As 2021 draws to a close, we wanted to look back on another exceptional year in the world of qualifications and assessment. How had it had been for schools and education leaders? We spoke with three education leaders on the frontline to found out:

2021 was another exceptional year for the GCSE and A-level system in England. What do you think went well in awarding in 2021 and what could have gone better?

What went well…

  • Schools worked extremely hard, and submitted grades for students during an incredibly difficult time. We need to recognise that is a success in itself. Schools pulled it out of the bag, while trying their absolute best to be fair. There are immensely talented and hard-working people right across the system, all with the same goal in mind. I think the profession did really well to respond to all the change this last year.
  • There was less bureaucracy in terms managing exams and the use of exam invigilators and training up of that process. This meant we were able to spend more time in classrooms to spend time on learning that was lost. I felt this went really well.

Even better if…

  • There was a lot of stress and anxiety for teachers when making judgements for students who sat on the grade boundaries. The impact on teacher workloads of marking and moderation was really substantial. This is a process normally done by awarding bodies, so it was a real burden for teachers.
  • Students may not have felt they had earned their grades. There perhaps was not such a sense of achievement for students as they hadn’t gone through the same process others have done before.
  • There is also an issue with the accountability side of things and it will be really difficult for leaders in schools. No one will be able to say ‘this school did really well’, as everyone did really well.

What has been the big takeaway or learning for you from the last 12 months?

  • There is the issue with credibility with the Teacher Assessed Grades (TAG). Some schools were very rigorous with their approach, perhaps some were more generous. Are this year's cohort of students going to lack credibility with universities and employers as there's a lack of consistency? It could be really difficult.
  • A lack of consistency was a notable problem, as we cannot make any comparisons. There is always room for error. Was that the same in every trust/school? I'm not in a position to say.
  • Thinking back to the previous year with Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) in 2020, there was a restriction of just how much improvement you could make with what 2019 results were. That doesn't take into account any improvement journey a school is on, in comparison to one that is maintaining high standards.

What do you think will be the impact of the exceptional arrangements of 2021 for debate on the future of assessment?

  • I think this is a good opportunity to reassess assessment. We have to be able to reflect what the modern workforce needs. We need to provide an all-round workforce and that isn't just about answering questions on an exam paper.
  • It is a very divided debate at the moment with people debating left, right and centre. We have now seen a different way, and some are thinking that perhaps we don't need exams, so assessment will probably change in some way.
  • Exams give students – particularly those labelled as ‘the naughty one’ – the ability to pull it out of the bag prove everyone wrong, in that way exams are more equitable.
  • People will be saying ‘let's reform the system,’ ‘let's remove exams,’ but to reform now isn't a good idea. We have been learning from home in way we have never done before, even when we had world wars. My plea is for no more changes for the teaching profession at the moment. Let us catch our breath and have a chance to get back to normal.

In the wake of remote teaching and learning during the pandemic, do you think the prospect of on-screen exams has grown?

  • The potential is much greater than it was five or six years ago. Some form of on-screen assessment is going to happen at some point, we might end up with kids able to summon up exciting visuals and information, doing their GCSEs like Tom Cruise in Minority Report!
  • I would say, however, that it isn’t a magic solution and there are infrastructure issues to consider. I don't want us to rush into a decision on this. Any increased level of on-screen assessment does mean that schools will have to get students’ typing up to scratch!
  • If you look at the dangers of being at home too frequently, it takes away the ability of schools to monitor children pastorally and carry out their safeguarding duty. I hope online GCSEs don't end up meaning that children are always at home, there is a place for on-screen as well as face-to-face learning.
  • The students entering Year 11 this year have had two years of disruption. This is a cohort of students who haven’t got practice of doing exams and their handwriting has been really affected; some may struggle with the stamina required to do a two-hour exam.

We have a new Secretary of State for Education. If you had one piece of advice for him, what would it be?

  • Make education at the forefront of every person in the country. The Government have to make sure everyone pays it proper attention and takes it seriously.
  • Listen to the people on the ground who are doing the job, and what the challenges are. Working in education, in schools, we have excellent people who will deliver the job, but it is hard. If they listen to people who know what's going on, I think we will be in a better place.
  • The educational attainment gap was increasing pre-Covid and social mobility was something we never cracked. Look at the most disadvantaged areas, they need more resources. I think that at some point we just need to bite that bullet.
  • We should look at what businesses want. There should be more consultation of business leaders about what they want from new employees, then try to build an element of that into schools.
  • Other school systems do things much better than us, perhaps we could look internationally to show us what excellence is.

With thanks to Mark Stanyer, Regional Executive Principal for the North, Ormiston Academies Trust, Julie Slater, Chief Executive Principal for Secondary, Outwood Grange Academies Trust, and Dame Sally Coates, Director of Secondary Education, United Learning, for their help in compiling this article.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.