Time to Change
One of the questions journalists often ask epidemiologists in Covid-19 interviews is ‘when will life return to normal?’ I understand the sentiment, but struggle with the question just as much as epidemiologists struggle to give an answer.
‘Normal’ is not an easy term to define, in part because it is often a distribution rather than an exact measure, and it can also be dynamic in that what is ‘normal’ changes through time. ‘Normal’ may be a relative concept, such that what is normal for one person could be abnormal for another. So, all in all, asking ‘when will life return to normal?’ is a virtually impossible question to answer. This is probably why journalists enjoy asking it.
What is easier to say is that change is pretty much a constant in human lives. The capacity of humans to change in part explains our evolutionary success, and whilst change is a feature of most societies the pace of change does vary. In benign times, the imperative for change is less and the status quo more stable, but at times of crisis when societies are threatened ‘necessity becomes the mother of invention’ and the pace of change quickens. The pandemic is one of those times, and as such we will not return to our pre-Covid ‘normal’ because we have had to change as we learn to live with endemic Covid.
Covid has accelerated existing changes in schools and brought in some new changes. Covid catalysed the IT revolution in education and greatly accelerated the digitisation of teaching, learning and assessment which had been progressing gently and unevenly for years until the sudden closure of schools and the move to remote online learning precipitated a near overnight revolution in staff and pupil IT skills. More digitisation occurred in weeks than had previously been achieved in years, allowing pupils and staff to more readily share resources and automate low grade tasks. As screens replaced paper, photocopiers fell quiet, paper consumption reduced, schools became greener and pupils’ and staff bags lighter.
Covid-necessitated changes have transformed other areas of school life. Parents’ evenings, unchanged for decades, have now been in part replaced by video conferencing. Instead of travelling miles for cramped, overheard, late-running consultations in draughty halls with teachers over a lukewarm tea, consultations can now take place over Zoom in the comfort of homes. The software keeps everyone to time, conversations cannot be overheard and parents can replace the lukewarm tea with an off-camera beverage of their choice. No need to travel into school or find a babysitter, it is even possible to dial into parents’ evenings from the office without feeling guilty. Covid has changed parents’ evenings forever and for better …although of course there is still a place for face-to-face parent-teacher meetings when needed.
In both 2020 and 2021, Covid changed public exams with first centre-assessed grades – CAGs – (what schools thought students would have got if they had sat exams) and then teacher-assessed grades – TAGs – (based on the marks awarded for work students actually produced). Given the spread of the Delta variant and the number of pupils self-isolating in June, TAGs were the least worst way of assessing pupils this summer as actual exams would have been thrown into chaos by Track and Trace-enforced absenteeism. However, as we start to think about public exams in 2022 and beyond, there is an opportunity to change things for the better rather than just returning to a pre-Covid ‘normality’. In thinking about the future of public exams, we should address the following issues:
Covid has shown that new forms of assessment are possible. Alongside the traditional exam board-awarded grades (EBAGs), we now have CAGs and TAGs. All three have advantages and disadvantages. Whilst the pros and cons of CAGs and TAGs may be at the forefront of media discussion, research from the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2019 suggested that about 1 in 4 EBAGs were wrong because of marking differences in subjective disciplines.
Now would be a good time to take stock of our different assessment experiences and research on assessment accuracy before deciding on the optimum way forward. My preference would be for a hybrid system that includes both teacher and exam board assessment.
What is the point of a comprehensive programme of assessment at 16, when the effective age of leaving school/college is now 18? Sixteen, often a low point in adolescence, can be a rotten time to sit exams in eight, nine or 10 different subjects, not all of which will play to pupils’ strengths. Some form of ‘failure’ is likely and this can have a negative effect on teenage self-esteem which holds children back and puts them off further study. Could the number of exams at 16 be reduced so that what is currently assessment time could become learning time? Might some of this time be used to explore some of the personal and social challenges that teenagers face, so they can be better supported through adolescence? Could some examination pressure be removed, so that 16 year olds have more time for wider learning, interpersonal skills acquisition and character development for example by participation in outdoor pursuits or the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme? Would there be mental health and wellbeing benefits if we delayed the bulk of student assessment until 18, by which time students would be better able to cope with examination pressures. Would exams at 18, when students have had chance to hone their revision, study and exam skills, lead to higher levels of attainment?
Do our grading systems need recalibration? At A level, the proportion of candidates achieving A* and A grades has increased by 75% since 2019. There are differences in the grading processes pre and post-Covid which risk creating confusion and undermining public confidence in the exams system. Now could be the time to consider moving A Level grading into line with GCSE and adopt a numerical system.
As Winston Churchill may have said “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Certainly, never just revert to the status quo after a period of great change and challenge, for to do so would be to miss out on all the inventions arising from necessity. As schools emerge from the pandemic, they need to define a new educational normal which delivers even better experiences and outcomes for pupils, parents and staff.