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Exam  - Flickr – albertogp123 | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Exam - Flickr – albertogp123 | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

The handling and organisation of this year's Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) has further displayed the contempt and ineptitude of Gavin Williamson, argues Reece Goscinski

Following 2020’s U-turn on the infamous algorithm to prevent grade inflation, the government has been keen to deflect any potential backlash away from the Department for Education and towards education staff for the 2021 series. Despite the rigid messaging to teachers, parents, and pupils that exams would not be cancelled during the autumn/winter terms as many institutions battled COVID outbreaks, the January cancellation of exams saw Williamson clamber to produce an alternative.

The result has been the imposition of a last-minute grading system with half-baked assessment criteria, inconsistency, limited support and excessive workloads for teaching staff. The government shambles and upcoming fall out on results day should begin a conversation on reforming our education system that places people instead of profit at the centre.

Many teachers have protested over the excessive workloads this haphazard system has produced. The guidance from JCQ insists the grades are to be a holistic professional judgement of work completed across the year which is measured against a vague marking criteria to determine student grades.

Yet the advice and guidance for grading has been a shifting wave of information released by the JCQ, Ofqual, and individual exam boards with updates on scrutiny still being declared in late April. The promised support material has mostly consisted of past examination questions students will have completed earlier in the year when exams were going ahead. The accompanying exam board mark schemes display mark bands but there are no grade boundaries for the marks to correspond. This has resulted in teachers marking work twice using exam board criteria then JCQ mark schemes followed by excessive bureaucracy to determine a grade of each individual student.

This, coupled with the emotional pressure of student ambitions and personal development, has led many teachers to work whole weekends and late into the night to deliver a fair assessment. Where the Scottish government has set aside a £400 payment to teachers for this work, teachers in England have had no such incentives or compensation. Instead, the exam boards have continued to profit by charging schools for an undelivered service with some attempting to increase their prices back in January.

The situation has resulted in many teachers intending to leave the profession all together as profit is being prioritised over people. Research by the National Education Union suggests one in three teachers intend to quit, citing workload, pay, and devaluation by the government and media as reasons. The situation also does little to aid the continuing issue of teacher well-being, applying further stress to the profession.

The lack of guidance for this years TAGs has further resulted in assessment inconsistencies. Schools have specified differing numbers of work to be submitted depending on their centre policy and some departments have advised students on assessment topic areas to revise whilst others have not. The disparities in the process stem from the assumption that grades can be determined across subjects in a one-size-fits-all approach, but assessment outcomes differ radically between subjects such as history and maths. History is graded based on the strength of evidence, argument, and interpretation which is not easily quantifiable, so requires more judgement. Maths, on the other hand, is far more clear cut as the answer is either right or wrong, making it easier to determine grades. The former leaves the process open to the individual teacher with little support leading to an inconsistency in approaches from centre to centre.

The system in practice has also done little to respect teachers' professional judgements. Accompanying a barrage of articles concerning teachers unconscious bias in their practice, Ofqual have been vocally concerned of “Weimar Republic levels” of grade inflation. This has resulted in the TAGs being compared to the 2017 – 2019 results for each subject and institution. If the TAGs diverge significantly form the historic results, centres must justify why this is the case and potentially face a review. Similarly, Ofqual intend to collect a grade sample from all schools with two days’ notice indicating a further lack of government trust in teacher judgement.

The grade comparisons are also a huge insult to the hard work of students, who are being judged on classwork rather than formal examinations, who may have shown improvement across the year, and who could potentially have their grades moved over concerns of inflation.

The system could also see the same class disparity that the 2020 algorithm produced, as working class pupils suffer at the expense of the privileged. Research by the Economics Observatory indicates working class students are more likely to have suffered learning loss due to increased school absence, parental job loss, and material deprivation during the pandemic. Whilst there was an initial promise of £13.5 billion to address this gap, the government retracted its offer to just £3.1 billion resulting in Sir Kevan Collins resignation and indicating a future wave of austerity for the sector.

Whilst the system has had a stressful impact on teachers, the government's indecision over the process has caused a significant amount of anxiety and uncertainty amongst students. Pupils have been given mixed messages all year, initially preparing for exams and then moving to assessments. Whilst many parents and educators were rightly concerned for pupils mental health and the need to return to school, their return has revolved around sitting assessments and worrying about the increased competition for university places. These uncertainties have no doubt had a further negative impact on student well-being as the DfE discusses extending the school day.

The grading fiasco has not only highlighted the continued incompetence of Williamson but also the deep inequalities of a neoliberal education system. In the pursuit of profit and ambitions to 'return to normal', institutions have continued to profit and maintain inequality whilst teachers, students, and parents have suffered. There is little doubt that the fallout on results day will see the government blame teachers for their 'failure' to adequately plan for this scenario. Yet the situation should call for demands to fundamentally change our education system to deliver a better result for all.

The pandemic has highlighted the need to diversify assessment instead of relying on ridged standardised testing, invest more in students needs as opposed to feeding the market, and deliver better conditions for students and teaching staff.

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