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A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible: UPDATE

UPDATE 23rd March 2021

Since this idea was posted in January, there has been considerable thought across the sector about what would be best for the future. These are very well laid out in a collection of short essays reported last week by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). The twelve essays, from different authors and different perspectives, in ‘Where next for university admissions?’ are edited by Rachel Hewitt  who sets out the many pitfalls surrounding examinations and university admissions. It seems there are those in favour of post qualification admission (PQA) to university as it should help the least advantaged students. However, arguments against this are presented that means caution must be taken.

A powerful response to the HEPI report by the 'The Fair Access Coalition: 10 requirements for a fair admissions process' adds further to the debate. The suggestions are sensible but falls short on demanding adequate resources for students throughout their studies. However, of interest is their idea that "A fair admissions system should encourage slow and supported decision-making, not snap choices". This suggests that PQA in the current regime would not be optimal.

It is strange that there appears to be an assumption by all that PQA should kick in after examinations taken the same summer as students enter a university. This would be far too difficult to administer and would lead to a rush to get to the front of the line by universities and students alike. TEFS is seeking a complete rethink that aims to set examinations as early as a year before entering university. The main premise is that surely the ability of students can be determined by then. Also, this system operates in Scotland and Ireland. Interestingly, the system in Scotland is covered by Rebecca Gaukroger, Director of Student Recruitment and Admissions, University of Edinburgh in ‘What next for admissions in Scotland?’. In setting out how the system works in Scotland and its advantages, Gaukroger falls short of suggesting the rest of the UK could do the same. But she does have one caveat that needs further thought. Students entering higher education from colleges do not have the same leeway in timing as their school educated peers. A further HEPI article today by Ann Limb, a former Further Education College Principal, ‘Post-qualification admissions and further education: the time is now’ reminds us that the idea of PQA has been around for many years. But that “A more equitable system of admissions” is possible now and should happen. It is right that entering university from a Further Education College should not be missing from the debate.

Original Post.

Today TEFS looks at the mess in which Ofqual and the Government have found themselves. Their obsession with attainment standards above all else, and a determination to examine students as close as possible to the time they decide which university or college to accept, has led to this situation.

TEFS proposes adopting a radically new approach involving assessments for university and college entrance a year earlier, taking into account teacher assessments, student potential in context, and ability across the board. The great Gove experiment that reinforced the inequalities of the past is now over for good. COVID-19 has seen to that. TEFS proposes university entrance examinations take place a year earlier for post qualification admissions to have meaningful impact on equality. This would need to be phased in for the GCSE  cohort this summer. The additional year in education should be used to develop skills, work experience and a broadening of the curriculum. It should be designed to bridge the damaging binary ‘two cultures’ divide that has dogged most of our country for too long. 

The COVID crisis in education has revealed major fault lines in the education and assessment of school students in most of the UK. For universities, it seems the government has detached itself from the situation. The prime minister failed to mention university students in the latest COVID lockdown announcement and a delayed response to the Augar review has been thrown further into the long grass (Times Higher Education today ‘Response to Augar ‘will not resolve HE tensions’ in Covid era’). 

A move to online teaching and no examinations was always likely as the predicted second wave of the coronavirus took hold. Indeed, this was inevitable and the move by the government to cancel examinations last week has created an organisational vacuum. A delay in university ‘offers' to students will cause chaos. If even more students accept provisional university places based on late ‘offers’, they will stress the system to breaking point as student numbers rise (see TEFS 21st August 2020 ‘The perfect storm for Universities PART ONE: The demographic reality’). 

The ‘review’ of alternative arrangements for examinations, promised last week by Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, emerged as a simple letter to Ofqual on Wednesday. The letter indicated that the Department of Education and Ofqual had “worked up a range of contingency options.” This sounds sensible and one would expect a contingency for proceeding in the absence of examinations should be in place by now. In a letter to Ofqual on 12th October 2020, Williamson stressed that “It is critical that we plan for all foreseeable scenarios to safeguard students’ ability to sit exams”. 

