The whole ‘house of cards’ that constituted the examination system across the UK finally collapsed at 4pm this afternoon. It was expected as soon as the Scottish Government realised their mistake last week and reversed the decision to use algorithm calculated grades based upon the past performance of schools and colleges. Sure enough, once Ofqual let us know on Thursday that they had used similar methods, then the governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and England got cold feet. With Northern Ireland (first GCSEs and later A-levels) then Wales making their moves earlier today, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was left with no choice but to complete the demolition later in the day. There was an apology from the Chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor, but it should have been from Williamson first. It has been a new low in how the UK conducts itself and the abject failure of government to connect with, or comprehend, the complex reality of their policies. World news outlets have yet to report on this debacle, but they surely will. The government must accept that they are fully responsible for the construction of the entire dodgy edifice.
Trust and the Blame Game.
The Telegraph yesterday reported that Ofqual was retaliating by blaming the teachers with ‘Teachers accused of submitting 'implausibly high' predicted grades as A-level results row grows’. Although contentious, even inflammatory, the Telegraph was correct in highlighting the attitude of Ofqual. The approach all along appears to be one of little trust in the schools, colleges, and their teachers. This means that Ofqual can no longer command the trust of those educating in the front-line and it’s days are numbered. A new system is needed. Other observers are coming to the conclusion that reverting to CAGs is the only fair way to go as was concluded in Scotland last week (see TEFS 4th August 2020 ‘SQA cements the inequality ‘goal posts’ into the ground’). However, the Scottish government had the added incentive of an upcoming election in 2021 with 16 year-old students registered to vote. Nicola Sturgeon may be many things to voters, but she is never indecisive.
Once the political decision was made to prioritise ‘standards’ above all else, Ofqual had little choice but to plough on. However, it is very likely that some of the professionals within their organisation voiced concerns about differences between students in different exam cohorts. If the government was made aware of this, then it was a wilful decision to carry on. The statement within the Ofqual report on setting thresholds in cohort sizes offers some idea of the dilemma in which they found themselves, “to strike the balance between statistical defensibility, the potential consequences for outcomes and commonality of handling across centres, the values of 𝑛thresh and 𝑛small were set to 5 and 15, respectively”. This set off series of events that have yet to be resolved.
The reasons for this might lie in the class sizes and thus the size of the cohorts from these schools. OECD data from 2017 indicates that state schools in the UK (designated as lower secondary education in public educational institutions) had a mean class size of 24.3. In contrast, for similar students in ‘independent private educational institutions’ the mean is only 12.4. This does not necessarily indicate that cohort sizes will vary, but I decided to take a closer look at the large Schools performance data set for 2019. It seems the same data will be withheld in 2020 so a similar analysis will be difficult. In a written statement by Gavin Williamson in House of Lords on 23rd March 2020, ‘Impact of Covid-19 on Summer Exams:Written statement - HCWS176’, he tagged on the end that "The Government will not publish any school or college level educational performance data based on tests, assessments or exams for 2020".
From 2019, the first thing apparent at one end of the spectrum is that independent schools tend to have smaller cohorts entering A-level examinations in many subjects.
Figure 1 shows in simple terms the proportion of examinations with cohort numbers greater that fifteen, the cut off 𝑛small set by Ofqual. Those above this were awarded grades based on teacher rankings and past school performance only. The second striking thing is the large proportion of exams with cohorts over 15 arising from colleges. I lumped together all sixth-form colleges and further education colleges in this analysis. All secondary schools included ‘community schools’ or comprehensives and all voluntary aided schools. All academy schools and free schools, funded directly by the government were considered in the last category.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.