirmed that teachers will have control over the marks their pupils get, but insisted there will be ‘meaningful checks’ and ‘quality assurance’, with scope for appeals by students.

In a Commons statement, Mr Williamson said there was no intention of using a computerised standardisation process – something that was disastrously tried and abandoned last year. Instead teachers will be given training on guidance on how to be as ‘consistent as possible’, with ‘random sampling’ of results from schools and colleges.  

‘Grades will be awarded on the basis of the teacher’s judgement and will only be changed by human intervention,’ he told MPs. 

But ministers admit the arrangements are only the ‘best we can do’ amid the pandemic, and they have already come under heavy fire. 

On a visit to a school in Accrington today, Boris Johnson said: ‘This is a good a compromise as we can come to… it is the right way forward.’  

Sir Jon Coles, a former director general at the Department for Education (DfE) apparently resigned from the Ofqual committee advising on exams last month, and is now accusing the Government of risking an outcome ‘much worse than last year’.

Experts warned that the new emphasis on ‘trusting teachers’ completely with determining results risked jeopardising the credibility of the qualifications and could lead to soaring grades with little consistency.

Tory MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Committee, said inflated marks were ‘baked in’ and the system will be like the ‘Wild West’. 

Others warned of an avalanche of appeals as families in England will have far fewer restrictions on challenges than usual, while the Education Policy Institute (EPI) said that without proper guidance for schools on how to benchmark grades against previous years there could be huge ‘inconsistencies’ which could make it difficult for universities to evaluate pupils.  

Under government proposals, exam boards will prepare a series of test papers for every subject – but teachers will be allowed to choose whether or not to use them to inform their predicted grades.

Teachers can decide to rely on previous essays, coursework, mocks or any other type of classwork if they wish – and can also choose to set their own ‘mini-exams’, either of their own making or using exam board questions.   

However, students will not need to take the papers under exam conditions, while teachers will also be able to decide whether they are taken at home or at school. Grading decisions will only be altered by exam boards in rare cases where malpractice or questionable standards are exposed.

Exam board Ofqual is expecting a deluge of appeals over the teacher grades, with results days for both A-levels and GCSEs moved to earlier in August so administrators have more time to process requests for grade reviews in time for university admissions deadlines.  

There is also expected to be a ‘whistleblower’ system for people to raise concerns about results at a school.  

In other coronavirus developments:  

  • Schools minister Nick Gibb sparked confusion by insisting masks will not be compulsory in secondary schools, and pupils will not be obliged to take tests;  
  • France’s government said it wants to ‘rehabilitate’ the AstraZeneca vaccine as EU leaders try to undo the doubts they sowed about the jab which have led to low uptake despite its proven effectiveness;
  • Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper praised Britain’s vaccine success and Boris Johnson’s plans to lift the lockdown, with a front-page headline saying: ‘Dear Brits, we envy you!’; 
  • Britain might not have to ‘learn to live with Covid’ in the future because the current crop of vaccines are so effective, a top Government scientist expert claimed; 
  • Just one per cent of UK arrivals are going into hotel quarantine, the head of Border Force revealed.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled the details of the exams replacement plan in the Commons today

Boris Johnson visited Accrington Acedemy in North West England today as the plans for exam replacements were unveiled 

Mr Johnson chatted to pupils on his visit as the plan was revealed in the Commons by Mr Williamson

Mr Johnson and sixth form students donned masks and kept their distance as they spoke at Accrington Acedemy today 

Children are NOT legally required to wear face masks in schools and should not be sent home if they refuse to wear one, officials admit 

Face coverings and asymptomatic Covid tests in secondary schools will not be compulsory when pupils return to class in England next month, ministers confirmed today.

Schools minister Nick Gibb acknowledged that it is ‘more challenging’ to teach with face masks, but he said wearing face coverings is ‘highly recommended’.

He appealed to parents to allow their secondary school-age children to take part in regular voluntary rapid coronavirus tests when classrooms reopen from March 8.

He told Times Radio: ‘Of course we can’t make it mandatory on parents but we just hope that most parents will see the wisdom of testing their children twice a week.’

Over the first two weeks of term, secondary school and college pupils will be asked to take three Covid-19 tests on site and one at home. They will then be sent home-testing kits to do twice-weekly.

Asked whether it should be a case of ‘no test, no school’, Mr Gibb told LBC radio: ‘No, we want to make sure it is not compulsory in that sense, and they will need the permission of the parents.

‘In all these things, it is a balance of risk and just having anybody tested, frankly, and identifying asymptomatic cases is a bonus in terms of minimising the risk.’

He said he hopes that the vast majority of students will volunteer to use the lateral flow tests.

Primary school children will not need to take a rapid coronavirus test when they return to class.

On face coverings, Mr Gibb told LBC: ‘It is more challenging to teach where you have masks on the children and on the teachers, but we have a new variant of this virus which is far more transmissible than the previous variant.’

Asked on BBC Breakfast whether secondary school pupils will have to wear face coverings, he said: ‘We are saying it is not mandatory for schools to have masks in classrooms but it is highly recommended because we want to do everything we can to reduce the risk of transmission in the school.’