The response from Ofqual to the latest Williamson letter was immediate on the same day and illustrated that there appeared to be lack of a plan to deal with no formal examinations. Ofqual continue to persist with the idea that the examinations are somewhat reliable by stressing “Without exams we will not achieve the same degree of reliability and validity as in normal years.” The simple fact is that all investigations have revealed that the marking of exams is very unreliable (see TEFS 11th December 2020 ‘Examinations and ‘the ghost in the machine’, ‘Accuracy, reliability and the ‘William Tell’ effect’ and ‘No, Minister. England’s school exams are not ‘the fairest way’, London School of Economics 20th November 2020, by Dennis Sherwood for an overview). Ofqual are now simply accepting that it will get worse. 

UPDATE 16th January 2021. Sherwood added further to the debate on the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) site today with 'How to be ‘innovative’ in school exam assessment – fewer grades'. He challenges the reliability of grades as a myth. he goes on to say "surely now is an ideal opportunity to bust the myth and to ‘support “innovation” in assessment".

On the consultation lasting as little as two weeks, Ofqual say “we have been considering together the potential alternatives to exams…..Our thinking is well advanced”. Time will tell if this is the case for arrangements to replace examinations. To deflect blame from themselves onto Williamson and the DfE, Ofqual assumed “We understand your final determinations will be reflected in a formal direction to us under the relevant legislation. We will publicly and formally record the decisions we take in light of your direction.” Once stung twice shy it seems. 

UPDATE 16th January 2021. The full consultation document, 'Consultation on how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021', emerged yesterday after the TEFS  post. It states it "will be open for two weeks starting on Friday 15 January and ending on Friday 29 January at 23:45." This leaves little time to take in what is likely to happen. The proposal is to use teacher assessments only, but that they "should only take evidence-based decisions". This puts considerable pressure on teachers at this time. Ofqual also propose to offer advice and exam papers for teachers to deploy "To support them we propose the exam boards could provide guidance and training, along with papers which teachers could use to assess their students". This is really exams sneaking in through the the cat flap in the back door. The obvious lack of security in this approach is partly acknowledged. However, there will be considerable scope for gaming. With these 'pseudoexams' likely to be conducted remotely, the only safeguard at this stage is "the student (and anyone supervising them) would be required to make an appropriate declaration that they had not received unauthorised assistance". One can only imagine how this will be approached in many cases. Teachers will have to show firm integrity collectively in the face of pressure from parents. The appeals process will be highly stressful. It will have far reaching consequences in schools and colleges.

Moving to online assessments ruled out. 

On the face of it, online assessments might seem to be a sensible approach. Indeed this might be on the cards as Ofqual head, Simon Lebus, stated in his response to Williamson on the 13th of January 2021, “In particular, we will want the consultation to consider the role of externally set short papers”. Online assessments would be the most efficient way to achieve this. However, it seems there may be too many obstacles to getting it to work fairly. A study by Ofqual, reported on the 14th of December 2020, ‘Review on barriers to online and on-screen assessment’‘, and identified multiple barriers. The idea was not dismissed entirely as other countries were identified where it seemed to work well. However, in the UK, challenges to be overcome included “lack of availability of sufficient devices, broadband and network capabilities in some cases, the variability in appropriate skills in teaching and support staff……………….and the need to maintain fairness in delivering assessments digitally”. 

There is no easy solution. While more reliable assessments could be made by teachers, it seems standardisation would be more problematical. One idea was floated by the Times Education Supplement on Wednesday and indicated that an Ofqual advisor was considering “External test papers proposed for GCSE and A level could be marked by exam boards or other schools”. This would be a radical change of direction but would involve only “short, sharp, limited papers”. The extent of ‘gaming’ by those with greater advantages can only be guessed at. However, simple one-off tests are not a substitute for information gathered about a student over time. 

Proposals for a very different approach. 

A striking feature of the latest offerings from the DfE and Ofqual is recognition that the current exams only measure ‘knowledge’ (Williamson) and ‘attainment’ (Lebus). This is right, the current exams are very limited in their scope. To be fair to students, a wider assessment would be required. 

