Eddie Playfair is a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC)

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought far-reaching change at an unprecedented rate across all aspects of our lives.

Post-16 education is no exception and colleges have had to rapidly adapt their approaches to teaching and learning and find new ways to support their students and their local communities.

One of the most radical turnarounds comes from the decision to cancel this year’s summer examination series for GCSEs and A Levels.

This amounts to a colossal national experiment in flipping the system from one which is highly dependent on externally set and marked written exams to one based on centre assessment by teachers, all within a few weeks.

The most recent guidance from the exams regulator, Ofqual, about how this will work is a good start but we need to remember that many college students take vocational and technical qualifications and functional skills and they too need reassurance about how their grades will be awarded.

We look forward to further guidance on this being issued shortly.

The English public examination system is one of the most complex in the world in terms of the sheer number of exams set and sat, the high level of grade differentiation, the amount of checking and analysis required to establish validity and the degree of moderation and standardisation needed to achieve consistency.

Ofqual is steering this turnaround on a very tight timetable while managing to consult key stakeholders at each step. Together with exam bodies, it is having to build a new system almost from scratch. It’s tough but it’s being done with the interests of students and their progression very much at the centre.

As a college principal, I knew little about Ofqual; we related mainly to the awarding organisations which set and mark exams. My role at AoC has brought me closer to their work in holding together the infrastructure of the system. I’ve been very impressed by their approach, both in ‘normal’ times and during the current crisis.

It’s good to see the level of confidence which will be shown in the judgements of teachers and centres around deciding the Centre Assessed Grades. Once established, that public statement of trust is there to be built on.

There’s now a lot for colleges and college staff to do by the 29 May to make this process work and we know that everyone involved will be objective and professional and will want to help establish the validity and accuracy of this summer’s grades. We need them to be valued and respected by receiving institutions, including colleges and universities.

There will be challenges with the grading and ranking process. In colleges with large numbers of candidates and multiple subject teachers, trying to rank every individual subject entry at institutional level is going to be difficult and may not add any greater accuracy. For example, over 100 colleges have a GCSE maths entry of more than 500 while the average Year 11 GCSE maths entry in schools is around 150. To add to the challenge, students in the college GCSE English and maths cohorts are mostly clustered around grades 3 and 4.

However, without some ranking of candidates it won’t be possible to create a sliding scale for any statistical adjustment to be applied. So it is reasonable to expect teachers to rank the students they teach and for the centre to submit these teacher rankings to the awarding organisations and for large centres it might be sensible to allow them to rank students in smaller sized groupings.

Looking ahead there will be other important decisions to be made. For instance, there needs to be maximum transparency about the statistical standardisation approach. Also, the equalities impact assessment should take into account the evidence of under-prediction for black and minority and disadvantaged candidates and to correct for this. The plan for a full autumn exam series is fraught with risk and should be limited to those candidates whose progression is in serious jeopardy. The emphasis in the 2020/21 academic year should be on supporting students to move forward and succeed on their new programme rather than seeking to improve on a grade awarded in 2020.

Once we have all got through this extraordinary period, we will be left with some pretty fundamental questions about our high-stakes exam system and whether we should reduce our dependency on terminal written exams. In the meantime, AoC will continue to work with Ofqual and the awarding organisations and support our members as they implement these new processes to ensure that no student is disadvantaged.

Eddie Playfair is a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC)

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