His comments come after the National Deaf Children’s Society warned that the Government’s recommendation for face coverings to be worn could have a ‘devastating’ effect on youngsters with hearing difficulties.  

Mr Williamson said he was determined to make sure the ‘system is fair to every student’, adding: ‘It is vital they have confidence they will get the grade that is a true and just reflection of their work.

‘This year’s students will receive grades determined by their teachers, with assessments covering what they were taught and not what they have missed. Teachers have a good understanding of their students’ performance and how they compare to other students this year and from those of previous years.

‘Teachers can choose a range of evidence to underpin their assessments, including coursework, in-class tests set by the school and the use of optional questions provided by exam boards and mock exams, and we will of course give guidance on how best to do this fairly and also consistently.

‘Exam boards will be issuing grade descriptions to help teachers make sure their assessments are fair and consistent. These will be broadly pegged to performance standards from previous years so teachers and students are clear on what is expected at each grade.

‘By doing this, combined with a rigorous quality assurance process, are just two of the ways this system will ensure greater fairness and consistency. Quality assurance by the exam boards will provide a meaningful check in the system and make sure we can root out malpractice.’

Earlier, schools minister Nick Gibb defended the plans, told BBC Breakfast: ‘Teachers will be required to produce the evidence and the second layer of quality assurance is checking by the exam boards.

‘So if the grades when they are submitted, if in a particular school they look very out of line with the achievements of that school in the past, that will be a signal for the exam board to pay extra attention, maybe pay a visit to that school to make sure that the evidence the teacher has collected to justify that grade really does justify that grade.’

Asked whether he accepted grades would be inflated this year, Mr Gibb replied: ‘Well, that’s why we’ve put in place all these different checking mechanisms to make sure that there is consistency.

‘But it is very important that the pandemic does not prevent students from going on to the next stage of their careers, whether that is to college or to university or to an apprenticeship, so we want to make sure that, despite the disruption that students have faced, they will still be able to progress.’

Referring to Sir Jon’s departure, Mr Gibb told Sky News: ‘He thought that the exams material that we’re making available to teachers, the question banks that they can use as part of the range of evidence they will need to supply to exam boards about how they’ve devised the grades, he wanted that to be compulsory, mandatory.

‘We asked that question in the consultation … and the consultation was very clear they should be an option and not mandatory.

‘We didn’t want those materials to be regarded as a mini-exam because we have cancelled exams this year because they were felt to be unfair, given the disruption.’

Mr Gibb, speaking to LBC, added: ‘We didn’t want there to be an exam by the backdoor if it was mandatory – that was the fear.’

Mr Williamson had been under pressure from exam watchdog Ofqual to introduce standardised test papers rather than rely on just teacher assessments.

However, the Education Secretary effectively backed down and decided that the papers will not be mandatory under pressure from teaching unions. 

Mr Williamson said this year’s grading plan is the ‘fairest possible system’ for pupils and that the Government will ‘put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms’.

The Education Secretary also announced that grades should be based only on the parts of the syllabus they have been taught and that appeals will be made free and open to all. 

Mr Halfon told the Commons that exams being ditched for the second year in a row highlighted the ‘severity of the damage school closures have done’. 

He accepted that the government had tried to come up with ‘the least worst option’, but added: ‘My concern is not so much abut having one’s cake and eating it, but baking a rock cake of grade inflation into the system.

‘So will he confirm what is the Government’s plan to ensure we will not have a Wild West of grading, that these grades will be meaningful to employers so as not to damage children’s life chances and when?

‘And how will we reverse the grade inflation and what is the rational for not tethering this year’s grades to last year’s or somewhere between 2019 and 2020? And why not embed quality assurance more broadly rather than rely on random sampling or spot checks?’

Mr Williamson responded: ‘He raises an important issue about grade inflation and this is why we have been doing so much work with the exam board, with Ofqual, in terms of ensuring that there’s the proper internal checks as well as the proper external checks.

‘We didn’t feel as if it would be possible to peg to a certain year because sadly as a result of doing that it would probably entail the use of some form of algorithm in order to be best able to deliver that.’

The plans were also attacked by Sir Jon, who reportedly warned the Education Secretary about the dangers of using an algorithm before last summer’s grades debacle.

He tweeted: ‘The Government is desperate not to be accused of having ‘an algorithm’ or of ‘exams by the back door’. Focusing on this, rather than the actual goal – how we are going to be fair to young people – risks an outcome in August much worse than last year’s.’

Sir Jon also warned ministers that students faced a ‘free for all’ with grade inflation, adding that if ‘no algorithm’ means no use of past data and if ‘no exams by the back door’ means no common assessment taken under standard conditions, then ‘we really are lost’.     

Under the plans, once teachers have determined and submitted their grades, the marks will be approved at school level.

They will then be submitted to exam boards whose refereeing role will be limited to making checks, via random sampling, to try to ensure ‘consistency of judgements’, ‘as much fairness as possible’ and to check that the correct processes have been followed. 