UPDATE 16th January 2021. It is interesting that Lebus now notes in the consultation introduction, that emerged just after the TEFS post yesterday, saying "It is important to say here that grades and assessments must reflect what a student knows, understands and can do".  This is a very ambitious aim with the exams as they are.

The first thing to do is determine what is needed when assessing students. Universities will require assurances that candidates have some baseline knowledge. For example, those intending to study Biochemistry would be expected to have a knowledge of Chemistry. The current exams do offer this reassurance. But to succeed at degree level requires much more from a student in terms of ability and understanding. Some students tutored in working to the exam can become very cruelly exposed in a university setting. Self-driven studies and problem solving become major hurdles to overcome. To help prepare students, there would need to be changes made to assessments and the educational arrangements. 

In doing this, there should be a simple set of principles to adhere to. The first is to set minimum standards regarding access to resources for all school and university students. Making sure they have food and reasonable accommodation might be a good start. But this should also include time to study (for example, see TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’). Assuming this is ‘equalized’ as much as possible the following fall into place. 

1. Access to meaningful career information and mentoring that encourages students to make the most of their abilities and choices. 

2. Education as the top priority and abolishing ‘gaming’ of attainment assessments. 

3. Assessments expanded beyond simple attainment in a final examination. The aim would be to bring in understanding, insight, ability, and the context of circumstances. This means multiple assessment inputs over time that encourage and reinforce student confidence in their decisions. 

4. Those who move onto university are guaranteed in advance to have continued equal access to resources and time to study. 

5. The final year at school is used to prepare students through widening their horizons and skills. Also, to prepare for assessments at university that are based on deeper analyses and problem solving. 

To improve education per se, and open the curriculum to wider understanding, decisions about university should be made a year earlier. This allows time for a broader education and a better-informed choice to be made after the results are in. The basis of some of these ideas goes as far back as the dialogues recorded by Socrates in Plato's Republic of 360 BC

Timing is everything. 

There has been some recent debate about moving to post qualification admissions (PQA) to universities. But sticking with exams at aged eighteen, in the same year as starting university, is the first major sticking point. Calls to start university academic years in January of the following year are seen by some as a solution. Yet the best solution is staring everyone in the face. If a university or school cannot determine if a student is capable of doing well at university by the age of seventeen, then there is something seriously wrong. 

There are alternative models that have been tried and tested. Scotland was not as badly affected by the debacle last summer when the Higher results emerged. Their students mostly sit Highers exams at age seventeen and most university offers are based upon those results (see NOTE 1*). Some who need more time to improve can try again. Most go onto take advanced Highers before heading off to their university of choice the next year. It appears to work well. Ireland has a similar, but more complex system, where there is time for students to redirect their studies or develop wider skills (see NOTE 2**). This allows students to gain significantly more experience and understanding beyond the narrower curriculum offered in the A-level system. 

Bridging the two cultures divide. 

One feature of school education in Scotland and Ireland is the broader range of topics studied up to Higher or Leaving Certificate level. In Scotland, this includes at least five different subjects. Some take up to seven subjects. In Ireland this is often seven different subjects that can be taken at different levels designed for the student’s aspirations. The result in both systems is students with a broader view of the world. 

This problem of ‘two cultures’, the binary divide between the sciences and humanities, has become only too obvious in the ability of our political leaders to cope. Students at school decide early on to concentrate on either science and technology or arts and humanities as they move to a narrowly based A-level curriculum. This system has persisted for many years and has defined the educational background of most of our political leaders. The vast majority have no science background beyond O-Level or GCSE and a vague memory about how a Bunsen burner works. The response to scientific advice during the COVID crisis brought this to fore in a worrying way. Equally concerning is the lack of appreciation of other ideas and society amongst many scientists and engineers. However, I stick my neck out here by suggesting scientists can remedy this themselves to some extent more easily than those not educated in science. 

The gulf between the ‘two cultures’ was first identified by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959. Originally a Rede Lecture it grew into an influential eponymous book. Educated in Leicester Grammar School and London External Physics graduate, Snow championed the value of introducing more science into government thinking. With technology advancing fast, this seemed a simple, necessary, and pragmatic idea. Yet by today, nothing has improved. 

Assessing students a year earlier, and expecting them to supplement their studies in the following year before deciding on university or not, offers a way to mend the divide. In addition, offering a range of liberal studies courses (as little as one or two hours per week) outside of the main degree curriculum at university reinforces the idea of widening perspectives across the ‘two culture’ divide. 

The Gove Effect. 

The current A-level system suffers from the ‘Gove effect’. This began under Michael Gove as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014. It led to Ofqual beginning to reform the main qualifications from 2012 (GCSE, AS and A level reforms. 9th September 2012). The outcome of the consultation was released in 2013 (GCSE Reform Consultation, 11th June 2013). By January 2016, a new approach was in place (House of Commons Briefing Paper ‘GCSE, AS and A level reform (England)’). 

The result was a system that put undue emphasis on a final examination and led to schools working almost exclusively to the examination. The problem was exacerbated by examinations based mostly upon knowledge and attainment. Schools and parents with tutors, more resources and better preparation are at a tremendous advantage over others with fewer resources available. This was a deliberate strategy bound to widen the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged. It also led to chaos when examinations had to be cancelled in 2020 and makes readjusting in 2021 more difficult. 

Standards vs fairness. 

This was at the centre of many arguments in 2020. There seemed to be a tussle between two competing objectives. The TEFS view is that fairness and equality should trump all other considerations before standards are imposed. However, those in control have for some time taken the opposite approach and this is ongoing. Despite this, it is encouraging that some universities are coming around to the idea that the system is inherently unfair and discriminates against those with fewer resources. 

Research by Vikki Boliver and Mandy Powell (Department of Sociology at Durham University), was reported by the Nuffield Foundation yesterday in ‘Fair Admission to Universities in England: Improving Policy and Practice’. They noted that many universities now had Access and Participation Plans that indicate a “move away from the traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity model”. This is the traditional model that looks at exam grades as the main determinant. But they concluded that “Universities should be bolder in their use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions” and “switching from the traditional admissions model, where places go to the highest qualified candidates irrespective of social background, to a model, where prospective students’ qualifications are judged in light of their socioeconomic circumstances”. There is bound to be considerable resistance from those currently benefiting from the status quo. This includes most students, their parents and, crucially, academic staff who come from advantaged backgrounds and fail to understand what support the students will need. 

It is time we break away from a system that is wedded to making critical life choices based upon a single examination at age eighteen. Earlier assessment based on a wider set of criteria would also help inform students about what to do. A year of education designed to widen perspectives in advance of choosing a university or not would begin to break down the ‘two culture’ binary divide that infects our society at all levels. 

NOTE 1* Scottish Highers. 
Scottish Highers and administered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)
Scottish students normally study towards at least four or five Highers in the fifth year of secondary school (S5 at age 17), although they may also take Highers in any year of the Senior Phase from S4–S6. Some may take up to seven Highers. The qualifications consist of a mix of work set and marked by teachers as well as an external examination. Highers are aimed at pupils who've achieved passes in the National 5 qualifications and are normally needed for entry into university. Depending on the results at the end of S5, students can take extra Highers or Advanced Highers in the sixth year (S6 at age 18).  An advantage of the system is that students can apply to University in their S6 year on the basis of already determined Higher results. This avoids the problem of having to apply on the basis of predicted grade results, and eliminates much uncertainty involved in the setting of conditional offers. 

NOTE 2 ** Irish Leaving Certificate. 
The Irish State Examinations Commission is responsible for the second-level examinations of the Irish state, the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate. The Leaving Certificate is the main qualification for university entry. The system is very flexible and examinations are taken between ages 17 and 19. The majority of candidates take six to eight subjects at age seventeen, including English, Mathematics and Irish, and usually a foreign language. Subjects can be studied at three different levels with the highest level subjects used to determine the direction taken at university. There is plenty of scope for widening educational experience and improving qualifications.

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.

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