There may then be more detailed investigations of specific schools if their results appear seriously askew.

Simon Lebus, Ofqual’s chief regulator, had written to Mr Williamson to make the case for ‘externally set short papers’, arguing they would provide crucial evidence on which teachers could base predicted grades.

He said they would help make predictions ‘fairer and more consistent’ by giving students ‘the chance to show what they can do in the same way’ and would also make appeals ‘more straightforward’.

According to the Telegraph, plans to make these papers mandatory were dropped after it became clear that schools would not be reopening immediately after the February half-term, following opposition from teaching unions.      

Ofqual is expecting a deluge of appeals, with results days for both A-levels and GCSEs moved to earlier in August so administrators have more time to process requests for grade reviews in time for university admissions deadlines.

An Ofqual spokesman told the Telegraph: ‘In December 2020, we set up a committee that focused on implementation of arrangements for exams and assessments in 2021.

‘Sir Jon resigned from this committee shortly before it was disbanded in January, after the Government had cancelled exams. His resignation is a matter for him.’

David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, said: ‘Without robust mechanisms in place which anchor the overall results at a level which is consistent with previous years, there is a danger that the value and credibility of this year’s grades are seriously undermined.’ 

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: ‘For millions of pupils and parents the single biggest concern with grades decided solely by teachers will be how will they be made fair? 

‘We know that such assessments are fraught with unintended consequences that are likely to tilt the education playing field even further against disadvantaged pupils.’  

Dr Jake Anders, an expert in education policy at University College London, said there was a high risk of grade inflation and added teachers were being put in an impossible and ‘ridiculous’ position and would come under pressure from all sides.

He told the Times: ‘It would be difficult to imagine appeals not soaring. Anyone who feels they’ve been under-predicted will appeal and those over-predicted won’t. 

‘Every step seems to have been designed to be not consistent across schools and that’s what I’m fundamentally most concerned about.’ 

This year’s proposals signal a change of policy compared with last year when teachers’ estimated grades were subjected to a ‘standardisation’ process by exam watchdog Ofqual. 

The system used a controversial algorithm which saw thousands of children having their results downgraded. This led to an outcry and protests over the plan and it was scrapped days later, with grades then reverting to teacher predictions. 

Despite fears over the potential for grade inflation, the proposals for this year received backing from education unions last night.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of headteachers’ union ASCL, said he supported the approach ‘as the fairest way of giving [pupils] grades’.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the Government had ‘listened to the consensus amongst the profession and this process gives students the best chance at grades which are as fair and consistent as possible in the circumstances’.

Mr Williamson said: ‘We are providing the fairest possible system for pupils, asking those who know them best – their teachers – to determine their grades, with our sole aim to make sure all young people can progress to the next stage of their education or career.’

Mr Lebus said the arrangements would ‘make sure students’ grades reflect what they have achieved’. 

Schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that teachers will have control over the marks their pupils get, but insisting there will be ‘protective measures’ and ‘quality assurance processes’

Will the system be fair? Exams fiasco Q&A

What’s going on?

Since GCSEs and A-levels were scrapped again this year due to lockdown, the Government has been looking for a new way of ensuring students are given fair marks. 

A similar fiasco last year led to exams regulator Ofqual devising a computer algorithm to moderate grades. But this resulted in thousands of students being downgraded, a huge outcry and the system being dumped in days. Keen to avoid a repeat, this year the Government has plumped for a far simpler model – just by putting faith in its teachers.

What will replace GCSEs and A-levels?

Teachers will have a free hand in deciding how to assess their students. It is assumed that many will use questions provided by exam boards, but this is not guaranteed. They could instead give their mark based on pupils’ previous essays and other substantial pieces of work. 

Another option is for teachers to create their own tests. Schools and colleges will submit their grades to exam boards by June 18 to maximise teaching time. Then A-level results will be released on August 10, and GCSEs just two days later on August 12.

Will the system be fair?

By April, teachers should have told their classes which pieces of work will count towards their final grades, so that pupils know what to expect in the coming weeks.

 This time, after grades are submitted by schools, the exam boards and Ofqual will be avoiding algorithms at all costs when they check results. Instead – in a bid to ensure consistency – they will be relying on random sampling. 

Officials will also investigate any schools suspected of unfairly boosting marks. But it is anticipated that only a small number of grades would be altered at that stage.

Can I appeal if I get the wrong grades?

Overall, the reduction in scrutiny is likely to lead to an uptick in grades, so many students are certain to be happy with their results. However, the boost to grades could be less pronounced than last year if teachers closely follow guidance from exam boards. 

If pupils are still disappointed, the Government has said a free route of appeal will be open to all. By bringing forward August’s results days, it is hoped that any A-level students who want to challenge their grades will have enough time to appeal without a knock-on effect on starting university. 

The Department for Education says that schools must help pupils appeal.

What is the potential problem?

Experts warn that this year’s approach could lead to significant grade inflation – which in turn could mean the grades have less value to colleges, universities and employers.

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